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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?

Manya Koetse

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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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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, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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Backgrounder

“Opposing Dog Meat Consumption Is Hypocritical” – Weibo Users Respond to Anti-Dog Meat Protests in South Korea

Eating dog meat is a personal choice, many commenters argue.

Manya Koetse

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Man eating dog meat during anti-dog meat protest; image via https://udn.com/news/story/6812/3928149

Last week’s anti-dog meat protests in South Korea have triggered discussions on Chinese social media on the status quo of the dog meat industry in China. An overview of the sentiments on social media and the background of dog eating in the PRC.

South Korea’s dog meat industry made headlines on Friday after protesters in Seoul, joined by actress Kim Basinger, called for an end to the decade-old dog meat trade in the country.

Not far from the protesters were farmers who raise dogs that are sold to restaurants. They brought steamed dog meat and ate it with kimchi (featured image).

In China, where the eating of dog meat has a long history, the Seoul protests triggered some discussions on social media.

The hashtags “Hundred People Gather in South Korea to Stop the Eating of Dog Meat” (#韩国百人集会呼吁停食狗肉#) and “Big Protest in South Korea against Eating of Dog Meat” (#韩国大规模抗议吃狗肉#) received over 83 million views.

In South Korea, the overall demand for dog meat has plummeted over the years. Earlier this month, one of the largest dog meat markets in the country, the Gupo dog meat market, was shut down. In November of 2018, Seongnam city already demolished South Korea’s largest dog slaughterhouse.

Friday’s protesters hope to shut down dog meat trade in the country completely. The latest protests have put the thorny issue of the dog meat industry back in the limelight.

 

HYPOCRITICAL PROTESTS?

“I don’t eat dog meat, but I don’t oppose it.”

 

On Chinese social media site Weibo, hundreds of netizens expressed their opinion on the matter, that has been a hot topic in China for years.

According to polls from the past and present, the topic of dog meat in China is clearly a divisive one.

But over the past few days a seeming majority of commenters on Weibo spoke out about the issue in a remarkably similar way, with thousands of netizens highlighting one issue in the matter: hypocrisy.

“I won’t oppose to the eating of dog meat,” one person writes: “Because if I support the anti-dog meat movement today, then tomorrow it will turn against the eating of cows, then the eating of pigs, and then the eating of fish..”

Many people on social media agree with this point of view, arguing that no matter one’s personal ideas about dog meat, condemning the dog meat practice in specific would be hypocritical: “Pigs are so cute, why do we eat pigs then?” many say, with others arguing: “Aren’t cows also spiritual animals?”

Dog meat restaurant in Jilin.

“I also raise dogs, I also love dogs,” another commenter says: “But I think that if they legally breed dogs for the dog meat [industry], then we have no right to prevent them from doing so.”

“I don’t eat dog meat, but I don’t oppose it, as long as it’s legal it’s ok,” with others writing: “I am opposed to the eating of any living creature.”

“Eating dog is not illegal, why all this sentimental nonsense? Why don’t you also defend chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, sheep, and cows?!”

“As long as they’re not abused, I don’t see a problem with it.”

“Dog meat is tasty,” one commenter from Zhejiang writes: “I like it, although I rarely eat it. I don’t see a problem with it, it’s a personal choice.”

 

SHORT OVERVIEW OF DOG EATING IN CHINA

“To them, dog meat was just like any other meat.”

 

The tradition of dog eating in China can be traced back as far as the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1558 to 1046 BC), when dog meat was considered a delicacy for the upper class.

Later on in Chinese history, during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), it became more and more common until the practice saw a general decline, especially in northern China, during and after the tenth century (Li et al 2017, 513-514).

Despite the rising and declining popularity of dog meat throughout China’s history, the practice of eating dog has never completely disappeared, particularly in southern China.

