When the Chinese government announced that it would be ending its One-Child Policy in the summer of 2015, 36 years after it was first implemented, the topic exploded on Weibo. Many netizens applauded the news and considered it a step forward in people’s personal freedom and individual rights.
The Two-Child Policy (二孩政策) allows all couples to have a maximum of two children. But now, over a year after it has gone into effect, there are also voices saying that the new family planning policy is actually a setback for women’s rights in China and that the One-Child Policy, as controversial as it might have been, has greatly improved the role of women in society in multiple ways.
THE TWO CHILD POLICY: A YEAR LATER
“The vigorous propagation for women to return home to have children goes against the image of the emancipated Chinese woman.”
One of the consequences of China’s One-Child Policy, designed to curb the growth of China’s population, is that Chinese society is now ageing. The latest population statistics after the introduction of the ‘Two-Child Policy’ show that 17,86 million children were born in 2016; an increase of 7.9% compared to the year before (when the One-Child Policy was still in place).
But the current population growth might not be enough to combat demographic challenges in the decades to come. Chinese state media are now encouraging couples to have more children, something that became particularly clear during this year’s CCTV Gala and a recent lengthy People’s Daily article that hinted at the legalization of surrogacy to increase the country’s birth rates.
It led to angry reactions on Chinese social media, where many women felt that they were being degraded to “breeding machines”, and that the “vigorous propagation” for women to “return home to have children” goes against the image of the emancipated Chinese woman.
ONE-CHILD POLICY: THE SIGNIFICANCE FOR WOMEN
“Slogans propagated that daughters could also carry the honor of the family line, and that girls and boys were equally important for the future of China.”
The Feminist Webforum (@女权主义贴吧) recently posted an article (link in Chinese) on Weibo titled “The One-Child Policy’s Three Major Contributions to Chinese Women’s Status,” in which it argued that the China’s One Child Policy (1979-2016) has significantly emancipated Chinese women.
The article looks back at different government’s slogans that were widely propagated during the One-Child Policy, and explains how and why they contributed to a bettered women’s status in China.
It also indicates that the recent developments around the Two Child Policy, with increasing media emphasis on reproduction, is negatively affecting the status of women in Chinese society.
The slogans “It is all the same whether you give birth to a boy or give birth to a girl” (生男生女都一样) and “Daughters also carry on the family line” (女儿也是传后人) were propagated throughout China since the 1980s up to the most remote parts of rural China.
In the patriarchal Chinese society, there is a deep-rooted preference for sons. Boys are expected to carry on the family line, become the laborers, and support the older generations (Sudbeck 2012, 44).
With the implementation of the One-Child Policy, the government strongly pushed the idea of male-female equality. Slogans propagated that daughters could also carry the honor of the family line, and that girls and boys were equally important for the future of China.
The Female Webforum article argues that this widely propagated government stance improved the status of women, as daughters came to play a more important role in the family and received more attention and a better education.
This is also reiterated by Kristine Sudbeck in the article “The Effects of China’s One-Child Policy: The Significance for Chinese Women” (2012), in which she writes that China’s One-Child Policy has indirectly benefited the role of women in society because, among others, singleton daughters received greater parental investment in terms of wealth, pride, and education (43-44).
The improved education levels for women also opened the doors to more non-traditional jobs for women, with which came a greater gender equality – not just within the family, but within the society at large.
In 2014, 64% of Chinese women were in the labor force, and the percentage of women in management positions in China is much higher than that of neighbouring countries like South Korea, Japan, India, or Taiwan (Catalyst 2016, CS 2014: 8).
But the Feminist Webforum writes that since the introduction of the Two-Child Policy, the calls for extended maternity leaves and for women to return home to be a good mother are growing louder every day, potentially harming the (economic) position of women in China in the long run.
Another propagated principle during the One-Child Policy was that of later marriage and later childbirth.
Although the legal age of marrying in China is 20 for women and 22 for men, late marriage (23+ for women and 25+ for men) have been specifically encouraged by Chinese authorities to benefit the state, the family, and the individual.
The propagation of late marriage and childbirth meant that women could first concentrate on their studies and career before taking on the role as wife or mother.
