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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.

Manya Koetse



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. Avatar


    September 14, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    Mooie vrouw, fascinerende achtergrond. Bedankt voor het artikel!

  2. Avatar


    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.

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    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!

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    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.

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    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”).

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    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.

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    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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Explainer: Ten Key Terms and Concepts of the 20th CPC National Congress

Take a look at the essential keywords and concepts surrounding the 20th Party Congress.

Manya Koetse



What are the key terms and concepts mentioned in Xi Jinping’s speech that are propagated all over Chinese social media this week? Here, we explain ten important concepts and keywords that you are probably going to see much more of in the coming five years.

It is the week of the 20th CPC National Congress, China’s quinquennial major political event that is all about discussing and deciding on important Party issues, appointing Party leadership and officially announcing new governance concepts, thoughts and strategies proposed by the CPC Central Committee.

The Party Congress opened on Sunday, October 16, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered his nearly two-hour-long speech reflecting on the recent past and the future of the Communist Party and the country at large, signalling the direction China will be heading.

In our earlier article covering Xi Jinping’s speech, we focused on how Chinese official channels turned parts of the work report into hashtags that were promoted on social media and then became trending topics.

Here, we will go over some of the terms and words that were used in the political report delivered by Xi and were propagated on Chinese social media as ‘key terms’ through general hashtags such as “Understanding These Key Terms from the 20th Party Congress Report,” “Studying the Essence of the 20th Party Congress” or “The New Era and Journey of the 20th Party Congress” (#看懂二十大报告中这些关键词#, #学习二十大精神#, #党的二十大新时代新征程#).

During the 19th CPC National Congress in 2017, Party newspaper People’s Daily published a vocabulary list containing 100 relevant words and terms. That list included terms such as “5G Era” (5G时代), “Sharing Economy” (分享经济), “The 20th anniversary of Hong-Kong’s return to China” (香港回归祖国20周年), “Made in China 2025” (中国制造2025), and other key terms that were deemed relevant in 2017 for China’s nearing future.

This Congress, there has not been a comparable official vocabulary list, but there have been various shorter lists and hashtags encouraging netizens to study key terms that are important to this year’s Congress and the Party goals. Many of these terms are visualized in infographics or explained in online posts and articles.

We’ve gathered some of these key terms from Xi’s speech here that are important to understand, not just for the fact that they are mentioned in Xi’s speech but also because they are specifically highlighted by various official channels.


1. Modernizing the Chinese Way 中国式现代化

This concept was mentioned at least five times throughout Xi Jinping’s address and it is one of most important themes of this Party Congress: “Chinese modernization” or “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化 Zhōngguóshì xiàndàihuà).

While the 19th Party Congress was all about China’s ‘new era’ (新时代), this 20th Party Congress term grasps the idea of further modernizing the country in a ‘Chinese way,’ meaning a type of modernization in which typically Chinese features and characteristics (“中国特色”) are maintained.

This is a relatively new term. A tool that shows searches on the Chinese search engine Baidu indicates that it did not receive any significant amount of searches before spiking during the week 20th Party Congress.

Baidu trend search shows that the term “Chinese-style modernizarion” “中国式现代化” did not receive any significant searches before October 2022.

The concept, however, did pop up in Chinese official media discourse since late 2021, such as in one article published by Xinhua News on September 27 in 2021 titled “Grasping the Main Features of the New Path of Chinese-Style Modernization” (把握中国式现代化新道路的主要特征)

The idea of Chinese-style modernization is closely related to other key concepts such as “common prosperity for all” (全体人民共同富裕 quántǐ rénmín gòngtóng fùyù) and “harmony between humanity and nature” (人与自然和谐共生 rén yǔ zìrán héxié gòngshēng).


2. The Central Mission 中心任务

The term “central mission” (中心任务 zhōngxīn rènwù) was mentioned at least once in Xi Jinping’s address to convey how the central task of the CPC is to “unite and lead the people of all nationalities to build a strong socialist modern country,” and to “promote the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation with Chinese-style modernization.”

Although the term “central mission” itself is not particularly tied to the 20th Party Congress at all, it is now because of how it is being used in the new context of the Party’s ‘main goal’ in China’s ‘new era.’ People’s Daily also promoted a hashtag including this term: “The Communist Party of China’s Central Task from Now On” (#从现在起中国共产党的中心任务#”).


