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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.

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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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Bruce Humes

    July 24, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    This post on “halalification” is indeed fascinating. It does offer some real insight into what Chinese society is talking about these days.

    Reading it, one almost forgets that this is Chinese social media. There are various arguments, pro and con, and the way they are presented, it sounds fairly “balanced,” like something you’d read on Twitter in the West. “Let one hundred flowers bloom,” as Mao Zedong famously said in the 50s — before cracking down on anyone expressing unPC attitudes, and persecuting and even jailing hundreds of thousands of those “blossoms.”

    The issue here is that the columnist fails to point out to readers how significant it is that “halalification” is being openly discussed, and not banned, by the authorities. Based on my experience, almost any critical comments related to one of China’s ethnic minorities is highly sensitive and likely to be scrubbed almost immediately.

    Therefore, an important yet unexplored story here is: Why are the authorities allowing this topic to be discussed openly? Does this indicate their neutrality regarding this phenomenon? Or are they subtly using social media to critique this contemporary aspect of Muslim culture? And how long will they allow such a sensitive topic to be freely discussed before they — inevitably — begin to censor such entries?

    In the future, I look forward to Ms. Koetse alerting readers to such aspects of “media management,” and her efforts to “decode” these signals.

    • Jie

      September 7, 2017 at 10:59 am

      According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, “” search results are not shown.
      Sorry, the sticker has been deleted
      Sorry, you do not have permission to view the content.

      Huh.

      Do you really understand China?

  2. The other

    July 25, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    This article demonstrates why Westerners are so wrong in assuming that China is an ethno (Han supremacist) state. They’re actually riffing off a stereotype of East Asians as an extremely racist people, without bothering to learn the facts.

  3. Jane

    July 25, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    Sigh.. I would never think that a standard halal certificate will make such a ruckus. Moslems only eat halal foods, just like vegetarians only eat non meat foods. Why would it then expand into segregation in other parts of life? Look at Singapore, it’s a secular country but we’d still get to know which food is halal, which isn’t. The PRC government need to do something, so the problem will be solved once and for all. Either it’s allowed to do so, or just ban it nation wide. I really feel like it’s funny how the majority of people who are non Moslems would feel discriminated against; I didn’t know minorities are capable of discriminating against more powerful majorities

  4. Joey

    July 26, 2017 at 9:46 pm

    Halal food is the only food I trusted in China, especially from street vendors.

  5. Funtik-fuf

    July 31, 2017 at 9:53 pm

    the problem is not with the food here — it’s with the presenting of it. of course, halal food deserves to be cooked and sold everywhere in this world, same as all the other types of food, but when people start segregating the society then you know something’s very wrong with it. it is totally okay for any diet to have its own cafe, but different tables, delivery boxes and checkout counters are clear evidence of the separation. it seems like people who demand separate tables to eat don’t want to be associated with or be equaled to other people. which is not good.

  6. SpeakTheTruth

    August 11, 2017 at 8:53 am

    So Chinese people in China can’t even protect the Chinese culture of eating pork?

  7. Always Worried German

    September 2, 2017 at 4:32 pm

    Ha! The Mohammedans are doing the same thing they started about 10 years ago in Europe. Be very careful, China, or you’ll end up like us.

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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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Backgrounder

Pioneering in China’s Family Tree Business – ‘My China Roots’ Founder Huihan Lie

At a time when family tree business is more booming than ever, Dutch entrepreneur Huihan Lie runs the first-ever professional genealogy service business for overseas people with Chinese heritage who want to discover their family lineage. What’s on Weibo spoke to Lie about his company, the reasons for exploring one’s roots, and his personal mission to connect people to their Chinese ancestry.

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At a time when family tree business is more booming than ever, Dutch entrepreneur Huihan Lie runs the first-ever professional genealogy service business for overseas people of Chinese descent. What’s on Weibo spoke to Lie about My China Roots, their mission to connect people to their Chinese ancestry, and how to start searching for a family in a country of 1.3 billion.