Since January 2016, it seems that getting married later on is no longer encouraged. At the same time the Two-Child Policy was implemented, the Chinese government canceled the ‘late wedding leave’: a 30-day paid work leave to encourage getting married after the age of 25.
The Feminist Webforum article writes that Chinese media have started to encourage women to have children while still attending college, as in this widely published article (link in Chinese) titled: “University students have children while still in school: third-year students already have 2 children, majority does not regret.”
Articles such as these falsely suggest that it might be easier to find a job when women are already married with children. But according to the Feminist Webforum, the employment rate of women without children is actually much higher than of those who have had a baby.
Getting married and having a baby after the age of 25, the article argues, is better for a woman’s mental and physical health, as well as for her future education and career. Encouraging women to start having children early on might negatively influence her future and her independence – a setback for female emancipation.
A third and final point mentioned in the article is that under the One-Child Policy the slogan “Superior Birth, Superior Childrearing” (优生优育) was propagated, in which there was an emphasis on conceiving and raising a ‘quality child.’
The article points out that with a general heightened focus on prenatal and postnatal care, thousands of women were saved from maternal death.
Before the One-Child Policy and in its early years, there was a great lack of prenatal care, and many women only relied on midwives while giving birth – if they could afford one at all. The rate of in-hospital delivery increased from 43.7% of women in 1985 up to an in-hospital delivery for rural women of 96.7% in 2011.
The Feminist Webforum points out that in the first half year since the implementation of the Two-Child Policy, there was a staggering 30% increase in maternal mortality. This increase relates to a larger proportion of elder pregnant women, causing more health problems during pregnancy and childbirth. It also has to do with health care resources being unable to deal with the rise in births, and, according to the article, is another reason why the Two Child Policy is not improving the situation of women in China.
A ROSE-COLORED PICTURE?
“Although China’s One-Child Policy is known for creating hardships, it has helped to greatly improve the position of women in China.”
Is the Feminist Webforum right? Was the One-Child Policy really so beneficial for women? Although China’s One-Child Policy is mainly known for creating hardships for women, studies have shown that it has indeed helped to greatly improve the position of women in China in terms of gender equality, parental investment, educational attainment, career, and in terms of their familial, societal and political participation (Sudbeck 2012, 55).
Although providing very valid points, the Feminist Webforum’s article is making the decades of the One-Child Policy appear somewhat more rose-colored than they were. For example; even if the rate of prenatal complications and maternal deaths greatly improved after the implementation of the One-Child Policy (and have worsened after ending it in 2016), the article does not mention that women with unapproved pregnancies received less prenatal care and had a much higher risk (2.5 x) of maternal death than with an approved pregnancy (Nayak 2008, 14).
It also does not mention female infanticide or the large number of female-selective abortions. In the 1980-2000 period alone, it is estimated that the total number of female selective abortions was around 4 million (Sudbeck 2012, 47). Nor does it mention the abandonment of children, who were mostly girls. Around the turn of the century, China had around one million almost exclusively female orphans.
The One-Child Policy also had other far-reaching consequences. Some couples moved away from mainland China to have more freedom in their reproductive rights, while others paid for expensive fertility drugs (under the policy, having twins or triplets would still count as ‘one’ legal birth).
When placed into a larger perspective, it is apparent that Chinese women have indeed made advantages towards more gender equality within China as a by-product of the One-Child Policy, but that this advancement has come at a high price.
“Our reproduction rights are taken from us, step by step.”
On Weibo, the Feminist Webforum’s article received over 50,000 views and many comments shortly after it was posted. Many commenters seemed to share similar concerns as the Feminist Webforum, and praised the One Child Policy era while expressing their concerns over the Two Child Policy.
“The Two-Child Policy is the worst news I have heard in years,” one person writes.
“Now they enthusiastically promote for us to return home and have a second baby. Will they promote us to obey our fathers, husbands and sons, and to bind our feet hereafter?”, one commenter writes.
Another female netizen says: “Since the introduction of the ‘two child policy’, male-female relations have been more out of tune, the mortality rate of pregnant women has gone up, and the discrimination on the employment market has increased dramatically. Our reproduction rights are taken from us, step by step.”
