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

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

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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. [This is a premium content article.]

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. [blendlebutton] 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.

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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, Sino-Japanese relations and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. John

    August 10, 2016 at 5:56 pm

    Very informative, thank you!

  2. Wytse

    August 10, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    Great read, thanks!

  3. Tony Diepenbrock

    December 13, 2016 at 9:08 pm

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

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Backgrounder

The Anti “Halalification” Crusade of Chinese Netizens

Discussions on the so-called ‘halalification’ of China have flared up after delivery app Meituan introduced separate boxes for its halal food deliveries this week. Many netizens see the growing prevalence of halal food in China as a threat to a unified society and feel that featuring special services for Muslims is discriminatory against non-Muslims.

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Discussions on the so-called ‘halal-ification’ of China have flared up after delivery app Meituan introduced separate boxes for its halal food deliveries this week. Many netizens see the growing prevalence of halal food in China as a threat to a unified society and say that featuring special services for Muslims is discriminatory against non-Muslims.

The “halal-ification” (清真泛化) of food products in China has been a hot issue on Chinese social media over the past two years. Discussions on the spread of halal food in China broke out again this week when food delivery platform Meituan Takeaway (美团外卖) locally introduced a special halal channel and separate delivery boxes for halal food.

What especially provoked online anger was the line used by Meituan to promote its new services, saying it would “make people eat more safely” (Literally: “Using separate boxes for halal food will put your mind at ease.”)

The image of Meituan’s promotional campaign for halal food that went viral on Chinese media: “Make you eat more assured.”

Many netizens said the measure discriminates against non-Muslims. They called on others to boycott Meituan and to delete the app from their phone. In response, the topic ‘Is Meituan Going Bankrupt?’ (#美团今天倒闭了吗#) received over 3.7 million views on Weibo, with thousands of netizens discussing the issue under various hashtags.

 

RAISING AWARENESS ABOUT ISLAMIC DIETARY LAW

“China is a secular country ruled by an atheist Party, and firmly boycotts Islamic laws.”

 

In 2016, halal products were already at the center of debate on Chinese social media when officials called for national standards on halal food (definition here).

A popular Weibo imam called Li Haiyang from Henan wrote a post in March titled “Raising Awareness about Islamic Dietary Law” (“关于清真食品立法的几点认识“), in which he discussed the importance of national standards on halal food in China.

Li Haiyang, who is part of China’s Henan Islam Society (河南省伊斯兰教协会), wrote that all Muslims should follow the classic rules and abide by their beliefs, of which Islamic dietary laws are an important part, and that the PRC cannot discriminate against Muslim ethnic groups by refusing to legally protect Muslim halal food.

At the time, the imam’s post was shared over 500 times and besides much support, it also attracted many comments strongly opposing the imam’s views. A typical comment said: “China is a secular country ruled by an atheist Party, and firmly boycotts Islamic laws!”

Despite backlash, there are multiple accounts on Weibo dedicated to informing people about halal food, such as ‘China Halal Food Web’ (@中国清真食品网 3100+ fans) or ‘Halal Cuisine Web’ (@清真美食网, 3950 fans).

 

“HALALIFICATION”

“Halalification is not good for national harmony and not conducive to the healthy development of Chinese Islam.”

 

In Chinese, the word for ‘halal’ is qīngzhēn 清真, which also means ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim.’ The two characters the word is composed of (清 and 真) literally mean ‘clean’ and ‘pure.’ The various meanings of the Chinese word for ‘halal’ somewhat complicate discussions on the matter.

In the halal food debate on Chinese social media, the term qīngzhēn fànhuà (清真泛化) is often used – a new term that popped up in Chinese media in 2016. It basically means ‘halal-ification’ or ‘halal generalization,’ but because qīngzhēn also means ‘Islamic,’ it can also imply ‘Islamization.’

And that is precisely what is at the heart of the discussion on the spread of halal food on Chinese social media: those who oppose the spread of halal food in the PRC connect the normalization of Islamic dietary laws to an alleged greater societal shift towards Islam. The spread of ‘Islam’ and ‘halal food’ are practically the same things in these discussions through the concept of qingzhen.

Another issue that plays a role is the idea that ‘qingzhen‘ stands for ‘clean and pure’ food. This distinction between halal and non-halal food implies that while the one is clean food, non-halal food is ‘unclean’ and ‘dirty,’ much to the dismay of many net users. Some people suggest that the name of ‘halal food’ should be changed to ‘Muslim food.’