3. Top Priority 第一要务

The key term ‘top priority’ (第一要务 dì yī yàowù) refers to the Party pursuing the kind of “high-quality development” (“高质量发展”) that will lead to the further modernization of the country.

“High-quality development” was also mentioned in the 19th Party Congress report in 2017 to indicate a shift and a new phase in China’s economic development from a focus on high-speed growth to a focus on more high-quality development, which is also outlined in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).

This means, among others, that there will be more focus on innovation-driven industries and technological advancement.


4. The “Two-Steps” Strategy “两步走”战略安排

In the segment of Xi’s speech where he addresses China-style modernization in the new era, he also mentions the “two steps” strategy (“两步走”战略安排 “liǎng bù zǒu” zhànlüè ānpái). This is not a new term and it has been previously introduced as part of China’s journey to becoming a strong, rejuvenated country – making China great again.

The two steps of this strategy are to realize ‘socialist modernization’ by 2035 and then to enter the next phase from 2035-2050 to build China into a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and beautiful socialist modernization country.” The year 2049 will mark the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, and this is the moment when China’s “great rejuvenation” should be completed.


5. The Road to Follow 必由之路

At the end of Xi Jinping’s speech, he mentioned “the road to follow” (必由之路, bìyóuzhīlù) five times. On social media, the “road to follow” has been reiterated multiple times as well by official channels, including in a propaganda video published by CCTV.

The five ‘roads to follow’ mentioned in the Party Congress and in the state media videos are the following that are together presented as “the only road” the country and the Party must take. They are all linked together and are actually somewhat circular, namely:

– to develop socialism with Chinese characteristics, they must adhere to the overall leadership of the Party
– to achieve the “great rejuvenation” of China they must stick to socialism with Chinese characterics
– to reach this historic undertaking, they must be united in struggle
– to allow China to grow and develop in the ‘new era,’ they must implement the new concepts for development
– to be able to take this new road together & keep the Party full of vitality, they must follow the way of comprehensive and strict Party governance


6. Building Beautiful China 建设美丽中国

In the 20th CPC National Congress report, the idea of “building beautiful China” (建设美丽中国, jiànshè měilì Zhōngguó) was mentioned in the segment dedicated to the “green development” of China as part of its overall modernization. This includes environmental protection, pollution control, carbon reduction, and climate change awareness.

‘Beautiful China’ as a concept was first introduced during the 18th Party Congress in November of 2012 as part of China’s long-term environmental protection plan within the context of people’s welfare and the future of China.


7. Whole-process People’s Democracy 全过程人民民主

This concept of ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ (全过程人民民主, quán guòchéng rénmín mínzhǔ) is mentioned at least five times in Xi Jinping’s 20th Party Congress speech and it is one of the political concepts and terms proposed by Xi himself as part of Xi Jinping’s Socialist Thought with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. It was mentioned in the speech Xi gave during the celebration of the Party’s 100-year anniversary in 2021.

This so-called ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ is officially presented as a ‘process-oriented’ democracy that, despite being different from Western democracy, supposedly “covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society” through a combination of elections, consultations, decision-making, management and oversight.

This idea of China having its own particular kind of democracy – or perhaps having invented a Chinese version of what ‘democracy’ actually means – also suits the idea of Chinese-style modernization, in which China’s path to the future will not be like the route Western countries are taking, but instead combining modernization with Chinese features.


8. Socialist Culture 社会主义文化

‘Socialist Culture’ (社会主义文化, shèhuì zhǔyì wénhuà) comes up at least four times in the 20th Party Congress report. The term represents a cultural side of China’s modernization, and emphasizes that, in order to build a strong socialist country, there must also be a strong socialist culture.

Although not explicitly stated, official media propaganda inescapably plays an important part in the cultivation of a strong ‘socialist culture’ that is all about cultural self-confidence, cultural innovation, creativity, and ‘spiritual energy.’

At time of writing, the Baidu Trends tool did not have enough information to show any relevant data on the search engine interest in this particular term, but the idea of ‘socialist culture’ is by no means a new one. “Socialist culture with Chinese characteristics” was already proposed by Jiang Zemin (江泽民) at the 15th CPC National Congress in 1997.