Someone else writes: “The family planning policy was not bad, it had so many benefits (..). It was not only in line with the state of society, it also gave women the right to stop giving birth [to multiple children] and to give birth safely.”
But not all netizens agree that the role of women in Chinese society today is all owed to the One-Child Policy.
“It needs to be said that there are many ways to improve women’s status,” one person writes: “and the One-Child Policy is the most inhumane one, which has caused a lot of damage to women’s health. It was never intended to improve the status of women, and is just a by-product.”
Another woman writes: “All I can think of is that one colleague of my mum who was caught with a second (unapproved) pregnancy when she had a big belly of 7-8 months. She was forced to have an abortion.”
Many netizens refer to themselves as ‘the last generation of singleton daughters.’ They suggest that with China’s new family planning policies, there will always be couples having just one son, but if they have one daughter they will try hard to have a second child that is male: “This was the last era of the only daughters – every era is that of the only sons.”
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Catalyst. 2016. “Women In The Workforce: China.” Catalyst, July 8 http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-workforce-china [5.2.17].
Credit Suisse. 2014. “Women in Senior Management.” Credit Suisse, September https://publications.credit-suisse.com/tasks/render/file/index.cfm?fileid=8128F3C0-99BC-22E6-838E2A5B1E4366DF [5.2.17].
Feminist WebForum [女权主义贴吧]. 2017. “独生子女政策对中国女性地位的三大贡献 [The One-Child Policy’s Three Major Contributions to Chinese Women’s Status].” Feminist Webforum / Weibo, February 4 http://www.weibo.com/ttarticle/p/show?id=2309404071219883321876#_rnd1486322999846 [5.2.17].
Nayak, Satyam. 2008. “An Overview of China’s One Child Policy and Health Consequences on Society.” Master of Public Health, The University of Texas School of Public Health.
Sudbeck, Kristine. 2012. “The Effects of China’s One-Child Policy: The Significance for Chinese Women.” Nebraska Anthropologist: Paper 179.
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“Oppenheimer” in China: Highlighting the Story of Qian Xuesen
Qian Xuesen is a renowned Chinese scientist whose life shares remarkable parallels with Oppenheimer’s.
In late August, the highly anticipated U.S. movie Oppenheimer finally premiered in China, shedding light on the life of the famous American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967).
Besides igniting discussions about the life of this prominent scientist, the film has also reignited domestic media and public interest in Chinese scientists connected to Oppenheimer and nuclear physics.
There is one Chinese scientist whose life shares remarkable parallels with Oppenheimer’s. This is aerospace engineer and cyberneticist Qian Xuesen (钱学森, 1911-2009). Like Oppenheimer, he pursued his postgraduate studies overseas, taught at Caltech, and played a pivotal role during World War II for the US.
Qian Xuesen is so widely recognized in China that whenever I introduce myself there, I often clarify my last name by saying, “it’s the same Qian as Qian Xuesen’s,” to ensure that people get my name.
Some Chinese blogs recently compared the academic paths and scholarly contributions of the two scientists, while others highlighted the similarities in their political challenges, including the revocation of their security clearances.
The era of McCarthyism in the United States cast a shadow over Qian’s career, and, similar to Oppenheimer, he was branded as a “communist suspect.” Eventually, these political pressures forced him to return to China.
Although Qian’s return to China made his later life different from Oppenheimer’s, both scientists lived their lives navigating the complex dynamics between science and politics. Here, we provide a brief overview of the life and accomplishments of Qian Xuesen.
Departing: Going to America
Qian Xuesen (钱学森, also written as Hsue-Shen Tsien), often referred to as the “father of China’s missile and space program,” was born in Shanghai in 1911,1 a pivotal year marked by a historic revolution that brought an end to the imperial dynasty and gave rise to the Republic of China.
Much like Oppenheimer, who pursued further studies at Cambridge after completing his undergraduate education, Qian embarked on a journey to the United States following his bachelor’s studies at National Chiao Tung University (now Shanghai Jiao Tong University). He spent a year at Tsinghua University in preparation for his departure.
