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China’s E-Learning Revolution: The 10 Hottest Chinese Online Education Companies of 2016

The latest digital developments in the booming business of e-learning in China, and the 10 hottest players in the field in 2016.

Manya Koetse

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China’s rapid digital developments have greatly impacted people’s lives in many ways. It has not only changed how people talk, shop, pay, or even date – it has also changed how they learn. The increasing popularity of cyber schools is bringing about major changes in China’s education system. What’s on Weibo covers the latest developments in the booming business of e-learning in China, and introduces the 10 hottest players in the field. 

Online learning has become increasingly popular in China over the past few years – it is arguably one of the hottest topics in China’s tech industry today. The rise of e-education (在线教育) has made it possible for people to study any topic they like, no matter how old they are, where they live, or what they do. Moreover, compared to traditional education, online education is relatively cheap, making education more affordable and accessible to people from all layers of Chinese society. In this way, online education is a source of opportunities – both for e-learners and e-learning companies.

Education is generally deeply valued in China – a fact that is backed up by the numbers. In the PRC, education is in the top things that households generally spend the most money on, besides spending on housing and medical services. A large part of that education money is now being spent on digital education (Zi 2016, 36).

78 million online learners

Although China’s online education providers have been around since as early as 1998, it wasn’t until the 2011-2013 period that the market really exploded. There are now around 2.6 new schools coming online every single day, which has made China’s online learning market grow from around 500 institutions in 2012 to well over 4200 – and counting – in 2016. According to The China Online Education Report 2015-2020, the number of people studying online in 2014 was estimated at a staggering 77,97 million.

But experts say the popularity of online education in China is nowhere near its peak yet. With less than 30% of Chinese netizens currently using online education, an ever growing internet population, and a rising middle class, the market is expected to continue to grow an annual 15%. The coming decade will therefore be pivotal for China’s e-learning business (Sohu 2016; Zi 2016, 36).

Getting into the MOOC

The so-called MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) are an important part of the online education business. MOOC are live-broadcasted classes that can be followed by a large audience of online students at the same time. Classes are often free, providing high-quality teaching. Students can sometimes get certificates upon completion when they pay a fee.

For universities, MOOC platforms give them a channel to raise their (international) profiles and prestige, to showcase their top professors, and share their own perspectives and methodologies with a worldwide audience (Confederation Swiss 2014). MOOC give e-students the opportunity to follow courses from prestigious universities like Harvard of Stanford, no matter where they are.

Although the first MOOC were already held since 2001 in the USA, they didn’t become especially popular until 2012, which was hailed as ‘The Year of the MOOC’ by the New York Times. What 2012 was for MOOC in the West, is what 2013 meant for MOOC in China, when local MOOC (幕课) platforms started to mushroom.

TopU.com (顶你学堂) was the first purely Chinese platform, set up in October of 2013. Other big Chinese MOOC players are Kaikeba (开课吧) and Xuetang X (学堂在线), and Coursera Zone – a collaboration between China’s Netease and American MOOC giant Coursera.

China’s biggest MOOC platform is the MOOC Academy (@MOOC学院) by Guokr (果壳网). Guokr closely collaborates with various Chinese and international MOOC providers.

A good year for cyber class?

According to recent news articles, 2016 has again been a specifically booming year for online education in China. By now, 42% of all Chinese netizens are allegedly planning to pay for online education now or in the future, and many companies are not afraid to invest large amounts of money in this fruitful market.

Although the booming market is tempting for many young start-ups, and 2016 has proven to be a good year for many e-learning companies, more start-ups are also closing down now that their business models turn out to be unprofitable.

A report from China’s Internet Education Research Institute has revealed that only 5% of mainland online education firms earned a profit in 2015, and that most online education companies need to be able to sustain losses for their first years of business before becoming profitable. Those who do succeed, however, can grow very big very soon.

China’s hottest online education companies

Big Chinese tech companies like Tencent or China Mobile are eager to invest in promising startups. This is a top ten of Chinese online education companies who are currently the most well-funded and most promising startups of the first half of 2016 (Netease Tech Report 2016; Education Net 2016; Sohu 2016):

1. 51 Talk (无忧英语)

Lina

Known as the “No.1 online English school in China”, 51talk was founded in 2011 and has since become the largest online English education platform in China, both for adults and children. Run by CEO Huang Jiajia (黄佳佳), 51Talk provides one-to-one teaching services for approximately 15 RMB (2.2US$) per class. The company currently has 10,000 part-time and full-time teachers, of which the majority is based in the Phillippines. Students can choose their private online teachers through the 51talk app, which also reflects the ratings of the tutor. The company has recently done some smart marketing moves by turning popular Chinese tennis star Li Na, who is known for her well-spoken English, into 51Talk’s official ambassador.

