But it is not just the custom of bride prices that has drastically changed over the past decades. In pace with a rapidly-changing China, the whole process of getting married and wedding traditions have undergone enormous changes.
Liu Tong (@丹东刘彤), deputy director of a Liaoning local TV channel, writes on Weibo: “In my parent’s generation, picking up the bride by bicycle was the equivalent of what the BMW car norm is now. After the establishment of a new China, the era of changes is reflected in the wedding transformations.”
Liu writes about what has characterized Chinese weddings through the ages, using a widespread Chinese phrase: “In the 1950s it was about having a bed, in the 1960s it was just about a bag of sweets, in the 1970s it was the Little Red Book, in the 1980s it was about having a radio, in the 1990s there was the extravagance of top-class hotels, and in the 2000s the wedding reception is a display of individuality”.*
Others on Weibo call China’s changing wedding traditions a “mirror of their time.”
Since China’s 1940s, the custom of wearing a white dress and making wedding photos had come into fashion (see image below).
But with the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China, wedding customs changed enormously within a relatively short time frame.
1950s: Plain and simple
In the 1950s, getting married was not much of a fuss, as China’s political situation and social revolution were deeply influencing people’s lives.
Getting a marriage certificate was enough to consider yourself married.
An elder female resident from Hubei province named Mrs. Zhang tells Chinese media channel Cnchu.com that the weddings in those days were nothing comparable to what they are today: the marriage certificate was not much more than a paper with an official seal on it.
People did not buy special clothes or gifts for the occasion: a simple gathering with some friends, neighbors, or family was enough.
Mrs. Zhang says: “What left the deepest impression on me, was that I lived in a dorm for singles and had to go and collect my luggage and take it to my husband’s house to start my new life.”
“Although the wedding was very simple,” she says: “It was in fact very meaningful. We had the wedding certificate framed.”
1960s: Politics First
The 1960s wedding were similar to those in the 1950s in that they were quite simple, and that they would be celebrated with “just a few sweets and a plate of peanuts” (Liu 2013, 27). But with the launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the impact of the Communist Revolution on people’s everyday lives was pushed a step further.There would be no flowers, no gown. Couples would get married by bowing their heads to a portrait of Mao Zedong at the local government office, holding the Little Red Book in their hands.
The idea of free marriage, and marrying for love rather than material possessions, was something that had become the norm in most areas throughout China in the 1960s (Yu 1993, 110); the Marriage Law of the PRC was already introduced in 1950, and one its main principles was the free choice of partners.
For a wedding, friends would gather for some peanuts, sweets, and tea, but there would not be big celebrations: people had to get up for work early the next morning, like any other day.
Journalist Li Zhensheng, who got married in 1968 at his work in the Heilongjiang Daily Newspaper’s office (see photo below), writes on iFeng Blog that it already cost one month’s wages (56 RMB/±8$)* to buy some candies, tea, and cigarettes. *(Please note that this is the present conversion rate and does not reflect the worth of 56 RMB in 1968).
Li tells that together with their co-workers, the married couple sang some revolutionary songs. Their friends gave them some signs to hang on their necks as a sort of joke, saying: “The bride/groom taking the socialist way.”
1970s: The Three Most-Wanted Items
In the late 1970s, after the ending of the Cultural Revolution, getting married became more connected to material possessions and a dowry. The idea of having “the three essential items” (三大件) came into fashion upon getting married. These items were a watch, a bicycle, and a sewing machine. A radio was later also included (三转一响).
Although these items were generally the most desirable ones in the 1950s-1970s period, there were unattainable to many, as were things like leather shoes.
Household furniture was also becoming more important; newlyweds were expected to own at least one complete set of furniture (including a table, 4 chairs, a bed, a writing desk, a couch, a coffee table, besides cabinet, etc.)
Nevertheless, the wedding ceremony itself would still be relatively simple: there was a marriage certificate, the couple would face the portrait of Mao Zedong and have one witness, which would be enough.
One Weibo user from Beijing (@婷是我六六也是我) shared the wedding picture and certificate of her parents, who got married in this era (images below).