The year was 1935, during the eighth year of the Chinese Civil War and the fourth year of Japan’s invasion of China, setting the backdrop for his academic pursuits in a turbulent era.
One year after arriving in the U.S., Qian earned his master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Three years later, in 1939, the 27-year-old Qian Xuesen completed his PhD at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the very institution where Oppenheimer had been welcomed in 1927. In 1943, Qian solidified his position in academia as an associate professor at Caltech. While at Caltech, Qian helped found NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
When World War II began, while Oppenheimer was overseeing the Manhattan Project’s efforts to assist the U.S. in developing the atomic bomb, Qian actively supported the U.S. government. He served on the U.S. government’s Scientific Advisory Board and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel.
After the war, Qian went to teach at MIT and returned to Caltech as a full-time professor in 1949. During that same year, Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Just one year later, the newly-formed nation became involved in the Korean War, and China fought a bloody battle against the United States.
Red Scare: Being Labeled as a Communist
Robert Oppenheimer and Qian Xuesen both had an interest in Communism even prior to World War II, attending communist gatherings and showing sympathy towards the Communist cause.
Qian and Oppenheimer may have briefly met each other through their shared involvement in communist activities. During his time at Caltech, Qian secretly attended meetings with Frank Oppenheimer, the brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Monk 2013).
However, it was only after the war that their political leanings became a focal point for the FBI.
Just as the FBI accused Oppenheimer of being an agent of the Soviet Union, they quickly labeled Qian as a subversive communist, largely due to his Chinese heritage. While the government did not succeed in proving that Qian had communist ties with China during that period, they did ultimately succeed in portraying Qian as a communist affiliated with China a decade later.
During the transition from the 1940s to the 1950s, the Cold War was underway, and the anti-communist witch-hunts associated with the McCarthy era started to intensify (BBC 2020).
In 1950, the Korean War erupted, with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) joining North Korea in the conflict against South Korea, which received support from the United States. It was during this tumultuous period that the FBI officially accused Qian of communist sympathies in 1950, leading to the revocation of his security clearance despite objections from Qian’s colleagues. Four years later, in 1954, Robert Oppenheimer went through a similar process.
After losing his security clearance, Qian began to pack up, saying he wanted to visit his aging parents back home. Federal agents seized his luggage, which they claimed contained classified materials, and arrested him on suspicion of subversive activity. Although Qian denied any Communist leanings and rejected the accusation, he was detained by the government in California and spent the next five years under house arrest.
Five years later, in 1955, two years after the end of the Korean War, Qian was sent home to China as part of an apparent exchange for 11 American airmen who had been captured during the war. He told waiting reporters he “would never step foot in America again,” and he kept his promise (BBC 2020).
Dan Kimball, who was the Secretary of the US Navy at the time, expressed his regret about Qian’s departure, reportedly stating, “I’d rather shoot him dead than let him leave America. Wherever he goes, he equals five divisions.” He also stated: “It was the stupidest thing this country ever did. He was no more a communist than I was, and we forced him to go” (Perrett & Bradley, 2008).
Kimball may have foreseen the unfolding events accurately. After his return to China, Qian did indeed assume a pivotal role in enhancing China’s military capabilities, possibly surpassing the potency of five divisions. The missile programme that Qian helped develop in China resulted in weapons which were then fired back on America, including during the 1991 Gulf War (BBC 2020).
Returning: Becoming a National Hero
The China that Qian Xuesen had left behind was an entirely different China than the one he returned to. China, although having relatively few experts in the field, was embracing new possibilities and technologies related to rocketry and space exploration.
Within less than a month of his arrival, Qian was welcomed by the then Vice Prime Minister Chen Yi, and just four months later, he had the honor of meeting Chairman Mao himself.
In China, Qian began a remarkably successful career in rocket science, with great support from the state. He not only assumed leadership but also earned the distinguished title of the “father” of the Chinese missile program, instrumental in equipping China with Dongfeng ballistic missiles, Silkworm anti-ship missiles, and Long March space rockets.
Additionally, his efforts laid the foundation for China’s contemporary surveillance system.