2. Koolearn (新东方在线)

Koolearn profile

Run by CEO Sun Chang (孙畅), New Oriental’s Koolearn was established in 2000. The online education network offers over 1,200 online courses to over 8.5 million registered users. New Oriental currently is the largest provider of private educational services in China, based on the program offerings, student total and geographic presence. Their courses cater to a large audience, from graduate students to middle school kids. Topics vary from different languages to medicine and finance. A beginner’s online Japanese course is available from 1980RMB (±300US$).

3. XS Teach (郉帅教育, literally ‘Xing Shuai Education’)

xsteach

Named after founder Xing Shuai (郉帅), Guangzhou-based XSteach started in 2008 as a website for learning Photoshop. It then quickly expanded and is currently offering 300 courses in 20 subjects, mostly in the areas of graphics, images, video, and design. The company profited from the rising popularity of vocational schools in China, as it gives younger generations the hope for better jobs and better incomes. XSTeach offers live-broadcasted lessons, online videos and VIP courses.

4. Yuanfudao (猿辅导)

yuandaofu

Online education startup Yuanfudao is aimed at Chinese middle and high school students who are preparing for exams. According to Technode, the company was recently boosted with 40 million US$ by Chinese tech giant Tencent. E-learners can use the Yuanfudao app to connect students with tutors, who livestream through the app. Courses are priced as low as 1 RMB ($0.15 USD) for a one-hour lecture. Yuanfudao claims on their homepage that they currently cater to over 1.6 million students.

5. Lao-A E-Commerce Platform 老A电商学院

1390

This is China’s ‘most qualitative’ training program for people who want to learn about the world of e-commerce and selling on Taobao. This online e-commerce education platform offers courses in becoming successful on Taobao or in market analysis. CEO Wu Yuanshi (吴元轼) received a 140 million RMB (±21 million US$) investment earlier this year from Guotai Junan.

6. Crazy Teacher (疯狂老师)

crazyteacher

Crazy Teacher, also known as Entstudy, is an after-school tutoring platform that allows parents to find a tutor for their children who will then come to their home to teach. The platform also has a live streaming teaching app with paid courses that students can follow from their homes. The company recently raised an investment of 120 million RMB (18 million US$) by Greenwoods Investment with participation of existing investors Tencent and Yuanxi Capital. According to Edweek, the money will be used for the development of a new livestreaming platform called Dingdang Classroom.

7. ABC360

abc

“The best online English School in China!”, and “aiming to become the best and largest leading professional online English lesson provider to young and motivated professionals in China” – this is how ABC360 advertises itself. The English school, headquartered in the Philippines, was founded by Li Jing (李晶) and his wife in 2011. They recently received a 15 million US$ investment from capital firm Guo Jin Capital.

8. Sanhaowang (三好网)

sanhao

Sanhaowang is probably the company name that has been least well-known until now, and has been hardly (or not) mentioned by English media yet – although it is considered a rising star in the world of online education. Particularly aimed at middle school students, Sanhaowang provides a one-on-one digital education platform that revolves around its desktop platform where students and teachers can log in to meet online. Both teachers and students have a writing tablet with a camera aimed at it, so that both sides can see what the other is writing [see their introduction video on Youku]. CEO He Qiang (何强) received a total of 75 million RMB (±11.2 million US$) in investments this year.

9. XDL or ‘Lamp Brother’ (兄弟连)

xdl

XDL, founded by Li Chao (李超), currently is the leader in China’s online IT education. It also one of the online education companies that has been around for the longest time; it celebrated its 10-year-anniversary this year. The company offers courses in Android technology, mobile gaming, Java, iOs and more.

10. Zhiyou Education (致优教育)

zhiyou

Founded by Ren Yanghui (任洋辉, former CEO assistant at Xueda Education), Zhiyou Education is a digital tutoring company that trains students one-on-one, both online and offline – teachers will also give classes at students’ home. The teaching cycle of Zhiyou uses the iPad as its main tool, which records student’s learning data and teachers’ teaching data with an online system. Zhiyou also offers live-streaming classes to rehearse lessons. Legend Capital invested 60 million RMB (US$9.2 million) in the company earlier this year.

Start of a revolution

Besides the top 10 of online education companies that are currently most booming, there are a myriad of other successful startups and established Chinese e-learning companies. While China’s domestic online education continues to grow steadily, an entire new generation is now growing up while learning to count and read through games on tablets and mobile phones. As Sanhaowang’s CEO He Qiang recently said in an interview: “Communicating through screen has become part of the nature of the post-2000 generation.”