According to wedding service company Jieqinwang, the price of a wedding ceremony in those days would be around 700 RMB (±100 US$ presently), with around a 420 RMB (60 US$) for the ‘three main items’ (watch, bicycle, and sewing machine) (this China.org article points out people would need coupons to purchase these items).
The rest of the money could be used for clothes (180 RMB/26$), and a wedding meal for 10 people (100 RMB/14$).
Not all couples would be able to purchase new clothes, but if they could, they would. For many people, their wedding photo would be their first real portrait photo. Besides the photo in the Communist outfit, they would also have a photo in normal clothes.
1980s: Real Dress, Fake Flowers
After the end of the Mao era and the introduction of economic reforms by Deng Xiaoping, the 1980s showed some drastic changes to the previous decennia in wedding customs.
The general necessities for a marriage were now household electric appliances. Instead of items such as a watch, sewing machine, and bicycle, the new “three main items” were a television set, washing machine, and refrigerator – although not many people could actually afford them.
The custom of taking one’s vows in front of the Mao Zedong portrait was slowly disappearing, and weddings were becoming more formal again.
Those who could afford it would wear a Western-style dress and carry plastic flowers. Weddings would increasingly often take place outside the home, in hotels or restaurants.
The custom of picking up the bride with a group was also becoming more prevalent – she could sit on the back of the bike.
According to Jieqinwang and Phoenix News, the cost for a somewhat extravagant wedding in the 1980s would be around 3300 RMB (±480$), including the price for the “three items”, clothing, wedding pictures, and a wedding banquet for 10 people.
1990s: Higher Expectations
In the 1990s, the costs and expectations of wedding ceremonies became much higher than in the previous decades. The custom of making pre-wedding pictures came into fashion and the so-called bride prices or dowries came to play a more important role.
The day itself was also a much bigger event than in previous era’s. On the day of the wedding, the groom’s side would often rent a car to pick up the bride, and the wedding would often be celebrated in a hotel or restaurant.
Owning a house also became to play a more important role, although this was financially impossible for many.
One Chinese man born in 1967 shares the story of his marriage day in 1995 with China.com, saying: “Getting married in the 1990s had become a lot more complicated and needed a lot of preparation, selecting the day, settling the dowry, seeing the new house (..), everything had to be prepared.”
The average price of a wedding had become about ten times higher in the 1990s than in the 1980s. People would spend about 500 RMB (±75$) on taking wedding photos in a studio.
Other costs included the buying of the ‘must-have’ electrical appliances of the 1990s (motorbike, air-conditioning, video recorder), buying a wedding dress and the suit, renting a wedding car, and paying for a lavish wedding banquet for about 20 people.
Excluding the price of buying or renovating the house, this would still make the wedding price of around 33000 RMB (±4800-5000$, estimated by Jieqinwang).
2000s: Individuality & Extravagance
Since the 2000s, the organization and payment of weddings have become an increasingly heavy burden, especially for the groom’s family.
Although the custom of bride prices varies across China, it has come to play a more significant role in China’s countryside, where bride prices reached a new height due to the shortage of women of marriage age.
Whereas the ‘three main items’ of the 1970s-1980s period were a sewing machine, bike, and a watch – later substituted with a washing machine, TV set, and fridge, and a motorbike, video recorder and air-conditioning – the magic words of the 2000s became ‘house’ and ‘car’ (买房买车); meaning that for a man to be considered eligible for marriage, they are usually expected to buy a house and own a car.
Chinese weddings after 2000 are especially marked by their combination of traditional and western influences. Around 2003, a survey by People’s Daily revealed that an average newly married couple in Tianjin would spend around 191,000 RMB (±27,800$) on their wedding. This money would go towards the banquet, housing and furniture, wedding pictures, etc. (Liu 2013, 27).
The pre-wedding photo sessions have now become an integral part of the Chinese wedding customs. As Cat Hanson wrote here previously, the perfect wedding shoot has actually become a top priority in Chinese wedding arrangements. Many couples even travel abroad for their pre-wedding photo session.
On Chinese social media, wedding photography companies offer all-inclusive packages that promise couples 10 different outfits (including make-up and hair) in 10 different scenic scenes, including hotel stays and free drinks. The photo tradition has become a honeymoon of its own.