My China Roots is a Beijing-based company specialized in Chinese genealogy. Founded by the Dutch Huihan Lie, it is the first company of its kind that helps overseas born Chinese or people of mixed descent to find out more about their roots in China.

The research of genealogy —tracing one’s ancestors— was often perceived as either an aristocratic practice or the classic old man hobby, but the increasing prevalence of genealogy websites and TV series such as Finding Your Roots or Who Do You Think You Are? shows the growing popularity of genealogy in the West.1 It has made the online genealogy industry lucrative; big players such as Ancestry.com or MyHeritage have a membership base of approximately 80 million. They use their online platforms to secure family records and collect historical information (Ungerleider 2015).

My China Roots fills a gap in this industry with its focus on Chinese ancestry. Since the company started in 2012, Huihan Lie and his team of researchers have taken on dozens of projects and are never out of work: many foreigners of Chinese descent have a strong urge to find out more about their family history. Over the past years, Lie has learned much about the possibilities and obstacles in investigating people’s Chinese roots. What’s on Weibo sat down with him in the courtyard of his Beijing office to ask about his work, and how it all began.

 

FROM THE DUTCH COUNTRYSIDE TO MY CHINA ROOTS

“It is all about identity in the end – it is a search for who they are.”

Huihan Lie (middle) with two of his team members Hai Miao (left) and Hung Yingying.

“I have always been interested in family history,” says Lie, who was born and raised in the Dutch countryside to Indonesian parents from Chinese descent. “As a young boy, I loved listening to my grandpa’s stories. They were mainly about the family history from 1850-1950 in Indonesia, where I’ve been many times. I only started to become more curious about my Chinese roots after coming to Beijing to study Chinese. I knew my ancestors originally were from China, so I began to look for more information about them.”

It has been over a decade since Huihan Lie started the search for his Chinese roots. Throughout the years, he has visited four different villages of distant relatives and is planning to travel to a fifth one this year: “The search never really ends – every new trail leads to the next.” Lie’s personal journey also led to the launch of his own company to help other people find their Chinese roots.

“Everyone has different personal reasons for wanting to know about their Chinese descent,” Lie says: “What really drives me is the more you find out about your roots, the more you discover how similar we all actually are. We all come from different places and cultures, but in the end, we have a lot in common. Going on this journey has made me more open and tolerant. But there are also people who want to know if they are connected to the Emperor in some way – for them, searching their roots is a prestige thing.”

Lie says that the incentives for genealogy research also vary per age group: “For people in their twenties, finding one’s genealogical roots is often part of their journey of self-discovery. Those who come to us who are in their thirties or forties often have children or are in mixed marriages, and they want to know what family history to pass on to their children. For the older generations, it is often about unanswered questions and self-reflection. No matter the reason, it is all about identity in the end – a search for who they are.”

 

TRACING DOWN CHINESE ROOTS

“How do you find someone’s ancestors in a country of 1.3 billion people?”

Guangdong around 1911 (360doc.com).

What once started as a one-man company has now grown into a strong team that travels to places connected to the ancestry of their clients, who come from all corners of the world: from Europe to South-east Asia, from the USA to the Caribbean. For the majority of these people, the birthplaces of their ancestors can be found in the south of China. Around 90% of Lie’s clients’ ancestry lies in the provinces Fujian and Guangdong.

Although waves of Chinese migration have occurred throughout history, there was a huge surge of Chinese laborers leaving for the Americas, Australia, South Africa and South-east Asia from the middle of the 19th century up to 1949. The first flow of Chinese immigrants to the USA departed from Guangdong, which was an international trading port. In 1848, news of gold in California spread like wildfire throughout the south of China and many people emigrated. There were also other early Chinese migrants with a variety of professions, from seamen to diplomats (Chao 2008, 74).

