Sanitary pads and makeup: A Chinese astronaut’s six-month stay aboard the country’s space station has revealed conflicted cultural values toward gender.
Col. Wang Yaping is a pilot in the People’s Liberation Army’s Air Force. She is a space veteran, now making her second trip into orbit. She is set in the coming weeks to be the first Chinese woman to walk in space as China’s space station glides around Earth at 17,100 miles per hour.
And yet, as she began a six-month mission last week at the core of China’s ambitious space program, official and news media attention fixated as much on the comparative physiology of men and women, menstruation cycles, and the 5-year-old daughter she has left behind, as they did on her accomplishments. (No one asked about the children of her two male colleagues.)
Shortly before the launch, Pang Zhihao, an official with the China National Space Administration, let it be known that a cargo capsule had supplied the orbiting space station with sanitary napkins and cosmetics.
“Female astronauts may be in better condition after putting on makeup,” he said in remarks shown on CCTV, the state television network.
At 41, Colonel Wang is a model of gender equality in a country where Mao Zedong famously said that “women hold up half the sky,” and the object of an undercurrent of sexism and condescension that courses through Chinese society, business and politics.
The 25-member Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, the country’s ruling political body, includes only one woman, Sun Chunlan. Discrimination remains rampant in the workplace, where woman are recruited for their looks and dismissed or demoted when they become pregnant.
A nascent #MeToo movement in China has faced pushback in the courts and from state censors online. A Chinese gold medalist in the shot put at the Tokyo Olympics in August was harangued on air for her “masculine” appearance, as well as her plans for marriage and family.
“A major power like China gives women the chance to go to space,” said Lu Pin, an activist who founded an online forum in China, Feminist Voices, that has since been purged from the internet by the authorities. “On the other hand, it still tells everyone that, even if you are a woman who has become an astronaut, you still have to play a traditional female role.”
In China today, it is rare for women outside the entertainment industry to reach such public prominence as Colonel Wang.
When they do manage to break barriers, their accomplishments are often viewed through the prism of gender.
Colonel Wang’s mission has been treated in official statements and state media as a novelty, even though China sent its first women into space nearly a decade ago. The Soviet Union sent the first woman into orbit in 1963: Valentina Tereshkova, who spent three days in space and remains the only woman to fly solo. The first American woman, Sally Ride, went up in 1983.
The reaction in China echoes what those earlier trailblazers faced. Dr. Ride fielded condescending questions about menstruation, motherhood and whether she intended to wear a bra in orbit. “It’s too bad our society isn’t further along,” she said then.
In a short television report showing her training for the upcoming spacewalk, Colonel Wang exuded similar confidence, saying she hoped the mission aboard the new space station, called Tiangong, would be “more brilliant because of me.” She also hinted at the hurdles she had to overcome.
“For me, being an astronaut is not a profession, but a career, and it is such a career that I have an ardent love for,” she said. “This love is enough for me to overcome all difficulties, to overcome all barriers and even to sacrifice my own life.”
An illustrated guide to the different sections of China’s new space station.
Colonel Wang was a backup on the mission in 2012 that carried the first Chinese woman in space, Col. Liu Yang, another military pilot. Colonel Liu was part of a crew aboard the spacecraft Shenzhou 9, which spent 20 days in orbit, docking with a prototype of the current space station. A year later, Colonel Wang got her chance, riding aboard Shenzhou 10.
Colonels Wang and Liu were among the first 10 women chosen for China’s astronaut-training program in part because they were already married — on the theory that space travel could adversely affect their fertility and that “married women would be more physically and psychologically mature,” according to statements by officials at the time.
Back then, space administration officials openly questioned the viability of women on space missions.
“This is our first attempt to send a female astronaut into space; it will pose problems for the team’s mental compatibility, ” Wu Bin, then the director of the astronaut center at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, said at the time. “They will be asked to work as a team during training, and we will observe and evaluate how well they cope with each other.”
Years later, in 2020, Colonel Wang was the only woman chosen when the space agency announced the new pool of 18 astronauts for the missions to Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace.
NASA’s 2013 class of astronauts, by contrast, was the first with an equal number of women and men. That is not to say that NASA has eliminated its own subtle gender biases. In 2019, it had to postpone the first all-female spacewalk at the International Space Station because it did not have spacesuits that fit both women. The operation finally happened seven months later.
Colonel Wang has been officially lauded, along with her two crewmates: the mission commander, Maj. Gen. Zhai Zhigang, who traveled into space aboard Shenzhou 7, and Col. Ye Guangfu, who is making his first trip to space. She is scheduled to conduct a spacewalk during the mission.
Even so, her mission has prompted awkward comments from officials and sneering online. Yang Yuguang, a researcher at the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, suggested in an interview with state media that “the match between men and women is good for solving many psychological problems” that could arise during “longer spaceflight in the future.”
Online debates have erupted over whether women and men are fit for the same physical tasks, including an arduous spacewalk.
“Most girls cannot do hard work or sweaty labor,” one user wrote on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “Women must face up to this characteristic of their gender.” Others suggested she should have cut her hair before the mission began or wondered how she would wash it.
In highly scripted appearances in state media, Colonel Wang has expressed pride in her accomplishments as the second Chinese woman in space, and the first to go twice.
Colonel Wang grew up in Yantai, a port city on the Yellow Sea. After graduating from high school in 1997, she attended the Air Force Aviation University in Changchun, which is in the northeastern province of Jilin. As an Air Force pilot, she accumulated 1,600 flight hours before being selected as a taikonaut, as the Chinese call astronauts.
While in space in 2013, she conducted a lesson in the physics of space for schoolchildren in an auditorium; it was streamed to 60 million students. She said then that she hoped it would inspire others to aim high, but it also slotted her into an archetypally gendered role as a “space teacher.” She is expected to hold a class again this time.
Some commentators online rebuked the fixation on her appearance, her makeup and her periods, instead of her accomplishments.
“It is as if women can’t live their life without cosmetics and skin care,” one user wrote under a news report about the supply mission to Tiangong. “This has already blurred the essence of Wang Yaping as a hero.”
Claire Fu and Joy Dong contributed research.