Death of a Peking University girl: Virginity matters in modern China

Baoli, a student at Peking University, committed suicide because of her boyfriend and died this early April. Young academic Lorna Wei examines the case and bemoans the sad situation of both men and women holding parochial attitudes in China towards a woman’s virginity. In extreme cases, the vulnerable may fall prey to grave self-harm, even death.
A couple wearing face masks cuddles along a park at the Yangtze river in Wuhan, Hubei, on 12 April 2020. (Noel Celis/AFP)
A couple wearing face masks cuddles along a park at the Yangtze river in Wuhan, Hubei, on 12 April 2020. (Noel Celis/AFP)

On 11 April 2020, Bao Li (pseudonym) left this world after being diagnosed with brain death in October 2019. Her death was sensationalised not only because she was a student at Peking University, one of the top universities in China, but also because she committed suicide to seek “forgiveness” from her boyfriend Mou Linhan (pseudonym). The biggest mistake that Bao made, according to Mou, was that she was not a virgin.

On 12 December 2019, Southern Weekend (南方周末) reported the “‘love story” of Bao and Mou. After Bao was diagnosed with brain death in October 2019, her mother tried to find out why she committed suicide. Finally, in November 2019, Bao's mother found the messages that Mou sent to Bao on WeChat. In Mou’s opinion, a girl must be a virgin before marriage. However, Bao once had sex with her ex-boyfriend. Mou didn’t want a “second-hand” girlfriend and forced her to compensate him, including doing her best to please him, giving up her dignity, showing her love, and being obedient when Mou was angry. 

Mou asked Bao a thousand times: “Why can’t I find an intact girl?”

Liu Xiang’s Biographies for Chaste Women (列女传 Lienü Zhuan) and Ban Zhao’s Lessons for Women (女诫 Nüjie) documents the behaviours of numerous model women and detailed explanations and recommendations on what it means to be a good woman.

This case is certainly dramatic and some may say that the female protagonist has as much to blame for her suffering as the male antagonist. But it is a fact that women are often evaluated on the basis of their virginity in China. Since time immemorial, virgin maidens have been prized as symbols of purity and chastity. Conversely, women who have lost their virginity before marriage are regarded as slutty.

Ideal women, it was believed in ancient China, should confine themselves to the domestic sphere and come into contact with as few people as possible. These beliefs were systematically developed by two so-called saints in the Han Dynasty: Liu Xiang and Ban Zhao. Liu Xiang’s Biographies for Chaste Women (列女传 Lienü Zhuan) and Ban Zhao’s Lessons for Women (女诫 Nüjie) documents the behaviours of numerous model women and detailed explanations and recommendations on what it means to be a good woman.

Being thrown into a pig cage was also a curse: the offenders were like pigs that could never be reborn as a human. 

Foot binding was required for women to be in contact with as few men as possible and remain a virgin. (Internet)
The ancient tradition of foot binding. (Internet)

For instance, in order to remain a virgin, a woman must be in contact with as few men as possible. Foot binding (缠足 chanzu) was thus required. As described by Dorothy Ko in her 1997 article “The Body as Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth-Century China” published in the Journal of Women’s History, this involved “pressing a girl’s four toes toward the heel with cloth binders, hence bulging the foot into an arched shape, to wearing tight socks for a slender look”. She added that foot binding not only “kept women in a hobbled and subservient domestic state” but also “rendered them sex objects to satisfy certain perverted erotic fantasies of men”.

Good women were expected and required to remain virgins, i.e. pure and chaste, and those who committed adultery must be thrown into a pig cage (浸猪笼 jin zhulong). This was a cruel punishment in ancient China. If a woman was found to have had sexual relations before marriage or after marriage when in widowhood, the head of the village or her husband had the right to pull her into the pig cage and drown her to death. Being thrown into a pig cage was also a curse: the offenders were like pigs that could never be reborn as a human. 

The irony is that men want to have sex with their girlfriends in relationships but choose virgins when they get married. The female virginity complex still prevails in contemporary China in both men and women, even if it is already the 21st century. According to a 2015 survey by Zhen’ai Website, about 97% of male participants and 99% of female participants had the virginity complex.