Those wedding photos now also show that besides all the lavishness, people also find it increasingly more important to stress individuality: from traditional clothes to western style dresses to unique creations, the majority of China’s early 21st century couples like to keep their weddings classy, original, and expensive.
* loose translation of the sentence: “五十年代一张床，六十年代一包糖，七十年代红宝书，八十年代三转一响，九十年代星级宾馆讲排场，二十一世纪特色婚宴个性张扬.”
Sources & Further Reading
Chen Mingyuan 陈明远. 2010. “20世纪中国的结婚照 [20th Century Chinese Wedding Photos]” (In Chinese). Sina Blog, May 3 http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4bbb74a50100g4u7.html [20.2.17].
Cnchu.com. 2015. “50年代一张床 荆州社区居民话说那个年代的婚礼 [In the 1950s a Bed Was Enough – Jingzhou Community Residents Talk About the Weddings of The Time].” Cnchu, Oct 24 http://www.cnchu.com/viewnews-212816.html [19.2.17].
iFeng/Phoenix News. 2016. “父辈们的婚礼：自行车接新娘相当于现在宝马.” Phoenix News, Dec 16 http://share.iclient.ifeng.com/news/sharenews.f?aid=116557303&channelId=default&mid=&vt=5&srctag=cpz_sh_imtj_a [19.2.17].
Jieqingwang. “婚礼中婚纱最耀眼 盘点中国婚纱的变化” http://www.jieqinwang.com/article/detail/id/992
iFeng/Phoenix News. Special “Getting Married in the 1980s.” http://js.ifeng.com/special/80nd-hunli/#p1 [21.2.17].
Liu, Fengshu. 2013 (2011). “Social Transformation in China.” In Fengshu Liu, Urban Youth in China: Modernity, the Internet and the Self, 15-35. New York: Routledge.
Liu Qingmei 刘清梅. 2016. “六十年婚礼进行曲 [Sixty Years Wedding March].” Sina Blog, June 8 http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4e74289e0102x7y5.html [19.2.17].
Li Zhensheng 李振盛. 2010. “我在1968年的“文革”婚礼 [My ‘Revolutionary’ Wedding in 1968].” iFeng Blog, Dec 24 http://blog.ifeng.com/article/9306039.html [21.2.17].
Steinfeld, Jemimah. 2015. Little Emperors and Material Girls: Youth and Sex in Modern China. I.B.Tauris.
TJFER. 2016 “老照片：90年代农村结婚场面 [Old Photos: 1990s Weddings in the Countryside].” TJFER, 23 Nov http://www.tjfer.com/detail/g6356076561996906754/ [21.2.17].
Vision Times. 2011. “清末到80年代 百年婚纱照的演变 [From the End of the Qing to 1980s: The Development of 100 Years Marriage Pictures].” Vision Times, Dec 20 http://m.secretchina.com/news/gb/2011/12/20/433617.html.%E6%B8%85%E6%9C%AB%E5%88%B080%E5%B9%B4%E4%BB%A3%E3%80%80%E7%99%BE%E5%B9%B4%E5%A9%9A%E7%BA%B1%E7%85%A7%E7%9A%84%E6%BC%94%E5%8F%98(%E7%BB%84%E5%9B%BE).html [20.2.17].
Wanhuajing. “父辈们的婚礼：自行车接新娘相当于现在宝马 [The Weddings of Our Parents: Today’s BMW is the Bike that Picked Up the Bride Then]” Wanhuajing, Dec 29 http://m.wanhuajing.com/d673875 [19.2.17].
Women of China. 2009. “Changes in Chinese Weddings Over 60 Years.” Women of China, http://www.womenofchina.cn/womenofchina/html1/features/family/10/2641-1.htm [19.2.17].
Women of China. 2011. “‘Barometers’ of Fashion: Chinese Women’s Hairstyles Change; Reflect Altering Trends Over Past 60 Years.” Women of China, 14 Dec http://www.womenofchina.cn/womenofchina/html1/special/13/6006-1.htm [21.2.17].