On Baike, Baidu’s Wikipedia-like platform, the page explaining the term qīngzhēn fànhuà 清真泛化 says: “The term [halalification] originally only referred to the scope of the specific diet of [Muslim] ethnic groups, and has now spread to the domains of family life and even social life beyond diet, including things such as halal water, halal tooth paste, and halal paper towels.”

Advertisement in Ningxia public transport for halal paper towels.

The Baike page explains that halal products are hyped by companies that are merely seeking to gain profits. It also says that halalification is “not good for national harmony” and “not conducive to the healthy development of Chinese Islam.”

Although there are no official government records of how many people practice Islam within the PRC, it is estimated that there currently are around 23 million Muslims in China, which is less than 2% of the total population. According to Pew Research (2011), because China is so populous, its Muslim population is expected to be the 19th largest in the world in 2030.

 

HALAL WORRIES

“State-financed products should not be religious.”

 

Most Chinese food ordering apps now have a special halal section; Chinese supermarkets provide a wide range of products labeled as ‘halal’ and there are ample halal restaurants in Chinese cities.

But many people on Chinese social media feel that the spread of halal products is going too far. Legal service app Ilvdo (@律兜) published an article on Weibo this week that mentions that many Chinese consumers might buy halal products such as halal ice cream or milk without even knowing it: “You perhaps drank [halal] water and indirectly funded Islam religion – because the companies that have halal certifications have to pay Islamic organizations for them.”

On Weibo, there are some popular accounts of people opposing the spread and normalization of halal food in China. An account named ‘No Halal’ (@清真发言) has over 143.500 followers. The ‘No Halal Web’ (@非清真食品网) account has nearly 90.000 fans. These accounts regularly post about halal products in Chinese shops and restaurants and link it to the spread of Islam religion in China.

The account ‘No Halal Web’ recently posted a photo taken at a Shanghai restaurant that shows a table with a sign saying “Reserved for Halal Customers Only.”

“Table reserved for Halal customers only.”

The ‘No Halal Web’ account wrote: “This already is Muhammed’s Shanghai.” They later stated: “In the Islam world, the demands of Muslims are not as simple as just wanting a mosque, they want their environment to be Islamic/halal.”

Verified net user ‘Leningrad Defender’ (@列宁格勒保卫者, 254465 fans) posted photos of a segregated ‘halal’ checkout counter at a Jingkelong supermarket in Beijing’s Chaoyang area, wondering “is this even legal”?

‘Halal’ checkout counter at a supermarket in Beijing’s Chaoyang area.

A Weibo user named ‘The Eagle of Great Han Dynasty’ (@大汉之鹰001) posted a photo on July 20 showing a bag of infant nutrition from the China Family Planning Association that also has a ‘halal’ label on it. He writes:

“What is the Family Planning Committee doing? Why is this halal? This is Jilin province, are we all Muslims? What is behind this, can the Committee tell the public? This is financed through the state, the public has the right to know!”

Infant product by the Family Planning Committee that is labeled ‘halal.’

Others also responded to the photo, saying: “State-financed products should not be religious.”

 

THE MEITUAN INCIDENT

“Only when we as the Chinese people integrate together, can our country be unified as an undivided family.”

 

Although there is much opposition to the spread and regulation of halal food in China, the halal food industry also provides many business opportunities for companies who are eager to serve the millions of customers wanting to buy halal.

Popular food delivery platform Meituan faced furious backlash this week when it introduced its special halal food services. The so-called ‘Meituan Incident’ (美团事件) became a heated topic of debate on Weibo and Wechat.

One of the key arguments in the debate is not so much an opposition to halal food in itself, but an opposition to a normalization of ‘halal food’ (with the complicating factor that the Chinese qingzhen also means ‘Islamic’ and ‘clean and pure’), which allegedly discriminates against non-Muslims and increases social polarization. Many netizens said that if there are special boxes for food for Muslims, there should also be special boxes for food for Buddhists, Daoists, atheists, etc.

One well-read blog on Weibo said:

“National identity, in the end, is cultural identity (..). What is needed for the long-term stability of a country is integration [of the people] rather than a division [of the people] – let alone isolation. The national law should [therefore] turn ‘halal food 清真食品’ into ‘Muslim special food 穆斯林专用食品.’ This would make sure that Muslims don’t eat anything they shouldn’t eat, and it also liberates those (..) who aren’t religious. The law could confirm that there is a special kind of food designed for Islamic religious people to eat, instead of asking non-religious people to eat it as well. (..) There are more and more atheists. We should no longer distinguish people by saying he is a Daoist, he is Buddhist, that’s a Muslim or a Christian..in the end we shouldn’t even distinguish people as being Han or Zhuang or Miao or Hui or Manchu. Only when we as the Chinese people integrate together, can our country be unified as a harmonious and undivided family.”

