Chinese comedian's jokes about men and their egos draws outrage, opposition

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - Ms Yang Li, a comedian, tells jokes about men and their egos.

She is hardly the first in the stand-up world to mine such a rich source of material. But Ms Yang is a comedian in China, where homes and offices still hold fast to traditional gender roles and where a nascent #MeToo movement has been met with considerable political and social opposition.

One of her lines in particular has set off fierce online debate: "How can he look so average and still have so much confidence?" A lot of men didn't find it funny. And that, said many of Ms Yang's defenders, is exactly the point.

In her routine, recorded this summer on an online comedy show, Ms Yang compared male students with their female counterparts. While female students who get high grades often wonder why they can't score perfectly, Ms Yang said, some male classmates seem unfazed by their poor performance.

"You feel he owns the whole world," she said, comparing a male student with female students who get scores of 85 per cent or higher. "He can prance around the room with his exam papers held high. 'Look at me, I got a 40. I'm a fool.'"

As videos from that show and other appearances have spread, some men have pushed back.

On Sunday (Dec 27), a group calling itself a defender of men's rights began an online campaign aimed at getting the attention of government censors. It offered a sample letter to send to China's media regulator accusing Ms Yang of "insulting all men" and "propagating hatred". The post was later deleted amid criticism.

Screenshots of the post circulated widely, prompting debate among comedians and fans.

One of Yang's most prominent detractors is Chu Yin, a law professor at the University of International Relations in Beijing. He first aired his complaints in September on Douyin, China's version of the TikTok app.

"How special does a man need to be to appear confident to you?" Prof Chu said. "Maybe these average men don't look so good, but you're probably the ugly one after you wash off your makeup."

Prof Chu also published a lengthy blog post on Tuesday, warning that Ms Yang's "bourgeois" gender politics could threaten the unity of the working class.

"This sort of movement, based on identity politics, will almost certainly slip into the mobilization of hatred," he wrote, namely the "hatred of straight men."

Women in China are increasingly vocal about pressing for their rights.

Just this month, hundreds of people gathered outside a Beijing court in support of a former intern who brought a sexual harassment lawsuit against a prominent TV host, while a pop singer sang about real-life domestic violence cases on live television. This year, students nationwide have also engaged in a grassroots campaign to remove the stigma around menstruation.

But women continue to face barriers in employment, education, health care and the justice system, which is often dismissive of people seeking help for domestic abuse.

Ms Yang's joke about overconfident men first gained widespread attention after her August performance on "Rock & Roast", a Tencent Video web series in which amateur comics compete for the approval of judges and audience members. Like other online video platforms in China, Tencent Video is regulated by the National Radio and Television Administration.

Ms Yang responded to some of her male critics in a special routine last week, saying, "They think I'm the most abominable witch in the world. Everything they've suffered is because I said, 'How can you look so average and be so confident?'"

Neither the National Radio and Television Administration nor Ms Yang responded to requests for comment. It is unclear whether complaints have been officially lodged against her, and whether she would be subject to a review.

In her stand-up routines and interviews, Ms Yang has said that she comes from a family of pig farmers in Hebei province and studied graphic design before finding fame last year on "Rock & Roast", which draws tens of millions of viewers.

Ms Yang told the Chinese news media that she was initially taken aback by the backlash her joke received, which she said included violent threats. But some male Chinese entertainers have defended Ms Yang's right to make jokes, even if they aren't laughing themselves.

"I personally didn't find her routine funny. Parts of it were biased," Mr Su Xing, a Chinese singer, wrote on Weibo, China's rough equivalent of Twitter. "But she should still have that space to express herself in stand-up."

Others say the defensive tone of her detractors is revealing.

"Yang Li was wrong: Some men aren't so confident after all," a celebrity presenter, Ms Xiao Xiao, quipped on Weibo on Sunday.

Ms Joe Wong, a comedian who performed on US late-night shows before starting a television career in China, praised Ms Yang's punch-up jokes.

"Her material is about the blind spots of men, so perhaps that's why some do not find humor in it," he wrote on Weibo.

In her show last week, Ms Yang said that her supporters outnumbered her critics.

"A joke can only get laughs for one reason," she said. "Because it resonates."

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.