‘Mobile’ is one of the key words when talking about the future of digital education in China. Right now, China has 710 million internet users. Approximately 92% of people connect to the web through their mobile phone and a quarter of them solely access the internet through mobile. This means that digital education companies will start working more and more through only apps and/or tablets, which is what companies like Zhiyou Education are already doing. Chinese media outlet Investment Bulletin recently reported on Weibo that already over 59% of China’s online education users are mobile-based, indicating that mobile education is becoming mainstream within the online education market.

Big data and data technology are other important keywords for the future of online education. By analysing specific student groups and education materials, companies can continue improving their platforms and keep on customizing learning content to suit the (age) groups they are catering to.

With an ever-growing user group, greater technological possibilities and the new tech-savvy generations who practically grew upo with a phone in their hand, the past decade has only shown us what online education might be; this is just the beginning of China’s education revolution.

– By Manya Koetse

References

Confederation Swiss (Embassy of Switzerland in China). 2014. “Situation Analysis: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in China.” http://www.swissnexchina.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2014/08/MOOCS-in-China.pdf [6.8.16]

Education Net. 2016. “十大知名的网络教育网站排行榜 [Top Ten Most Well-Known Online Education Platforms].” 7CXK, January 5. http://www.7cxk.net/Article/xinxihua/201601/57651.html [7.8.16].

iWeb Choice. http://www.iwebchoice.com/html/class_38.shtml?3Months

Netease Tech Report. 2016. “中国在线教育2016上半年融资前10强出炉.” Netease Technology, July 7. http://finance.ce.cn/rolling/201607/12/t20160712_13749319.shtml [7.8.16].

Sohu. 2016. “2016中国十大教育辅导机构排名榜 [].” Sohu, April 29. http://mt.sohu.com/20160429/n446860195.shtml [7.8.16]

Sohu Education (搜狐教育). 2016. “2016年中国在线教育行业市场现状及发展趋势分析 [China’s 2016 Online Education Market State and Development Trend Analysis].” Sohu Education, July 6. http://www.54hei.com/newweb/jsp/news8.jsp [6.8.16].

Tian Feng. 2014. “China in the Mass Consumption Stage.” In: Peilin Li (ed), People’s Livelihood in Contemporary China: Changes, Challenges and Prospects, 71-85. London: World Scientific.

Zi Tong (子瞳). 2016. “在线教育红海中的厮杀 [Online Education: The Fight in the Red Sea]”. 新商游 [The New Traveling Merchant], July 8: 35-43.

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    John

    August 10, 2016 at 5:56 pm

    Very informative, thank you!

  2. Avatar

    Wytse

    August 10, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    Great read, thanks!

  3. Avatar

    Tony Diepenbrock

    December 13, 2016 at 9:08 pm

    Awesome, thank you! As a startup in the space, this is really helpful.

  4. Avatar

    Starc

    February 24, 2021 at 7:30 am

    online education in china is still big and keep performing. What are the latest Marketing strategies to reach Chinese Rich Mothers?

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Backgrounder

“Oppenheimer” in China: Highlighting the Story of Qian Xuesen

Qian Xuesen is a renowned Chinese scientist whose life shares remarkable parallels with Oppenheimer’s.

Zilan Qian

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They shared the same campus, lived in the same era, and both played pivotal roles in shaping modern history while navigating the intricate interplay between science and politics. With the release of the “Oppenheimer” movie in China, the renowned Chinese scientist Qian Xuesen is being compared to the American J. Robert Oppenheimer.

In late August, the highly anticipated U.S. movie Oppenheimer finally premiered in China, shedding light on the life of the famous American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967).

Besides igniting discussions about the life of this prominent scientist, the film has also reignited domestic media and public interest in Chinese scientists connected to Oppenheimer and nuclear physics.

There is one Chinese scientist whose life shares remarkable parallels with Oppenheimer’s. This is aerospace engineer and cyberneticist Qian Xuesen (钱学森, 1911-2009). Like Oppenheimer, he pursued his postgraduate studies overseas, taught at Caltech, and played a pivotal role during World War II for the US.

Qian Xuesen is so widely recognized in China that whenever I introduce myself there, I often clarify my last name by saying, “it’s the same Qian as Qian Xuesen’s,” to ensure that people get my name.

Some Chinese blogs recently compared the academic paths and scholarly contributions of the two scientists, while others highlighted the similarities in their political challenges, including the revocation of their security clearances.