In a book on China from 1878 by John Henry Gray, the author notes the popularity of restaurants serving dog and cat meat in ‘Canton’ (Guangzhou):

I do not think (..) that I exaggerate in saying that there are no fewer than twenty such places in Canton. Each restaurant contains only one public apartment. The approach to this dining-room is generally through the kitchen, where cooks may be seen standing in front of slow fires over which the flesh of cats and dogs is being cooked. The flesh is cut into small pieces and fried with water chestnuts and garlic in oil. In the windows of the restaurant dogs’ carcasses are suspended, for the purpose, I suppose, of attracting the attention of passengers” (75).

He further writes:

The flesh of black dogs and cats is generally preferred because it is supposed to possess more nutriment than that of cats and dogs of any other color. At Ying-tong, a suburban district of Canton, a fair is held at which dogs are sold for food; and in one of the streets dogs and cats are daily exposed for sale. The dogs are put to death by strangling, stabbing, or felling with clubs” (76).

Something that has not changed since the days described in Gray’s book is the belief in the medicinal benefits of dog meat.

Dog meat dish, via Sohu.com.

Especially in summer, dog’s flesh is believed to serve as an antidote against summer heat, and to be nutritious and beneficial as a source to enhance male virility or to boost the liver. Even at present, Chinese media promote the eating of dog meat to boost the immune system and help stimulate better blood circulation.

It should be noted that although China has a long history of dog meat consumption, it also has a long history of dog domestication and dog-human comradery. Dogs were pets, guarded the house, used in hunting, and also used in rituals of sacrifice.

Ceramic crouching dog, excavated from Henan burial site, dating from Han Dynasty, 206BC-220AD, Henan Museum.

Most of the 20th century (1900-1978) was a tough time for people in mainland China, and it was a tough time for dogs too. In many times, there was barely enough food to eat, and under Mao’s rule, dogs were considered “parasites” and were outlawed as pets (Coren 2018; Li et al 2017, 514).

Those who kept pets were seen as part of the ‘bourgeoisie,’ and during the Cultural Revolution, pet dogs were reportedly seized and beaten to death in front of their owners (Coren 2008, ch. 21).

Much has changed since those days. Although (stray) dogs, as carriers of diseases and potentially aggressive, are often still considered a drain on society, having a dog as a pet has become much more commonplace in China since the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Eating dog meat has become less popular, especially among young people in China, who have grown up very differently from their parents and have different perceptions of dogs.

Chinese writer Bang Xiao looks back on the first time his mother served him dog meat during Chinese New Year, writing:

For them, dog meat was just like any of the other meats, and coming from a generation who lived through famine and the Cultural Revolution, I was told I should be grateful. For me though, it meant I was eating my own pet Duo Duo. I cried.”

Later on, he writes about his parents:

They weren’t “dog eaters”. They were just people that happened to have a different history that led to different animals being on the menu.

 

THE YULIN DOG MEAT FESTIVAL

“Don’t go, don’t eat it, don’t pay attention to it.”

 

Despite the general unpopularity of dog meat in China, there is one time of the year when the discussions on the practice of dog eating flare up again, and that is during the Yulin Lychee & Dog Meat Festival, an annual event that’s been held over the past decade in the Chinese city of Yulin intended to generate income from tourism (Brown 2018).

Some 10,000 to 15,000 dogs and cats are slaughtered during the 10-day event that starts on June 21st every year. The event attracts hundreds of people every day. There is a restaurant strip and a market where dozens of vendors cook various dog meat dishes in large woks and where live dogs are sold and slaughtered.

Yulin, image via 轉角國際udn Global

Although the voices of those people protesting the festival seem to grow louder year on year, the dog meat festival continues. It is not illegal, and its economic benefits have become of crucial importance for many in the city of Yulin.

Vendor selling dog meat at the Yulin festival.

A 2016 media survey held among 2000 people from various ages and places in China found that 64% of the people opposed to the festival, 52% thinks that dog meat should be banned in China, and 70% said they had never had dog meat themselves.

