Them Too7 min read

A new play in Chinese calls out sexual abuse – Huang Sizhou and Jordan Schneider


How I Learned to Drive, a 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about sexual abuse by Paula Vogel first performed in New York, made its debut in Chinese this December at one of Beijing’s leading independent theaters. The performance premiered as the country raged over recent scandals plaguing China, including allegations against professors at Nanchang and Beihang universities in the midst of China’s own #metoo movement. On a cold Friday night, over two hundred Beijingers, mostly in their twenties, came out to watch the play. Some couples held hands tightly and while others averted their eyes as they saw the character Uncle Peck subject his twelve-year-old niece Bit to unwanted touching.

Rather than explicitly condemn child sexual abuse and incest, How I Learned to Drive depicts a relationship that is at times romantic yet mostly torturous between Uncle Peck and Li’l Bit. “Arts should provide an enriching experience and spark the audience to reflect on their real lives,” said Zhang Yezi, the lead female actress starring as Bit. The personal experiences of abuse that the character Uncle Peck went through in wartime (which war is left unspecified) – as well as Bit’s intermittent expressions of affection for her uncle – should in no way justify his actions, but some other audience members didn’t read the play this way. One posted in a post-performance discussion group: “Experienced middle-aged men are so attractive to young girls that Bit’s feelings towards her uncle mix love, reliance, fear and curiosity.” Another young woman echoed, “I always would like to find an older boyfriend.”

Though an ambiguous ending showed Bit finally driving alone with a smile of relief, the wound of sexual abuse seemed to remain. Zhang added, “If there is a harasser familiar with every inch of your body, how can you move on?”

Driving dangerously

To “drive” (kaiche), popular Chinese internet slang for making dirty jokes, coincidentally fits perfectly with the plot. In the play, Uncle Peck literally teaches Bit how to drive, and at the same time initiates a sexual relationship that haunts Bit throughout her adolescence. “Family is family,” shouts Bit at one point in the play. But her family members do not prevent the tragedy from happening. When it comes to the maltreatment of children in China, many parents – especially those of left-behind children, who remain in the countryside while their parents move to cities for better jobs – have no idea what sexual abuse is and do not believe acquaintances much less family would do such things.

In China, the World Health Organization notes that “research in this field has a short history” with “no national assessments.” According to a 2016 report from Beijing-based NGO Protecting Girls (女童保护), the media uncovered over one case of child sexual abuse per day. Yet according to the report, “media exposure about child sexual abuse is only the tip of the iceberg.” Adults like Uncle Peck use their authority to take advantage of children. This report shows over 90% of the victims in China are girls, and nearly 70% of the abusers are either the children’s teachers or their relatives. Punishments for these crimes can also seem shockingly pedestrian. An 83-year-old family tutor who raped two nine-year-old girls, then bought them presents and foods asking them not to tell their parents, was sentenced to just over five years, reported China’s Youth.

After one performance of the play, “a young girl approached me and shared her fear when she was abused,” said Zhang. “I am glad to see parents who stood up and sought help for their children’s similar experiences to Bit after watching this play,” added Zhang, “but still many people just follow the news [of scandals] and dare not speak out.”

Recent child abuse allegations in high-end Chinese kindergartens, including Ctrip kindergarten in Shanghai and RYB kindergarten in Beijing, triggered nationwide outrage. The Chinese #metoo movement has inspired a number of women to go public with allegations of abuse in universities and elsewhere. The most high profile abuser to face consequences for his actions was Beihang University professor Chen Xiaowu, accused by his former doctoral student Luo Xixi of harassing her 13 years ago; Chen was subsequently fired. An infamous China Daily op-ed, now deleted from their website, claimed that women in China were not victims of sexual harassment. But more and more women have stood up to share experiences of sexual misconduct.

Many factors that helped to spark the #metoo movement in the West don’t yet exist in China. For instance, a galvanizing scandal has yet to break where famous Chinese women come out to accuse their abusers, as Angelina Jolie or Ashley Judd did in the US. The government has discouraged investigative reporting of this sort, and discussions on WeChat or Weibo on sexual harassment is frequently censored. Lastly, the taboos against coming forward with stories of abuse may be even more prominent here than they are now in the West. “If you told people that you were sexually abused by a professor in college,” complained Zhang, “they would accuse you of seducing him.”

“If you told people that you were sexually abused by a professor in college, they would accuse you of seducing him.”

We don’t get no education

In How I Learned to Drive, Bit is born into a broken home, with an alcoholic mother, a submissive grandmother and a misogynistic grandfather. The family overtly jokes about Bit’s large breasts, but when her mother mentions sex, the grandmother quickly intercedes, insisting that Bit should not be exposed to such knowledge at a young age. Even Bit’s maternal aunt, Peck’s wife, turns a blind eye to the incest. Many audience members, in conversation after the play, held that if Bit were born into a more open-minded family that took the time to educate her, she would not have faced this situation.

Sex education is still taboo in Chinese classrooms. Even in the curricula of many universities, teachers tend to talk about sexual organs only from a strictly biological perspective. At the beginning of 2017, parents claimed a new sex-ed textbook published by Beijing Normal University was nothing more than pornography. Many Chinese parents still feel uncomfortable responding when their children ask, “where do I come from?” According to an online survey by China Daily, almost half of parents would answer such a question indirectly (“from your mother’s belly”) while another third would directly tell children that they are from “the combination of sperm and ovum.” More than sixty percent of parents never give sex education to their children, China Daily reported in 2014.

Wang Dingyi, the male lead actor in this version of How I Learned to Drive, starring as Uncle Peck, went to middle school in the early 1990s. “We had no sex-ed classes, but there was a ‘biological sanitary class’ only for girls,” he told us. “Our biology book’s two sex-ed pages were sealed.” As late as the early 2010s, in one of Zhejiang province’s most progressive high schools, the entire sex education course consisted of one forty-five minute class on the use of condoms, and attendance was limited to only ten percent of the student body. Lack of sex education leaves  millions of young at risk of STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and abusive relationships.

This timely theatre production drives home that China has a large-scale sexual abuse problem, and the nation must begin with a forthright reckoning of just how pervasive sexual harassment and assault is. “Plays,” said actress Su Ye, “just put ugly phenomena on the table.” Wang Dingyi added, “They are educational, but our efforts are like a drop in the ocean.” ∎


How I Learned to Drive, written by Paula Vogel and translated into Chinese by Hu Kaiqi, was performed at The Gulou West Theatre in Beijing from December 5 until December 10, 2017. Header photo by Li Yan.