Even when people already have strong clues about their family lineage or possess important documentation, they often still do not know what to do with it; the majority of Lie’s client base does not read or speak Chinese at all. Language is a major hurdle in their personal search for family in China, as well as their limited understanding of Chinese culture and society. “They often simply do not know where to start,” Lie says: “That’s where we come in.”

But how do you find someone’s ancestors in a country of 1.3 billion people? It seems like a daunting task, but Huihan Lie has a clear vision when it comes to the genealogy research process. He explains their services always start with whatever information a prospective client can provide them. From there, him and his team can begin unraveling a family history through a step-by-step plan of various stages.

“The first step is to simply collect as much information as we can from the people who contact us,” Lie says: “What is the name we are focusing on? What information do they still have? Where did their great-grandfathers come from? When we know more, we ask our contacts at Chinese local government level to help us determine the right village to go to. Our on-site researchers then collect materials in the relevant places.”

 

100 FAMILY NAMES

“It hardly ever happens that we do not find anything at all – there is always some trace.”

Example of a family record from the Ming dynasty.

In China, there are hundreds of different surnames, but the 100 most common Chinese surnames (f.e. Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, etc) account for over 85% of the population. The 200 most common ones even account for 95% (Jonkers 2010). How do you find a specific family when millions of people all carry the same name?

“It actually makes it easier for us,” Lie smilingly says: “If a name is very common, local governments will know more about where these families originally came from. The hierarchy of China’s administrative divisions works in such a way that we can ask our contacts at the county level about the history of family names in that county. Some small towns will have a prominent population of the Chen or Li surname, for example. Historically, all villages basically were extended families. In Guangdong or Fujian, you’ll still find places where 60-70% of inhabitants belong to the same family.”

China’s administrative system is divided into provinces, cities, counties, townships and villages. When a prospective client can provide the name of the county of their great-grandparents, Lie and his team will typically be able to pinpoint the right area and village.

Pivotal for the research process are the genealogical books called jiapu (家谱 – family tree) and zupu (族谱 – clan genealogy), which contain records of generational relationships, clan history, origins, renowned members, etc. These books are commonly not stored in archives but within family homes in the villages, where Lie and his team also look for clan temples and ancestral graves.

There are much bigger obstacles for genealogical research than China’s common names, Lie points out. Because of fires, natural disasters, or the massive destruction during the Cultural Revolution, some family records have simply vanished.

“We do try to find ways to work around that. There are often copies of these records that have been passed on from elders to their children and we will still find a way to access them. What is more complicated is people who have taken on a different surname when fleeing, for example, political prosecution. But in 9 out of 10 cases we are able to find the right places and sources. It hardly ever happens that we do not find anything at all – there is always some trace.”

 

CRAZY ABOUT ROOTS

“If I tell Chinese people what I do, they immediately understand what it is that I am doing and how valuable it is.”

Family tree clubs gather to restore and update family records.

The fact that the majority of Lie’s clients have their roots in the south of China benefits research in multiple ways, Lie explains: “Generally speaking, genealogical research has fewer obstacles in the south of China than in the north. The great destruction of old documents during the Cultural Revolution was less severe in the south than in north, simply because it was much further away from the political center in Beijing.”

“In the 1980s and 1990s there was also a revival of genealogical research. People started coming together to preserve their local heritage and update their family records, something which they especially actively did in the south of China. It led to new editions of old genealogical records – a result of collective village efforts to restore their family history. Somehow this is stronger in the south than in the north.”

But Lie emphasizes that ancestry is overall much more alive in China than it is in the West: “Honoring one’s ancestry is deeply rooted in Confucianism. There is a revival of Confucianism that has been going on for a long time. It is ingrained in Chinese culture. This also shows in the fact that there are currently more and more ‘clan name’ organizations popping up everywhere and they can easily be found on Baidu.”

A gathering of a clan of the Li family name.