“Don’t go, don’t eat it, don’t pay attention to it. When there’s no business, the killing will stop,” one Weibo commenter suggests.

 

A MURKY MARKET

“There does not seem to be a Chinese dog meat market that is both cruel-free and completely legal.”

 

Apart from Yulin, the eating of dog meat is barely a celebrated tradition in China anymore.

For a What’s on Weibo article from 2015, we could still find 122 restaurants listed as ‘dog meat’ specialty restaurants in the city of Beijing on restaurant site Dianping. But at present, Dianping no longer publicly lists any restaurants when searching for ‘dog meat’ specialty places (note that there still are restaurants serving dog meat, but they might not be listed due to controversy or for fear for activists).

China’s biggest e-commerce websites sell different herb mixes for dog stews or dog meat hotpots (see tweet below), but the market could hardly be called thriving.

Yet, despite all those people on Chinese social media saying that eating dog meat should not be a problem for those who still want to eat it, China’s dog meat market does actually have a problem.

China has no law that bans the eating of dogs; eating dog meat is a personal freedom. But what makes the issue murky and troublesome is that China actually has no large-scale legal dog farms, nor legal dog slaughterhouses.

The very few dog farms in existence in China would never be adequate to provide the meat for the industry in southern China, let alone for the estimated 10,000+ dogs slaughtered in Yulin every year.

It is therefore not clear where the dogs that are used for their meat in China come from. Are they stray dogs? Are they stolen from the streets? And if so, would this not be considered illegal (Brown 2018; Cao 2014; Yan 2015, 46)?

Every now and then scandals appear in the media of restaurants slaughtering and killing dogs that were actually people’s pets (for example, this scandal in Jilin in 2018 or in Chengdu this year).

Another issue making the dog meat market a problematic one is the cruel treatment of the dogs.

China has seen countless of food scandals over the years, and some of them involve the selling of poisoned dog meat. As a result, many people have a general distrust in (frozen) meat products and want to make sure they are consuming good quality meat.

Dog meat markets such as Yulin, therefore, often sell living dogs. They are virtually like ‘wet markets’ for dogs, where those who want to eat dog meat can do so with the assurance that the meat they are eating is fresh and safe. The dogs are slaughtered at the spot or are sold alive for home consumption (Brown 2018).

Image via BBC.com.

The process of being transported, being displayed in tiny cases in the summer heat, and being killed in often cruel ways all add to the enormous stress and pain the animals at the live dog market are suffering.

China currently has no laws from the perspective of animal welfare to minimize the pain and suffering during transport, the selling, or at the point of slaughter (Brown 2018).

For the aforementioned reasons and more, festivals such as the Yulin Dog Meat one are getting more controversial year on year, with more and more Chinese calling for a boycott and a ban.

 

DISTORTED DISCUSSIONS

“If you eat dog meat of unknown origin, you might be participating in the killing of someone else’s pet.”

 

As the discussions on dog meat in China are ongoing following the South Korea protests, one blogger posted a survey asking netizens if they support the eating of dog meat.

Despite the many commenters who also defend the practice of dog eating, a majority of 67% percent among the 32.000 participants said they do not support it as “dogs are our friends.”

A recurring sentiment expressed on Chinese social media on the issue is that there essentially is nothing wrong with eating dog meat – and that it would be hypocritical to only oppose to eating dog without also opposing eating sheep, cows, chickens, and so on – as long as it is legal, and as long as the dogs are not stolen, poisoned, or abused.

But that’s the whole issue at hand: all those things are in fact happening in the dog meat industry today. It is difficult to discuss the eating of dogs based on the hypothetical assumption that these things are not occurring.

Consumers are not buying (frozen) meat from legal dog farms and certified dog slaughterhouses, they are mostly buying living dogs or dog meat from unknown origins, and the process of selling and slaughtering often goes hand in hand with cruel treatment.

