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Caught Between China & Japan: Superstar Li Xianglan

Li Xianglan (李香兰) aka Yamaguchi Yoshiko passed away at the age of 94. A rising star during the Sino-Japanese War, she was loved by those who believed she was Chinese and later hated for being Japanese.



She called China her fatherland and Japan her motherland. Singer and actress Yamaguchi Yoshiko, better known as Li Xianglan (李香兰), has passed away at the age of 94. A rising star during the Sino-Japanese War, she was loved by both Chinese and Japanese audiences. On Sina Weibo, she is commemorated as a star and a traitor – even causing controversy after her death.


Yamaguchi Yoshiko was born in 1920 to Japanese parents in Manchuria. In accordance with Chinese tradition, she had two Chinese adoptive fathers who gave her the Chinese name Li Xianglan. As the Sino-Japanese War was on the way, Li jumped to superstar status as a singer and actress. She was fluent in Mandarin. The Chinese audience did not know she was Japanese, as Li Xianglan hid her true identity throughout the war. During the 1930s and 1940s, Li was emotionally conflicted by both the Chinese hostile attitude towards the Japanese and the Japanese mistreatment of the Chinese, as she later writes in her autobiography “My Life as Li Xianglan” (Halloran 2004).

During the war years, Li starred in seventeen different films. One of them was the hit film Eternity (1943), that made her and her songs popular throughout China. But she also starred in so-called “Chinese continental friendship films”: films produced by Japanese studios that were screened in China, and that depicted the Japanese in a positive manner. The most famous one is Night in China (1940), where Li plays the role of a Chinese girl that detests the Japanese invaders but ends up falling in love with a Japanese naval captain. Li Xianglan was later criticized for playing in these films, that were considered to be “shameful for the country” (Stephenson 2002, 2).

Scene from ‘Night in China’ (支那の夜), 1940.

By the end of the war, Li Xianglan was arrested as a Chinese national for ‘betrayal of China’s national interests’ because of her roles in Japanese-produced films. She was facing the death penalty for treason against the Chinese government. Because she was officially recorded in the Yamaguchi family register, Li Xianglan (Yamaguchi Yoshiko) could prove her Japanese identity to Chinese authorities. This lead to the dismissal of charges of treason, and her ‘repatriation’ to Japan, a country that was never actually her home (Stephenson 2002, 9). In 1950, she went to the United States to “learn to kiss like they do in Hollywood movies.” She took on the name of Shirley Yamaguchi, befriended Charlie Chapin, and starred in several Hollywood films, such as Japanese War Bride and House of Bamboo. Yamaguchi was later denied access to the United States because of her connections to suspected Communist sympathizers. She returned to Japan and started a career in journalism and politics. She then became known under the name of her husband, Otaka Yoshiko (2002, 10).

Although she was Japanese, she had a good heart. The Chinese people will not forget you“, one netizen says on Sina Weibo. Other microbloggers are less positive: “She was a dwarf [‘倭’ old derogatory for Japanese], and just because she lived in the occupied Northeast for a few years, she changed her name into a Chinese one. She pretended to be a Chinese celebrity. She brainwashed Chinese all the way from the north to the south. It was not until everyone thought she was a traitor after the war that she revealed her dwarf blood. Some people might still commemorate her, but your fu*king candles don’t mean anything.


“Li Xianglan brainwashed Chinese people from the North to the South”


She was known as Li Xianglan, Yamaguchi Yoshiko, Shirley Yamaguchi, Ri Koran (the Japanese pronunciation of her Chinese name) and Otaka Yoshiko. During her life in politics and journalism, she was involved in the Palestinian issue and reported the Vietnam War. Sino-Japanese relations were an important subject to her. One Weibo netizen honors Li Xianglan by saying: “She is gone with the wind. I hope that one day her fatherland and her motherland will have eternal peace and friendship. It is possible for China and Japan to get along!” Li Xianglan would have been happy to read it. The day that Sino-Japanese relations were officially restored in 1972, she cried. About that moment she said: “I certainly was happy that day. I even think that very day was the “best day of my life”” (Tanaka et al 2004).



The day that Sino-Japanese Relations were restored was the best day of my life” – Li Xianglan



To listen to one of Li Xianglan’s songs, check out the video below. Don’t forget to close your eyes for a second, hear the vinyl, and you are right back in history. The song below (‘Flowers of Spring’) is sung in Japanese:



Halloran, Fumiko. 2004. “My Life as Li Xianglan.” The Japan Society (Accessed September 14, 2014).

Stephenson, Shelley. 2002. “A Star by Any Other Name: The (After) Lives of Li Xianglan.” Quarterly Review of Film & Video 19: 1-13.

Tanaka Hiroshi, Utsumi Aiko and Onuma Yasuaki. 2004. “Looking Back on My Days as Ri Koran.” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus (Accessed September 14, 2014). 

©2014 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission – you can contact us at

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

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  1. Lawrence

    September 14, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    Mooie vrouw, fascinerende achtergrond. Bedankt voor het artikel!

  2. Stanley

    September 15, 2014 at 9:45 am

    According to her book, she called Japan her fatherland and China her motherland as she born to Japanese parents but raised in China.

