The sexist music of Yan Lifei

Society & Culture

Photo credit: SupChina illustration. On the right, Yan Lifei; on the left, Chinese propaganda from the 1950s, when gender equality was championed with Chairman Mao’s famous saying, “Women hold up half the sky.”

“Mommy, don’t go to work. Cuz even if you go, you won’t make much money.” These are not phrases pulled from a Jordan Peterson speech, but the music that millions of Chinese children are listening to these days.

The controversial tune “Mom, Don’t Go to Work” was written by Yán Lìfēi 闫立飞, and was brought to public attention in China earlier this month when it was performed in a singing competition on state broadcaster CCTV. On the show, a little girl, who was one of the contestants in that week’s episode, sung part of the song, which contained a string of problematic lyrics such as:

  • “Mommy, don’t go to work anymore. Otherwise, I have no one to play with.”
  • “Mommy, even if you go to work, you won’t make much money.”
  • “Mommy, look at me. What a poor child I am.”

A clip of the performance went viral on Weibo (in Chinese), one of China’s more popular social media platforms, and then:

  • Internet users questioned how CCTV had approved this song to be performed live, launching a musician mostly unknown outside Shandong Province to national attention.
  • People discovered that his entire discography is packed with misogynist lyrics that perpetuate gendered assumptions of women’s roles at home and in society.
  • Yan went with the “It was a joke!” defense, arguing (in Chinese) that he “half-jokingly” wrote “Mom, Don’t Go to Work” in 2014 when his daughter just turned two years old and wailed every time his wife left home for work.
  • He also deleted controversial lyrics from some songs and removed “Mom, Don’t Go to Work” from streaming services completely.
  • But he did not apologize for some genuinely creepy past performances also uncovered by internet users, including one in 2017 (in Chinese) in which Yan performed with his daughter when the little girl was presumably taught by Yan to say, “I want to marry my dad!”