“I don’t oppose to eating dog, but I hate the dog trafficking market,” one person says. Another commenter agrees, writing: “I don’t oppose to the eating [of dogs] that are bred for it, but I do oppose to those who steal other people’s dogs. Most of the dog meat I’ve seen comes from unknown origins. (..) If you eat dog meat that you don’t know the origin of, you might be participating in the killing of someone else’s pet.”

For now, China and South Korea are very different when it comes to their dog meat industries and their (legal) changes. The countries do seem to have one thing in common, which is that the practice of eating dog meat is no longer popular among the younger generations.

This might suggest that as sales are dropping, the dog meat market will shrink and might eventually disappear altogether if there is no interest in it.

“Don’t hype the dog meat festival,” one Weibo commenter writes: “It’s the hype that made it big and that led to more dogs being killed.

This basically reiterates the advice of one of the aforementioned commenters: don’t go, don’t eat it, don’t pay attention to it, and the business will, eventually, die out.

Want to read more? Also see:

20 Facts About Dogs & Dog-Eating in China
The Yulin Dog Meat Festival: 10 Views From Chinese Netizens
Tradition or Abuse? Chinese Views on the Yulin Dog Meat Festival

By Manya Koetse

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References

Brown. Hannah. 2018. “Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival: A Shift in Focus.” In: Tourism Experiences and Animal Consumption: Contested Values, Morality and Ethics, Carol Kline (eds), Chapter 15. London: Routledge.

Cao Yin. 2014. “Experts: Dog Meat Festival ‘Illegal’.” China Daily (June 16). Online at http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2014-06/16/content_17589087.htm [6.23.16].

Coren, Stanley. 2008. The Modern Dog: A Joyful Exploration of How We Live with Dogs Today. New York: Free Press.

–. 2018. “What Is China’s Current Attitude Concerning Dogs?” Psychology Today, Feb 21 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201802/what-is-chinas-current-attitude-concerning-dogs [7.15.19].

Gray, John Henry. 1878. China: A History of the Laws, Manners, and Customs of the People (Volume II). London: MacMillan & Co.

Li, P. J., Sun, J., & Yu, D. 2017. “Dog “Meat” Consumption in China: A Survey of the Controversial Eating Habit in Two Cities.” Society and Animals, 25(6), 513–532. http://doi.org/10.1163/15685306-12341471

Xiao, Bang. 2018. “Chinese New Year: Remembering how I first ate dog meat, and how differences bring us together.” ABC, February 17 https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-02-17/chinese-dog-meat-eating-linked-to-history-of-famine/9454394 [7.15.19].

Yan Wei. 2015. “Dog Meat Festival: Traditional Custom or Abuse?” Beijing Review (29): 46-47.

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Backgrounder

Over a Third of China’s Babies Are Delivered via C-Section – The National Health Commission Wants to Change That

Fear of pain is a major reason for nonmedical cesarian deliveries on maternal request.

Manya Koetse

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Image by Sohu News

China’s National Health Commission wants to lower the nation’s high C-section rates. On Chinese social media, many women argue it should be up to the mother to decide how she wants to give birth.

In 2018 the percentage of deliveries by cesarean was 36.7% in mainland China, according to the latest Report on Women’s & Children’s Health (中国妇幼健康事业发展报告) that was launched by the National Health Commission on May 27.

This means that together with Hong Kong, Taiwan, Brazil, Egypt, and Turkey, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) now has the highest C-section rates in the world.

A World Health Organization report from 2010 estimated that 46% of Chinese babies were delivered via C-section. In 2017, another study found that this percentage was incorrect, although some urban and wealthier regions in China, such as Shanghai, did see C-section (CS) rates as a high as 68% (Black & Bhattacharya 2018, 1; McNeil 2017).

China’s CS rates have recently become a hot topic in Chinese newspapers and on social media. On May 27, the National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China held a Beijing news conference in which Qin Geng (秦耕), the director, announced that more actions will be taken to encourage natural childbirth among Chinese women.