The idea that building a strong socialist culture is important for the further development of China has been further cultivated over the past few years under Xi’s leadership. Also read this article in English titled “How to build a strong socialist culture” in Qiushi, the CPC Central Committee bimonthly.


9. Improve the Distribution System 完善分配制度

This phrase comes up once in the part of the 20th Party System report that disusses a fairer economic system with more equal employment & income opportunities and regulated wealth accumulation, encouraging hard work to get rich.

Although it is the first time that a regulation of wealth accumulation has come up in this way (and it is not explained what this actually means), the idea behind these concepts of the distribution system and wealth accumulation standardization is that of ‘common prosperity,’ one of the most important concepts guiding China’s recent policymaking.

‘Improve the distribution system’ (完善分配制度, wánshàn fēnpèi zhìdù) was explicilty mentioned as one of the key concepts for this week’s meeting by various channels, but it mainly is ‘the regulation of wealth accumulation’ that is featured in social media hashtags (#中国将规范财富积累机制#).


10. Focus 着力点

Many of the words or phrases propagated as ‘key terms’ for this 20th Party Congress are insignificant by themselves but are merely used to represent a bigger body of thoughts. The aforementioned “Top Priority,” “Central Mission,” and “Road to Follow” are all just words that only mean something within the context of Xi Jinping’s speech.

Another example is “Major Principles” (“重大原则” zhòngdà yuánzé) which is also included by CCTV in this list of most important keywords, but which actually just goes back to the same ideas that are referred to in the other terms, namely strengthing the overall leadership of the Party, adhering to the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics, emphasizing people-centered ideology, etc. – which is similar to the idea behind the “Road to Follow” (必由之路) keyword.

Explanation of ‘Major Principle’ concept in English and Chinese by People’s Daily, posted on Weibo.

Then there is the keyword “focus,” 着力点 (zhuólìdiǎn), which is about the focus of China’s economic development.

In China’s coming years, the economic focus should be placed on the real economy (实体经济). This literally is also a hashtag promoted on Weibo by CCTV this week (“Put the Focus of Economic Development on the Real Economy” #把发展经济的着力点放在实体经济上#).

Different from the Financial Economy, the Real Economy is the realm of economy that is about businesses, production, and the direct exchange/purchase of goods or services.

Also part of this ‘focus’ is China’s new industrialization, manufacturing, product quality, aerospace, transportation, new technology, and digital China. Another related term that is proposed as one of the keywords of this Party Congress is ‘innovation’ (创新, chuàngxīn).

Please check in with us again this week as we will keep an eye on social media trends surrounding the CPC National Congress. Don’t forget to subscribe. For previous posts on the Party Congress, check here.

By Manya Koetse 


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“Guarding the Green Horse” – How China’s Health Code System Provided Solutions and Generated Problems

The Health Code system and the ‘Green Horse’ meme have become part of everyday life in a zero-Covid China.

Manya Koetse



Since 2020, China’s Health Code apps have become utterly ingrained in everyday life as a pivotal tool in the country’s ongoing fight against Covid-19. What is the health code system, what are its implications, and why have so many Chinese netizens become obsessed with holding on to their ‘green horse’?


This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, forthcoming publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yì Magazin here.


There is the Grass Mud Horse,1 the River Crab,2 and now another mythical animal is living in China’s social media jungle: the Green Horse. The Green Horse is a cute bright green horse-like animal, a treasured creature that will protect you during your travels and keep you safe from quarantines and lockdowns at a time of China’s zero-Covid policy. The Green Horse will watch over you, but in return, you have to do everything you can to defend it.

‘Green Horse’ in Chinese is 绿马 lǜmǎ, which sounds exactly the same as the word for ‘green code’ (绿码), referring to the green QR code in China’s Covid health apps, which have become a part of everyday life in China since 2020. In a social media environment where homophones and online puns are popular and ubiquitous, it did not take long for the ‘green code’ to turn into the ‘green horse.’

The Green Horse, image via Weibo.

China’s health code system was designed as a solution to resume work and daily life during the pandemic and is widely praised in the country as a pivotal tool in combating the spread of the virus. But it has also given rise to new problems and has triggered resistance against a new kind of digital governance.




