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Jews in Shanghai: Memories of a Nearly Forgotten Community

As modern buildings mushroom and old neighborhoods disappear, the traces of Jewish history are fading in today’s Shanghai. But recent initiatives, such as the Jews in Shanghai musical and the launch of a Shanghai Jewish diaspora website, keep the memories of a nearly forgotten community more alive than ever – A short history of Jews in Shanghai and how their history is remembered in 21st century China.

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As modern buildings mushroom and old neighborhoods disappear, the traces of Jewish history are fading in today’s Shanghai. But recent initiatives, such as a Jews in Shanghai musical and the launch of a Shanghai Jewish diaspora website, keep the memories of China’s Jewish heritage more alive than ever. A short history of Jews in Shanghai and how their history is remembered in 21st century China.
Story by Manya Koetse, photo-reportage by Maarten van der Meer.
Perhaps Jewish history is not the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about Shanghai. Yet the vibrant city harbors a rich history of Jewish heritage – a history that has recently seen a revival in Chinese media and entertainment.

The increased attention for the Jewish community of Shanghai and the history of Jews in China comes at a time when relations between China and Israel are at a new height. The two countries recently signed a visa deal that has encouraged mutual travel. Tel Aviv and Beijing are also making plans to establish a free trade zone.

 

DISAPPEARING HISTORIES

“While bulldozers are rumbling, discoveries of historically important buildings make the news.”

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The ‘memory revival’ of China’s Jewish history also comes at a time when old Jewish neighborhoods in Shanghai are being demolished. A reviving Jewish community in the city of Kaifeng is facing an ongoing crackdown by the government, as Judaism does not belong to China’s five state-approved religions of Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity and Protestantism.

Shanghai’s northern district of Hongkou is at the heart of Shanghai’s old Jewish neighborhood. Although many buildings are well-preserved, large parts of the neighborhood have been demolished over the past few years. Residents are located to other, more remote, areas of the city.

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While bulldozers are rumbling, discoveries of historically important buildings sometimes make the news. In 2014, an old residence set for demolition turned out to be a meeting place for Sun Yat-sen and other well-known people during the 1910s. The building was preserved after a Weibo user asked for help to save it.

In February 2016, another Hongkou building remained intact after it was discovered to be be a former ‘comfort women’ house used by Japanese troops during WWII.

While parts of the old neighborhood are disappearing, new initiatives are keeping its memories alive.

 

NEW WAYS OF REMEMBERING

“China has seen a ‘revival’ in remembering China’s and Shanghai’s Jewish history.”

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Just 3 kilometers from Shanghai’s famous Peace Hotel (its Victor’s Café was named after famous Shanghai Jew Sir Victor Sassoon) lies the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum; opened in 2007 to commemorate the Jewish refugees who lived in Shanghai during WWII. The museum frequently holds new displays and events to catch the audience’s attention.

But the history of Jews in Shanghai is kept alive through more than only the museum. Over the past few years, China has seen a ‘revival’ in remembering China’s and Shanghai’s Jewish history. Its historical revival mainly takes place outside museums, namely in popular culture and cyberspace.

China’s first animated movie about the Jewish history of Shanghai premiered in 2010. A Jewish Girl in Shanghai (犹太女孩在上海) tells the story and hardships of Jewish girl Rena who flees Nazi persecution by traveling to Shanghai during the WWII. The film has been described as “China’s first homegrown Jewish film”. A sequel to the anime appeared in 2015.

In the same year (2015), the first musical themed around the Jews in Shanghai saw the light at the Shanghai International Arts Festival in October. The musical Jews in Shanghai (犹太人在上海) revolves around the blossoming love between a Jewish man and Shanghai woman during the chaos of WWII. The Chinese-Israeli musical premiered in Beijing in June of 2016 (Yuan 2016: 30).

Jews in Shanghai, the musical (image via mypiao.com).

Jews in Shanghai, the musical (image via mypiao.com).

Shanghai’s Jewish history is also being commemorated through digital channels. On September 28, Shanghai’s Hongkou district government released a multilingual website telling different stories of the Jewish diaspora in Shanghai during the World War II. The project, launched by Shanghai International Studies University and the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, has collected stories from the time Jews fled to Shanghai to escape Nazi persecution.

E-learners can now also learn about the Jewish history in China through Coursera. Nanjing University has started offering an online course on Jewish Diaspora in China , taught by Dr. Xu Xin – an expert on the history of Judaism in China. The course requires enrollment but is offered for free.