Chinese media recently reported about the “popular craze” of these ‘clan name’ foundations or ‘family tree clubs’ where, for example, people of the Wang or Chen family names within a certain region have annual gatherings and collaborate on restoring and completing genealogical records.

“If I tell Chinese people what I do, they immediately understand what it is that I am doing and how valuable it is. It is more natural to most Chinese. The family is the cornerstone of Chinese society, and knowing who your ancestors are is an important part of it.”

 

BUILDING BRIDGES

“It feels good knowing that we can help establish these valuable cross-cultural connections.”

For Lie, it is clear that there is still a long future ahead for the company. He enjoys every project and the research he does together with his team. “Every project is like another expedition. I found out that generally, it is not so much the answers that people get that matter the most to them, but the journey of discovering itself.”

Lie stresses that they give their clients much more than names and dates: “It is all about contextualizing history and make it come alive. Giving people a better picture of how their ancestors lived and what bigger cultural movements they were part of.”

As part of this contextualizing of people’s ancestry, Lie will focus more on its online platform this year. “Our services are tailor-made and completely focused on our clients,” Lie says: “Up until now, most of it was offline and high-end. But in the near future, we want to expand and will set up an online database where people can start their family history journey by looking up their family name or the place where their (great) grandparents came from. We will provide these online information services for free, and for a more personalized analysis, people can contact us to take the research to the next level.”

Besides the fact that My China Roots itself is going more digital, online channels are also relevant in genealogical research. Sina Weibo is sometimes used to search for people with certain last names from specific regions, or occasionally to ask help from Chinese netizens. WeChat has also become an important tool to communicate with local authorities and families.


Watch: Huihan Lie tells about My China Roots.

Lie enthusiastically tells: “I like how My China Roots can really serve as a bridge between people and their Chinese lineage. Sometimes it really gives me a kick, like when our clients build long-lasting friendships with relatives we found in China. It feels good knowing that we can help establish these valuable cross-cultural connections.”

“Finding out more about one’s roots seems to give people peace of mind. No matter the outcome of the research, people’s reaction always is that they have a sense of contentment about knowing where they come from. They come to us with a search for identity – it is the peace of simply knowing that they gain in the end.”

This interview was conducted and condensed by Manya Koetse in Beijing

– By Manya Koetse

Featured image: two men doing business in Beijing around 1917 (http://www.ntdtv.com/xtr/gb/2017/04/14/a1320285.html).

1. Who Do You Think You Are? is a UK show that was first aired by the BBC in 2004. Every episode investigates the family tree of a celebrity, often discovering things about their ancestry they never knew about. The UK show often drew audiences of over 6 million viewers per episode, and now has more than 10 international adaptations. Huihan Lie and his team contributed to the show in the episode with Julie Chen; they brought her to Fujian in a search for her Chinese roots. Finding Your Roots is another popular American series that also uses genealogical research to discover the family history of well-known Americans.

References

Chao, Sheau-yueh J. 2008. “Tracing Their Roots: Genealogical Sources for Chinese Immigrants to the United States.” Collection Building 27(2): 74–88.

Jonkers, Koen. 2010. Mobility, Migration and the Chinese Scientific Research System. New York: Routledge.

Ungerleider, Neal. 2015. “Ancestors, Inc.: Inside the Remarkable Rise Of The Genealogy Industry.” Fast Company, July 15 https://www.fastcompany.com/3048513/ancestors-inc-inside-the-remarkable-rise-of-the-genealogy-industry [2.5.17].

Images:

* Jiapu from the Ming dynasty: http://www.lzsx.org.cn/index_Article_Content.asp?fID_ArticleContent=365

* Get together of Li family members: http://www.xingpaojihua.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/DSC_0706.jpg

* Old Guangdong: http://www.360doc.com/content/16/0404/19/11548039_547832131.shtml

* Chinese family around 1900: http://history.sohu.com/20161108/n472615999.shtml

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