In February of 2020, when China was in the midst of the fierce battle against the novel coronavirus, the country’s tech giants competed over who would be the first and the most efficient in providing digital solutions to aid the anti-epidemic fight.

Within eight weeks after the start of the initial Wuhan Covid outbreak, Alibaba (on Alipay) and Tencent (on WeChat) developed and introduced the ‘Health Code’ (jiànkāngmǎ 健康码), a system that gives individuals colored QR codes based on their exposure risk to Covid-19 and serves as an electronic ticket to enter and exit public spaces, restaurants, offices buildings, etc., and to travel from one area to another.

Scanning a green code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

Hangzhou, Alibaba’s hometown, and Shenzhen, Tencent’s home base, were the first cities in China to introduce the Health Code in early February of 2020, and other cities soon followed in collaboration with either Tencent or Alipay. By late February, a nationwide health code system was first embedded in WeChat (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Now, people can receive their Covid-19 QR codes via ‘mini programs’ in Alipay or WeChat, or via other provincial government service apps. Apart from the personal health code apps, there is also the ‘Telecommunications Big Data Travel Card’ (通信大数据行程卡), better known as the ‘green arrow code,’ which tracks users’ travel history and is also available inside WeChat or can be downloaded as a standalone app. Its goal is to track if you’ve been to any medium or high-risk areas over the past 14 days.

The Green Arrow Code is used to track people’s travel history of past 14 days (Image via 人民视觉).

The health code system is not as centralized as you might expect it to be. Instead, it is fragmented and sometimes complicated. There are basically two kinds of Health Codes in China. One is the ‘Health Information Code’ (防疫健康信息码) provided by China’s national government service platform (link) which can also be used by those without mainland ID cards (including people from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan).

The other kind of Health Code, which is the one that is most used across China, is the local version of the health code system provided by each province/municipality. There are at least 31 different regional health code applications, from Beijing’s ‘Health Kit’ (北京健康宝) to Shanghai’s ‘Suishenma’ (随申码), from Jiangsu’s ‘Sukang Code’ (苏康码) to Anhui’s ‘Ankang Code’ (安康码). There are sometimes also separate health code apps being used within one province (e.g. in Shenzhen both the local Shen-i-nin 深i您 app as well as the Yuekang Code 粤康码 are being used).

These local Covid health apps are developed by different provinces and cities, and they are not always compatible with each other. This means that those traveling to different provinces or municipalities need to go through the inconvenient process of applying for different local health code apps depending on where they go. Although one single centralized system has been proposed ever since 2020, the process to unify the system is not easy since the various apps have varying functions and are managed by different local government departments (JKSB 2022; Lai 2022). In early September of 2022, China’s National Health Commission announced that it was working with relevant departments to improve the interoperability and mutual recognition of health apps across the country.

Do you get a Green, Yellow, or Red QR code? That all depends on personal information, self-reported health status, Covid-19 test results, travel history, and more – the health code system operates by accessing numerous databases. The Green color means you’re safe (low-risk) and have free movement, the Yellow code (mid-risk) requires self-isolation and the Red color code is the most feared one: it means you either tested positive or are at high risk of infection. With a red code, you won’t have access to any public places and will have to go into mandatory quarantine. Once the quarantine is finished and you’ve consecutively tested negative, the code will switch back to green again.

Three color codes in the Health Code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

By the end of 2020, around 900 million Chinese citizens were using Health Code apps and although there are no official records of the latest numbers, virtually anyone visiting or traveling anywhere within China will now use the health code system. Besides keeping records of your latest nucleic acid test results, the Health Code app also includes Covid vaccination records since 2021.




Despite the efficiency of China’s health code system, it has not been without controversy. One major issue is that it basically forces Chinese citizens to have a smartphone and to download and properly use these apps. This creates a problem for younger children, those without access to smartphones, or those with lower levels of digital skills, including senior citizens.

Although the use of smartphones, the internet, and QR codes are widespread in China, where mobile payments are far more common than cash, more than 60% of Chinese aged 60 years and over still did not use the internet in June of 2020. In China’s ‘Zero-Covid’ era, it is becoming almost impossible for China’s digital illiterate to live a ‘normal’ life.