YCWB. 2015. “婚礼中婚纱最耀眼 盘点中国婚纱的变化 [The Wedding Dress Is The Most Dazzling Part – Inventory of Chinese Wedding Changes].” YCWB, July 27 http://life.ycwb.com/2015-07/29/content_20473410.htm [19.2.17].
Yu, George T. 1993. China in Transition: Economic, Political, and Social Developments. Lanham: University Press of America.
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The Anti “Halalification” Crusade of Chinese Netizens
Discussions on the so-called ‘halalification’ of China have flared up after delivery app Meituan introduced separate boxes for its halal food deliveries this week. Many netizens see the growing prevalence of halal food in China as a threat to a unified society and feel that featuring special services for Muslims is discriminatory against non-Muslims.
The “halal-ification” (清真泛化) of food products in China has been a hot issue on Chinese social media over the past two years. Discussions on the spread of halal food in China broke out again this week when food delivery platform Meituan Takeaway (美团外卖) locally introduced a special halal channel and separate delivery boxes for halal food.
What especially provoked online anger was the line used by Meituan to promote its new services, saying it would “make people eat more safely” (Literally: “Using separate boxes for halal food will put your mind at ease.”)
Many netizens said the measure discriminates against non-Muslims. They called on others to boycott Meituan and to delete the app from their phone. In response, the topic ‘Is Meituan Going Bankrupt?’ (#美团今天倒闭了吗#) received over 3.7 million views on Weibo, with thousands of netizens discussing the issue under various hashtags.
RAISING AWARENESS ABOUT ISLAMIC DIETARY LAW
“China is a secular country ruled by an atheist Party, and firmly boycotts Islamic laws.”
A popular Weibo imam called Li Haiyang from Henan wrote a post in March titled “Raising Awareness about Islamic Dietary Law” (“关于清真食品立法的几点认识“), in which he discussed the importance of national standards on halal food in China.
Li Haiyang, who is part of China’s Henan Islam Society (河南省伊斯兰教协会), wrote that all Muslims should follow the classic rules and abide by their beliefs, of which Islamic dietary laws are an important part, and that the PRC cannot discriminate against Muslim ethnic groups by refusing to legally protect Muslim halal food.
At the time, the imam’s post was shared over 500 times and besides much support, it also attracted many comments strongly opposing the imam’s views. A typical comment said: “China is a secular country ruled by an atheist Party, and firmly boycotts Islamic laws!”
“Halalification is not good for national harmony and not conducive to the healthy development of Chinese Islam.”
In Chinese, the word for ‘halal’ is qīngzhēn 清真, which also means ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim.’ The two characters the word is composed of (清 and 真) literally mean ‘clean’ and ‘pure.’ The various meanings of the Chinese word for ‘halal’ somewhat complicate discussions on the matter.
In the halal food debate on Chinese social media, the term qīngzhēn fànhuà (清真泛化) is often used – a new term that popped up in Chinese media in 2016. It basically means ‘halal-ification’ or ‘halal generalization,’ but because qīngzhēn also means ‘Islamic,’ it can also imply ‘Islamization.’
And that is precisely what is at the heart of the discussion on the spread of halal food on Chinese social media: those who oppose the spread of halal food in the PRC connect the normalization of Islamic dietary laws to an alleged greater societal shift towards Islam. The spread of ‘Islam’ and ‘halal food’ are practically the same things in these discussions through the concept of qingzhen.
Another issue that plays a role is the idea that ‘qingzhen‘ stands for ‘clean and pure’ food. This distinction between halal and non-halal food implies that while the one is clean food, non-halal food is ‘unclean’ and ‘dirty,’ much to the dismay of many net users. Some people suggest that the name of ‘halal food’ should be changed to ‘Muslim food.’
On Baike, Baidu’s Wikipedia-like platform, the page explaining the term qīngzhēn fànhuà 清真泛化 says: “The term [halalification] originally only referred to the scope of the specific diet of [Muslim] ethnic groups, and has now spread to the domains of family life and even social life beyond diet, including things such as halal water, halal tooth paste, and halal paper towels.”
