Boisterous. Untamed. Rude. Out of control. Strident. Aggressive. Manly. Tomboy.
For centuries, society has used words typically allocated to men to describe women who need to be “kept in their place,”—out of shame, derision and ridicule. It’s a global phenomenon but falls particularly hard in China, where institutional structures ingrain a delicate nature and femininity as a woman’s only redemption from her gender.
Women who have chosen to eschew these guidelines have been given their own name: Nühanzi. Literally meaning “female man,” the term Nühanzi was used to cow these women into accepting traditionally acceptable style and roles. In recent years, however, a subset of women in China have embraced the term, taking it back and wearing it like a badge of honor. Zhuo Dan Ting is one of those women. With bright green hair and skin covered in gorgeous tattoos, Ting owns Shanghai Tattoo, which operates in Shanghai and has a new location in California. Ting is originally from Harbin, a smaller, more traditional area where she says women are not encouraged to step out of traditional roles.
“Women in Harbin, China, weren’t involved in the tattoo industry and opening their own solo shops, but I didn’t really care,” she said. “To me men and women are the same; we all are just humans trying to make a living, which I did out of my passion in art and tattooing.”
Ting is collaborating with former news anchorwoman Allison Haunss in a business venture that turns the notion of the female man into a mantra of badassery and bold moves. Nühanzi Life gives women who identify as brave, boundary-breaking, and strong a way to take the moniker back, own it and use it with pride.
“Nühanzi is a symbol of power, representing a former insult that we made our own,” Haunss said. “As women, we all have the Nühanzi spirit in us. For some, connection to this part of us is instinctual, but for others, a little wearable reminder can be a huge help.”
While not belonging is part of Nühanzi’s history, belonging to a group of fellow Nühanzi helps turn that notion on its head. Women are strong. Women together are stronger.
“I just want women to see this and remind them that they are able to do whatever they want on their own,” Ting said. “Build up themselves, not expecting to be given anything or expected to be a certain way because they are a woman. Don’t talk about what is owed to you, just be strong and own it.”
No longer women on the outskirts instead, they push the boundaries. Fearless women can now show the world they are here to stay with Ting’s tattoos, or with daring jewelry for all walks of life.
Ting has never paid attention to stereotypes. After drawing for years, she got her first tattoo as a teenager in 2002 and fell in love with the art. She views the human body as a canvas. Online reviewers give her a 5-star rating, and after nearly 20 years, she’s earned it. She doesn’t do this to be a rebel. She does this to be herself. To Haunss, Ting is the breathing embodiment of the idea.
“One of my biggest inspirations is Ting,” Haunss said. “Instead of giving up, she went on to become one of the most influential tattoo artists in all of China, and now has a shop in California as well. With her help I am spreading the Nühanzi Life movement here in America – where women across all 50 states are embracing their inner-badass with inspiration and encouragement.”
This movement spans more than fashion; it is winding its way through culture, as well. In 2013, “nühanzi” was one of China’s top ten new words. New, of course, meaning its new definition, which they boiled down to “tough girl.”
But Nühanzi is so much more than that. It’s not only a battle cry, it’s a necessity. Our current society thrives on competition and competence. It requires shrewd, hawkish decisions, independence, and self-reliance. Women are expected to be in the working world and be on full time at home, cleaning, cooking and rearing the children. What woman can pull all that off without being a Nühanzi? While these skills are sought, they are simultaneously degraded when seen in women. A woman needs to be independent to make it in the world today, and yet a woman is looked down upon if she is considered too independent.
“For too long, women have been told it’s not feminine to be strong. We’ve been punished for possessing the exact qualities that get us ahead in our careers and in life,” Haunss said. “I’ve seen and experienced this firsthand over the more than 15 years I’ve spent as a TV news reporter, anchor and businesswoman. I’ve been spoken over, interrupted, and judged by my appearance. I’ve been told I’m too bossy, too aggressive and, most hurtfully, left out of networking opportunities because I’m a woman. And I know I am not alone. I’ve witnessed many other women face these frustrating double standards.”
Nühanzi Life represents a worldwide evolution; it’s given a name to part of a movement that’s been brewing for decades and is now bubbling up over the surface as women claim their space and know they deserve it.
Women have always been tough. Now we just have a name for it.