Chinese authorities have attempted to simplify things for Chinese seniors by making platforms more user-friendly and introducing alternative ways to enter venues, such as offline codes. But at a time when systems differ per region and some venues do not have the tools to check offline (paper) codes, many elderly still struggle (see Gu & Fan 2022).

“They did nucleic acid testing in my grandma’s community compound today,” one woman from Shanxi writes on Weibo: “There are many elderly people in my grandma’s area, and I saw that so many of them had no smartphones, just senior mobile phones, but now they have to swipe a code to make an appointment for testing. One grandpa asked a staff member what to do without a smartphone, they just said it would be better to bring your son or daughter to do it for you. But all results also are processed digitally, so there’s no way for them to see it, and it’s really not easy for them to go to public places.”

On Chinese social media, there are many stories showing the difficult situations that some senior residents are caught up in because they do not have a smartphone or do not know how to get a Health Code.

In August of 2022, there was one viral story about an elderly man from Shandong walking ten kilometers every day because he could not take the bus without a health app. There was also another story about a visually impaired Hengyang resident who was unable to set up the code and was barred from using public transport. In May, a 70-year-old man got stuck inside the Wuxi train station for three days because he had no smartphone and had to scan a code in order to leave.

In another video that went viral, an old man got on a bus in Shanghai but had a hard time using his mobile phone to do the ‘venue check-in’ (场所码). When the bus driver got impatient, the man eventually got off the bus, saying he felt bad about delaying the other passengers.

“Heartlessness is scarier than the epidemic,” some Weibo commenters wrote in response.




Another problem that concerns netizens in this Health Code era is that the code could pose an infringement of privacy and could be abused to limit citizens’ freedom of movement for reasons that are unrelated to Covid-19. There are still unclarities surrounding the app, such as what kind of information is exactly being collected, who is authorized to access the data, and how the data is processed and stored (Zhang 2022, 2).

Some people complain on social media that they do not understand why their Health Code is changing colors: “After I did a Covid test the other day, my Health Code was green. The day after, I woke up to a yellow code and after I had done my nucleic acid test again, it was still yellow. On the third day, it turned green. In the afternoon it turned yellow again. On day four, it was green again. Besides doing tests, I’ve been at home all this time. I’m stupefied.”

One incident where people who came to the city of Zhengzhou to protest suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red sparked major outrage on Chinese social media in June.

Earlier this year, thousands of Chinese depositors struggled to recover their savings in light of a major banking scandal in Henan Province. When dozens of affected depositors traveled to the provincial capital of Zhengzhou in June of 2022 to demand their money back, they suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red. The red code was unexpected and strange, considering that there were no new reported Covid cases in their vicinity. Accompanying family members who made the exact same journey reportedly did not see their Health Codes change, raising suspicions that the duped depositors were specifically targeted and that their Health Codes were being manipulated.

“Who is in charge of changing the Health Code colors?” became a much-asked question on social media platform Weibo, with many blaming local Henan authorities for abusing their power and trying to stop rural protesters from raising their voices in Zhengzhou. Although Henan authorities claimed they did “not understand” what had happened, five local officials were later punished for their involvement in assigning red codes to bank depositors without authorization (Wu 2022).

The incident sparked more discussions on the legal and privacy risks surrounding the health code system. Although many people in China support the use of Health Code apps (also see Chen et al), there is also a fear that a lack of transparency and management could allow the health code system to turn into a surveillance tool used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

The influential media commentator Hu Xijin also gave his view on the matter, saying that Health Codes across the country should only be used for “pure epidemic prevention purposes.”

“The fact that Henan can make the health codes turn red of people who come to the city to protest says a lot about the power of the IT,” one Weibo tech blogger wrote. Another Weibo user wrote: “As ordinary people, we have voluntarily given up too much of our personal privacy and rights in order to cooperate with the epidemic prevention. The current abuse and misuse of health codes have caused serious infringement on the legal rights of citizens (..) The state should quickly incorporate health codes into a unified system and place it under strict management, and once the epidemic is over, the health code system should stop running immediately.”




But will the Health Code and the ‘Green Horse’ ever disappear from daily life in China? And if so, how would the collected data be handled? Although the pandemic era is not over yet (and the question remains what would qualify as ‘the end’), local Chinese governments and tech firms are already looking to see how the health code system could be implemented and how its uses could be expanded in a post-pandemic future (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Back in 2020, the China Healthcare platform (健康界) already published an article exploring the post-pandemic use of the health code system as a digital health passport and information system that could continue to play a significant role in medical care, social security, public transportation, and tourism.