The era of McCarthyism in the United States cast a shadow over Qian’s career, and, similar to Oppenheimer, he was branded as a “communist suspect.” Eventually, these political pressures forced him to return to China.

Although Qian’s return to China made his later life different from Oppenheimer’s, both scientists lived their lives navigating the complex dynamics between science and politics. Here, we provide a brief overview of the life and accomplishments of Qian Xuesen.

 

Departing: Going to America

 

Qian Xuesen (钱学森, also written as Hsue-Shen Tsien), often referred to as the “father of China’s missile and space program,” was born in Shanghai in 1911,1 a pivotal year marked by a historic revolution that brought an end to the imperial dynasty and gave rise to the Republic of China.

Much like Oppenheimer, who pursued further studies at Cambridge after completing his undergraduate education, Qian embarked on a journey to the United States following his bachelor’s studies at National Chiao Tung University (now Shanghai Jiao Tong University). He spent a year at Tsinghua University in preparation for his departure.

The year was 1935, during the eighth year of the Chinese Civil War and the fourth year of Japan’s invasion of China, setting the backdrop for his academic pursuits in a turbulent era.

Qian in his office at Caltech (image source).

One year after arriving in the U.S., Qian earned his master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Three years later, in 1939, the 27-year-old Qian Xuesen completed his PhD at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the very institution where Oppenheimer had been welcomed in 1927. In 1943, Qian solidified his position in academia as an associate professor at Caltech. While at Caltech, Qian helped found NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

When World War II began, while Oppenheimer was overseeing the Manhattan Project’s efforts to assist the U.S. in developing the atomic bomb, Qian actively supported the U.S. government. He served on the U.S. government’s Scientific Advisory Board and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel.

The first meeting of the US Department of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board in 1946. The predecessor, the Scientific Advisory Group, was founded in 1944 to evaluate the aeronautical programs and facilities of the Axis powers of World War II. Qian can be seen standing in the back, the second on the left (image source).

After the war, Qian went to teach at MIT and returned to Caltech as a full-time professor in 1949. During that same year, Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Just one year later, the newly-formed nation became involved in the Korean War, and China fought a bloody battle against the United States.

 

Red Scare: Being Labeled as a Communist

 

Robert Oppenheimer and Qian Xuesen both had an interest in Communism even prior to World War II, attending communist gatherings and showing sympathy towards the Communist cause.

Qian and Oppenheimer may have briefly met each other through their shared involvement in communist activities. During his time at Caltech, Qian secretly attended meetings with Frank Oppenheimer, the brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Monk 2013).

However, it was only after the war that their political leanings became a focal point for the FBI.

Just as the FBI accused Oppenheimer of being an agent of the Soviet Union, they quickly labeled Qian as a subversive communist, largely due to his Chinese heritage. While the government did not succeed in proving that Qian had communist ties with China during that period, they did ultimately succeed in portraying Qian as a communist affiliated with China a decade later.

During the transition from the 1940s to the 1950s, the Cold War was underway, and the anti-communist witch-hunts associated with the McCarthy era started to intensify (BBC 2020).

In 1950, the Korean War erupted, with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) joining North Korea in the conflict against South Korea, which received support from the United States. It was during this tumultuous period that the FBI officially accused Qian of communist sympathies in 1950, leading to the revocation of his security clearance despite objections from Qian’s colleagues. Four years later, in 1954, Robert Oppenheimer went through a similar process.

The 1950’s security hearing of Qian (second left). (Image source).

After losing his security clearance, Qian began to pack up, saying he wanted to visit his aging parents back home. Federal agents seized his luggage, which they claimed contained classified materials, and arrested him on suspicion of subversive activity. Although Qian denied any Communist leanings and rejected the accusation, he was detained by the government in California and spent the next five years under house arrest.

Five years later, in 1955, two years after the end of the Korean War, Qian was sent home to China as part of an apparent exchange for 11 American airmen who had been captured during the war. He told waiting reporters he “would never step foot in America again,” and he kept his promise (BBC 2020).

A letter from the US Immigration and Naturalization Service to Qian Xuesen, dated August 4, 1955, in which he was notified he was allowed to leave the US. The original copy is owned by Qian Xuesen Library of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where the photo was taken. (Caption and image via wiki).

Dan Kimball, who was the Secretary of the US Navy at the time, expressed his regret about Qian’s departure, reportedly stating, “I’d rather shoot him dead than let him leave America. Wherever he goes, he equals five divisions.” He also stated: “It was the stupidest thing this country ever did. He was no more a communist than I was, and we forced him to go” (Perrett & Bradley, 2008).