By now, Qian has become somewhat of a folk hero. His tale of returning to China despite being thwarted by the U.S. government has become like a legendary narrative in China: driven by unwavering patriotism, he willingly abandoned his overseas success, surmounted formidable challenges, and dedicated himself to his motherland.
Throughout his lifetime, Qian received numerous state medals in recognition of his work, establishing him as a nationally celebrated intellectual. From 1989 to 2001, the state-launched public movement “Learn from Qian Xuesen” was promoted throughout the country, and by 2001, when Qian turned 90, the national praise for him was on a similar level as that for Deng Xiaoping in the decade prior (Wang 2011).
Qian Xuesen remains a celebrated figure. On September 3rd of this year, a new “Qian Xuesen School” was established in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, becoming the sixth high school bearing the scientist’s name since the founding of the first one only a year ago.
Qian Xuesen’s legacy extends well beyond educational institutions. His name frequently appears in the media, including online articles, books, and other publications. There is the Qian Xuesen Library and a museum in Shanghai, containing over 70,000 artefacts related to him. Qian’s life story has also been the inspiration for a theater production and a 2012 movie titled Hsue-Shen Tsien (钱学森).2
As is often the case when people are turned into heroes, some part of the stories are left behind while others are highlighted. This holds true for both Robert Oppenheimer and Qian Xuesen.
The Communist Party of China hailed Qian as a folk hero, aligning with their vision of a strong, patriotic nation. Many Chinese narratives avoid the debate over whether Qian’s return was linked to problems and accusations in the U.S., rather than genuine loyalty to his homeland.
In contrast, some international media have depicted Qian as a “political opportunist” who returned to China due to disillusionment with the U.S., also highlighting his criticism of “revisionist” colleagues during the Cultural Revolution and his denunciation of the 1989 student demonstrations.
Unlike the image of a resolute loyalist favored by the Chinese public, Qian’s political ideology was, in fact, not consistently aligned, and there were instances where he may have prioritized opportunity over loyalty at different stages of his life.
Qian also did not necessarily aspire to be a “flawless hero.” Upon returning to China, he declined all offers to have his biography written for him and refrained from sharing personal information with the media. Consequently, very little is known about his personal life, leaving many questions about the motivations driving him, and his true political inclinations.
We do know that Qian’s wife, Jiang Ying (蒋英), had a remarkable background. She was of Chinese-Japanese mixed race and was the daughter of a prominent military strategist associated with Chiang Kai-shek. Jiang Ying was also an accomplished opera singer and later became a professor of music and opera at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.
Just as with Qian, there remain numerous unanswered questions surrounding Oppenheimer, including the extent of his communist sympathies and whether these sympathies indirectly assisted the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Perhaps both scientists never imagined they would face these questions when they first decided to study physics. After all, they were scientists, not the heroes that some narratives portray them to be.
■ Farewell to a Self-Taught Master: Remembering China’s Colorful, Bold, and Iconic Artist Huang Yongyu
■ “His Name Was Mao Anying”: Renewed Remembrance of Mao Zedong’s Son on Chinese Social Media
1 Some sources claim that Qian was born in Hangzhou, while others say he was born in Shanghai with ancestral roots in Hangzhou.
2The Chinese character 钱 is typically romanized as “Qian” in Pinyin. However, “Tsien” is a romanization in Wu Chinese, which corresponds to the dialect spoken in the region where Qian Xuesen and his family have ancestral roots.
This article has been edited for clarity by Manya Koetse
References (other sources hyperlinked in text)
BBC. 2020. “Qian Xuesen: The man the US deported – who then helped China into space.” BBC.com, 27 October https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-54695598 [9.16.23].
Monk, Ray. 2013. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life inside the Center, First American Edition. New York: Doubleday.
Perrett, Bradley, and James R. Asker. 2008. “Person of the Year: Qian Xuesen.” Aviation Week and Space Technology 168 (1): 57-61.
Wang, Ning. 2011. “The Making of an Intellectual Hero: Chinese Narratives of Qian Xuesen.” The China Quarterly, 206, 352-371. doi:10.1017/S0305741011000300
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Farewell to a Self-Taught Master: Remembering China’s Colorful, Bold, and Iconic Artist Huang Yongyu
Renowned Chinese artist and the creator of the ‘Blue Rabbit’ zodiac stamp Huang Yongyu has passed away at the age of 98. “I’m not afraid to die. If I’m dead, you may tickle me and see if I smile.”