The Baike page explains that halal products are hyped by companies that are merely seeking to gain profits. It also says that halalification is “not good for national harmony” and “not conducive to the healthy development of Chinese Islam.”
Although there are no official government records of how many people practice Islam within the PRC, it is estimated that there currently are around 23 million Muslims in China, which is less than 2% of the total population. According to Pew Research (2011), because China is so populous, its Muslim population is expected to be the 19th largest in the world in 2030.
“State-financed products should not be religious.”
Most Chinese food ordering apps now have a special halal section; Chinese supermarkets provide a wide range of products labeled as ‘halal’ and there are ample halal restaurants in Chinese cities.
But many people on Chinese social media feel that the spread of halal products is going too far. Legal service app Ilvdo (@律兜) published an article on Weibo this week that mentions that many Chinese consumers might buy halal products such as halal ice cream or milk without even knowing it: “You perhaps drank [halal] water and indirectly funded Islam religion – because the companies that have halal certifications have to pay Islamic organizations for them.”
On Weibo, there are some popular accounts of people opposing the spread and normalization of halal food in China. An account named ‘No Halal’ (@清真发言) has over 143.500 followers. The ‘No Halal Web’ (@非清真食品网) account has nearly 90.000 fans. These accounts regularly post about halal products in Chinese shops and restaurants and link it to the spread of Islam religion in China.
The account ‘No Halal Web’ recently posted a photo taken at a Shanghai restaurant that shows a table with a sign saying “Reserved for Halal Customers Only.”
The ‘No Halal Web’ account wrote: “This already is Muhammed’s Shanghai.” They later stated: “In the Islam world, the demands of Muslims are not as simple as just wanting a mosque, they want their environment to be Islamic/halal.”
Verified net user ‘Leningrad Defender’ (@列宁格勒保卫者, 254465 fans) posted photos of a segregated ‘halal’ checkout counter at a Jingkelong supermarket in Beijing’s Chaoyang area, wondering “is this even legal”?
A Weibo user named ‘The Eagle of Great Han Dynasty’ (@大汉之鹰001) posted a photo on July 20 showing a bag of infant nutrition from the China Family Planning Association that also has a ‘halal’ label on it. He writes:
“What is the Family Planning Committee doing? Why is this halal? This is Jilin province, are we all Muslims? What is behind this, can the Committee tell the public? This is financed through the state, the public has the right to know!”
Others also responded to the photo, saying: “State-financed products should not be religious.”
THE MEITUAN INCIDENT
“Only when we as the Chinese people integrate together, can our country be unified as an undivided family.”
Although there is much opposition to the spread and regulation of halal food in China, the halal food industry also provides many business opportunities for companies who are eager to serve the millions of customers wanting to buy halal.
Popular food delivery platform Meituan faced furious backlash this week when it introduced its special halal food services. The so-called ‘Meituan Incident’ (美团事件) became a heated topic of debate on Weibo and Wechat.
One of the key arguments in the debate is not so much an opposition to halal food in itself, but an opposition to a normalization of ‘halal food’ (with the complicating factor that the Chinese qingzhen also means ‘Islamic’ and ‘clean and pure’), which allegedly discriminates against non-Muslims and increases social polarization. Many netizens said that if there are special boxes for food for Muslims, there should also be special boxes for food for Buddhists, Daoists, atheists, etc.
One well-read blog on Weibo said:
“National identity, in the end, is cultural identity (..). What is needed for the long-term stability of a country is integration [of the people] rather than a division [of the people] – let alone isolation. The national law should [therefore] turn ‘halal food 清真食品’ into ‘Muslim special food 穆斯林专用食品.’ This would make sure that Muslims don’t eat anything they shouldn’t eat, and it also liberates those (..) who aren’t religious. The law could confirm that there is a special kind of food designed for Islamic religious people to eat, instead of asking non-religious people to eat it as well. (..) There are more and more atheists. We should no longer distinguish people by saying he is a Daoist, he is Buddhist, that’s a Muslim or a Christian..in the end we shouldn’t even distinguish people as being Han or Zhuang or Miao or Hui or Manchu. Only when we as the Chinese people integrate together, can our country be unified as a harmonious and undivided family.”