Kimball may have foreseen the unfolding events accurately. After his return to China, Qian did indeed assume a pivotal role in enhancing China’s military capabilities, possibly surpassing the potency of five divisions. The missile programme that Qian helped develop in China resulted in weapons which were then fired back on America, including during the 1991 Gulf War (BBC 2020).

 

Returning: Becoming a National Hero

 

The China that Qian Xuesen had left behind was an entirely different China than the one he returned to. China, although having relatively few experts in the field, was embracing new possibilities and technologies related to rocketry and space exploration.

Within less than a month of his arrival, Qian was welcomed by the then Vice Prime Minister Chen Yi, and just four months later, he had the honor of meeting Chairman Mao himself.

Qian and Mao (image source).

In China, Qian began a remarkably successful career in rocket science, with great support from the state. He not only assumed leadership but also earned the distinguished title of the “father” of the Chinese missile program, instrumental in equipping China with Dongfeng ballistic missiles, Silkworm anti-ship missiles, and Long March space rockets.

Additionally, his efforts laid the foundation for China’s contemporary surveillance system.

By now, Qian has become somewhat of a folk hero. His tale of returning to China despite being thwarted by the U.S. government has become like a legendary narrative in China: driven by unwavering patriotism, he willingly abandoned his overseas success, surmounted formidable challenges, and dedicated himself to his motherland.

Throughout his lifetime, Qian received numerous state medals in recognition of his work, establishing him as a nationally celebrated intellectual. From 1989 to 2001, the state-launched public movement “Learn from Qian Xuesen” was promoted throughout the country, and by 2001, when Qian turned 90, the national praise for him was on a similar level as that for Deng Xiaoping in the decade prior (Wang 2011).

Qian Xuesen remains a celebrated figure. On September 3rd of this year, a new “Qian Xuesen School” was established in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, becoming the sixth high school bearing the scientist’s name since the founding of the first one only a year ago.

In 2017, the play “Qian Xuesen” was performed at Qian’s alma mater, Shanghai Jiaotong University. (Image source.)

Qian Xuesen’s legacy extends well beyond educational institutions. His name frequently appears in the media, including online articles, books, and other publications. There is the Qian Xuesen Library and a museum in Shanghai, containing over 70,000 artefacts related to him. Qian’s life story has also been the inspiration for a theater production and a 2012 movie titled Hsue-Shen Tsien (钱学森).2

 

Unanswered Questions

 

As is often the case when people are turned into heroes, some part of the stories are left behind while others are highlighted. This holds true for both Robert Oppenheimer and Qian Xuesen.

The Communist Party of China hailed Qian as a folk hero, aligning with their vision of a strong, patriotic nation. Many Chinese narratives avoid the debate over whether Qian’s return was linked to problems and accusations in the U.S., rather than genuine loyalty to his homeland.

In contrast, some international media have depicted Qian as a “political opportunist” who returned to China due to disillusionment with the U.S., also highlighting his criticism of “revisionist” colleagues during the Cultural Revolution and his denunciation of the 1989 student demonstrations.

Unlike the image of a resolute loyalist favored by the Chinese public, Qian’s political ideology was, in fact, not consistently aligned, and there were instances where he may have prioritized opportunity over loyalty at different stages of his life.

Qian also did not necessarily aspire to be a “flawless hero.” Upon returning to China, he declined all offers to have his biography written for him and refrained from sharing personal information with the media. Consequently, very little is known about his personal life, leaving many questions about the motivations driving him, and his true political inclinations.

The marriage photo of Qian and Jiang. (Image source).

We do know that Qian’s wife, Jiang Ying (蒋英), had a remarkable background. She was of Chinese-Japanese mixed race and was the daughter of a prominent military strategist associated with Chiang Kai-shek. Jiang Ying was also an accomplished opera singer and later became a professor of music and opera at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.

Just as with Qian, there remain numerous unanswered questions surrounding Oppenheimer, including the extent of his communist sympathies and whether these sympathies indirectly assisted the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Perhaps both scientists never imagined they would face these questions when they first decided to study physics. After all, they were scientists, not the heroes that some narratives portray them to be.

Also read:
■ Farewell to a Self-Taught Master: Remembering China’s Colorful, Bold, and Iconic Artist Huang Yongyu
■ “His Name Was Mao Anying”: Renewed Remembrance of Mao Zedong’s Son on Chinese Social Media

By Zilan Qian

1 Some sources claim that Qian was born in Hangzhou, while others say he was born in Shanghai with ancestral roots in Hangzhou.
2The Chinese character 钱 is typically romanized as “Qian” in Pinyin. However, “Tsien” is a romanization in Wu Chinese, which corresponds to the dialect spoken in the region where Qian Xuesen and his family have ancestral roots.

