A pop singer is now making waves with her latest album, not just for its music, but for shedding light on violence against women in China. Tan Weiwei, also known as Sitar Tan, released her latest album 3811 on Friday. Each of its 11 tracks tells the story of a Chinese woman and highlights women’s rights, a rare display of social activism in Chinese pop culture.
One song in particular was met with overwhelming praise from Chinese netizens for raising awareness about violence against women in China.
“Our names are not Xiao Juan, pseudonyms are our last line of defense,” the song “Xiao Juan (Pseudonym)” begins. Xiao Juan is a name used in China for unidentified or anonymous individuals.
In the over three-minute track, Tan sings about the tragic survivors of domestic abuse who are often identified in news reports solely by pseudonyms.
Netizens quickly noticed references to real-life cases of chilling brutality against women. The song’s mentions of “fists,” “petrol,” and “acid” call to mind actual instances where Chinese women were beaten to death, doused with petrol and set on fire, and splashed with acid.
Many also interpreted the lyrics “flushed down the sewerage” as a reference to the grisly murder of a woman in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province earlier this year. Her husband had dismembered her and flushed her remains down the toilet.
Soon after Tan’s album was released, the phrase “Tan Weiwei’s lyrics are so bold” became a trending topic on Chinese microblogging site Weibo, racking up over 330 million views. In a Weibo post, renowned Chinese composer Gao Xiaosong described the lyrics as “astounding.” They were written by lyricist Yi Yue, who also wrote the lyrics to several other songs in the album.
Chinese netizens also applauded Tan for her courage to tackle uncomfortable social issues through her music. “It’s about time a celebrity sheds light on the oppression and abuse of women,” a Weibo user commented. “This is a voice the world needs,” wrote another.
Seemingly in response to netizens’ comments, Tan wrote on Weibo: “It’s not courage, but just a sense of responsibility.”
“The scary thing is, reality is even more chilling than the song lyrics,” commented a Weibo user, alluding to the shocking acts of violence against women that have been making national headlines.
In 2015, China passed its first law prohibiting all forms of domestic violence. However, the effectiveness of the law in reducing China’s domestic violence rate is still up for debate. Domestic violence remains a widespread problem in China, made worse during the COVID-19 pandemic due to home quarantine.
For all the hype surrounding Tan’s latest track, Dr. Ong Chang Woei, a professor of Chinese studies at the National University of Singapore, said that this song is “but one pop culture expression” of rising awareness about domestic violence. For example, the 2001 song “Dad, I’m Home” by Taiwanese singer Jay Chou broaches the same topic from the perspective of a child.
“These days, anything could cause an instant uproar in China’s cyberspace. The question really is its staying power,” Ong told VICE.
Nonetheless, for a society steeped in patriarchal culture, Tan’s latest musical endeavor may be seen as an important contribution in addressing what some call China’s “hidden epidemic.” Amid rising public awareness and inadequate legal protection, more and more survivors of domestic violence are just now starting to speak out.