The blog, that was viewed over 88.000 times, received much backing from its readers. One person wrote: “As there is now a national resistance against Islamization and religious segregation, how could the Meituan incident not cause anger amongst the people?”
It is not the first time that the separation of facilities/services for Muslims versus non-Muslims triggers online discussions in China. In September last year, the introduction of special “Muslim-only” shower cabins at a Chinese university also provoked anger about alleged “Muslim privilege.”
TRIVIAL MATTER OR SOCIAL SHIFT
“Today it is about separate boxes for food; tomorrow it might be about separate seating areas in restaurants. And what’s next?”
On Thursday, Meituan Takeaway officially responded to the controversy through Sina Weibo, saying that the promotion of halal delivery boxes was a local and unofficial activity by one of its agents in Gansu province. It also said it would strengthen supervision of its agents and their promotional material.
But not all netizens believed Meituan’s explanation. One person said: “I am located in Inner Mongolia, and your Meituan [here] also promotes the two separate delivery boxes.”
Other netizens also posted photos of Meituan’s food delivery rival Eleme also using special “Halal only” delivery boxes.
Among all the negative reactions and the resistance against the spread of halal food, there are netizens who praise halal food for being tasty and who do not get what all the fuss is about. A female netizen from Beijing wrote:
“Why are so many brain-dead people opposing Muslims these days? How does Meituan’s separation of halal food hinder you? What do you care if your yogurt is halal? If you don’t want to eat it, don’t eat it. There are plenty of people who will. Use your brain for a bit. Not all Muslims are extremists; just as not all people from the Northeast are criminals.”
But there are many who think Meituan’s separate boxes are no issue to disregard. One young female writer says:
“(..) Under the current national policy of protecting ethnic minorities, Muslims enjoy special privileges in the name of national unity. If this continues for a long time, the inequality inevitably will spread to other domains of society. Today it is about separate boxes for food; tomorrow it might be about separate seating areas in restaurants. And what’s next? Segregated neighborhoods? Trains? Airplanes? It might seem like a trivial matter, but if you ignore this, then those who are privileged now will go on and get greater privileges. The distancing of Muslims will only grow. I’m not saying this to alarm you. It’s self-evident that unequal benefits and the privilege of an ethnic group will eventually create conflicts between the people.”
Amidst all ideological arguments, there are also those who say it is all about the money. In the article published by Ilvdo, the author says about the Meituan incident: “Why do the boxes need to be separated? Because in general, Muslims feel that what we eat is “dirty” … but the product increase cost is shared by all the customers – so not only does it make us feel “dirty”, we also spend more money.”
They later say: “What we want is national unity, not religious solidarity. (..) You have your freedom of religion, which app I use is my freedom. Separate boxes and other special services will ultimately be reflected in the costs, and I do not want to pay religious tax. Luckily I have the freedom to delete this app and stop using it.”
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Behind the Rise and Fade of China’s Literary Sensation Fan Yusu
Beijing migrant worker Fan Yusu became an overnight sensation when her autobiographical essay “I Am Fan Yusu” went viral on Chinese social media in late April 2017. The author has since gone into hiding and her essay has been removed. What’s behind the sudden rise and silent disappearance of China’s biggest literary sensation of 2017?
Fan Yusu was the name on everybody’s WeChat in late April and early May of this year. An essay titled “I Am Fan Yusu” (“我是范雨素,” full translation here) spread like wildfire over Chinese social media, seemingly coming out of nowhere.
In some ways, the popularity of the essay in China is comparable to the recent hype over Alex Tizon’s essay “My Family’s Slave” on Western social media; this non-fiction story about ‘Lola’ Eudocia Tomas Pulido from the Philippines, who lived as a modern slave with an American family for 56 years, went viral on Twitter and Facebook in May. It gripped its many readers for exposing poignant problems in modern-day society that usually stay behind closed doors.
Fan Yusu’s account, in its own way, also revealed the harsh realities of an ever-changing society. China has an estimated 282 million rural migrant workers. The autobiographical tale focuses on the difficult childhood and adult life of one person amidst these 282 million – Fan Yusu herself.