"Here the core value of virginity is part of a wider symbolic complex in which the chastity of women is the key concept." - Xiying Wang and Sik Ying Ho

Xiying Wang and Sik Ying Ho also wrote in their 2011 article “‘Female Virginity Complex’ Untied: Young Chinese Women's Experience of Virginity Loss and Sexual Coercion” published in Smith College Studies in Social Work: “For men, the complex means that they still emphasise women’s virginity as an important criterion for date and marriage selection; however, paradoxically, they are eager for premarital sex with their virgin girlfriends.”

The article went on to say: “The complex for women is at least twofold, under the pressure of men searching for virgins as girlfriends, they feel they are responsible for maintaining their chastity and purity; and yet under the pressure of their boyfriends and their own desire to maintain the relationship, they try to act as gatekeepers and sometimes give in with regret. Here the core value of virginity is part of a wider symbolic complex in which the chastity of women is the key concept.” 

Wu Wei, Wuling Chun (《武陵春图》), The Palace Museum. (Internet)
Wu Wei, Wuling Chun (《武陵春图》), The Palace Museum. (Internet)

Women-blaming and slut-shaming do not only happen at universities either. Students in high schools are forbidden to engage in any romantic relationship in China. The lack of education on love and sex makes teenagers easily manipulated in a relationship. Unfortunately, Mou was a “good” manipulator. He asked Bao to call him “master”, and treated her as his “dog”. He forced her to take naked pictures and videos and threatened that he would release them if they broke up.

The boundary between love and control blurred when Mou explained his control over Bao's body as absolute love.

The most horrible thing was he once told Bao that if she wanted to leave him, she had to get pregnant, have an abortion then leave him the proof of the procedure. Failing which, she had to cut her fallopian tubes as he did not want her to be with anybody else except him. Mou even wanted to keep her fallopian tubes as a souvenir to prove that he “owned” Bao. 

The foundation of love is mutual respect, not asymmetrical obedience. However, the manipulation of women is perceived as being typical masculine behaviour in Asian cultures. It is easy to say no to strangers, but it is hard to refuse one’s partners. The boundary between love and control blurred when Mou explained his control over Bao's body as absolute love. No matter how she refused his requests, he could always successfully brainwash Bao and mentally abuse her in the name of “true love”.

Her lack of self-confidence resulted from the inner voice, which told her to be a virgin and a good girl. But why aren’t men judged on whether they have lost their virginity? 

Foundation of love. (iStock)
The foundation of love is mutual respect, not asymmetrical obedience. However, the manipulation of women is perceived as being typical masculine behaviour in Asian cultures. (iStock)

Bao is the victim in this “love story” and she is also one of the tragic women who suffer from patriarchy taken to the extreme in modern China. Confucian culture always cultivates women to be gentle and obedient and indoctrinates them to pursue love and marriage as their ultimate fate. Despite the fact that Bao was a top student at Peking University, she was not confident in her relationship. Her lack of self-confidence resulted from the inner voice, which told her to be a virgin and a good girl. But why aren’t men judged on whether they have lost their virginity? 

Independence, self-respect and self-esteem are our weapons to fight the absurd patriarchal ideas that hide in every corner of the world.

Undoubtedly, this double standard is a reflection of patriarchal mindsets. Though Mou had ex-girlfriends, he easily accused Bao of infidelity and unchastity. Bao didn’t understand what mistake she made and why Mou treated her in this way. Maybe being a non-virgin is a sin, so is being a woman. Why should women be gatekeepers when men initiate sex in most cases? When girls are taught to remain pure and not to enjoy sex, some men secretly learn their ‘love tricks’ from pornography, dark websites, and even sex videos shared through messaging apps such as in South Korea’s Nth room case. Women are prey in their eyes, and they pleasure themselves through “torturing” women, girls, and even babies. Their so-called masculinity is their last fig leaf. 

Sex is an intimate connection with consent. It is not a yardstick with which to judge one’s character or moral values. The loss of virginity is a myth that patriarchal societies created to control women. Love and marriage are not one’s ultimate fate. Independence, self-respect and self-esteem are our weapons to fight the absurd patriarchal ideas that hide in every corner of the world.

I hope we can teach our girls to be brave and independent instead of being tame or obedient. I really feel sorry about Bao’s tragedy. There is no direct evidence to show that Mou should be responsible for her death. The most tragic part of this story is that we can only learn some lessons at the cost of a girl’s life. A promising young girl perished due to the mental abuse in an intimate relationship. 

Related: Chinese netizens stand firm behind sexually abused 'adopted daughter' | Crime boss's death sentence and lessons for China’s economic development | No bride price, no marriage in China