On social media, some people worry that the health code system – and everything that comes with it – is here to stay indefinitely. One Henan-based blogger wrote: “In the future, I hope my son will visit my grave and tell me, ‘dad, now we no longer need our Health Code, nucleic tests or masks when we go to the malls and take trains or airplanes.'”

“If I would wake up tomorrow in a world without health codes, travel codes, Covid tests, lockdowns, wouldn’t that be great,” another person wrote on Weibo, another netizen adding: “My health code is normal. My nucleic acid test is normal. It’s just my mental state that has become abnormal.”

The fears of receiving a ‘Red Code’ are also palpable. Earlier in summer, videos showed people in Shanghai fleeing out of a local mall once they heard that someone in the building had received notice of an abnormal test result.  The same happened at a local IKEA store. Afraid of Health Codes turning red and getting locked in, people rushed to get out as soon as possible. Some even compared the scenes to a ‘zombie apocalypse.’

People fleeing from a local IKEA store after someone in the building got an abnormal test result.

Although there are serious concerns regarding the health code system, social media users also make light of it through the ‘Green Horse’ meme. The phrase “Bàozhù lǜmǎ” (抱住绿码/马) is often used on Chinese social media, a wordplay meant to mean both “Keep your code green” as well as “Hold on to your Green Horse.”

Selection of ‘Holding on to the Green Horse’ memes.

Following the trend, Wuhan set up a giant green horse at a public square in the city, which soon became a popular place for people to take selfies. The meme is also a profitable one for businesses. On Chinese e-commerce sites, you’ll find there are ‘Green Horse’ keychains, stickers, toys, mooncakes, and coffee mugs.

Green Horse merchandise on Taobao.

As cases of Covid surged again in Chengdu, Shenzhen, and elsewhere in late August and September, worries over ‘keeping the green code’ grew again among those living in affected regions. One local Weibo blogger wrote: “I just couldn’t sleep the past few days, I kept checking my green code and latest Covid test results. It makes me anxious.”

“I feel safest at home,” others write: “This is where I can guard my Green Horse.”

“I hope this epidemic will go away soon,” one netizen wrote: “I hope we can all have our Green Horse and just keep it.”


By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo


1 Grass Mud Horse or Cǎonímǎ (草泥馬) is one of China’s social media ‘mythical creatures’ and an online meme. It is a word play on the vulgar Mandarin term càonǐmā (肏你媽), which literally means “f*** your m*m.”

2 River Crab is another ‘mythical creature’: Héxiè (河蟹) is literally ‘river crab’ but sounds the same as héxié (和谐),”to harmonize,” referring to online censorship.


References (other sources linked to inside the text)

Chen, Wenhong. Gejun Hang, and An Hu. 2022. “Red, Yellow, Green, or Golden: The Post-Pandemic Future of China’s Health Code Apps.” Information, Communication & Society 25 (5): 618-633.

China Healthcare 健康界. 2020. “国家卫健委推行”一码通”健康码未来不止于”通行.”” CN Healthcare, 21 December [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Gu, Peng and Yiying Fan. 2022. “In ‘Zero-COVID’ China, the Elderly Are Becoming Ever More Marginalized.” Sixth Tone, 9 Aug [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

JKSB 健康时报网 [Health Times]. 2022. “国家健康码和地方健康码区别何在?专家:国家平台更接近理想状态.” JKSB, August 27 [Accessed 1 Sep, 2022].

Lai, Xianjin. 2022. “Unified Health Code Can Bring More Convenience, Efficiency.” China Daily, April 6 [Accessed 31 August].

Liang, Fan. 2020. “COVID-19 and Health code: How Digital Platforms Tackle the Pandemic in China.” Social Media + Society (Jul-Sep): 1-4.

Wu, Peiyue. 2022. “Zhengzhou Officials Punished Over Red Health Code Saga.” Sixth Tone, 23 June [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Zhang, Xiaohan. 2022. “Decoding China’s COVID-19 Health Code Apps: The Legal Challenges.” Healthcare 10 (1479): 1-14.


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.

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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