Anruo Cheng’s “She Says | 她说”: An Anti-Violence Against Women Contemporary Protest Song

Marlowsphere (Blog #156)

"The 1930s Lynching that Inspired Strange Fruit"Music serves many functions in society and can be found in almost every corner of everyday life. One such function is “protest.” Protest songs give musical voice to issues dealing with racism, war, civil rights, and women’s rights, among others.

Among the most famous protest songs in western culture is “Strange Fruit” recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. It is based on a poem inspired by the lynching of two young African-Americans in 1930 Marion, Indiana. They were accused of rape and murder. The poem was written by Abel Meeropol (1903-1986), a white Jew, teacher, poet and songwriter, who published under the name Lewis Allan.

It is not usual, however, to hear of protest songs and singers in eastern cultures, such as China, but they exist. The most prominent is Cui Jian, a Beijing-based singer-songwriter (also trumpeter and guitarist) who is recognized as the “father of rock” in China. He has been jailed by the Chinese government from time to time for composing and performing songs critical of the Communist Party.

Critical protest of the Chinese Communist Party goes beyond issues of governance. Among the issues are violence against women, a global problem in fact. Estimates published by the World Health Organization indicate that globally about 1 in 3 (30%) of women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Most of this violence is intimate partner violence.

Chinese-born, New York City-based contemporary composer Anruo Cheng’s response to this issue in China is her 8:27 minute protest composition “She Says | 她说.”

“She Says” was inspired by several reports and significant incidents in China:

  1. Every 7.4 seconds, a woman in China faces domestic violence, according to the All-China Women’s Federation, the country’s largest women’s organization. For example, after enduring years of attacks, Shaanxi native Yang Xi killed her husband. She was originally sentenced to death, but a higher court commuted the sentence to 12 years in jail for killing him.
  2. A Xuzhou woman was chained to a wall, tortured, and gave birth to eight children for her “husband.” The incident was revealed through video interviews by social media in the winter of 2021 but immediately covered up by mainstream media in China. Some people were arrested while investigating the case. Unfortunately, the chained woman’s voice is not allowed to be heard anymore.
  3. In June 2022, four women were assaulted and brutally punched by a group of men in a late-night Tangshan (China) restaurant. After the surveillance footage of the incident was leaked online, the victims, as well as their families and friends remained silent.

Cheng adds: “In this work, you will hear heavy percussive sounds every 7.4 seconds throughout the piece, representing the domestic violence Domestic Violence in Chinahappening to Chinese women. I also use the Chinese ancient folk tune Jasmine Flower (originally praising women’s purity and nobility) as a metaphor for the victims and twisted facts people are facing. Many other sound objects manipulated by electronic techniques are also inspired by these incidents, like the sounds of chains, metallic percussive sounds, and sounds of broken glass bottles.”

There are two kinds of broad musical categories: absolute music and program music. The former is music that stands alone without any requisite explanation. This category of music can be enjoyed and appreciated on its own merit. The latter category is the reverse. One of the more famous examples of “program music” is Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” where various instruments take on the characteristics, musically speaking, of the “characters” in the story. The music, though, is accompanied by a spoken narrative.

The repetition of “She Says” in a female voice hints at the subject of Cheng’s piece, and the repeat of hard sounds every 7.4 seconds also gives an indication of what the piece means and what its purpose is. But you need the external explanation to reveal the real power of the composition. Could this piece standalone without any further explication? Certainly. Its sonic elements are compelling on their own. But when you understand the inspiration of “She Says” the power of Cheng’s composition expands exponentially.

Click here to listen to “She Says| 她说” on Sound Cloud.

For more about Anruo Cheng, go to

Eugene Marlow, MBA, Ph.D., © 2022

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