Is San ba an insult??

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

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 it 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.

Learn more about women’s history here



Megan Shank is a freelance writer and Chinese-language translator whose work has appeared in Newsweek International, Ms., Archaeology, San Antonio Express-News, South China Morning Post, Huffington Post and Global Journalist, among others. Shank has appeared on NPR and Pacifica Radio. She maintains Her work has been featured in McGraw-Hill College’s Women Worldwide: Transnational Feminist Perspectives on Women (2010).