The blog, that was viewed over 88.000 times, received much backing from its readers. One person wrote: “As there is now a national resistance against Islamization and religious segregation, how could the Meituan incident not cause anger amongst the people?”

It is not the first time that the separation of facilities/services for Muslims versus non-Muslims triggers online discussions in China. In September last year, the introduction of special “Muslim-only” shower cabins at a Chinese university also provoked anger about alleged “Muslim privilege.”

 

TRIVIAL MATTER OR SOCIAL SHIFT

“Today it is about separate boxes for food; tomorrow it might be about separate seating areas in restaurants. And what’s next?”

 

On Thursday, Meituan Takeaway officially responded to the controversy through Sina Weibo, saying that the promotion of halal delivery boxes was a local and unofficial activity by one of its agents in Gansu province. It also said it would strengthen supervision of its agents and their promotional material.

But not all netizens believed Meituan’s explanation. One person said: “I am located in Inner Mongolia, and your Meituan [here] also promotes the two separate delivery boxes.”

Other netizens also posted photos of Meituan’s food delivery rival Eleme also using special “Halal only” delivery boxes.

Image of food delivery box that says “special use for halal food.”

Among all the negative reactions and the resistance against the spread of halal food, there are netizens who praise halal food for being tasty and who do not get what all the fuss is about. A female netizen from Beijing wrote:

“Why are so many brain-dead people opposing Muslims these days? How does Meituan’s separation of halal food hinder you? What do you care if your yogurt is halal? If you don’t want to eat it, don’t eat it. There are plenty of people who will. Use your brain for a bit. Not all Muslims are extremists; just as not all people from the Northeast are criminals.”

But there are many who think Meituan’s separate boxes are no issue to disregard. One young female writer says:

“(..) Under the current national policy of protecting ethnic minorities, Muslims enjoy special privileges in the name of national unity. If this continues for a long time, the inequality inevitably will spread to other domains of society. Today it is about separate boxes for food; tomorrow it might be about separate seating areas in restaurants. And what’s next? Segregated neighborhoods? Trains? Airplanes? It might seem like a trivial matter, but if you ignore this, then those who are privileged now will go on and get greater privileges. The distancing of Muslims will only grow. I’m not saying this to alarm you. It’s self-evident that unequal benefits and the privilege of an ethnic group will eventually create conflicts between the people.”

Amidst all ideological arguments, there are also those who say it is all about the money. In the article published by Ilvdo, the author says about the Meituan incident: “Why do the boxes need to be separated? Because in general, Muslims feel that what we eat is “dirty” … but the product increase cost is shared by all the customers – so not only does it make us feel “dirty”, we also spend more money.”

They later say: “What we want is national unity, not religious solidarity. (..) You have your freedom of religion, which app I use is my freedom. Separate boxes and other special services will ultimately be reflected in the costs, and I do not want to pay religious tax. Luckily I have the freedom to delete this app and stop using it.”

By Manya Koetse

©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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Backgrounder

Behind the Rise and Fade of China’s Literary Sensation Fan Yusu

Beijing migrant worker Fan Yusu became an overnight sensation when her autobiographical essay “I Am Fan Yusu” went viral on Chinese social media in late April 2017. The author has since gone into hiding and her essay has been removed. What’s behind the sudden rise and silent disappearance of China’s biggest literary sensation of 2017?

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Beijing migrant worker Fan Yusu became an overnight sensation when her autobiographical essay “I Am Fan Yusu” went viral on Chinese social media in late April 2017. The author has since gone into hiding and her essay has been removed. What’s behind the sudden rise and silent disappearance of China’s biggest literary sensation of 2017?

Fan Yusu was the name on everybody’s WeChat in late April and early May of this year. An essay titled “I Am Fan Yusu” (“我是范雨素,” full translation here) spread like wildfire over Chinese social media, seemingly coming out of nowhere.

In some ways, the popularity of the essay in China is comparable to the recent hype over Alex Tizon’s essay “My Family’s Slave” on Western social media; this non-fiction story about ‘Lola’ Eudocia Tomas Pulido from the Philippines, who lived as a modern slave with an American family for 56 years, went viral on Twitter and Facebook in May. It gripped its many readers for exposing poignant problems in modern-day society that usually stay behind closed doors.