 

JEWS IN CHINA/SHANGHAI: A SHORT HISTORY

“They have entirely lost their religion and are scarcely distinguishable in any way from the Chinese.”

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China has a long history of Jewish diaspora, although it is not entirely clear when and where this history began. What is clear, however, is that China is the only country in East Asia where Jews have consecutively lived for the last 1000 years. Marco Polo already mentioned the presence of Jews in China in 1286, and there is historical evidence that Jews lived in the old city of Kaifeng since the 11th century (Xin 2010: 133).

Although the city of Kaifeng once had a lively Jewish community, it gradually diminished throughout the 19th century. By the early 20th century, it had become nearly non-existent. When a bishop of the Anglican church visited the city in 1867, he already noted about the Kaifeng Jews that “they have entirely lost their religion and are scarcely distinguishable in any way from the Chinese” (Rhee 1973: 118).

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The reason for the Jewish demise could be explained through their complete assimilation in China. Throughout time, they took on Confucianism, practiced patrilineal descent, intermarried, and identified with Chinese culture so much that they were no longer really considered “Jewish” at all (1973: 115).

In Shanghai, however, something different was happening. After China was defeated by Britain during the first Opium War (1839-1842), Shanghai became an open port where foreign trade was allowed and where Britain could establish settlements. It was at this time that the first wave of Jewish people came to Shanghai, along with British merchants, to start businesses there. This early Jewish community of modern China, who were Sephardi Jews, settled down in Shanghai and other cities (Hong Kong, Tianjin) to make money and establish companies.

The second wave of Jewish came to Shanghai in the early 20th century. These Ashkenazi Jews came from Eastern Europe and Russia, and also settled down in the bustling city to start small businesses. Together with the first wave of Jews in Shanghai, they had a thriving Jewish community with Jewish synagogues, cemeteries, and institutions.

But the history of Jews in Shanghai is mostly known for the third wave of Jewish diaspora: German and Austrian Jewish who came to Shanghai as refugees before and during the WWII.

 

THE SHANGHAI GHETTO

“Shanghai became their destination not by choice, but because they had no other choice.”

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Why Shanghai? For many Jews at the time, Shanghai became their destination not by choice, but because they had no other choice (Xin 2016). As anti-Jewish violence grew strong in Nazi-ruled Germany and Austria, many Jews wanted to leave the country. But despite the 1938 Evian Conference in France, that was joined by 32 nations to resolve the Jewish refugee crisis, other countries remained reluctant to take in Jewish refugees. Without the required visas needed to enter countries such as America, many Jews were desperate.

Shanghai, however, was an exceptional place: it was an open port under the control of foreign powers, and it already was home to two relatively large Jewish communities. There was no need for a visa. For those who could afford to go on a boat to China, it was the best refugee haven (Gao 2011: 203; Meyer 2000: 71). After the anti-Jewish pogroms during the 1938 Kristallnacht, many Jews arrived in China. In the 1933-1940 period, approximately 20,000 European Jews came to China, of which a large majority arrived in Shanghai per boat (Xin 2016; Gao 2011: 203)

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The fourth and final wave of Jewish arrived in China via the Japanese city of Kobe. It was a Polish Jewish community who had ended up in Kobe via Siberia, but left again after the outbreak of the Pacific War. By the early 1940s, four different Jewish communities, coming from four different “waves” of diaspora, lived in Shanghai together at the same time.

It was Shanghai’s Hongkou district (also spelled as ‘Hongkew’) that became the main Jewish neighborhood. Since it was amongst the lesser developed areas of Shanghai, the cost of living was cheap there. But under Japanese control, the area’s Tilanqiao neighborhood (提篮桥) turned into a “designated area for stateless refugees”, simply a “ghetto”, where around 20,000 of its 50,000 residents were Jewish. Japanese authorities controlled the district and prohibited Jews from leaving the “Hongkou ghetto” without the required papers, which were hard to obtain.

According to Evelyn Pike Rubin, one of the German-Jewish refugees who survived in Shanghai during the 1939-1947 period, the designated area only came in 1943. She told What’s on Weibo: “Until 1943 we could live anywhere. As a matter of fact, I lived with my parents on Avenue Joffre. It was not until May of 1943 that the so-called ‘ghetto’ was established. Mr. Ghoya gave out the passes – sometimes with difficulty. My mother got a pass and did business outside the ghetto and I and my friends got passes to continue attending the Shanghai Jewish school in the former International Settlerment on Seymour Road.”

