“What’s it to you if I use my uterus or not?”

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The actress Qin Lan, who is best known for her role in the wildly popular TV drama "Story of Yanxi Palace", said this in an interview:

“People have been asking me why I’m not getting married, and some have even suggested it’s ‘irresponsible’ if I don’t have a baby. I think it’s strange.

“What’s it to you if I use my uterus or not?”

That line went viral, garnering its own hashtag on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter).

The 38-year-old actress’s remarks struck a chord with many women, who struggle to deal with conservative values in a rapidly modernizing Chinese society.

Chinese women who are single beyond their 20s continue to be derided as shèngnǚ 剩女 (lit., "leftover woman") — unwanted and therefore seemingly of lower value.

Source (with modifications)

Here's the way Qin Lan said the viral line in Mandarin:

Wǒ de zǐgōng shǐ bu shǐyòng, guān nǐ shénme shì

我的子宫使不使用, 你什么事?

That rather threw the online machine translators for a loop:

GT:  "My uterus is not used, it's your business."

Baidu Fanyi:  "What's your business if my uterus doesn't work?"

Microsoft Translator (Bing):  "My uterus makes no use, shuts you up."

I tried to help them out by rewording the question so as to be more transparent, but that didn't help much either:

Wǒ de zǐgōng shǐ bu shǐyòng gēn nǐ yǒu shé me shì


Google Translate comes out on top in this trial:

GT:  "What does it matter to you if my womb is not used?"

Baidu Fanyi: "What's wrong with my uterus?"

Microsoft Translator (Bing):  "What's the matter with you that my uterus doesn't use?"

In my research for this post, I learned a new word:  hystera, which is simply the Greek word for uterus.  I instinctively and instantly knew that, since I was familiar with the derived word "hysterectomy ("surgical excision of the uterus").

[C17: from Latin; compare Greek hustera womb, hoderos belly, Sanskrit udara belly]

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014

It was not so easy for me to see the connection with "hysteria", but there certainly is one:

The word hysteria originates from the Greek word “uterus,” hystera. The oldest record of hysteria dates back to 1900 B.C. when Egyptians recorded behavioral abnormalities in adult women on medical papyrus. The Egyptians attributed the behavioral disturbances to a wandering uterus—thus later dubbing the condition hysteria. To treat hysteria Egyptian doctors prescribed various medications. For example, doctors put strong smelling substances on the patients’ vulvas to encourage the uterus to return to its proper position. Another tactic was to smell or swallow unsavory herbs to encourage the uterus to flee back to the lower part of the female’s stomach.


If we follow the shifting conceptions of hysteria from the Greeks to the Romans, and thence between the fifth and thirteenth centuries, when the the increasing influence of Christianity in the Latin West altered medical and public understanding of this presumed pathology, we see an evolution of strange theories about its etiology and consequences.  During the medieval and Renaissance periods, treatment options varied greatly, including exorcism to rid the victim of satanic possession.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, physicians and scholars strove to view hysteria as a medical condition.  Increasingly, hysteria was viewed as a neurological, psychological, mental, and emotional complex.  Most amazingly, it even came to be applied to males, who lack a physical uterus.

After a gradual decline in diagnoses and reports, in 1980 hysteria was removed from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which had included hysteria as a mental disorder from its second publication in 1968.

All things considered, Qin Lan's viral question makes a lot of sense.


Selected readings


[h.t. Stefan Krasowski]


  1. mg said,

    July 18, 2020 @ 4:57 pm

    I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of your female readers are very aware of the origin of the term hysteria and how it's been used to demean and devalue women over the centuries.

  2. Laura Morland said,

    July 18, 2020 @ 5:41 pm

    Female reader checking in:

    Indeed. I didn't even bother to read any text below the interesting machine translations of Qin Lan's remarks.

    (Bully for her!)