  3. Rena Inoue

    July 20, 2020 at 7:57 pm

    Li Xianglan wasn’t a dwarf pretending to be Chinese! It’s a misconception that Li Xianglan was purely Nihonjin Japanese. Her mother & father Fumio both loved China and he had 2 Chinese Blood Brothers, General Li Jichun (李際春) and Mayor Pan Yugui (潘毓桂). By Chinese custom for those who became sworn blood brothers, they also became Yoshiko’s “Godfathers” and gave her two Chinese names, Li Xianglan (Li Hsiang-lan) and Pan Shuhua (潘淑華). (“Shu” in Shuhua and “Yoshi” in Yoshiko are same Chinese character).the Yamaguchi family moves into a large 3-story house inside the Li family compound (after Japanese secret police arrest her father for colluding with Chinese rebels in Mukden after an attack) In return, the family cared for the second wife of Li who had bound-feet. Yoshiko has a great affection for this hobbling lady “whose spoken Mandarin sounded like singing” and she “learns Mandarin from her from morning till night”. Yoshiko would also help Madame Li to massage her sore feet. Old General Li treats Yoshiko as though she were his own daughter. With her father Fumio’s blessing and in an elaborate formal ceremony, the Li family adopts Yoshiko and gives her the Chinese name 李香蘭 Lǐ Xiāng Lán 李香蘭 Yoshiko later used the name, Li Xianglan [a perfect stage name because if her real name was used (like if it was *Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga)and assumed the latter name, Pan Shuhua while she was staying with the Pan family in Beijing for 4 years while going to a Chinese Girl high school following her recuperation from tuberculosis), Yoshiko’s father and General Li decide that she will move south, to another powerful family friend Pan, located in central Beijing (Peking) in order to continue her Chinese education there. In order to strengthen her breathing after TB, the doctor recommended voice lessons. Her father initially insisted on traditional Japanese music, but Yoshiko preferred Western music and thus received her initial classical vocal education from an Italian dramatic soprano (Madame Podresov, married into White Russian nobility) introduced by BFF, Lyuba (a Russian-Jewish girl, She later received schooling in Beijing, accommodated by the Pan family. She was a coloratura soprano. So all her childhood & teen years she lived with 2 powerful Chinese Godparents so she was actually more Chinese then Japanese.
    Later after becoming famous, she finally went to Japan, in 1941 for a publicity tour, dressed in a cheongsam and while speaking Japanese with a Mandarin accent, the customs officer asked her upon seeing she had a Japanese passport and a Japanese name: “Don’t you know that we Japanese are the superior people? Aren’t you ashamed to be wearing third-rate Chink clothes and speaking their language as you do? 1st time she was called traitor!

  4. Rena Inoue

    July 20, 2020 at 8:23 pm

    Xinglan had already had her 1933 ‘coming out’ concert at the Yamato Hotel, been chosen by the Fengtian Radio Station as the only girl capable of singing and communicating in several languages, and was rapidly learning the art of singing while accompanied by live bands on the radio. The name by which she became known all across Manchuria was Li Xianglan [a perfect stage name because if her real name was used (like if it was *Stefani Germanotta] she would not have become known at all [just like *Lady Gaga became known by all].
    Xianglan was indeed a very special person to have accomplished all this by the age of 14.
    On the subject of changing one’s name when entering ‘show business’ (or the Showa Business as one wit has called it): is there any need to mention here all the Hollywood actors with names such as Issur Danielovitch, who found the name of Kirk Douglas to be much easier on the ears of his intended audience? I don’t see anyone throwing rocks at Mr. Danielovitch (or anyone else who has done the same thing) for the crime of masquerading as someone else. Shall we mention all the famous Hollywood actors of one race (such as Anthony Quinn) who successfully passed as other races (and managed to keep their real race a secret for many years)? And while we are in this territory, what about the propaganda films of Hollywood that have had both overt and covert political and social agendas? Let’s not be hypocrites.
    Yoshiko recalls her May 1934 train-trip from Mukden to Beijing; her father bought her a ticket at the Mukden Station and says “You’ll be living as a Chinese person from now on, so get used to it.” Of course, she thought he would be travelling with her, but due to some business foul-up of some kind, she found herself travelling all alone! She recounts the harrowing night-journey by train from Fengtian to Beijing, a distance of 470 miles: a lone 14yr old girl in the ‘hard-seats’ (the common-folk section), pretending to be Chinese due to the anti-Japanese sentiment, in the midst of pouring rain, lightning, howling wind, and worries about being robbed or attacked by bandits or guerrillas. Yoshiko tells about a harrowing slow crossing over a long railroad bridge barely higher than the flooded river below. Oh, and she was hiding a large bundle of money in her clothes for her father which she was afraid would be confiscated along the way – she was totally terrified!
    No Japanese would take such a long trip through bandit territory unless they were military men, and here was this little sparrow of a girl, at one point hiding in the train’s bathroom from the Conductor. The ‘hard seat’ section of the train was filled with Chinese farmer people, chickens, other animals, and the stench of urine was thick in the air. Talk about having to grow up fast and think on your feet!
    The Pan family adopts Xianglan in 1934 and names her Pan Shuhua (the name she uses while attending high school). To give some idea of the size of the Pan compound, there are several large house residences surrounding a central courtyard/garden area, and Yoshiko mentions how easy it was to lose one’s way and get lost. There are about 100 people either working for or part of the family, including wives, relatives, servants, concubines, plus 2 armed guards with fixed bayonets at the gate entrance. Xianglan, at first she leads a lonely life and is forced to totally immerse herself in Mandarin. She is befriended by two of her adoptive sisters, and they all attend school and take various lessons together. She attends the Beijing Yijiao Girls School 北京 一角 中学 (a Chinese mission school mainly attended by rich ‘pillars of society’ girls). This school must have been located inside the Inner City
    Mr. Pan, born Chinese, is another ‘cross-cultural’ person, having attended Japan’s Waseda University, and he is by no means the only example of such people who due to circumstance, traveled easily between and understood both cultures. In the case of Pan Yugui, he was skillful enough to rise to very powerful positions in Northeastern China while working (some would say collaborating) with the Japanese (and was able to avoid execution after the war because of various ‘good-works’ he accomplished for Chinese people as well).She writes travelogue-style descriptions of the famous Imperial City and Forbidden City, spending many a pleasant time visiting there, sometimes while riding horses (she and her adoptive sisters were taking equestrian lessons). Most of the time she was practicing her Mandarin, She must have fantasized about being a royal Chinese princess during such horse-rides because she seems to know and love each structure of note inside the Forbidden City.While living with the Pan family, Yoshiko recounts some interesting every-day experiences. She frequently awoke to “performances by the pipe ensemble of the pigeons of Picai Hutong.” As the sun would rise [no, the phrase she uses is “as the eastern sky began to light up”] in the morning, a large formation of pigeons would soar into the sky; little pipes made of bamboo were tied to the birds feet and would whistle when the birds swooped and soared, providing a natural ‘alarm clock’ as the day dawned for the Hutong residents. Only the ancient Chinese could’ve thought of harnessing pigeons in flight to provide a “pipe ensemble” which made such a delightful sound!

