Vagina. Though merely the name of a part of the female anatomy, its utterance in public is likely to jar listeners - whatever their cultural background.
Even in the United States, where "Vagina Monologues" made its debut in 1998 as a one-woman show, the uncomfortable reaction was palpable.
This Friday evening, the drama will be staged in English in Beijing at Today's Art Gallery.
Starring in the play will be Chinese actress Shadow Zhang, who premiered the play last February in Shanghai. Zhang will be accompanied by a musician and a dancer, both Chinese women.
The event, along with an exhibition of creative art works calling for increased public effort to stop domestic violence against women, has won the support of the Ministry of Justice's Legal Aid Centre, the Women's Legal Aid Centre of Peking University, China Women's News, the Research Centre on Gender and Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Ford Foundation.
The organizers have chosen Valentine's Day to open the exhibition and stage the drama, and the proceeds of the event will be used to provide legal aid for victims of domestic violence.
According to Bu Wei, a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), similar performances will be staged at the same time around the globe on the Valentine's Day.
Co-ordinator for performances of the play in China, Bu Wei, and her colleagues, have produced the show in Guangzhou as well as in Shanghai.
Two months ago, an amateur drama troupe at Sun Yat-sen University in South China's Guangzhou staged a Chinese version of the play, with an expanded cast, in front of an audience of 270 in a small theatre at the Guangdong Art Gallery.
"The word 'vagina' won't be demystified if it's not said out loud," said Ai Xiaoming, one of the two teachers in charge of the Guangzhou cast. "With this performance, we wanted to challenge negative interpretations of women's cultural experiences - I mean, 'conventional' interpretations of such experiences."
Luo Jing, a junior in Sun Yat-sen University's Chinese Language Department, said that as a member of the cast, she was quite at ease with the word.
"After so many dry runs and rehearsals, the word no longer sounds 'shameful' or 'shocking' to me, as it did in the past. Vagina is vagina - just that. My hair is a part of my body. So is my vagina."
The play has one monologue called the "Vagina Workshop," which is meant to help women get acquainted with their bodies and rights. Ma Sha, the student who played the lead role, said she played the part with a sense of mission, not just to entertain.
American playwright Eve Ensler based "Vagina Monologues" on interviews she conducted with more than 200 women. In the play, the writer puts together stories from women of different age and nationality to explore the cultural aspects of women's experiences connected to this female sexual organ.
Diverse answers are given in the play which, as the cast sees it, testify to the concern of women about their bodies and their rights.
Through shocking facts such as female circumcision in Africa, as well as heart-wrenching narrations of Bosnian women escaping rape camps, the play sheds light on the suffering of women and drives home the truth about violence against women.
"... They took turns for seven days ... smelling like feces and smoked meat, they left their dirty sperm inside me ..."
The monologue of a Bosnian rape camp survivor brings shudders to anyone hearing the story.
It doesn't end there. While dwelling on a range of topics from orgasm to childbirth, for instance, the play calls for respect for women, for their right to be masters of their own bodies and to satisfaction.
"The monologues are part of Eve Ensler's crusade to wipe out the shame and embarrassment that many women still associate with their bodies or their sexuality. They are both a celebration of women's sexuality and a condemnation of its violation," says the New York Times.
"Spellbinding, funny, and almost unbearably moving ... written with a bluntness that is nevertheless intensely lyrical, it is both a work of art and an incisive piece of cultural history, a poem and a polemic, a performance and a balm and a benediction," marvels a review in Variety.
Since "Vagina Monologues" was staged for the first time in 1998, a small revolution has taken place across the United States, giving birth to the "V-Day College Initiative," a movement to end violence against women.
While the play is still on a world tour to draw attention to violence against women, the "V-Day College Initiative" has been inspiring students to stage the play on Valentine's Day every year to help raise public awareness of domestic violence and raise funds for programmes to curb it.
In 2001, "Vagina Monologues" in its original form was presented before a small audience of executives from multinational corporations in Shanghai, as a charity show to support China's programmes against domestic violence.
"It has always been my dream to have the play performed in Chinese for China's general public," Bu Wei said.
"In our culture," she said, "there is something very unfair in the attitudes towards and treatment of women. With women, sex and sex organs are regarded as shameful, and female rape victims are often frowned upon."
She said that as a researcher on youth-related issues she often receives letters from girls saying that after being sexually harassed or raped, they felt they were no longer "clean."
"One girl was raped during her primary-school years by a male teacher and has to quit school. She said she had no hope of being loved, getting married and living the kind of life she dreams of," Bu said.
The play, however, says that shame should be felt by rapists, not the victims of rape. It likens the vagina to a flower. "The flower is beautiful but the man who deforms it is ugly."
A major part of the play's Chinese version preserves the hallmark tone of candid confession and shocking presentation intermingled with humour. To make the play comprehensible to the Chinese audience, some parts are tailored to Chinese realities.
According to Ai Xiaoming, the Chinese version of the play has elements that are distinctly Chinese - the abandonment of female babies and the study of martial arts for self-defence, for example.
Ai heads the women's studies and gender education programme at Sun Yat-sen University.
One episode in the play is based on a true story published by the Chinese press about a rural woman a few years ago.
On her wedding night, neighbouring villagers gathered in the nuptial chamber to banter with the newly-weds. But, before the bride and groom retired for the night, one of the male guests sneaked under the nuptial bed, where he recorded the sounds of consummation - including the bride's moaning, and then made it public.
Unable to bear the humiliation, the woman committed suicide.
The episode is meant to tell women that sexual pleasure is nothing to be ashamed of, and to condemn violations of their privacy.
The performance is rendered in such a way as not to overdo eroticism, even though the mimicking of the moaning by three actresses in Mandarin, Cantonese and Henan dialects tickled the funny bone of the audience.
The two dozen members of the cast worried about how the audience would react to their performance in the production in Guangzhou.
To their surprise, the play, which featured monologues, dialogues, Chinese rap and dancing, was repeatedly punctuated by ovations from those present - fellow students and teachers, as well as academics specializing in gender research.
Bi Shumin, a prominent Chinese writer who doubles as a psychiatrist, said she was "greatly moved." "The topic is a reality that has been kept in the dark for a period as long as Chinese history itself. The play breaks a longstanding taboo, which is both linguistic and social."
Rong Weiyi, director of the Network for Combating Domestic Violence of the China Law Society, hailed the play as a declaration of "women's right to sex."
"China has designated October 28 as the 'Day for Male Sexual Health,' with the main topic being sexual dysfunction among men," she notes. "But who cares about how many women are sexually unfulfilled? Who knows how many women have never had an orgasm in their entire married life?"
As Song Sufeng, a teacher and performer from Sun Yat-sen University, put it: "The play addresses both women and men. For women, we want them to be empowered. Meanwhile, we hope to help men develop a new, correct approach towards women and gender equality."
Each ticket of the play "The Vagina Monologues" is a certificate to the holder that he/she has donated the money to the aforementioned anti-violence network. The ticket, costing 500 yuan (US$60), includes a buffet dinner, drinks and a party after the show.
There is a limit of 500seats. To book one, call 6227-5452 or 135-2149-1830.
(China Daily February 10, 2004)