Walks of Fame is a monthly column where we profile a famous individual from China (or of Chinese heritage) that you should know more about. This month we introduce you to controversial comedian Yang Li.
For some, she is an icon who uses humor to shed light on complex gender issues in China. For others, she is a downright sexist who discriminates and disrespects men. For this month’s celebrity spotlight, we introduce you to Yang Li, one of the most polarizing figures on Chinese social media.
Largely unknown before 2020, Yang rose to fame after competing in the Chinese comedy TV show Rock and Roast. Her most famous joke, proclaiming “men can be so average yet so confident,” became one of the most used memes among Chinese feminist netizens in 2020.
Today, she has become so polarizing that some Chinese women are now asking their boyfriends’ opinions of Yang Li to gauge their level of support for gender equality.
Born in rural Hebei, Yang graduated from Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in animation.
Yang then worked briefly in design but quit after only half a year, believing she did not have the skills or inner strength required to succeed in the industry.
Then, in 2016, she began working for a friend who had a shop on Taobao, a Chinese ecommerce platform. But this experience wasn’t enjoyable for her either.
“I was struggling. If I take my clients’ money but can’t meet their expectations, I would feel guilty,” Yang explained to a Chinese business media outlet. “But if I meet their expectations, I won’t really like my work at all.”
Feeling disappointed, Yang started to doubt herself. She eventually found a job as a stage assistant, tasked with collecting tickets and leading people to their designated seats.
Through this work, Yang started to feel more at peace with herself. But still, the job didn’t feel right. So, once again, she quit.
“When you kept failing, it was impossible to believe in yourself,” Yang said, reflecting on years of frequent job changes and a once-inescapable sense of defeat.
Yang enjoys watching entertainment TV shows in her free time, and her desire to be a stand-up comedian was triggered while watching Rock and Roast, the show that eventually led her to the public spotlight.
She later learned that Beijing Stand-up Comedy Club was hiring and decided to give it a shot. Impressively, she was hired despite her lack of experience.
For Yang, the key to comedy is subverting expectations. She considers herself gifted because her way of thinking is unique and often catches the audience by surprise. More importantly, Yang does not let others influence her material — a principle she sees as a blessing.
“If I’d let others tell me what to do, especially at the beginning. I would be just like everyone else,” Yang said. “I trust myself more.”
In 2018, Yang left the Comedy Club and joined Xiao Guo Culture Media Company, where she became a scriptwriter for the entertainment TV Show Roast!: Season 3. One year later, she made her television debut as a contestant on Rock and Roast Season 2.
From there, Yang’s stand-up comedy career took off.
Known for being outspoken about gender issues on Rock and Roast, Yang made a joke about Marvel’s Avengers series in one episode because it only has one female character — Black Widow — and her superpower is an aging-resistant body.
“How does that superpower save the world?” asked Yang. “So she can just live until the bad guys die?”
After poking fun at the egos of some Chinese men in another episode, her punchline — “How could men be so average yet so confident?” — went viral on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform. Feminist netizens even created memes to show how much they related to Yang’s joke.
The success of her performance earned Yang nationwide recognition. She is now one of the most well-known female comedians in China, with more than 2.2 million followers on Weibo.
When asked how she became interested in women’s issues, Yang said in an interview with GQ China that she has not learned about feminism formally. Instead, she reflected on her experience growing up in rural Hebei.
“If I were a pretty girl treated well by all the guys, maybe I wouldn’t be a stand-up comedian,” she explained.
Despite all the success, and an impressive ability to resonate with China’s female internet users, a subset of primarily male netizens found Yang’s jokes offensive. As a result, a series of controversies accompanied her rise to fame.
Chu Yin, a law professor at the University of International Relations in Beijing, made two videos on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, responding to Yang’s average-yet-confident joke.
“A man may be average, but you are probably very ugly without makeup,” Chu said in one of the videos.
Other male netizens were so offended that they organized a movement to report Yang to the Chinese media regulator, accusing her of “insulting men repeatedly” and “stoking a gender war.”
Recently, even major brands have suffered as a result of their business relationship with Yang.
In March 2021, American semiconductor company Intel featured Yang in one of their commercials on Weibo, and male netizens quickly took issue with the partnership. The tech company ultimately caved to the pressure and took down the ad.
Similarly, Mercedes-Benz came under fire when the comedian was seen in one of its video campaigns this October. Some users threatened to boycott Mercedes by switching to other luxury car brands like Audi and BMW.
However, Yang’s supporters also came to her defense.
“How are Yang’s jokes sexist? Women experience sexism every day. Why don’t men advocate for women’s rights?” reads one comment on Weibo.
“Yang’s performance was nothing more than a critique of heterosexual males who enjoy privilege in a male-oriented society in China,” Ge Liang explained to SupChina. Ge is pursuing a PhD in gender studies at King’s College London.
Some believe the way netizens respond to Yang’s jokes proves her point perfectly.
One netizen, for example, used Yang’s punchline to show her support: “It was just a joke. But these average-yet-confident men went so low that they wanted to cancel her.”
Chinese comedian Lily Ma, who frequently competes in Shanghai Roast Battle, told RADII, “The fact that so many people got offended by her jokes means she was telling the truth.”
For her part, Yang never imagined how aggressive the response to her material could be until she read the comments online. “I was scared. It felt like I got dragged into a war,” she told GQ China. “But after the backlash, I still talked about these kinds of topics on Rock and Roast. I am very persistent. I can just delete Weibo because performing is more important to me.”
Whether you love her or hate her, there’s no denying that Yang’s performance sparked much-needed discussions about gender on Chinese social media.
“Yang Li is a great Chinese female comedian who reminds me of the professional comedians in the Western world,” Ma told us. “She carries her personality on stage very well, and she managed to make those tough topics funny. That’s something rare in the current comedy scene.”
Cover photo: screengrab via YouTube
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