Ariana Grande, Baby Talk, and What Men Want (in China, Anyway)

Does it turn you on, or drive you crazy?

Since late last year, rumors have circulated that 22-year-old US actress and singer Ariana Grande is a big baby – to be more specific, Star Magazine cited an anonymous source claiming she talks like a toddler: “Instead of saying, ‘I’m thirsty,’ she’ll pout her lips and say, ‘I want to dwink a widdle joosh.'” Jezebel conducted its own investigation and unearthed multiple pictures of the diminutive celebrity being carried like a baby, although Grande’s publicist has denied that this is common practice for her.

What does this have to do with China? Well, what Ms. Grande is accused of doing – and has fiercely denied – is not such a big deal there. In fact, it’s a flirting technique known as 撒娇 (sā jiāo) widely practiced in China (and elsewhere in Asia). One widely accepted definition of the term is “to harness loving care of one’s counterpart and unleash a coquettish, seductive, or charming front.” If it sounds warlike, that’s because sajiao is essentially a power play. It constructs and reinforces a relationship in which the person doing the sajiao requires something, and the object of the sajiao provides that thing – be it time, money, manual labor, or emotional reassurance.

This scene from the 2014 movie Everyone Loves Women Who Can Sajiao is a great, if exaggerated, example of the art:

Here, male lead Gong Zhiqiang has taken his new girlfriend, Hailey, out to dinner to meet his best friend, Zhang Hui. Hailey puts on a cutesy act until she finds out that the meat they are eating is rabbit, at which point she begins to cry – ultimately, Gong has to walk her home, comforting her all the way. In this short clip, Hailey hits many of sajiao highlights – her tone is sweet and girlish, her persona tender and overly sentimental, and she demonstrates an over-the-top reliance on her boyfriend. She’s also accomplished some more pragmatic aims: she has demonstrated to a potential romantic rival that she has first claim over her boyfriend’s time and concern, in the process stimulating her boyfriend’s protective instincts toward her and reinforcing the idea that she really needs him.

There are plenty of articles out there on sajiao in English, and most of them have a bone to pick with the practice, arguing that it reinforces outdated gender roles that relegate women to positions of powerlessness. Ironically, I’ve also heard more than one man complain that sajiao gives women too much power, because they know they’ll cave to virtually any demand when confronted with it.I’ve also heard more than one man complain that sajiao gives women too much power, because they know they’ll cave to virtually any demand when confronted with it. However, neither of these viewpoints captures the whole picture. Setting aside our misgivings about the practice, for a moment, let’s look at why sajiao happens, and why it might not be so bad:

1) There is a market for it. I doubt Ariana Grande has ever heard of sajiao, but years in the spotlight have likely taught her that she can get what she wants if she performs in a certain way. The fact that sajiao yields results is not lost on Chinese women either. Fashion magazines teach women how to do it and movies depict sajiao masters as irresistible sirens. Online, women wonder whether their inability to sajiao will negatively impact their romantic prospects, while at the same time complaining about women who are too good at it.

2) There is cultural precedent for it. I’m not talking about the gender roles it invokes, but the philosophical underpinnings of the interactions. Sun Tzu’s Art of War famously declares:

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

Some forms of sajiao require women to feign immaturity, others involve speaking with overwhelming sweetness, and one of the most classic methods is strategic incapability – pretending a book is simply too heavy to carry, or a problem too difficult to solve. In essence, all of these flirting techniques are deception – though to be fair, they work only as long as their targets are willing to be deceived, or at least to go along with the act.

The Tao Te Ching, a philosophical text over two thousand years old, also promotes sajiao tactics. “On earth, nothing is as weak and soft as water,” reads chapter 78, “Yet nothing is its equal in attacking that which is hard and strong.” Sajiao often entails weakness, but this is only a phase preceding the accomplishment of its final aim – victory.

3) It can only take place between two willing participants. Lest anyone think I’m peddling a foolproof plan for man-manipulation, let me clarify: sajiao can only be successful if the target is open to the interaction; otherwise it merely results in awkward silence or incredulous laughter.

Much like improv, sajiao is a form of role-play that requires adherence to the “Yes, and” principle – that is, when one party delivers her lines or plays her part, the responding party is not supposed to challenge the groundwork that has already been laid. Essentially, the game is being played within the confines dictated by the person who brings the scene to life. Fail to adhere by these rules, and the fun comes to an end rather quickly.

4) It’s not just for women anymore. As younger people in China and elsewhere become more tolerant of each others’ differences, men are beginning to sajiao too. Instead of seeking to stamp out this form of flirting, proponents of equality between the sexes might benefit more from promoting it to a broader range of practitioners.

Survey says:

Not everyone in China likes sajiao – but most feel it’s normal, acceptable, and even fun. At least, that’s what I learned from reading responses to a questionnaire I distributed to about 50 Chinese people online. Though short and certainly not scientific, the survey made it easier for me to better understand the whys of the phenomenon.

A far as men sajiaoing, respondents were split in their opinions. Some said it was effective, others found it repulsive or said it gave them “goosebumps.” Many stated that it depended heavily on how good looking the person in question was, a sentiment echoed by male respondents. Clearly, there remains prejudice against men playing the cutesy card, but it’s more widely accepted than it was a generation ago. Chinese society is becoming more tolerant, and it’s likely that these transgressions of traditional gender roles will only grow more common.

Concerning cultural ties, an overwhelming majority stated that sajiao was not just a Chinese thing. One respondent cited Audrey Hepburn and Taylor Swift as masters of it, while others said that American sajiao was different only in style, not substance. At least half said the sajiao was part of “human nature” or something that all people did naturally, regardless of their nationality.

Personally, I don’t believe that sajiao is in anyone’s DNA, but I also don’t think the practice is more unnatural than any other. As Judith Butler famously said, gender itself is performative, and sajiao is just another kind of performance. Much of the hate people have for sajiao is not for the practice itself, but its wholesale adoption in place of a personality or set of principles. When you can take it on and off like a coat, though, it’s just another kind of flirting – one that’s admittedly not for everyone.

Regarding the ultimate purpose of sajiao, most women surveyed said they did it to get their boyfriends to do things for them and also to strengthen their relationships – importantly, these were not seen as mutually exclusive. Sajiao practitioners seem to have realized the truth of the Benjamin Franklin effect – that people seem to be more predisposed to like you if they have done you favors, even more so than if you had done them favors.

Not everyone believes that sajiao strengthens relationships. “Sa jiao is pretty much the epitome of nearly every negative stereotype about the needy girlfriend,” writes Jessica Larson-Wang in her article on the subject, “so it is little wonder that many Western men have trouble accepting it.” Others have expressed dissatisfaction with what the practice represents on a societal level. “It’s all about reinforcing a power dynamic that many Westerners would view as bizarre, or at least a bit old-fashioned,” argues Michael Hurwitz in another explainer of the phenomenon. Someone who believes a relationship should be based on mutual respect and equality may have a hard time wrapping their head around their significant other playing the role of an unreasonable child, even temporarily.

While some Westerners may be opposed to sajiao because of their desire for equality, I believe that much of the dislike for it also stems from a fear of entanglement, the idealization of independence even when it is isolating. In the US, we tend to want to keep things “even” in our relationships, to avoid owing anyone anything, even as we have, on average, far more credit card debt than our Chinese counterparts. In other cultures – including, but not limited to China’s – people are more willing to depend on each other, and this often strengthens existing bonds. A closer look at sajiao may show us more about the phenomenon than we might expect – and perhaps more about ourselves as well.

Liz Carter

Former managing editor of Tea Leaf Nation, published author, lover of all things China.