I have a problem with Fu Yuanhui

I’ll come right out and say it. I have a problem with Fu Yuanhui. Now, before you prepare to leave me angry comments for saying anything against the internet's darling athlete, let me preface. I love the endearing, awkward athlete just as much as the next person. In fact, I feel a very deep connection to her (after she made us go viral, perhaps?), and so I care a lot about how people view her, particularly in the West where China isn’t so broadly understood.

So, what is my problem? My problem isn’t with her directly, but moreover, how the internet is portraying her. What exactly does that mean, when the media portrays her in such a good light? How could I possibly disagree with this? First, let’s go back to the beginning, to when she really became popular.

You might have seen it already – either the video translated by Propeller TV, or from another source, but around the start of August, a video of a Chinese female swimmer started gaining popularity online, after it showed this adorably awkward girl reacting to discovering her own qualifying time. The video struck a chord with people because she was just so endearing – whilst many Olympic athletes claim to be down-to-earth about their successes, they seemingly possess a sort of ‘faux’ sense of humility. On the other hand, this swimmer showed a real and sincere reaction to her time, one which was relatively unseen in athletes until then. And so, the internet shared her expressions of joy, and they smiled as she gasped, and laughed at her unique language choices. And then she won bronze, and people shared her some more. Her reactions were just as endearing, and just as real. Until… She came fourth Or at least, she blamed herself for the defeat of her team in the medley. Was this the end of her social media rampage, then? Of course not. As a reporter stumbled across her, huddled up, she suddenly exclaimed that she was on her period, and blamed it for her poor performance. The reporter was shocked, the internet was shocked, and China was shocked. How unique! A Chinese girl, from a country known for being so closed about private matters, proclaiming she was on her period! How progressive! What a hero! Except, as usual, the Western media displayed a decidedly warped perception of China, and latched on to one thing and took it in the wrong direction.

Fu Yuanhui during her post-medley interview: From MiaoPai via Scary Mummy

It’s important to first say that, yes, in some respects, China is more closed than the UK. But this is subjective, and it all relies on the perspective in which you view it. In this particular instance, Fu Yuanhui proclaimed that she was on her period during a sporting event, and the internet went into collective meltdown. Whilst outlets such as The Guardian and Bustle commended her for breaking down an ‘Asian stigma’ of talking about your period, CNN, The Strait Times and The Daily Dot praised her for speaking out about periods at all, and proclaimed her to be hugely progressive and a ‘hero’. The real issue here is that neither stance is ‘correct’, or accurate. In the first case, there are those that assume China must be so closed-minded that Fu Yuanhui is a hero for speaking about something so personal. This isn’t strictly true. Just as in our society, there is nothing inherently wrong with talking about your period, however, people simply choose not to because of how personal of a topic it is. Groups of girls in China will often talk about their period amongst themselves, just as in the UK. My point thus highlights my first major issue here. Simply, the West has decided that talking about periods in China must be unacceptable, owing to our own perception of what Chinese society is like, and as such, are painting Fu Yuanhui as a ‘hero’ that is breaking free of China’s closed-minded society. The irony is, it is our society, and in fact most societies, that has a problem talking about periods. Whilst you might want to herald Fu Yuanhui as a hero for breaking her society’s rules, the rules in which you mention are also our rules. We are just as awkward as a society to talk about periods as China is. The comparison made in the case of these first type of articles is one of, ‘look at how progressive this girl is, just like how progressive the West is compared to China!’, when that simply isn’t the case in this particularly instance.

So, does that mean the second type of article, praising her for simply talking about periods at all are a better way to represent her? For this, I again argue no. As Radhika Sanghani of The Telegraph rightly pointed out, the very fact that we elevate her to a podium for simply uttering the word 'period' damages any progression her comments may have made. By highlighting how shocking it is for her to speak of periods just highlights how ‘strange’ this is in our society, when really, it shouldn’t be. For something which affects almost all women, why should it be such a taboo or strange subject to talk about anyway? We shouldn't continue to highlight it more with over-exposed media attention.

The media attention to Fu Yuanhui’s period comments also show another growing problem, one which the Western media is particularly notorious for. Regardless of which supposed ‘type’ the journalist falls into when writing about Fu Yuanhui, almost all of them fall victim to stereotyping Chinese people. The media is so obsessed with pointing out just how different Fu Yuanhui is, and just how she definitely doesn’t meet their image of a Chinese person. This kind of thinking is particularly harmful, as it perpetuates supposed stereotypes that all Chinese people are ‘boring’, or fit inside some pre-determined box. And whilst it might be a fair judgement to say she is the most interesting Chinese Olympian, this again isn’t true. This year has seen several Chinese Olympians receive fame in various parts of the world, and all for various reasons. From Ning Zetao, who was praised for validating that Chinese men can be considered attractive too, to Zhang Guowei, the quirky high-jumper who has been around far longer than Fu Yuanhui, this Olympics has seen the most human and most interesting Team China in a long time.

Ning Zetao: via JustJared

The curious thing is that the Western media has noticed these people before, at least in the case of Ning Zetao. However, when faced with Fu Yuanhui, who admittedly is vastly more outwardly interesting than other athletes, people suddenly forgot that these other athletes existed at all, proclaiming in articles that she is the ‘first interesting Chinese athlete’ and how she’s turning Chinese society on its head. Even this is riddled with inaccuracy and misrepresentation. Chinese Olympians have been in the media spotlight back at home for much longer than they have here, and many already have established fan followings for their unique and likeable personalities. Fu Yuanhui is not really ‘turning a closed-minded Chinese society on its head’, she is just receiving the attention that any quirky and loveable celebrity should, and will. Even when she dared to speak of the dreaded period on national TV, the Chinese weren’t shocked that she so much as spoke about periods, but just like us, most were just caught off guard by how frank she was. Claiming that she’s ‘turning Chinese society on its head’ is damaging because it insinuates Chinese society is particularly repressed and backwards, or that the country is filled with uninteresting people. Although it might have aspects where there are differences in perceived 'openness', China is in fact a vast country full of interesting people and interesting stories, but these go mostly overlooked here in the West, and as such, our ideas of the Chinese people become skewed. Whilst we view them under the lens of some misguided Communist stereotyping, or by saying they are closed-minded, or simply that they are boring, we do all the unique and interesting people in China a huge injustice. Fu Yuanhui is great, yes, but she isn’t the only interesting Chinese person to exist.

In short, my issue most certainly isn't with Fu Yuanhui herself, but once again, with Western media's insistence on painting a very particular image of China and it's people. Whilst we're busy heralding Fu Yuanhui as a hero to the Chinese, a girl who is breaking all social norms, and as a truly interesting Chinese person, we simultaneously trample on the efforts and lives of so many other people. What particularly makes this irritating is how the Chinese media portrays our celebrities with such awe and amazement - the British, and their celebrity culture, are often viewed as wonderful and interesting. Our country is perceived as being one filled with history and character, yet, in our own self-importance, we look back on China as some kind of backwards, closed-off country, where one single Olympic swimmer who talked about her period is the only individual deemed interesting enough to receive our love.