    The bathing situation of the Pan family was less than ideal: although they had modern western fixtures such as bathtubs, there was no running water, so washing had to be done the old-fashioned way, which involved basins of warm-water. For full baths, the whole family would spend a whole pleasurable day at a large public bathhouse, followed by a luxurious meal at a fine restaurant, complete with music provided by an er’hu (Chinese violin) player.

    Along with Pan Shuhua’s duties as Mr. Pan’s helper/secretary, she had other chores to perform, one of which was preparing opium for Mr. Pan and his guests. This involved heating a portion of thick brownish syrup in a small ivory bowl, congealing it on a long needle, and then reheating it to create a nice ‘smoke’ which was then inhaled from a long opium pipe. When Yoshiko grew older and “looked back on her Beijing years”, she was “surprised that such important people like Pan had turned into habitual abusers of opium.”

    I’m sure she made use of such experiences when it came time to make her famous “Eternity” film whose plotline revolves around the pernicious effects of opium, and indeed, one of her most famous songs is called the “Quitting Opium Song.”

    While with the Pan family, Yoshiko conveys an interesting exchange with her adoptive mother concerning her ‘Japanese habits’.

    One day Madame Pan takes her aside and gives her some advice: “First, stop smiling so much when there is nothing to smile about! (the Japanese custom is for a woman to smile constantly in order to be polite and ‘charming’). The Chinese call this “selling one’s smile” and it is looked upon with contempt. Second, stop bowing so much! “it’s all right to nod your head slightly, but stop making such deep bows as the Japanese do. We regard that as servile behavior.” Yoshiko takes this advice to heart, and says that her later experiences in Europe and the United States confirmed people’s mannerisms were similar to those of China.
    The interesting thing about the above is that it shows how Madame Pan takes genuine care of her adopted daughter, and it gives us an insight into a very human situation.

    This is yet another example of how Yoshiko came to prefer Chinese over Japanese social mores; the Japanese were constricting, filled with various duties which had to be honored, whereas the Chinese were more free and easy. Take the example of simply laughing at something one finds funny: the Japanese girl will ‘politely’ cover her mouth, whereas the Chinese will more often laugh out loud as western people do.

    However, this did cause some problems when Yoshiko would return home to visit her parents and her Japanese mother Aiko would bemoan how “the big city life had corrupted” her Japanese etiquette. It’s here we get some insight into how difficult a task it was for Yoshiko to actually ‘become Chinese’, because it meant ‘losing her Japanese character’, and of course the reverse was true also. This would not have been any great problem if both her “parents” (ie, Japan and China) had not been at war with one another.

  5. Rena Inoue

    July 21, 2020 at 6:09 pm

    In the 1950s, she established her acting career as Shirley Yamaguchi in Hollywood and on Broadway (in the short-lived musical “Shangri-La”) in the US. She married Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi in 1951. Yamaguchi was Japanese, but as someone who had grown up in China, she felt torn between two identities/ nations and later wrote she felt attracted to Noguchi as someone else who was torn between two identities. They divorced in 1956. Weibo critics don’t seem to know that She revived the Li Hsiang-lan name and appeared in several Chinese language films made in Hong Kong. Some of her 1950s Chinese films were destroyed in a studio fire and have not been seen since their initial releases. Her Mandarin hit songs from this period include “Three Years” (三年), “Plum Blossom” (梅花), “Childhood Times” (小時候), “Only You” (只有你), and “Heart Song” (心曲 – a cover of “Eternally”).

  6. Grace Wong-Pak

    July 23, 2020 at 7:44 pm

    Actually Li Xianglan thought of China as her Mother since she was born and , 3rd generation in 遼陽;Liáoyáng, Manchuria and raised in Shenyang (沈阳).
    She learned Mandarin as a small child from her father who taught Mandarin & Chinese culture to Japanese workers. She then went to a Chinese school.

    She was adopted by 2 powerful Chinese families who she lived with her childhood with General Li Jichun (李際春) who named her Li Xianglan. After the age of 13 she lived with Pan Yugui (潘毓桂) who named her Pan Shuhua (潘淑華). (“Shu”(淑) in Shuhua (淑華) and “Yoshi”(淑) in Yoshiko ( 淑子) are written with the same Chinese character) (the name she uses while attending Beijing Yijiao Girls Prep High School (北京 一角 中学) (college level classes) in Peking ( 北京)! Madame Pan also taught her how to be more Chinese so her classmates wouldn’t bully her for being Japanese. Anti-Japanese was so high that her father ordered her to come back but she refused. Also wanted her to learn traditional Japanese music but also refused. preferred to learn modern jazz/ Mandopop music. So she was more Chinese then Japanese horrifying her Japanese mother as acting unladylike. She felt like a foreigner in Japan after WW2 cuz she never before lived in Japan. Maybe why later in life, she became an outspoken journalist supporting women refugees worldwide like the Palestinians. Yasir Arafat gave her the Palestinian name “Jamila Yamaguchi”and was in Cambodia & Vietnam wearing a Áo dài during the Vietnam war as anti-war. She also interviewed Fusako Shinenobu the leader of the Red Army. (while in Hollywood late 50’s, was refused entry back to the US for having Communist friends). She returned to Japan and after retiring from the world of film in 1958, she appeared as a hostess and anchorwoman on TV talk shows. As a result of her marriage to the Japanese diplomat Hiroshi Ōtaka, she lived for a while in Burma (modern Myanmar) And also ran for office in Japan’s Diet supporting peace between her mother (China) and Japan (father) & supporting redress & apology to the Asian comfort women used by Japanese soldiers WW2 and was vice president to the Asian Woman’s Fund. Visited Beijing China as LDP’s North Korean delegate, 1975 and visited China & Manchuria on environmental issues, 1979.