Fan Yusu’s account, in its own way, also revealed the harsh realities of an ever-changing society. China has an estimated 282 million rural migrant workers. The autobiographical tale focuses on the difficult childhood and adult life of one person amidst these 282 million – Fan Yusu herself.

Fan Yusu on April 25, 2017. Photo by Sina Finance.

“I Am Fan Yusu” was first published on Noonstory.com, an online literary platform by Shanghai news outlet Jiemian. A year prior to its publication, one of their journalists (Dan Bao 淡豹) headed out to Picun for an interview. Picun is a migrant village on the outskirts of Beijing, not far from the capital’s airport. It was here that Jiemian learned about the local literary club and its many poems and essays. One of these works titled “My Brother’s Dream” particularly stood out to them. It was written by the 44-year-old Fan Yusu, and the editor soon decided to publish her first story (“农民大哥”) in May of 2016.

A year later, Jiemian published a second essay by Fan, not expecting that it was this piece that would soon hit three million views and go viral across the country.

 

HER STORY

“Am I living in the Qing dynasty or is this new socialist China?”

 

In “I Am Fan Yusu“, Fan recounts her impoverished childhood in a rural village in Xiangyang, Hebei. Fan came to Beijing at the age of 20. Being a clumsy waitress with low expectations for her future, she rushed into an unhappy marriage with an alcoholic husband and had two daughters. When her marriage turned violent, she returned to her hometown for help. It was here that she discovered she was “merely a passer-by” in the village where she was born and raised. Her brothers could, but were not willing to help; her mother wanted to, but could not help.

Being the youngest of five siblings, Fan already learned at a young age that men have the final say in China’s countryside. Although her mother was a powerful local politician for more than forty years, she resigned from her official post the moment Fan’s oldest brother objected to his mother’s work.

The twenty-something Fan then returned to Beijing and took on a job as a nanny in a rich family, leaving her own two daughters behind in the village of Picun, where many other children grow up without a mother. She writes about life as a babysitter for the child of her boss’s mistress, while his dressed-up young wife waits on the sofa every night for her husband’s return: “I wondered if I was living in the Qing dynasty or if this was new socialist China.”

Gate at village of Picun, Beijing.

Despite her low educational background, Fan always had a thirst for knowledge and became a well-read person with a love for writing and literature. “If a person cannot feel happiness or satisfaction in life,” she writes: “they simply aren’t reading enough novels.”

 

ONE VOICE OUT OF MILLIONS

“We are all Fan Yusu.”

 

Thousands of netizens shared Fan’s essay shortly after it was published online. They responded to it with praise, saying it was a “unique piece of work” and even “Nobel-Prize worthy.” Why did specifically this essay become so hyped on Chinese social media?

The answer can be found in both the person of Fan Yusu herself as in her essay. The piece appealed to people because it uses simple yet powerful language. Some called it “unpolished”; a reflection of Fan’s own life and society at large.

The fact that Fan Yusu is in her forties, a single mother of two, and a migrant worker who has had a difficult life, makes her story carry more weight. She represents a voice that is generally lost in a media environment that is dominated by the middle class.

The popularity of this account also shows that a migrant worker with a low educational status can still be a successful writer. At a 2015 social gathering, Fan already mentioned that “‘migrant worker’ is not a derogatory term, just as ‘artist’ is not an elite one.”

“I Am Fan Yusu” also touches upon numerous issues such as domestic violence, divorce, gender inequality, the poor and rich divide, and a lacking healthcare system. These being issues that a lot of people have to deal with, the catchphrase “We are all Fan Yusu” (“我们都是范雨素”) soon made its rounds on WeChat and Weibo.

 

A NEW LITERARY MOVEMENT?

“Many in China’s elite literary circles do not touch upon society’s pain points the way Fan does.”

 

Fan Yusu’s account comes at a time when there is a surge of stories that tell the individual stories of ordinary people. An essay on Beijing’s crazy housing market titled “Housing Madness” (“房疯”) by an author named Chongzi (虫子) also saw its fair share of success in April of this year.

There is a growing appetite for these types of stories, and non-fiction websites such as Noonstory or Guyu Story provide a platform for them.

The popularity of such stories seems to relate to a growing weariness with established literature. On Weibo, many people shared their overall discontent with China’s literary circles in response to Fan’s essay. Many said they think of Chinese literature as being elitist and out of touch with ‘real life.’