This article has been edited for clarity by Manya Koetse

References (other sources hyperlinked in text)

BBC. 2020. “Qian Xuesen: The man the US deported – who then helped China into space.” BBC.com, 27 October https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-54695598 [9.16.23].

Monk, Ray. 2013. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life inside the Center, First American Edition. New York: Doubleday.

Perrett, Bradley, and James R. Asker. 2008. “Person of the Year: Qian Xuesen.” Aviation Week and Space Technology 168 (1): 57-61.

Wang, Ning. 2011. “The Making of an Intellectual Hero: Chinese Narratives of Qian Xuesen.” The China Quarterly, 206, 352-371. doi:10.1017/S0305741011000300

 

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Farewell to a Self-Taught Master: Remembering China’s Colorful, Bold, and Iconic Artist Huang Yongyu

Renowned Chinese artist and the creator of the ‘Blue Rabbit’ zodiac stamp Huang Yongyu has passed away at the age of 98. “I’m not afraid to die. If I’m dead, you may tickle me and see if I smile.”

Manya Koetse

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The famous Chinese painter, satirical poet, and cartoonist Huang Yongyu has passed away. Born in 1924, Huang endured war and hardship, yet never lost his zest for life. When his creativity was hindered and his work was suppressed during politically tumultuous times, he remained resilient and increased “the fun of living” by making his world more colorful.

He was a youthful optimist at old age, and will now be remembered as an immortal legend. The renowned Chinese painter and stamp designer Huang Yongyu (黄永玉) passed away on June 13 at the age of 98. His departure garnered significant attention on Chinese social media platforms this week.

On Weibo, the hashtag “Huang Yongyu Passed Away” (#黄永玉逝世#) received over 160 million views by Wednesday evening.

Huang was a member of the China National Academy of Painting (中国国家画院) as well as a Professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (中央美术学院).

Huang Yongyu is widely recognized in China for his notable contribution to stamp design, particularly for his iconic creation of the monkey stamp in 1980. Although he designed a second monkey stamp in 2016, the 1980 stamp holds significant historical importance as it marked the commencement of China Post’s annual tradition of releasing zodiac stamps, which have since become highly regarded and collectible items.

Huang’s famous money stamp that was issued by China Post in 1980.

The monkey stamp designed by Huang Yongyu has become a cherished collector’s item, even outside of China. On online marketplaces like eBay, individual stamps from this series are being sold for approximately $2000 these days.

Huang Yongyu’s latest most famous stamp was this year’s China Post zodiac stamp. The stamp, a blue rabbit with red eyes, caused some online commotion as many people thought it looked “horrific.”

Some thought the red-eyed blue rabbit looked like a rat. Others thought it looked “evil” or “monster-like.” There were also those who wondered if the blue rabbit looked so wild because it just caught Covid.

Huang’s (in)famous blue rabbit stamp.

Nevertheless, many people lined up at post offices for the stamps and they immediately sold out.

In light of the controversy, Huang Yongyu spoke about the stamps in a livestream in January of 2023. The 98-year-old artist claimed he had simply drawn the rabbit to spread joy and celebrate the new year, stating, “Painting a rabbit stamp is a happy thing. Everyone could draw my rabbit. It’s not like I’m the only one who can draw this.”

Huang’s response also went viral, with one Weibo hashtag dedicated to the topic receiving over 12 million views (#蓝兔邮票设计者直播回应争议#) at the time. Those defending Huang emphasized how it was precisely his playful, light, and unique approach to art that has made Huang’s work so famous.

 

A Self-Made Artist

“I’m ugly, but my mum likes me”

‘Ugly Mouse’ by Huang Yongyu [Image via China Daily].


 

Huang Yongyu was born on August 9, 1924, in Hunan’s Chengde as a native of the Tujia ethnic group.

He was born into an extraordinary family. His grandfather, Huang Jingming (黄镜铭), worked for Xiong Xiling (熊希齡), who would become the Premier of the Republic of China. His first cousin and lifelong friend was the famous Chinese novelist Sheng Congwen (沈从文). Huang’s father studied music and art and was good at drawing and playing the accordion. His mother graduated from the Second Provincial Normal School and was the first woman in her county to cut her hair short and wear a short skirt (CCTV).

Born in times of unrest and poverty, Huang never went to college and was sent away to live with relatives at the age of 13. His father would die shortly after, depriving him of a final goodbye. Huang started working in various places and regions, from porcelain workshops in Dehua to artisans’ spaces in Quanzhou. At the age of 16, Huang was already earning a living as a painter and woodcutter, showcasing his talents and setting the foundation for his future artistic pursuits.