  7. Grace Pak

    August 2, 2020 at 12:51 am

    Has China decided to ‘rehabilitate’ the legacy of Li Xiang Lan?
    The Communist Party of China and Ministry of Defense of the People’s Republic of China websites both published her life story in five parts.

    The China International Women’s Film Festival in June 2016 at Shenyang Railway Station prominently featured a documentary film on her life by the Taiwanese film-director Chen Meijuin.

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A Baby for Sale, a Mother Chained Up – How Chinese Netizens Are Pushing Specific Social Issues to the Forefront

The stories of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother both developed in real-time while netizens pushed them to the front page, making them too big for state media to ignore.



It only takes a spark to start a wildfire. From Liu Xuezhou to the Xuzhou mother, China’s online spheres have seen multiple major trending topics this year that started with one short video and then caused a social media storm with netizens highlighting and amplifying specific stories to address bigger social problems.

This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yi Magazin: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.

It was December 6th of 2021 when a teenage boy posted a short video on Chinese social media. With a straight back, clear voice, and serious face, he looked directly into the camera and said:

Hello everyone, I am Liu Xuezhou and I am looking for my biological parents. I was born in between 2004 and 2006 and around the age of three months old, I was bought by my parents, my adoptive parents, in Datong in Shanxi. I am healthy. I don’t have any congenital physical defects or diseases; I don’t have any obvious birthmarks or scars. At the age of four, my adoptive parents passed away due to an accident. I am now living in Nangong, Xingtai, in Hebei Province. I study in Shijiazhuang. I wish I’d found my biological parents sooner, to make up for what I missed. I hope you can help me spread my message so that those who suspect they might be my parents can see it.

This video would be the start of a story followed by millions of Chinese netizens. It is the story of Liu Xuezhou (刘学州). The search for his parents and his death became one of the biggest topics on China’s social media of the past months.

Why did the tragic story of one teenage boy capture the entire nation? There are multiple reasons. By posting his call for help in finding his biological parents, Liu involved Chinese netizens in his journey from the start, allowing them to follow his story in real-time through his social media and news reports. Another aspect of Liu’s story is the resilience he showed despite his tough life, something that many admired about him.

But more importantly, Liu’s story is part of a recent broader interest in the stories behind the widespread problem of trafficking in women and children in China, with more people raising awareness on the tragedies caused by these practices and demanding justice for the victims.

Besides Liu’s story, the story of a Xuzhou mother-of-eight being tied up and living in abominable conditions in a shed also dominated online discussions for weeks on end.


Liu’s Story: Sold, Orphaned, Abandoned


After Liu Xuezhou posted the aforementioned video on Douyin, the Chinese version of the popular TikTok short video platform, it soon went viral and various Chinese news sites started reporting on Liu’s search for his biological family.

Liu’s resilience was impressive. In interviews, he said that his story did not define him and that he was determined to make something of his life. Since 2018, the young Liu was working to earn money while also going to school. His plan was to be admitted to university.

Liu Xuezhou, picture posted on his Weibo account.

After his adoptive parents died in a firework explosion, Liu was raised by his grandparents and was sent to boarding school. Liu’s childhood was not a happy one. Being so young without parents, he was a target of school bullies and had to change schools at least four times until, by grade six, he had finally found a school where he could thrive.

Many people supported Liu and wanted to help the teenage boy, who was thought to have been kidnapped as a baby and then bought by his adoptive parents through an intermediary at a Datong hotel for 30,000 yuan ($4735).

Although Liu’s birth certificate said he was born in September of 2005, nobody was sure how old Liu actually was, and his grandparents did not remember the details surrounding his adoption. By late 2021, as a 16-something-year-old, Liu felt it was time to get some answers and find his biological parents. How did he end up being adopted? Was he abducted? Were his parents still out there searching for him?

Through his own efforts – sped up by finding his vaccination records – and with some help of the police, Liu was able to trace down his biological parents. On the evening of December 15, Liu sent a message to a journalist reporting on the case: “I found my mum and dad.”

His parents’ story, however, was not what Liu had expected at all. After DNA tests confirmed that they were in fact his biological parents, Liu was ready to meet them. But what was supposed to be a happy reunion turned out to be a bitter disappointment.

Liu’s biological parents, who were living in Datong, were not together anymore. Liu soon learned that he had not been abducted as a child, but that he had been sold on purpose by his father. His parents were unmarried when they had him, and Liu’s father turned out to have used the money they earned by selling their baby to marry Liu’s birth mother. They married and had another son, but then ended up divorcing. Both remarried again, and Liu’s father even got divorced two more times after that.

Although some of the unhappy circumstances surrounding Liu’s reunion with his parents came out through his posts on social media throughout January of this year, most of the details surrounding his situation only became clear when Liu posted a farewell letter on his Weibo account on January 24th, just a few minutes past midnight.

Liu Xuezhou’s last Weibo post including a farewell letter.

Titled “Born with little, return with nothing,” Liu posted a lengthy letter explaining his situation.