Renowned author Zheng Shiping (Yefu) praised Fan’s writings in a recent interview.

This idea was backed by renowned novelist Zheng Shiping (a.k.a. Yefu 野夫), who applauded Fan’s writing in an interview in May. He criticized Chinese modern literature, saying that many in those “elite circles” never touch upon society’s pain points in the way Fan does.

Some Weibo netizens responded with sarcasm, saying: “Literature is literature. No matter if it touches upon society’s pain points or not, it always needs to follow the ideology of the Propaganda Department.”

 

ROOTLESS WOMEN OF CHINA

“A married daughter is like water that has been poured.”

 

Another major factor that has contributed to Fan’s sudden success, is that her account shows the disadvantaged position of women in China’s countryside. Rural women are often caught in a vulnerable position, facing various economic and social obstacles that hinder their emancipation.

“A married daughter is like water that has been poured,” is a saying about countryside women who go out to marry. They often leave the house empty-handed. Fan addresses this ‘floating life’ of rural women in her essay. Women from the countryside are ‘rootless’ because their status, location, and economic rights change depending on the role they have as daughter, bride, wife, daughter-in-law, or mother. All land ownership is generally in name of the fathers, husbands, and sons (Also see this article on China’s ‘rootless women’).

When a woman marries outside her hukou (household registration permit), she usually has to give up any benefits or rightful land ownership she had in her previous household. No matter if a woman gets married into a different household or joins China’s mass urbanization, she often is bound to end up in the lowest layers of society.

 

WHAT HAPPENED TO FAN YUSU?

“Why is Fan Yusu censored?”

 

Only three days after Fan Yusu’s essay went online and viral, the text disappeared from its original source [editor’s note: the essay is still available on some websites]. Different Chinese media reported that Fan Yusu, overwhelmed by the media’s attention, had gone into hiding in a mountainous village.

It was not just Fan’s essay, but also its reviews that were soon “harmonized” (被和谐, meaning ‘censored’). One popular Weibo blog titled “Why I Like Fan Yusu” was no longer accessible as of May 6 for “violating the rules” on Weibo. The sudden disappearance of the essay and its direct reviews also made many netizens wonder: “Why is Fan Yusu censored? (范雨素怎么被和谐了?)”

Although the real reasons are not exposed, there is ample speculation. In her account, Fan writes about her problems with social anxiety. The sudden attention for her personal life may have been so overwhelming that some suggested it is Fan herself who wanted her essay removed. Especially since there were also journalists who went to her Hebei hometown to interview her mother – something that she dreaded. “I’ve run into a sandstorm,” Fan Yusu reportedly told her friend about the flock of journalists swarming into her village.

But there were also those who said that reasons for censorship perhaps related to the fact that the account revealed details about the personal life of her former boss, a rich and powerful man who may have put a halt to online publications.

Another plausible option is that the publication was removed due to its criticism on Chinese society and politics. “Sharp criticism is just not allowed,” some people commented: “She is very realistic, and exposes some gloomy aspects [of society].” Although Chinese state media initially lauded Fan’s essay, it is possible that the hype surrounding it just grew too big too fast.

The sudden rise and disappearance of Fan Yusu has some resemblance to the hype surrounding Chai Jing and her documentary “Under the Dome” in 2015. This self-funded documentary on China’s pollution problem originally was supported by Chinese state media. It received over 200 million views before it was abruptly removed from Chinese websites a week after its release.

At the time, Greenpeace East Asia’s Calvin Quek told Bloomberg that it might had to do with the timing, just before the start of China’s plenary sessions: “It’s a reflection of some kind of political infighting that they chose to shut it down. The government censored the film because it got 200 million views, and they did not want it to dominate the twin conferences,” he said.

In Fan’s case, the hype came just before the Beijing One Belt, One Road Summit, a very significant event during and around which Chinese media emphasized the idea of China as a responsible and harmonious global leader.

Although Fan Yusu’s ‘sandstorm’ has gradually blown over by now, she still has not returned to her Picun home according to the latest media reports. Fan might have disappeared from the limelight for now, she is not forgotten.

Worker’s culture home in Picun (by Southern Weekend / 南方周末).

Fan Yusu is the voice of a social class often ignored; she is a shining example that migrant workers can influence and shape the world of Chinese literature today. The heightened media attention for “the writers of Picun” (article in Chinese) is just one manifestation of how Fan Yusu has already made her mark – an unerasable one.

– By Manya Koetse

©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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