When he was 22, Huang married his first girlfriend Zhang Meixi (张梅溪), a general’s daughter, with whom he shared a love for animals. He confessed his love for her when they both found themselves in a bomb shelter after an air-raid alarm.

Huang and Zhang Meixi [163.com]

In his twenties, Huang Yongyu emerged as a sought-after artist in Hong Kong, where he had relocated in 1948 to evade persecution for his left-wing activities. Despite achieving success there, he heeded Shen Congwen’s advice in 1953 and moved to Beijing. Accompanied by his wife and their 7-month-old child, Huang took on a teaching position at the esteemed Central Academy of Fine Arts (中央美术学院).

The couple raised all kinds of animals at their Beijing home, from dogs and owls to turkeys and sika deers, and even monkeys and bears (Baike).

Throughout Huang’s career, animals played a significant role, not only reflecting his youthful spirit but also serving as vehicles for conveying satirical messages.

One recurring motif in his artwork was the incorporation of mice. In one of his famous works, a grey mouse is accompanied by the phrase ‘I’m ugly, but my mum likes me’ (‘我丑,但我妈喜欢’), reinforcing the notion that regardless of our outward appearance or circumstances, we remain beloved children in the eyes of our mothers.

As a teacher, Huang liked to keep his lessons open-minded and he, who refused to join the Party himself, stressed the importance of art over politics. He would hold “no shirt parties” in which his all-male studio students would paint in an atmosphere of openness and camaraderie during hot summer nights (Andrews 1994, 221; Hawks 2017, 99).

By 1962, creativity in the classroom was limited and there were far more restrictions to what could and could not be created, said, and taught.

 

Bright Colors in Dark Times

“Strengthen my resolve and increase the fun of living”

Huang Yongyu’s winking owl, 1973, via Wikiart.


 

In 1963, Huang was sent to the countryside as part of the “Four Cleanups” movement (四清运动, 1963-1966). Although Huang cooperated with the requirement to attend political meetings and do farm work, he distanced himself from attempts to reform his thinking. In his own time, and even during political meetings, he would continue to compose satirical and humorous pictures and captions centered around animals, which would later turn into his ‘A Can of Worms’ series (Hawks 2017, 99; see Morningsun.org).

Three years later, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese major artists, including Huang, were detained in makeshift jails called ‘niupeng‘ (牛棚), cowsheds. Huang’s work was declared to be counter-revolutionary, and he was denounced and severely beaten. Despite the difficult circumstances, Huang’s humor and kindness would remind his fellow artist prisoners of the joy of daily living (2017, 95-96).

After his release, Huang and his family were relocated to a cramped room on the outskirts of Beijing. The authorities, thinking they could thwart his artistic pursuits, provided him with a shed that had only one window, which faced a neighbor’s wall. However, this limitation didn’t deter Huang. Instead, he ingeniously utilized vibrant pigments that shone brightly even in the dimly lit space.

During this time, he also decided to make himself an “extra window” by creating an oil painting titled “Eternal Window” (永远的窗户). Huang later explained that the flower blossoms in the paining were also intended to “strengthen my resolve and increase the fun of living” (Hawks 2017, 4; 100-101).

Huang Yongyu’s Eternal Window [Baidu].

In 1973, during the peak of the Cultural Revolution, Huang painted his famous winking owl. The calligraphy next to the owl reads: “During the day people curse me with vile words, but at night I work for them” (“白天人们用恶毒的语言诅咒我,夜晚我为他们工作”) (Matthysen 2021, 165).

The painting was seen as a display of animosity towards the regime, and Huang got in trouble for it. Later on in his career, however, Huang would continue to paint owls. In 1977, when the Cultural Revolution had ended, Huang Yongyu painted other owls to ridicules his former critics (2021, 174).

According to art scholar Shelly Drake Hawks, Huang Yongyu employed animals in his artwork to satirize the realities of life under socialism. This approach can be loosely compared to George Orwell’s famous novel Animal Farm.

However, Huang’s artistic style, vibrant personal life, and boundary-pushing work ethic also draw parallels to Picasso. Like Picasso, Huang embraced a colorful life, adopted an innovative approach to art, and challenged artistic norms.

 

An Optimist Despite All Hardships

“Quickly come praise me, while I’m still alive”

Huang Yongyu will be remembered in China with love and affection for numerous reasons. Whether it is his distinctive artwork, his mischievous smile and trademark pipe, his unwavering determination to follow his own path despite the authorities’ expectations, or his enduring love for his wife of over 75 years, there are countless aspects to appreciate and admire about Huang.