He was a youthful optimist at old age, and will now be remembered as an immortal legend. The renowned Chinese painter and stamp designer Huang Yongyu (黄永玉) passed away on June 13 at the age of 98. His departure garnered significant attention on Chinese social media platforms this week.
On Weibo, the hashtag “Huang Yongyu Passed Away” (#黄永玉逝世#) received over 160 million views by Wednesday evening.
Huang was a member of the China National Academy of Painting (中国国家画院) as well as a Professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (中央美术学院).
Huang Yongyu is widely recognized in China for his notable contribution to stamp design, particularly for his iconic creation of the monkey stamp in 1980. Although he designed a second monkey stamp in 2016, the 1980 stamp holds significant historical importance as it marked the commencement of China Post’s annual tradition of releasing zodiac stamps, which have since become highly regarded and collectible items.
The monkey stamp designed by Huang Yongyu has become a cherished collector’s item, even outside of China. On online marketplaces like eBay, individual stamps from this series are being sold for approximately $2000 these days.
Huang Yongyu’s latest most famous stamp was this year’s China Post zodiac stamp. The stamp, a blue rabbit with red eyes, caused some online commotion as many people thought it looked “horrific.”
Some thought the red-eyed blue rabbit looked like a rat. Others thought it looked “evil” or “monster-like.” There were also those who wondered if the blue rabbit looked so wild because it just caught Covid.
Nevertheless, many people lined up at post offices for the stamps and they immediately sold out.
In light of the controversy, Huang Yongyu spoke about the stamps in a livestream in January of 2023. The 98-year-old artist claimed he had simply drawn the rabbit to spread joy and celebrate the new year, stating, “Painting a rabbit stamp is a happy thing. Everyone could draw my rabbit. It’s not like I’m the only one who can draw this.”
Huang’s response also went viral, with one Weibo hashtag dedicated to the topic receiving over 12 million views (#蓝兔邮票设计者直播回应争议#) at the time. Those defending Huang emphasized how it was precisely his playful, light, and unique approach to art that has made Huang’s work so famous.
A Self-Made Artist
“I’m ugly, but my mum likes me”
Huang Yongyu was born on August 9, 1924, in Hunan’s Chengde as a native of the Tujia ethnic group.
He was born into an extraordinary family. His grandfather, Huang Jingming (黄镜铭), worked for Xiong Xiling (熊希齡), who would become the Premier of the Republic of China. His first cousin and lifelong friend was the famous Chinese novelist Sheng Congwen (沈从文). Huang’s father studied music and art and was good at drawing and playing the accordion. His mother graduated from the Second Provincial Normal School and was the first woman in her county to cut her hair short and wear a short skirt (CCTV).
Born in times of unrest and poverty, Huang never went to college and was sent away to live with relatives at the age of 13. His father would die shortly after, depriving him of a final goodbye. Huang started working in various places and regions, from porcelain workshops in Dehua to artisans’ spaces in Quanzhou. At the age of 16, Huang was already earning a living as a painter and woodcutter, showcasing his talents and setting the foundation for his future artistic pursuits.
When he was 22, Huang married his first girlfriend Zhang Meixi (张梅溪), a general’s daughter, with whom he shared a love for animals. He confessed his love for her when they both found themselves in a bomb shelter after an air-raid alarm.
In his twenties, Huang Yongyu emerged as a sought-after artist in Hong Kong, where he had relocated in 1948 to evade persecution for his left-wing activities. Despite achieving success there, he heeded Shen Congwen’s advice in 1953 and moved to Beijing. Accompanied by his wife and their 7-month-old child, Huang took on a teaching position at the esteemed Central Academy of Fine Arts (中央美术学院).
The couple raised all kinds of animals at their Beijing home, from dogs and owls to turkeys and sika deers, and even monkeys and bears (Baike).
Throughout Huang’s career, animals played a significant role, not only reflecting his youthful spirit but also serving as vehicles for conveying satirical messages.
