It is the question of the day on Baidu’s Quora-like question asking platform: why is China’s most popular car-hailing service Didi Chuxing getting more expensive? And also, more specifically: why is Didi Carpooling (滴滴顺风车), an alleged non-profit service provided by Didi Chuxing, raising its prices?1
News about Didi has been making headlines since the Chinese e-hailing giant acquired the international car-hailing firm Uber in August of this year, and its rising prices have become a much-discussed topic on Chinese social media.
The Story of Didi
Nowadays it is hard to find an urban Chinese not familiar with these two simple characters: 滴滴 (Dī dī). Didi Chuxing (滴滴出行) is China’s biggest taxi-hailing service, formed from the merger of rival firms Didi Dache and Kuaidi Dache. The former competitors Didi Dache and Kuaidi were backed by China’s e-commerce giants Tencent and Alibaba, and both started in the summer of 2012. They were involved in a fierce competition for market share before finally announcing their merge in February 2012.
After the merge, the company was formerly known as Didi Kuaidi (滴滴快递), until it rebranded as Didi Chuxing in September 2015 with a fresh new logo and image.
Didi also launched a carpooling service called ‘Didi Shunfengche’ (滴滴顺风车, “Didi’s Favourable Ride”) in June 2015. Didi Shunfengche uses an app and advanced techniques to match car owners with customers looking for a ride. The service was allegedly a non-profit one, as Didi said it would offer it for free to “relieve the ‘pain point’ of urban traffic during rush hour, providing a public good and promoting green travel” (FT 2015).
Didi is also often referred to as “China’s Uber” outside the PRC. One year after the launch of Kuaidi Dache and Didi Dache, American e-hailing giant Uber also entered the Chinese market (2013). But during its first years in China, Uber was not doing too well as it lost over $1 billion a year.
In August 2016, Uber China finally gave up its Chinese e-hailing war with Didi, and merged with its rival.
Higher Prices, Bothered Passengers
Since the last couple of months, but especially since Didi acquired Uber China (优步), Didi Chuxing has been quietly increasing its prices. The topic of “Didi’s rising prices” (滴滴涨价) has been going around Chinese internet, and it is a source of annoyance for many Chinese car-hailing netizens.
Also for Didi’s Carpooling, prices are heightened 20% since September of this year. A 3 km ride starting price went from 10 RMB (±1.5$) to 12 RMB (±1.8$), and the per-kilometer price went from 1.3 RMB (±0.19$) to 1.5 RMB (±0.22$). It is the third time prices are raised within one year.
According to a spokesperson quoted by Chinese media, the Didi Shunfengche prices have gone up because carpool drivers will have to take some detours and spend more time to pick up other passengers, for which they need more compensation. The sharp price increase thus is explained to “achieve reasonable cost-sharing, to encourage users to share their ride, and to help develop a healthy industry,” the spokesperson said.
On Chinese social media, netizens are not too happy about the rising prices, with some netizens saying they will switch back to normal taxis instead.
Many also say that it is not good for passengers that Didi now monopolizes the cab-hailing industry since its merge with Uber.
“Make the Pig Fat Before You Eat It”
On Q&A platform ‘Baidu Knows’ (百度知道), the question “Why is market-leader Didi Shunfengche raising its prices?” [垄断行业的滴滴顺风车为什么涨价?] recently became the ‘question of the day’, with some netizens providing insightful answers.
One netizen just said: “It is simple: you have to raise and fatten the pig before you can slaughter and eat it” [“很简单，猪养肥了，可以宰了吃肉了”]. Another Baidu user said that Didi “used a long line to catch a big fish” (“放长线钓大鱼”).
What they mean is that the main reason why Didi’s e-hailing service has become so huge is because of the money it poured into subsidies for drivers and riders (“fattening the pig”). Most of Didi’s passengers initially started to use Didi because of its many discounts and low prices, while drivers also joined the e-hailing market for the profits.
In the early years of Chinese e-hailing apps, a survey showed that 55% of cab drivers had a monthly income increase of 10% to 30% since they started using them (Philips & Kim 2016, 241).
Didi kept its rates artificially low to push out competitors and dominate the market. Although new rules for e-hailing companies no longer allow these practices starting from November 1st 2016, Didi has already had enough time to win the “subsidy war”.
The “subsidy war” was played on both sides. Much like its rival, Uber China also kept prices artificially low to win over new customers. For example, a 30 km journey in Beijing that would be about 80 RMB (±12$) per normal cab, which already is relatively cheap, would be 40 RMB (±5.9$) with Uber – an amount that would have to cover not only the cost of the gas, but also that of the insurance, the corporate fees, taxes, and salary of the driver.