In this letter, Liu said that besides being sold as a child and becoming an orphan at the age of four, he was also severely bullied by classmates and molested by a teacher at school. His aunt, whom he loved as a mother, also left him behind after she moved away due to a broken marriage.

As he spiraled into depression, Liu felt a spark of hope when he saw the news about Sun Zhuo (孙卓), whose story became one of the major trending news stories of 2021. In 2007, when Sun was only four, he was stolen off the street by a human trafficker. His biological parents never gave up hope they would find their son again and sacrificed everything to be able to fund their search efforts. The Chinese film Dearest (亲爱的) was partly based on their story.

After a years-long search, Sun was found in 2021 due to the help of authorities and face recognition technology that helped trace the person suspected of abducting him. In an unexpected twist, Sun stated that he would prefer to stay with his adoptive parents, who had raised him for a decade. The story triggered many online discussions and raised more awareness on the issue of the trafficking of children in China in times of the country’s one-child policy. Sun’s biological father spoke to the media saying: “For 2022, my biggest wish is that all the abducted children can finally be found.”

Image of the reunion of Sun Zhuo with his parents, who never stopped searching for him (image via Sohu).

It was Sun Zhuo’s story that inspired Liu to search for his own parents, and it was also Sun Zhuo’s story that brought more attention for Liu’s initial video, which struck a chord with many who hoped that he could also be reunited with his parents and actually stay with them.

Liu described how his biological father did not seem happy when Liu first contacted him, and seemed reluctant to meet. His biological father eventually did come to see him, but their communication afterward was not smooth. When his father told Liu that he was sold as a baby so that he could pay for the bride price to marry Liu’s mother, Liu was heartbroken and could not sleep for several days: he was not kidnapped, and his parents never searched for him.

Liu and his biological father on December 26, 2021.

His mother also was not elated that her biological son had found his way back to her. Liu felt unwanted, again, and was also searching for a home to live and was not sure who to turn to anymore. After he asked his biological father for help in buying or renting a place to live, he was blocked on WeChat. Liu then decided to take his parents to court.

Sharing screenshots on social media of the developments between him and his parents, Liu was condemned and bullied by netizens, who accused him of only wanting to find his biological parents for financial gains.

It was all too much for the teenage boy. In his farewell letter, he expressed the hope that the traffickers and biological parents would be punished for their deeds. Liu was later found to have committed suicide at a beach in the city of Sanya, and could no longer be rescued. Liu passed away within a month after meeting his biological parents at the age of just 15 years old.

By now, Liu’s farewell letter has been shared approximately 174,000 times on Weibo, it was ‘liked’ over 2,4 million times and has received thousands of comments.

The topic of Liu’s death exploded on social media and led to national outrage. Many people sympathized with the boy and were angry at all who failed him: “Poor child, abandoned and sold off by his parents, bullied and humiliated by his schoolmates, molested and discriminated by his teacher, cyberbullied by keyboard warriors. Now he’s dead!”

The injustice of Liu’s situation – starting with how he was sold as a child – is what angered people most. China Digital Times recently described how on the Weibo page of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the doctors who raised the alarm about the coronavirus outbreak, many people also mention Liu Xuezhou. Dr. Li Wenliang was one of the eight so-called ‘whistleblowers’ who tried to warn his colleagues about the Wuhan virus outbreak in late 2019, but was censored and reprimanded by local police for making “false comments.” He later became infected with the virus himself while working at the Wuhan Central Hospital and passed away on February 7th of 2020, sparking a wave of anger and sadness on social media.

Illustration that went viral on social media at the time of Dr. Li’s death (read more here).

Over the past two years, Dr. Li’s Weibo page has become a digital Wailing Wall where people send little messages to remember Dr. Li, tell about their own anxieties and worries, but also address social injustices. As recorded by China Digital Times, one among thousands of comments said:

Two years ago today, I had a sleepless night because of you, and my Weibo account once got shut down because I posted something about you. Over the past two years, I’ve often wondered: will this world become a better place? But between the Liu Xuezhou incident and the woman in Xuzhou with eight kids, I’ve been disappointed time and time again. If you happen to see Liu Xuezhou, please be good to him.

Looking at Dr. Li’s Weibo account today, it is not just Liu Xuezhou who is brought up by commenters; ‘the woman in Xuzhou’ is also mentioned by dozens of people as someone experiencing injustice. But who is she?


The Chained-Up Mother in Xuzhou


In late January of 2022, right around the same time when Liu Xuezhou was one of the biggest topics on Chinese social media, a TikTok video showing a woman chained up in a shed went viral online and triggered massive outrage with thousands of people demanding answers about the woman’s circumstances.

The video, filmed by a local vlogger in the village of Huankou in Xuzhou, showed how the woman was kept in a dirty hut without a door in the freezing cold. She did not even wear a coat, and she seemed confused and unable to express herself.

Other TikTok videos that came out around the same time showed how the woman’s husband, a man by the name of Dong Zhimin (董志民), was playing and talking with their eight children in the family home right next to the hut where the mother was confined.

The video caused a storm on social media. Many netizens worried about the woman’s circumstances. Why was she chained up? Was she a victim of human trafficking? Was she being abused? How could she have had eight babies? Was she forced to have so many children? While netizens were speculating about the case and venting their anger, Weibo shut down some of the hashtags dedicated to this topic, but the topic soon popped up everywhere, and people started making artworks and writing essays in light of the case.

Following public demands, local authorities started looking into the case. An initial statement by Feng County, where the village of Huankou is located, was issued on January 28 and it said that the woman, named Yang (杨), married her husband in 1998 and that there was no indication that she was a victim of human trafficking.

The woman was dealing with mental problems and would display sudden violent outbursts, beating children and older people. The family allegedly thought it was best to separate her from the family home during these episodes, letting her stay chained up in a small hut next to the house.