Evelyn Pike Rubin later published a book about her experiences in Shanghai, titled Ghetto Shanghai (1998: link).

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Despite suffering hardships, the Jews in the Shanghai Ghetto were safe and far removed from the horrors of Europe. Jewish children attended school and could freely play around the streets with their Chinese friends.

Nina Admoni, who spent her childhood in the Shanghai ghetto, with her Chinese friends [image timesofisrael.com].

Nina Admoni, who spent her childhood in the Shanghai ghetto, with her Chinese friends [image timesofisrael.com].

Nina Admoni, a Polish Jew who spent her childhood in the ghetto, told Times of Israel in 2012 that she looked back on her experience in Shanghai fondly and even idyllically: “The Chinese people in Shanghai were very kind, that’s what I remember.”

 

GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

“The last synagogue of Shanghai stopped its services in 1956.”

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There is a world of difference between what once was the “Shanghai Ghetto” and the same area today. The first synagogue of Hongkou, from the 1920s, now houses the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum. The Jewish community is no longer active here. The last synagogue of Shanghai stopped its services in 1956.

After WWII ended, Jews in China gradually left the country. It was not possible for them to become Chinese nationals, as the country did not have a naturalization procedure. The upheaval of the Chinese Civil War followed by the communist victory in 1949 meant that the Jewish could no longer continue to do business in China. As many left for North America, Australia, New Zealand or Palestine, only a few hundred Jews were left across China by the 1960s (Xin 2016).

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What once was a home and safe haven for thousands of Jews has now turned into a quiet neighbourhood with local shops and a street market. Many parts are being deconstructed for renovation.

Shanghai still has a small Jewish community, but it is not comparable to what it once was.

The Ohel Rachel Synagogue on North Shaanxi Road is now regulated by the Chinese government. The Jews in Shanghai are allowed to hold a religious ceremony no more than three times per year.

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In Kaifeng, once home to China’s oldest Jewish community, a revival of Judaism amongst around 1000 residents who claim to be of Jewish ancestry has been met by opposition from the local government. It has shut down Jewish heritage organizations and has prohibited residents from gathering to worship for Passover and other holidays. Signs and relics of the city’s Jewish past have been removed from public places.

China’s Jewish communities have changed through time. They have grown smaller, they have become Chinese, or they have vanished altogether.

Although the visibility of Jewish history might be disappearing from the streets of Shanghai, its stories are kept alive through books, museums, musicals, cinemas and on the internet. Its presence may be gone, but its history will never be lost.

– By Manya Koetse, photographs by Maarten van der Meer

About the photographer:
Maarten van der Meer is an independent/freelance photographer focusing on photographic stories, both fictive & real. He likes to mix various image styles and tries to find the narrative and excitement within everyday scenes. Besides his story projects, Van der Meer shoots portraits & landscapes.

References (news article sources in links)

– Gao, Bei. 2011. “The Chinese Nationionalist Government’s Policy Toward European Jewish Refguees During World War II.” Modern China 37 (2): 202-237.
– Meyer, Maisie J. 2000. “The Interrelationship of Jewish Communities in Shanghai.” Immigrants & Minorities 19 (2): 71-90.
– Rhee, Song Nai. 1973. “Jewish Assimilation: The Case of Chinese Jews.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 15(1): 115–126.
– Xin, Xu. 2010. “Tracing Judaism in China.” Social Sciences in China 31 (1), 130–161.
– Xin, Xu. 2016. “Jewish Diaspora in China” [online course]. Coursera. https://www.coursera.org/learn/jews-in-china/home/welcome [1.10.16]
– Yuan, Kang. 2016. “Jews in Shanghai: Love is Boundless.” Women of China (July): 30-31.

©2016 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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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Henry B Meisel

    February 11, 2017 at 1:43 am

    I am a survivor of the Shanghai Ghetto 1939-49…………lived in the Ghetto because we were declared stateless not because we were Jews….other Jews besides German,Viennese,Polish lived outside……..in fact the Japanese saved our lives though Germany an ally tried to find a solution. I lecture on the survival by showing the film “Shanghai Ghetto” with question and answer periods. In recent years Shanghai TV produced another film “Survival in Shanghai” which will be shown at Temple Emanuel in NYCity in April 2017

    (one part of this comment that included a link to a private website has been removed by whatsonweibo for as the link contained malware. sorry for any inconvenience)

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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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