Qin Geng during the press conference on May 27.

These actions will, among others, include stricter regulation of cesarian section operations and the provision of more support and pain relief for laboring women, as well as a higher hospital income for natural births. The National Health Comission hopes to significantly reduce the number of unneccesssary C-sections without medical indication in this way (Beijing News 2019; Caijing 2019).

Since 1985, the international healthcare community has considered 10-15% to be “the ideal rate” for C-sections, of which the highest percentage are those CS deliveries with medical indications that can actually save the lives of mothers and babies.

Although the worldwide rates for CS deliveries have increased throughout the years, there is no evidence for the benefits of nonmedically indicated C-sections for women or children, according to the World Health Organization.

This is not the first time Chinese authorities try to combat the country’s high CS rates. After reports by the World Health Organization from 2010 and 2015 pointing out the potential hazards of unnecessary C-sections, there have been various state efforts to reduce the number of nonmedical cesarian surgeries.

Besides the introduction of free prenatal education classes, these efforts included monitoring public hospital CS rates and removing bonuses or cutting portions of a hospital’s income once their CS rates reached a certain threshold (e.g. 40%) (Wang 2017, 3). These government initiatives seem to have had effect: the country’s C-section growth rates have slowed down, but were not decreasing yet.

Since the Chinese government announced an end to its one-child policy in 2015, lowering cesarean sections rates has become a more urgent matter, as Chinese couples are now allowed to have a second child.

Although various studies from mainland China and beyond challenge the idea that nonmedical C-sections are less ‘safe’ than vaginal births for single deliveries, this risk changes when a woman who previously had a CS section plans another pregnancy: multiple cesarean sections are associated with additional risks including CS scar rupture and abnormal placental invasion (Biler et al 2017, 1074; Black & Bhattacharya 2018, 2; Liu et al 2015, 817).

 

Why So Many C-sections in China?

 

But why does China have such a high cesarian delivery rate at all? Since the early 1990s, mainland China saw a more dramatic rise in CS rates than, for example, the USA; from less than 10% (with only 3.4% in 1988), China went to one of the highest in the world (Hellerstein 2011; Wolf 2018, 13).

The answer to why this is, is not so straightforward and relates to socio-economic changes as well as cultural factors that come into play.

One reason is that there is a general belief in the ‘safety’ of cesarian births that influence women’s choices for a (nonmedical and planned) C-section (Black & Bhattacharya 2017, 2).

An insightful study into this matter is that of researcher Eileen Wang (2017), who found that anxiety about giving birth and fear of pain is also a major reason for nonmedical cesarian deliveries on maternal request, especially considering that only a minority of Chinese women are given any form of pain relief during labor. Besides traditional concepts, this is also because China faces a shortage of anesthetists and because obstetricians are not always well-informed to prescribe other forms of pain medication (2017, 5).

As noted by Wang, epidurals are denied to laboring women not just because anesthesiologists are too busy, but also because of various other factors: different from a scheduled C-section on their agenda, they are not always available during nighttimes and in weekends to administer anesthesia to women in labor, do not have the time to monitor a patient for hours during labor (whereas a cesarean could be done in an hour), or were not even trained to administer epidurals (2017, 5).

“Giving labor without pain: removing mom’s fear for giving birth” – image by Chinese website http://www.8bb.com/huaiyun/1381.html.

According to Wang, the concerns about labor pain result in more requests for C-sections, both before and during labor. With relatively low awareness and availability of labor pain relief methods many Chinese women simply opt for a C-section as a way to control their pain.

But there are also other factors that contribute to the relatively high rate of women requesting C-sections for nonmedical reasons. One of them is the importance placed in the astrological calendar: having a baby on that one ‘lucky day’ or within that ‘lucky year’ is considered enough reason to plan a cesarian birth for many Chinese families.