The first statement raised more questions than it answered and more people, including influential Weibo bloggers and media insiders, started investigating the case. Meanwhile, it became clear that husband Dong Zhimin was giving interviews to other vloggers flocking to Huankou. Besides talking about his eight children (seven sons, one daughter) as future providers for the family, he also used his newly-acquired ‘fame’ to make money through social media. This only led to more online anger about Dong exploiting his wife and children.

Screenshots from the original Douyin (TikTok) video.

As the social media storm intensified, more official statements ensued. On January 30, Feng County local officials responded to the controversy in a second statement, in which the Xuzhou mother was identified as Yang *Xia (杨某侠) who allegedly once was “a beggar on the streets” in the summer of 1998 when she was taken in by Dong family and ended up marrying their 30-something son Dong Zhimin.

Local officials did not properly check and verify Yang’s identity information when registering the marriage certificate and the local family planning department also made errors in implementing birth control measures and following up with the family. The statement said that Yang had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was now receiving treatment.

A third, fourth, and even fifth statement issued by authorities on February 7th, 10th, and 23rd confirmed what many on Weibo had suspected all along, namely that Yang had indeed been a victim of human trafficking. Xuzhou authorities said their investigation had brought them to the village of Yagu in Yunnan, a place that was mentioned on Yang’s marriage certificate.

Yang was identified as Xiaohuamei (小花梅), born and raised in Yagu. Yang’s DNA had been compared to that of the family of Xiaohuamei, and the DNA match confirmed that Yang was indeed Xiaohuamei. According to the statements, Xiaohuamei married and moved to another city in 1994, but she divorced and returned to her village two years later, which is when she allegedly also showed signs of mental illness.

Her parents, now deceased, then allegedly ordered a female fellow villager to take their daughter to Jiangsu to get married there. According to the woman, she took Xiaohuamei with her on a train from Yunnan to Jiangsu’s Donghai, but she allegedly ‘went missing’ shortly after arrival. The woman never reported her as missing to the police and she never notified the family.

That woman, along with another man and Dong Zhimin, are now held criminally responsible for illegal detainment and human trafficking. Xiaohuamei was reportedly sold to a man in Donghai for 5,000 yuan ($790) in 1998. Though Xiaohuamei managed to escape, she was sold twice again, eventually ending up with the Dong family.

One of the many images shared on Chinese social media to raise awareness of the case of the Xuzhou mother and other women like her.

While details surrounding the case of the ‘chained Xuzhou mother of eight’ are still being discussed on Chinese social media, it has become clear that by now, ‘Yang’ has come to represent many more women like her. Over the past few weeks, the stories of other women who also might be a victim of human trafficking have surfaced, and the public outcry demanding justice for trafficked women is ongoing.


One Social Media Spark Starting a Wildfire


Both in the case of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother, it should be noted that their stories initially did not catch the public’s attention because official news media reported them, but because of first-hand videos being posted on TikTok (Douyin) and then being picked up and shared by bigger accounts.

Both Liu’s video and the short video featuring the mother of eight were posted on accounts that were not necessarily very popular: starting as a small spark in an online environment with over 900 million social media users, they were shared, commented on, and then spread like wildfire.

Both stories developed in real-time while netizens were following the case, both stories eventually became too big for Chinese state media to ignore, and both Liu and Yang highlighted bigger social issues in contemporary China, mainly those relating to human trafficking.

Since these cases went viral, there has been a heightened focus on the problem of human trafficking, which mostly occurs in China’s poorer areas with weak governance. The trafficking of especially women and children has various purposes, including forced marriage and illegal adoption in areas where there is a shortage of women (along with a preference for baby boys).

China Daily recently reported that lawmakers and advisers are now pushing for heavier punishment for human trafficking crimes, suggesting that the current penalties imposed on the buyers of women and children are too weak; the maximum prison sentence for those who purchase abducted women and children is three years.

In the case of the Xuzhou mother, there has been online censorship but the ongoing intense public outrage eventually did lead to higher-level research into the case. The mother was rescued from her terrible situation, the human traffickers involved are being held responsible, and so are 17 officials, who will be punished by authorities for their wrongdoings in the case.

As for Liu Xuezhou, his adoptive family members have recently filed a request at the Sanya Public Security Bureau to launch another investigation into his case. Their request was accepted on February 23rd, with multiple people being suspected of criminal offenses, eventually leading to his death. On Weibo, many people are now demanding punishment for Liu’s biological parents.

In late January of this year, following the tragic ending to Liu’s story, Chinese state media1 emphasized how the widespread attention for these kinds of stories in the social media era is also changing how government agencies should interact with the public.

According to Dr. Liu Leming, associate professor at East China University’s Political Science faculty, government agencies need to follow up and respond more quickly to social incidents like these in the internet era: “When public issues emerge, people who are involved in social problems or incidents want to know, more than anything, whether their requests have been seen and who will handle their concerns.”

In light of these recent stories, the public is happy that actions have been taken, but they are not satisfied with how these cases were handled. Many argue that authorities have failed in being transparent, that local governments have not done enough to prevent these cases from happening, and that China should do more to put an end to human trafficking.

And so, they are still posting the stories of children like Liu and women like Xiaohuamei to keep raising awareness and to keep pressuring local authorities and lawmakers to take more action to eradicate these practices.

As Liu is no longer alive and Xiaohuamei, still hospitalized, cannot defend herself, Chinese netizens keep raising their voices for them. In doing so, they have not just impacted how authorities dealt with these specific cases, but they are also changing how cases such as these will be handled in the future.

One Weibo user discussing Liu and the Xuzhou mother wrote: “We need to get to the bottom of these kinds of stories: who is to blame, who made mistakes, and where do we go from here?”