One recurring motif in his artwork was the incorporation of mice. In one of his famous works, a grey mouse is accompanied by the phrase ‘I’m ugly, but my mum likes me’ (‘我丑，但我妈喜欢’), reinforcing the notion that regardless of our outward appearance or circumstances, we remain beloved children in the eyes of our mothers.
As a teacher, Huang liked to keep his lessons open-minded and he, who refused to join the Party himself, stressed the importance of art over politics. He would hold “no shirt parties” in which his all-male studio students would paint in an atmosphere of openness and camaraderie during hot summer nights (Andrews 1994, 221; Hawks 2017, 99).
By 1962, creativity in the classroom was limited and there were far more restrictions to what could and could not be created, said, and taught.
Bright Colors in Dark Times
“Strengthen my resolve and increase the fun of living”
In 1963, Huang was sent to the countryside as part of the “Four Cleanups” movement (四清运动, 1963-1966). Although Huang cooperated with the requirement to attend political meetings and do farm work, he distanced himself from attempts to reform his thinking. In his own time, and even during political meetings, he would continue to compose satirical and humorous pictures and captions centered around animals, which would later turn into his ‘A Can of Worms’ series (Hawks 2017, 99; see Morningsun.org).
Three years later, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese major artists, including Huang, were detained in makeshift jails called ‘niupeng‘ (牛棚), cowsheds. Huang’s work was declared to be counter-revolutionary, and he was denounced and severely beaten. Despite the difficult circumstances, Huang’s humor and kindness would remind his fellow artist prisoners of the joy of daily living (2017, 95-96).
After his release, Huang and his family were relocated to a cramped room on the outskirts of Beijing. The authorities, thinking they could thwart his artistic pursuits, provided him with a shed that had only one window, which faced a neighbor’s wall. However, this limitation didn’t deter Huang. Instead, he ingeniously utilized vibrant pigments that shone brightly even in the dimly lit space.
During this time, he also decided to make himself an “extra window” by creating an oil painting titled “Eternal Window” (永远的窗户). Huang later explained that the flower blossoms in the paining were also intended to “strengthen my resolve and increase the fun of living” (Hawks 2017, 4; 100-101).
In 1973, during the peak of the Cultural Revolution, Huang painted his famous winking owl. The calligraphy next to the owl reads: “During the day people curse me with vile words, but at night I work for them” (“白天人们用恶毒的语言诅咒我，夜晚我为他们工作”) (Matthysen 2021, 165).
The painting was seen as a display of animosity towards the regime, and Huang got in trouble for it. Later on in his career, however, Huang would continue to paint owls. In 1977, when the Cultural Revolution had ended, Huang Yongyu painted other owls to ridicules his former critics (2021, 174).
According to art scholar Shelly Drake Hawks, Huang Yongyu employed animals in his artwork to satirize the realities of life under socialism. This approach can be loosely compared to George Orwell’s famous novel Animal Farm.
However, Huang’s artistic style, vibrant personal life, and boundary-pushing work ethic also draw parallels to Picasso. Like Picasso, Huang embraced a colorful life, adopted an innovative approach to art, and challenged artistic norms.
An Optimist Despite All Hardships
“Quickly come praise me, while I’m still alive”
Huang Yongyu will be remembered in China with love and affection for numerous reasons. Whether it is his distinctive artwork, his mischievous smile and trademark pipe, his unwavering determination to follow his own path despite the authorities’ expectations, or his enduring love for his wife of over 75 years, there are countless aspects to appreciate and admire about Huang.
One things that is certainly admirable is how he was able to maintain a youthful and joyful attitude after suffering many hardships and losing so many friends.
“An intriguing soul. Too wonderful to describe,” one Weibo commenter wrote about Huang, sharing pictures of Huang Yongyu’s “Scenes of Pooping” (出恭图) work.
Old age did not hold him back. At the age of 70, his paintings sold for millions. When he was in his eighties, he was featured on the cover of Esquire (时尚先生) magazine.