Although Chinese passengers were initially the big winners as they got incredibly subsidized rides, they will now be the ‘losers’ as prices are inevitably going up. While drivers and passengers previously had more money in their wallets, Didi and Uber were losing it – with the main goal of making money at a later time (“eating the pig”).
Now that e-hailing has become a normal part of everyday life for many Chinese commuters, it is time for Didi to start making money instead of giving it away. Because they have acquired a monopoly position within their market, riders have few other options left; passengers will pay more, drivers will make less.
What About Uber?
Chinese riders will still have the choice to either take Didi Chuxing or Uber in the future, especially now that ride-hailing companies like Uber have become officially legalized by the Chinese government (they previously were in a legal grayish area).
They will keep a separate identity for Uber because, amongst other reasons, it provides a somewhat different service than Didi. When riders order a Didi ride through their mobile phone, the request of the ride and destination goes out to all the cab drivers in the area. Whoever wants to takes the ride can take it, and every driver has the right to take or refuse the request. After receiving a ride, passengers pay for it through cash or Alipay/WeChat pay.
Uber, on the other hand, is more service-based. With Uber, passengers order a car without putting in the destination. The driver will only know where to pick up passengers, but not where they are going. They are therefore not able to refuse rides based on destination, whereas the normal Didi service cars can do this. Another big difference is the way of paying: all Uber rides will be deducted from your Uber account that is connected to your credit card, and passengers never pay the driver directly.
One thing that is not different is that Uber China is also getting more expensive.
Not All About The Money
On Sina Weibo, many netizens respond to the heightened prices, some with annoyance, others with a pragmatic view.
Many netizens share screenshots of their Didi bill, saying: “Ouch, this ride normally just cost me at most 15 RMB (±2.2$) and now it costs me 19.9 RMB (±2.9$).”
“No problem for me, go ahead and raise your prices, I’ll just stop taking your rides,” one netizen comments, along with multiple similar responses. “If the prices are raised, I’ll stop using these services. I only started using it because it was cheap. Of course, it is convenient, but for me, the price is key,” another Weibo user comments.
Some netizens are disappointed: “With these rising prices, e-hailing (网约车) will become a high-end service. And there’s nothing to do because there’s no competition now,” one netizen posts.
One Beijing male netizen says: “Didi’s moment of crisis will come. The drivers will walk off because they dislike the lower pay, the passengers will stop riding because they dislike the higher fairs.”
Many netizens are especially disgruntled because China’s Paypal-equivalent Alipay (支付宝), a very common way of paying for e-hailing, recently announced it will start charging users fees starting from October 12. “Didi prices going up, Alipay charging fees, what can I do?!”, one Weibo user wrote.
Another netizens remarked: “The fact that prices of e-hailing and e-banking are going up now shows that the cards are shuffled in the domain of e-commerce, and that capitalism is now taking over the internet.”
There are also voices saying now that unfair “subsidy wars” will soon become illegal in China, there will be more opportunity for competition to grow bigger. The Yidao (易到) car-hailing services, for example, might finally get a chance to expand. In 2010, Yidao was the pioneer of car-hailing apps, but since its prices were always higher than its competition, it did not become as big as Uber or Didi did.
But here, it might not be all about the money. When Chinese riders will get more used to paying higher prices for their e-hailing services, they might start focusing more on the ride quality than its price. This is another reason why companies such as Yidao have not yet lost the race. Chinese online entertainment company LeTV invested 700$ million in Yidao last year, as the company is likely to start focusing more on offering different services (films, tv) to customers to make their ride as enjoyable as possible.
They have also joined hands with restaurants, hotels and other consumer sites to expand their business model. Passengers riding with Yidao could, for example, get coupons or vouchers for restaurants and vice versa.
Some Weibo netizens also feel that money is not the sole factor in the recent Didi developments, and they are more than prepared to pay the heightened prices: “This has nothing to do with money. A couple of years ago when Beijing did not have Uber or Didi yet, you would wait by the side of the road to hail a cab, and while it rained and stormed you would wait in the rain for 40 minutes with your kid by your side, and still not one car would stop. Did you forget about that?”
Many netizens, however, are not convinced: “I won’t ride Didi anymore.”
Philips, Roger A. & Eugene P. Kim. 2016. Business in Contemporary China. Routledge: New York & London.
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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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