In the meantime, online posts, videos, and artworks honor both Liu and Xiaohuamei, so that their stories will not be forgotten. “Dear little one, springtime has come,” one among thousands of messages still flooding Liu Xuezhou’s Weibo page says: “You have endured too many things that you should have never experienced. It should have been us, the adults, taking care of these things for you. You please go and rest now, we will finish the rest for you.”

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

For information and support on mental health and suicide, international helplines can be found at

1 Cao Yin and Li Yang. 2022. “Policymakers, Lawmakers Respond to Opinion Voiced Online.” China Daily Hong Kong, January 28, Page 1-2.

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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Full Translation of Peng Shuai’s Weibo Post and Timeline of Events



Over the past seven weeks, the whereabouts and safety of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai have been a matter of constant concern in international (social) media. Here is a timeline of events and a full translation of the Weibo post by Peng Shuai – where it all began.

On the night of November 2nd of 2021, a Weibo post by the 35-year-old Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai (彭帅) sent shockwaves across social media. In her lengthy post, the three-time Olympian describes details surrounding an alleged affair she had with the 75-year-old Zhang Gaoli (张高丽), who served as China’s senior Vice-Premier (2013-2018) and was also a member of China’s highest ruling council, the Politburo Standing Committee (2012-2017).

Here, we will give you a short timeline of the things that unfolded from the moment Peng Shuai’s story was published on Weibo, as well as providing the full text of her post and a translation.


Timeline of Events


November 2nd, 2021

On the night of November 2nd of 2021, 35-year-old tennis player Peng Shuai posts her story on her Weibo account, where she has over 590,000 followers. The post comes online at 22:07 and is sent through a mobile phone.

Although Peng’s post was only online for about twenty minutes before it was deleted, its impact was irreversible. Peng Shuai’s Weibo account remained online, but the name ‘Peng Shuai’ started to be censored on Weibo and other Chinese social media platforms, where online discussions about the tennis player and Zhang Gaoli were soon silenced. Peng Shuai’s post and the ensuing silence triggered a wave of global concern about her wellbeing and whereabouts.

November 3, 2021

Peng Shuai’s story makes headlines in the international media, with many Western media outlets describing the issue as a “#MeToo allegation.” within the context of the global #MeToo movement, suggesting Peng’s post was a “MeToo post.” The tennis star did not mention ‘#Metoo’ in her own writings.

November 16, 2021

Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka attracts more international attention for Peng’s whereabouts when she posts the #WhereisPengShuai hashtag on Twitter. Two days later, tennis star Serena Williams also writes on Twitter: “I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”

November 17, 2021

While the issue is still completely silenced in Chinese (social) media, the English-language state media outlet CGTN addresses the commotion on Twitter on November 17, when they share a screenshot of an email allegedly sent by Peng to WTA Chairman Steve Simon, saying she was not actually missing and not unsafe.

November 19, 2021

While many people still raised their concerns on Twitter – and a White House spokesperson even said the Biden administration was ‘deeply concerned’ about the reports alleging that Peng Shuai had gone missing – photos of Peng Shuai in her home showed up on November 19th, posted on Twitter by Chinese journalist Shen Shiwei (沈诗伟) claiming the tennis star posted them on her WeChat moments herself.

November 20, 2021

One day later, a video was also shared on Twitter by the same Shen, showing Peng enjoying dinner with friends and having conversations in which it was clearly indicated that the date was November 20, 2021.

November 21, 2021

During that very same weekend of November 20-21, Peng also reappeared in public when she attended the Junior Tennis Finals in Beijing. This was also the very first time in 19 days that she ‘reappeared’ in mainland China’s online media spheres, where photos of her attendance at the games were also shared online.

On that same day, it was announced by the Olympics governing body that International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach held a 30-minute long video phone call with Peng Shuai. Chinese sports official Li Lingwei and the Chair of the Athletes’ Commission, Emma Terho, reportedly were also on the call, during which Peng explained that she was safe and well at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected.

November 22, 2021

A Weibo post published by the French embassy in Beijing marks the first time for Peng Shuai’s case to be addressed on Chinese social media.

In their post, the French embassy expresses concerns about the lack of information surrounding Peng Shuai, and reiterates its belief in promoting freedom of expression, equality between men and women, and combating sexual and gender-based violence. The post receives many replies, but its comment section is heavily censored.

December 1st, 2021

The WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) announces the suspension of all tournaments in China amid concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai.

In a statement by Steve Simon, WTA Chairman & CEO, the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, was said to also be related to concerns about risks that all players and staff could face if the WTA were to hold events in China in 2022.

Due to the Covid19 situation, there were no WTA events scheduled for China in the near future.

December 7, 2021

The US announces a “diplomatic boycott” of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China. American athletes will still compete at the Winter Games. Although this boycott was not necessarily directed linked to Peng Shuai, many media outlets did connect it to concerns over the tennis player.

December 19, 2021

In an interview with Singapore-based media outlet Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报), Peng Shuai claims she did not accuse Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her.

A video issued by Lianhe Zaobao shows a reporter asking Peng questions during a skiing competition event in Shanghai, where Peng could be seen talking to Chinese basketball player Yao Ming. When the reporter asks Peng if she is free, she answers that she has always been free and is not being monitored.

When the reporter addresses the allegations of sexual assault, Peng says:

First and foremost, I must emphasize. I have never said or written about anyone sexually assaulting me. That’s a very important point. On the Weibo post, that’s my personal issue.”

Peng also confirms that the English email that was screenshotted and published by CGTN on November 17 was written by her in the Chinese version, but that it was translated into English for her since her English language skills aren’t good enough to write such an email herself.


