Between stigma and taboos: the sorrows of being a menstruator in China
The idea for this article came to me after having a bizarre experience purchasing pads online. I bought them from a convenience store on the multi-purpose app 美团 Meituan, together with another period essential: chocolate. However, when I received my delivery, the pads were packaged in a separate plastic bag, which was black, in contrast to the semi-transparent bag used for the chocolate. Besides the wasteful aspect of delivering two plastic bags for a purchase of two items only, the “special packaging” made me think about the length a society would go to to prevent anyone (especially males, as delivery workers in China are mostly men) from acknowledging the existence of a totally normal bodily function—periods.
Stay away from cold drinks? Stay away from Auntie’s period advice instead!
Most Chinese traditional belief systems have taken into account the realm of gender and sexuality, and with that, periods. Blood is a very powerful element in Chinese tradition, but when flowing out of the body, it is associated with danger and considered not only impure but also dangerous and polluting.1 Song dynasty doctors analyzed periods through the lens of yin/yang and hot/cold,2 and this is why part of the advice given to menstruators revolves around “avoiding cold food and beverages.” Finally, the traditional association between menstrual blood and the sexual act of reproduction further ostracizes periods to the realm of the shameful and undisclosable.
More research around period-related knowledge in Chinese Traditional Medicine is needed, but, against Western scientific medicine, some of it appears to be useless or even potentially harmful.3 For instance, the belief that one should not bathe or brush their teeth often during periods is clearly anti-hygienic, whereas the belief that menstruator’s clothes should be washed separately from other family members during periods, or they should avoid going to temples or participating in other social activities can lead to self-shaming and emotional distress.
Tainted femininity: periods, language, and communication
When studying period culture in contemporary China, researcher Meng Jiang identified communication as one of the major struggles for menstruators. Due to a systematic lack of sexual education in both the private (family) and the public (schools) realm, various studies recount traumatic experiences of participants during their first period. from teachers scolding middle school students for bringing up the problem in class instead of discussing it with their parents to feelings of anxiety and terror due to the utter lack of knowledge about menstrual blood. 4
Even after years of menstruating, talking about periods is far from being easy in China. The proper term for menstruation, 月经 yuejing, is rarely used, as many consider it “inappropriate and embarrassing.”5 Instead, expressions such as 大姨妈 da yima (literally meaning “aunt”) or even explicitly pejorative ones like 不方便 bu fangbian “inconvenience” and 倒霉 daomei “bad luck” are commonly used by males and females alike. Language matters, and the fact resorting to euphemism is the norm shows the stigma around periods is strong.
Tampons, pads, and virginity
Following Olympic Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui’s declaration of a poor performance due to period symptoms in 2016, the world started paying attention to period culture in China.6 Besides the questionable ban on period product advertisements during mealtime and primetime, a remarkable difference between Western and Chinese period product market is Chinese consumers’ overwhelming preference for pads over tampons.7 The reason behind it is simple: the fear tampons will break your hymen, and your virginity would be lost. Although sexual intercourse before marriage is now a widespread reality in most of urban China, there is still a strong preference for virgin women when it comes to marriage.8
There has been an uptick in tampon sales over the past few years, especially in developed areas, but they are still hard to come by and generally stocked only in higher-end shops or foreign megamarkets.9
The stigma associated with periods and the struggles in talking about them, as well as lack of knowledge around period products and care have a common root, but also a common cure: better and universally accessible sex education, paired with a healthier and open dialogue around sex and reproduction.
References / To go further
Cordia Ming-Yeuk Chu, "Menstrual beliefs and practices of Chinese women," Journal of the Folklore Institute 17, no, 1 (1980): 38-55.
Meng Jiang, “Bodies of Civility: Exploring Menstrual Experiences of Women in Beijing, China” (Master diss., Columbia University, 2019).
Chu, "Menstrual,” 38-55. Joanna H. Raven et al., "Traditional beliefs and practices in the postpartum period in Fujian Province, China: a qualitative study," BMC pregnancy and childbirth 7, no. 1 (2007): 1-11.
Yu-Ting Chang, and Lin Mei-Ling, "Menarche and menstruation through the eyes of pubescent students in eastern Taiwan: implications in sociocultural influence and gender differences issues," Journal of Nursing Research 21, no. 1 (2013): 10-18., Jiang, “Bodies of Civilty.”
Jiang, “Bodies of Civilty.”
Yuan Ren, “Why Chinese women don’t use tampons,” The Guardian, August 27, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2016/aug/27/why-chinese-women-dont-use-tampons.
Yingzhi Yang, "China Made 85 Billion Sanitary Pads Last Year, and Not One Tampon. Here's Why," Los Angeles Times, March 18, 2016, https://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-china-tampons-20160318-story.html.
李银河, 中国女性的性与爱 (香港牛津大学出版社, 1996).
Yuan, “Why Chinese Women.”