“I Am Fan Yusu” was first published on Noonstory.com, an online literary platform by Shanghai news outlet Jiemian. A year prior to its publication, one of their journalists (Dan Bao 淡豹) headed out to Picun for an interview. Picun is a migrant village on the outskirts of Beijing, not far from the capital’s airport. It was here that Jiemian learned about the local literary club and its many poems and essays. One of these works titled “My Brother’s Dream” particularly stood out to them. It was written by the 44-year-old Fan Yusu, and the editor soon decided to publish her first story (“农民大哥”) in May of 2016.
A year later, Jiemian published a second essay by Fan, not expecting that it was this piece that would soon hit three million views and go viral across the country.
“Am I living in the Qing dynasty or is this new socialist China?”
In “I Am Fan Yusu“, Fan recounts her impoverished childhood in a rural village in Xiangyang, Hebei. Fan came to Beijing at the age of 20. Being a clumsy waitress with low expectations for her future, she rushed into an unhappy marriage with an alcoholic husband and had two daughters. When her marriage turned violent, she returned to her hometown for help. It was here that she discovered she was “merely a passer-by” in the village where she was born and raised. Her brothers could, but were not willing to help; her mother wanted to, but could not help.
Being the youngest of five siblings, Fan already learned at a young age that men have the final say in China’s countryside. Although her mother was a powerful local politician for more than forty years, she resigned from her official post the moment Fan’s oldest brother objected to his mother’s work.
The twenty-something Fan then returned to Beijing and took on a job as a nanny in a rich family, leaving her own two daughters behind in the village of Picun, where many other children grow up without a mother. She writes about life as a babysitter for the child of her boss’s mistress, while his dressed-up young wife waits on the sofa every night for her husband’s return: “I wondered if I was living in the Qing dynasty or if this was new socialist China.”
Despite her low educational background, Fan always had a thirst for knowledge and became a well-read person with a love for writing and literature. “If a person cannot feel happiness or satisfaction in life,” she writes: “they simply aren’t reading enough novels.”
ONE VOICE OUT OF MILLIONS
“We are all Fan Yusu.”
Thousands of netizens shared Fan’s essay shortly after it was published online. They responded to it with praise, saying it was a “unique piece of work” and even “Nobel-Prize worthy.” Why did specifically this essay become so hyped on Chinese social media?
The answer can be found in both the person of Fan Yusu herself as in her essay. The piece appealed to people because it uses simple yet powerful language. Some called it “unpolished”; a reflection of Fan’s own life and society at large.
The fact that Fan Yusu is in her forties, a single mother of two, and a migrant worker who has had a difficult life, makes her story carry more weight. She represents a voice that is generally lost in a media environment that is dominated by the middle class.
The popularity of this account also shows that a migrant worker with a low educational status can still be a successful writer. At a 2015 social gathering, Fan already mentioned that “‘migrant worker’ is not a derogatory term, just as ‘artist’ is not an elite one.”
“I Am Fan Yusu” also touches upon numerous issues such as domestic violence, divorce, gender inequality, the poor and rich divide, and a lacking healthcare system. These being issues that a lot of people have to deal with, the catchphrase “We are all Fan Yusu” (“我们都是范雨素”) soon made its rounds on WeChat and Weibo.
A NEW LITERARY MOVEMENT?
“Many in China’s elite literary circles do not touch upon society’s pain points the way Fan does.”
Fan Yusu’s account comes at a time when there is a surge of stories that tell the individual stories of ordinary people. An essay on Beijing’s crazy housing market titled “Housing Madness” (“房疯”) by an author named Chongzi (虫子) also saw its fair share of success in April of this year.
There is a growing appetite for these types of stories, and non-fiction websites such as Noonstory or Guyu Story provide a platform for them.
The popularity of such stories seems to relate to a growing weariness with established literature. On Weibo, many people shared their overall discontent with China’s literary circles in response to Fan’s essay. Many said they think of Chinese literature as being elitist and out of touch with ‘real life.’