Full Text Translation of Peng Shuai’s Weibo Post


In a previous post, What’s on Weibo gave a partial translation of Peng’s Weibo post. Here, we will provide a full translation. Please note that this is a translation provided by What’s on Weibo and not an official translation issued by any other party.



I know I can’t say it clearly and that it’s useless to say. But I want to say it anyway. I’m such a hypocrite. I’ll admit I’m not a good girl, I’m a bad bad girl. About three years ago, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you had retired and asked Dr. Liu from the Tianjin Tennis Center to contact me again to play tennis at the Kang Ming Hotel in Beijing. After we finished playing in the afternoon, you and your wife Kang Jie took me with you to your home. You then took me to your room, and like what happened in Tianjin over ten years ago, you wanted to have sex with me.


I was very scared that afternoon, I had not expected things to go this way, someone was guarding outside,1 because nobody would believe that a wife would allow this. Seven years earlier we had sexual relations once, and then you – promoted as a member of the Standing Committee – went to Beijing and never contacted me again. I had buried it all inside me, and since you were not planning on taking responsibility at all, why did you come and look for me again, take me to your house, and force me [逼 = force, press for] into sex? I have no proof, and it would be impossible for me to keep any evidence. You denied everything afterward, but it is true that you liked me first, or otherwise, I wouldn’t have had a way to come into contact with you.


That afternoon I originally did not agree and cried the whole time, and I still had dinner with you and auntie Kang Jie together. You said the universe is so big, that the earth is just a grain of sand in the universe, and that we as mankind are not even a grain of sand, and you said a lot more to alleviate the load on my mind. After dinner I still did not want to, and you said you hated me! You also said that in these seven years, you never forgot me and that you would be good for me etc etc. I was afraid and panicked and carrying the emotions of seven year ago, I agreed…yes, we had sex.


The feelings between two people can be very complicated, I can’t clearly explain, [but] after that day I again began to open up to your love. In the days I interacted with you afterward, purely from how we got along, you were a very good person and also treated me well. We would talk about anything from modern history to ancient times, you spoke to me about so much knowledge and talked about economic philosophy, [we had] endless talks about topics. We played chess together, sang songs, played ping pong, billiards, and, including tennis, we could always have a good time. Our personalities got along well together, it looked like we were a great match.


Since I left home early in my childhood, I felt a lack of love in my heart. Facing everything that was happening, I never thought I was a good girl. I really hated myself, hated why I had to come into this world and experience this disaster. You told me that you loved me, very very much, and that in the next life you hoped to meet me when you are 20 and I am 18 years old. You said you were very lonely, that you felt miserable, we had days of endless chats, endless talks, you said there was no way for you to divorce in your position, that if we’d met while you were in Shandong, you could have still divorced, but that there was no way now. I thought about staying with you like this without attracting public attention, which was okay in the beginning, but the days slowly started to change, and there was too much injustice and insult. Every time you let me go, your wife would say many offensive insulting words to me behind your back, [giving me] all kinds of sneers. When I said I like to eat duck tongue, auntie Kang Jie would go and say ~ ugh, how disgusting. During Beijing’s winter smog, I said sometimes the air is not very good, and auntie Kang Jie would tell me ‘that’s just your suburbs, we do not notice a thing here.’ And so on, there were many of such talks, but she would never do it when you were there. It was similar to when we were together – when it was just the two of us you’d be this way, when there were others there you’d act that way. I told you that these kinds of words were really painful to hear.


From the first day I met you up to today, I’ve never used a penny of yours, and I’ve never used you for any personal benefits, but a person’s status is very important. I deserved all of this, I courted disaster. From beginning to end, you have always asked me to keep my relationship with you secret, let alone tell my mother that we were in a relationship. Every time she brought me to the Xishiku cathedral, I would have to change to your car to be able to enter the courtyard. She always thought I was going to your place to play mahjong and cards. We were transparent individuals in each other’s lives. Your wife seemed like the Empress in Empresses of the Palace (甄嬛传), and I can’t describe how bad I felt, and how many times I wondered if I was still an actual person myself. I felt like a zombie, I was pretending so much every day that I didn’t know who the real me was anymore. I shouldn’t have come into this world, but I didn’t have the courage to die. I wanted to live a simpler life, but things turned out contrary to what I wanted.”


There was a big dispute on the night of the 30th [October], and you told me to come to your place on the afternoon of the 2nd [November] so we could talk things over. Today a phone call came that something had come up and you’d contact me again. Evading everything, with the excuse that we would get in touch another day ……, this is the same “disappearing act” as seven years ago, getting rid of me after you’re done playing with me. You said there were no transactions between us, that’s true, with all the feelings and money between us, it had nothing to do with power and wealth. But I have nowhere to leave my feelings of the past three years, it’s very hard to face. You were always afraid that I would bring some kind of recorder and leave evidence or something. Apart from myself, there is indeed no evidence left, no recordings, no videos, only my distorted real experiences. I know that for someone of your status, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid. But even it’s like striking a stone with an egg, and courting self-destruction like a moth to the flame, I will tell the truth about you. With your intelligence, I’m certain you will deny it or you can blame it on me, or disregard it. You always said you hoped your mother in heaven could bless and protect you. I am a bad woman who doesn’t deserve to be a mother, but you are a father with both a son and a daughter. I have asked you this before: if it was your adopted daughter, would you have forced her to do this? Do you still have the courage to face your mother after everything you’ve done in your lifetime? We sure all like to pose as people with high morals…


By Manya Koetse

1 There’s been some discussions on the correct translation of this part of the sentence (“一个人在外帮守着”). One of our readers suggested translating it as “an outsider fending for herself,” although others dispute that translation. “A person guarding outside” is another way to translate this sentence: “I was very scared that afternoon, I had not expected things to go this way, a person on guard outside, because nobody would believe that a wife would allow this.”

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

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