One things that is certainly admirable is how he was able to maintain a youthful and joyful attitude after suffering many hardships and losing so many friends.

“An intriguing soul. Too wonderful to describe,” one Weibo commenter wrote about Huang, sharing pictures of Huang Yongyu’s “Scenes of Pooping” (出恭图) work.

Old age did not hold him back. At the age of 70, his paintings sold for millions. When he was in his eighties, he was featured on the cover of Esquire (时尚先生) magazine.

At the age of 82, he stirred controversy in Hong Kong with his “Adam and Eve” sculpture featuring male and female genitalia, leading to complaints from some viewers. When confronted with the backlash, Huang answered, “I just wanted to have a taste of being sued, and see how the government would react” (Ora Ora).

In his nineties, he started driving a Ferrari. He owned mansions in his hometown in Hunan, in Beijing, in Hong Kong, and in Italy – all designed by himself (Chen 2019).

Huang kept working and creating until the end of his life. “It’s good to work diligently. Your work may be meaningful. Maybe it won’t be. Don’t insist on life being particularly meaningful. If it’s happy and interesting, then that’s great enough.”

“Hometown Scenery” or rather “Hunan Scenery” (湘西风景) by Huang.

Huang did not dread the end of his life.

“My old friends have all died, I’m the only one left,” he said at the age of 95. He wrote his will early and decided he wanted a memorial service for himself before his final departure. “Quickly come praise me, while I’m still alive,” he said, envisioning himself reclining on a chair in the center of the room, “listening to how everyone applauds me” (CCTV, Sohu).

He stated: “I don’t fear death at all. I always joke that when I die, you should tickle me first and see if I’ll smile” (“对死我是一点也不畏惧,我开玩笑,我等死了之后先胳肢我一下,看我笑不笑”).

Huang with Yiwo (伊喔), the original model for the monkey stamp [Shanghai Observer].

Huang also was not sentimental about what should happen to his ashes. In a 2019 article in Guangming Daily, it was revealed that he suggested to his wife the idea of pouring his ashes into the toilet and flushing them away with the water.

However, his wife playfully retorted, saying, “No, that won’t do. Your life has been too challenging; you would clog the toilet.”

To this, Huang responded, “Then wrap my ashes into dumplings and let everyone [at the funeral] eat them, so you can tell them, ‘You’ve consumed Huang Yongyu’s ashes!'”

But she also opposed of that idea, saying that they would vomit and curse him forever.

Nevertheless, his wife expressed opposition to this idea, citing concerns that it would cause people to vomit and curse him indefinitely.

In response, Huang declared, “Then let’s forget about my ashes. If you miss me after I’m gone, just look up at the sky and the clouds.” Eventually, his wife would pass away before him, in 2020, at the age of 98, having spent 77 years together with Huang.

Huang will surely be missed. Not just by the loved ones he leaves behind, but also by millions of his fans and admirers in China and beyond.

“We will cherish your memory, Mr. Huang,” one Weibo blogger wrote. Others honor Huang by sharing some of his famous quotes, such as, “Sincerity is more important than skill, which is why birds will always sing better than humans” (“真挚比技巧重要,所以鸟总比人唱得好”).

Among thousands of other comments, another social media user bid farewell to Huang Yongyu: “Our fascinating Master has transcended. He is now a fascinating soul. We will fondly remember you.”

By Manya Koetse 

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References

Andrews, Julia Frances. 1994. Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1979. Berkley: University of California Press.

Baike. “Huang Yongyu 黄永玉.” Baidu Baike https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E9%BB%84%E6%B0%B8%E7%8E%89/1501951 [June 14, 2023].

CCTV. 2023. “Why Everyone Loves Huang Yongyu [为什么人人都爱黄永玉].” WeChat 央视网 June 14.

Chen Hongbiao 陈洪标. 2019. “Most Spicy Artist: Featured in a Magazine at 80, Flirting with Lin Qingxia at 91, Playing with Cars at 95, Wants Memorial Service While Still Alive [最骚画家:80岁上杂志,91岁撩林青霞,95岁玩车,活着想开追悼会].” Sohu/Guangming Daily March 16: https://www.sohu.com/a/301686701_819105 [June 15, 2023].

Hawks, Shelley Drake. 2017. The Art of Resistance Painting by Candlelight in Mao’s China. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Matthysen, Mieke. 2021. Ignorance is Bliss: The Chinese Art of Not Knowing. Palgrave Macmillan.

Ora Ora. “HUANG YONGYU 黃永玉.” Ora Ora https://www.ora-ora.com/artists/103-huang-yongyu/ [June 15, 2023].

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