  3. Bathrobe said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 1:25 am

    I just realised that Chinese has two expressions, 关你什么事? and 管你什么事? The meanings seem to be almost identical.

  4. Rose Eneri said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 8:36 am

    mg, I agree with you. I have know of the origin of hysteria for decades.

    I also know the Latin Ave Maria which includes the phrase "fructus ventris tui Jesus" commonly translated into English as "fruit of your womb, Jesus." I had assumed the Latin for womb/uterus was "ventris." But according to Lexico, the Latin "venter" referred to a belly, with diminutive, ventritriculus, from which we derive ventricle.

    Regarding the Chinese attitude toward childless woman, does this mean the One Child policy is/was regarded by some as mandatory?

  5. Andrew Usher said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 8:45 am

    The use of the same word for 'belly' and 'womb' is hardly surprising, considering how the former is used for the latter colloquially even in English.

    I assume the title phrase sounds less awkward in Mandarin – or is its awkwardness intended?

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  6. D.O. said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 8:54 am

    "Don't get hysteria over my uterus"

  7. Rodger C said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 9:57 am

    D.O. for the win. And yes, who doesn't know where "hysteria" comes from?

  8. monscampus said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 8:58 pm

    @Rodger C

    Sigmund Freud certainly was familiar with it.

  9. Ross Presser said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 9:30 am

    I was aware of the meaning of hysteria and that it was an ancient misguided explanation for perceived irrationality — and that the concept has been used to oppress women for millennia — but pinning it specifically to the Egyptians is new to me. And it makes me wonder once again: what was *wrong* with their concept of medicine that they thought bodily organs could wander throughout the body?? Was it one particular Egyptian medic or school that made this up? And why did the idea persist so long?

  10. Andrew Usher said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 8:23 pm

    I see no reason to assume that everyone knows the etymology of 'hysteria', much less that people have it in mind when using the word in its usual modern sense. After all, even if you do know it, understanding the connection requires knowledge of obsolete medical theories, which few have any reason to have.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  11. Martha said,

    July 21, 2020 @ 3:10 am

    Andrew Usher: I don't think people know where "hysteria" came from because they know obsolete medical theories; I think they learn the origin and the obsolete medical theories simultaneously, as parts of the same piece of information, as mg alluded to.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    July 21, 2020 @ 9:22 am

    I don't think that hysteria is a special case at all. Either one is interested in the etymology of the words that one uses and encounters (in which case one researches it if it is not immediately obvious), or one has little interest in such matters (in which case one just does not bother …).

    And with all due respect to "mg", I do not accept that the term "hysteria" has "been used to demean and devalue women over the centuries" — the word has been used in an attempt to explain a phenomenon for which no better explanation existed at the time that the word was coined. The fact that one can now see, with the benefit of hindsight, that the explanation was completely unfounded does not mean that the word was used pejoratively, although of course perjorative use became possible once the real explanation for the phenomenon was understood. There can be little doubt that the word has been used pejoratively (e.g., "you're just being hysterical, woman") without the speaker necessarily knowing the etymological associations implied.

  13. Andrew Usher said,

    July 21, 2020 @ 9:29 pm

    I absolutely agree and I'll add for summary that it is not words that are responsible for attitudes: if we grant it accurate to say women have been 'demeaned and devalued over the centuries' it is not the word 'hysteria' that's caused that, nor even the theories behind it.

  14. Joseph Hirsch said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 3:31 pm

    It's true that men were diagnosed with hysteria, but they were as apt to be diagnosed with neurasthenia, especially in Germany. It was believed that the lower orders (and hence lower classes) were more feminine (bizarre, I know, since we today tend to think of proles and those who work outdoors as more rugged, etc.). This is why if you look through old lazarette records you'll see a lot of officers with neurasthenia and a lot of enlisted men with hysteria. A bigger class-based issue was that enlisted men were more often subject to the "fire-hose parade" (STD testing) and officers weren't, which meant that officers spread a hell of a lot more disease.

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