In early 2015, ahead of the Chinese New Year, many women rushed to the hospital to make sure their baby was born in the Year of the Horse (2014) as the Year of the Goat (2015) was coming up. There is an old Chinese saying that nine out of ten people born in the Year of the Goat are incomplete and will suffer from great misfortune throughout their life (“十羊九不全”).

Another factor that leads to more cesareans on maternal request relates to the existing concerns among women that vaginal delivery will affect their figure or sex life (Wang 2017, 2).

 

Responses on Chinese Social Media

 

Since the Beijing news conference of May 27, the hashtag “Reducing Unnecessary Cesarean Section Surgery” (#减少非必需剖宫产手术#) has taken off on Chinese social media.

On Weibo, the hashtag page received 340 million views at time of writing. One thread about this topic even received over 28400 comments.

“What do you call ‘unnecessary cesarian’?” one of the most popular comments said: “Isn’t it that so many women in labor choose to have a C-section because natural childbirth is too painful?”

Other commenters also called for a normalization of pain relief in labor, saying that the high percentage of C-sections lies in the fact that Chinese women lack access to “wútòng fēnmiǎn” (无痛分娩) or “painless birth,” meaning vaginal delivery with pain relief.

Some Weibo users also stress that women should have the freedom of choice on how they wish to give birth, saying: “C-section or natural should be my own choice” and “If you leave me no choice I might as well not give birth at all.”

Multiple commenters write: “The lower the C-section rate, the higher the suicides,” referring to an incident that occurred in Shaanxi in 2017 when a pregnant woman committed suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of the hospital after she was allegedly denied a CS delivery.

Other Chinese netizens also complain about the fact that it seems to be men who are promoting the new policies to combat the high C-section rates, writing: “Isn’t there a way to have them suffer the pain of labor instead?”

In her study, scholar Eileen Wang also argues that the lack of pain relief is one of the major issues that should be addressed by policymakers who are hoping to reduce the number of C-sections in China. Further improving the childbirth experience by, for example, integrating a midwifery model, is also essential in making natural childbirth more attractive for Chinese women, Wang argues.

For now, many hospitals in China are still offering C-section “packages”: some prices start at RMB 5800 ($840) for a C-section, other hospitals have packages that start from RMB 88,000 ($12,741) including a three-day hospital stay in a private room.

“It’s a pregnant’s woman body, so she should decide how she wants to deliver her baby,” one commenter on Weibo writes: “It should be a woman’s right to decide.”

By Manya Koetse

References

Biler, A., Ekin, A., Ozcan, A., Inan, A. H., Vural, T., & Toz, E. 2017. “Is It Safe to Have Multiple Repeat Cesarean Sections? A High Volume Tertiary Care Center Experience.” Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences 33(5): 1074–1079.

Black, Mairead & Sohinee Bhattacharya. 2018. “Cesarean Section in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong— A Safe Choice for Women and Clinicians?” PLOS Medicine 15(10): 1-3.

Caijing. 2019. “卫健委:全国剖宫产率为36.7% 积极推广分娩镇痛.” Caijing , May 27 http://economy.caijing.com.cn/20190527/4591594.shtml [5.31.19].

Hellerstein, Susan Celia. 2011. “Cesarean Delivery in China Analysis of Cesarean Deliveries Without Indication.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: 20s.

McNeil, Donald. 2017. “Study Finds Lower, but Still High, Rate of C-Sections in China.” New York Times, Jan 9 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/09/health/c-section-births-china.html [6.2.19].

Wang, Eileen. 2017. “Requests for Cesarean Deliveries: The Politics of Labor Pain and Pain Relief in Shanghai, China.” Social Science and Medicine (173): 1–8.

WHO. 2015. “WHO statement on caesarean section rates.” World Health Organization, April https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/maternal_perinatal_health/cs-statement/en/ [6.2.19].

Wolf, Jacqueline H. 2018. Cesarean Section – An American History of Risk, Technology, and Consequence. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Featured image by Sohu News.

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