Who You Calling a San ba?

In China, International Women’s Day is known as 三八妇女节 (san ba fu nu jie: literally, 3/8 women’s holiday) or 三八 (san ba: 3/8) for short.

Many working women receive the day off. Offices shower the ladies with gifts, such as expensive Japanese shampoos or pens adorned with fluffy pink feathers.

However, as Anna Sophie Loewenberg explores in this episode of Sexy Beijing, a parody of Sex in the City, while it’s ok to call the holiday “san ba,” don’t call a Chinese woman that. The phrase is an insult. She also discovers few Chinese women understand what “feminism” means.

That resonated with my seven years’ residency in China.

But what about “san ba”? Calling a woman a “san ba” implies she is prone to gossip, that she is dull-minded and crass. Loewenberg never answers the question of the insult’s origin, however. For that, I turned to my friend John Pasden, an expert on learning Chinese who runs the popular blog Sinosplice.com.

He says it’s just an unfortunate coincidence. International Women’s Day was first observed in 1909 in the United States and picked up speed worldwide in the years to follow. “San ba” as a derogatory term emerged in Taiwan, and stories in mainland China used the term toward the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)–sometimes referring to the foreign imperialists occupying China at the time, though Pasden cautions those stories lack a degree of credibility.

The takeaway is that although the insult and the holiday began within a close time frame, the use of “san ba” as an insult most likely began before International Women’s Day became a popular holiday in China.

And why don’t young Chinese women understand the word “feminism”? Mmm-mmm. Ladies, no time to tell you today. I need to wash my hair.


  1. Danielle says:

    I think the word “feminism” is interesting. I remember getting into an argument with a male friend who was saying that “feminism” could only mean thinking that women were better than men. When I explained that it meant equality for women and people of color, he countered with the definition of “chauvinism”, the likely antonym for feminism when the words are examined “literally”. Perhaps this is what is happening in the Chinese language — when the word “feminism” is broken down to its most basic parts, it might be taken “too literally” and warped from it’s colloquial definition or current etymology.

  2. Hihi! My name is San Ba, recording artist from LA. Maybe you can do an article with me! =.= . Men should work to earn a woman’s affection. It is not a given! Here’s to all the sexy san ba’s out there!

  3. Based on my understanding, and I actually speak mandarin here, “san ba” as it is used today is just an insult for anyone who is acting ridiculous. It is ALSO applied to males as I’ve heard people use it to refer to silly men in Taiwan. If you act corny, it is “san ba”, if you act dumb, it is “san ba”, if you’re just being annoying, it is ALSO “san ba”. San ba no longer has such a strict definition.

    That said, to say “chinese women don’t understand feminism” is frankly ethnocentric and ridiculous, especially from a feminist blog. Historically, asians have not developed institutionalized terms for the feminist philosophy but the core values of what westerners understand as “feminism” is still there.

    Chinese women have always expected respect and fought for it. From the ancient past, when there were queens who led men into battle, to the modern era, when females enter universities to become future political/industrial leaders, Chinese women have always demanded respect.

    It annoys me when people uninformed on a subject write about said subject. To me it’s like having a creationist write a book on evolution.

  4. Biko LAng says:

    In Tawian, on March 8 in 2012, the local govt in Chiayi County,
    led by a woman, Helen Chang, set up a great way to celebrate Intl Women’s Day by giving all women of all ages a free bus pass on all city and county public buses on this day, known as SAN BA, since it is SAN MONTH, and the BA DAY, third month, 8th day, and as a joke playing on the term SAN BA for crazy wild woman, the govt uses the term as a way to make people chuckle and also give women in a free pass for buses on this day. COOL. SAN BA in Taiwanese dialect of Hoklo is “san ba taih di” and it can be used with a male friend as if to say “Hey, you jerk! You crazy man@” but you can only say this among friends, male or female. However, a wild and wacky woman might be called SAN BA in a TV drama or even in a TV news show, not as a joke but as way to define the woman as a low-class broad. Welcome to Taiwan!

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