At the age of 82, he stirred controversy in Hong Kong with his “Adam and Eve” sculpture featuring male and female genitalia, leading to complaints from some viewers. When confronted with the backlash, Huang answered, “I just wanted to have a taste of being sued, and see how the government would react” (Ora Ora).
I'm guessing the 98-year-old Huang loved the controversy. When confronted with backlash for his sculpture featuring male and female genitalia in 2007 Hong Kong, Huang answered, "I just wanted to have a taste of being sued, and see how the government would react." pic.twitter.com/kG0MVVM4SN
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) June 15, 2023
In his nineties, he started driving a Ferrari. He owned mansions in his hometown in Hunan, in Beijing, in Hong Kong, and in Italy – all designed by himself (Chen 2019).
Huang kept working and creating until the end of his life. “It’s good to work diligently. Your work may be meaningful. Maybe it won’t be. Don’t insist on life being particularly meaningful. If it’s happy and interesting, then that’s great enough.”
Huang did not dread the end of his life.
“My old friends have all died, I’m the only one left,” he said at the age of 95. He wrote his will early and decided he wanted a memorial service for himself before his final departure. “Quickly come praise me, while I’m still alive,” he said, envisioning himself reclining on a chair in the center of the room, “listening to how everyone applauds me” (CCTV, Sohu).
He stated: “I don’t fear death at all. I always joke that when I die, you should tickle me first and see if I’ll smile” (“对死我是一点也不畏惧，我开玩笑，我等死了之后先胳肢我一下，看我笑不笑”).
Huang also was not sentimental about what should happen to his ashes. In a 2019 article in Guangming Daily, it was revealed that he suggested to his wife the idea of pouring his ashes into the toilet and flushing them away with the water.
However, his wife playfully retorted, saying, “No, that won’t do. Your life has been too challenging; you would clog the toilet.”
To this, Huang responded, “Then wrap my ashes into dumplings and let everyone [at the funeral] eat them, so you can tell them, ‘You’ve consumed Huang Yongyu’s ashes!'”
But she also opposed of that idea, saying that they would vomit and curse him forever.
Nevertheless, his wife expressed opposition to this idea, citing concerns that it would cause people to vomit and curse him indefinitely.
In response, Huang declared, “Then let’s forget about my ashes. If you miss me after I’m gone, just look up at the sky and the clouds.” Eventually, his wife would pass away before him, in 2020, at the age of 98, having spent 77 years together with Huang.
Huang will surely be missed. Not just by the loved ones he leaves behind, but also by millions of his fans and admirers in China and beyond.
“We will cherish your memory, Mr. Huang,” one Weibo blogger wrote. Others honor Huang by sharing some of his famous quotes, such as, “Sincerity is more important than skill, which is why birds will always sing better than humans” (“真挚比技巧重要，所以鸟总比人唱得好”).
Among thousands of other comments, another social media user bid farewell to Huang Yongyu: “Our fascinating Master has transcended. He is now a fascinating soul. We will fondly remember you.”
By Manya Koetse
Andrews, Julia Frances. 1994. Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1979. Berkley: University of California Press.
Baike. “Huang Yongyu 黄永玉.” Baidu Baike https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E9%BB%84%E6%B0%B8%E7%8E%89/1501951 [June 14, 2023].
CCTV. 2023. “Why Everyone Loves Huang Yongyu [为什么人人都爱黄永玉].” WeChat 央视网 June 14.
Chen Hongbiao 陈洪标. 2019. “Most Spicy Artist: Featured in a Magazine at 80, Flirting with Lin Qingxia at 91, Playing with Cars at 95, Wants Memorial Service While Still Alive [最骚画家：80岁上杂志，91岁撩林青霞，95岁玩车，活着想开追悼会].” Sohu/Guangming Daily March 16: https://www.sohu.com/a/301686701_819105 [June 15, 2023].
Hawks, Shelley Drake. 2017. The Art of Resistance Painting by Candlelight in Mao’s China. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Matthysen, Mieke. 2021. Ignorance is Bliss: The Chinese Art of Not Knowing. Palgrave Macmillan.
Ora Ora. “HUANG YONGYU 黃永玉.” Ora Ora https://www.ora-ora.com/artists/103-huang-yongyu/ [June 15, 2023].
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