This idea was backed by renowned novelist Zheng Shiping (a.k.a. Yefu 野夫), who applauded Fan’s writing in an interview in May. He criticized Chinese modern literature, saying that many in those “elite circles” never touch upon society’s pain points in the way Fan does.
Some Weibo netizens responded with sarcasm, saying: “Literature is literature. No matter if it touches upon society’s pain points or not, it always needs to follow the ideology of the Propaganda Department.”
ROOTLESS WOMEN OF CHINA
“A married daughter is like water that has been poured.”
Another major factor that has contributed to Fan’s sudden success, is that her account shows the disadvantaged position of women in China’s countryside. Rural women are often caught in a vulnerable position, facing various economic and social obstacles that hinder their emancipation.
“A married daughter is like water that has been poured,” is a saying about countryside women who go out to marry. They often leave the house empty-handed. Fan addresses this ‘floating life’ of rural women in her essay. Women from the countryside are ‘rootless’ because their status, location, and economic rights change depending on the role they have as daughter, bride, wife, daughter-in-law, or mother. All land ownership is generally in name of the fathers, husbands, and sons (Also see this article on China’s ‘rootless women’).
When a woman marries outside her hukou (household registration permit), she usually has to give up any benefits or rightful land ownership she had in her previous household. No matter if a woman gets married into a different household or joins China’s mass urbanization, she often is bound to end up in the lowest layers of society.
WHAT HAPPENED TO FAN YUSU?
“Why is Fan Yusu censored?”
Only three days after Fan Yusu’s essay went online and viral, the text disappeared from its original source [editor’s note: the essay is still available on some websites]. Different Chinese media reported that Fan Yusu, overwhelmed by the media’s attention, had gone into hiding in a mountainous village.
It was not just Fan’s essay, but also its reviews that were soon “harmonized” (被和谐, meaning ‘censored’). One popular Weibo blog titled “Why I Like Fan Yusu” was no longer accessible as of May 6 for “violating the rules” on Weibo. The sudden disappearance of the essay and its direct reviews also made many netizens wonder: “Why is Fan Yusu censored? (范雨素怎么被和谐了?)”
Although the real reasons are not exposed, there is ample speculation. In her account, Fan writes about her problems with social anxiety. The sudden attention for her personal life may have been so overwhelming that some suggested it is Fan herself who wanted her essay removed. Especially since there were also journalists who went to her Hebei hometown to interview her mother – something that she dreaded. “I’ve run into a sandstorm,” Fan Yusu reportedly told her friend about the flock of journalists swarming into her village.
But there were also those who said that reasons for censorship perhaps related to the fact that the account revealed details about the personal life of her former boss, a rich and powerful man who may have put a halt to online publications.
Another plausible option is that the publication was removed due to its criticism on Chinese society and politics. “Sharp criticism is just not allowed,” some people commented: “She is very realistic, and exposes some gloomy aspects [of society].” Although Chinese state media initially lauded Fan’s essay, it is possible that the hype surrounding it just grew too big too fast.
The sudden rise and disappearance of Fan Yusu has some resemblance to the hype surrounding Chai Jing and her documentary “Under the Dome” in 2015. This self-funded documentary on China’s pollution problem originally was supported by Chinese state media. It received over 200 million views before it was abruptly removed from Chinese websites a week after its release.
At the time, Greenpeace East Asia’s Calvin Quek told Bloomberg that it might had to do with the timing, just before the start of China’s plenary sessions: “It’s a reflection of some kind of political infighting that they chose to shut it down. The government censored the film because it got 200 million views, and they did not want it to dominate the twin conferences,” he said.
In Fan’s case, the hype came just before the Beijing One Belt, One Road Summit, a very significant event during and around which Chinese media emphasized the idea of China as a responsible and harmonious global leader.
Although Fan Yusu’s ‘sandstorm’ has gradually blown over by now, she still has not returned to her Picun home according to the latest media reports. Fan might have disappeared from the limelight for now, she is not forgotten.
Fan Yusu is the voice of a social class often ignored; she is a shining example that migrant workers can influence and shape the world of Chinese literature today. The heightened media attention for “the writers of Picun” (article in Chinese) is just one manifestation of how Fan Yusu has already made her mark – an unerasable one.
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