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An Introduction to Sina Weibo: Background and Status Quo

Sina Weibo, often referred to as ‘Weibo’, is one of the biggest social media platforms of China. A short introduction to China’s most popular micro-blogging service.

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This is What’s on Weibo’s short introduction to Sina Weibo, China’s biggest social media network that was launched in 2009. Over the past eight years, Weibo has transformed from a Chinese equivalent of Twitter to a comprehensive platform that incorporates the major features of social media channels like Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram [last updated April 2017].

Sina Weibo is China’s most popular social media platform. This is What’s on Weibo’s Sina Weibo File: an introduction to Sina Weibo, with regularly updated facts and stats.

 
What’s on Weibo’s Weibo File:
1. What is Sina Weibo? A Short Intro
2. Weibo Dead? Au Contraire!
3. Sina Weibo in Numbers
4. Weibo’s Biggest Stars

 

1.What is Sina Weibo?
A Short Intro

 

Sina Weibo (新浪微博), often simply called ‘Weibo’ (pronounce as way-bo), is one of the biggest social media platforms of China. ‘Weibo’ literally means ‘micro-blog.’

Weibo is often explained as the Chinese equivalent of Twitter or Facebook, two services that are blocked in mainland China. The year that Sina Weibo was launched (2009) was a pivotal year for China in terms of micro-blogging. Besides Twitter, domestic social media sites such as Zuosa, Fanfou and Taotao were rapidly gaining popularity. Following the Urumqi riots in 2009, Chinese authorities blamed the free flow of information for the surge of social unrest and put a stop to Twitter, Facebook and many local microblogs (Sullivan 2012, 775). Sina Weibo was introduced as a new social media platform that would keep the stream of incoming posts under control by tracking and blocking ‘sensitive’ content (ibid. 2012, 775-776).

There are multiple sites in China that offer micro-blogging services, but Sina Weibo is still the most popular one around the Chinese web. Three years after its launch, it already had 503 million registered users (Chen et al 2012, 1; Zhao et al 2014, 613); a significant majority of the 640 million Internet users that China holds.

Sina Weibo is often called the “Chinese Twitter”, but actually it is more versatile. The platform functions as what could be said to be a combination of Facebook and Twitter, but ultimately is unique.

Weibo has a 140 character limit to each post and users are part of a “follower-followee network” (Gao et al 2012, 88). The relationship between followers and followees is unidirectional; one can ‘follow’ an individual and read their ‘weibos’ (posts), like and share them, without being followed back. It is possible for users to upload videos, images, and gifs.

Research shows that there are quite some differences between how Weibo is used in China and Twitter is used in other countries. Not only do users of Sina Weibo publish more posts than those on Twitter, they also tend to disclose more personal information about themselves. They are more active in reacting on other people and sharing their views (Gao et al 2012, 93; Sullivan 2012, 774). While topics discussed on Twitter are often linked to institutions and companies, users of Sina avoid talking about (political) organizations or other institutions (Gao et al 2012, 96). The idea that Weibo is used in a more ‘personal’ way is supported by the fact that Sina Weibo users publish 19% more posts during the weekends. This in contrast to Twitter, where people post 11% less tweets on weekends than they do on weekdays (ibid. 2012, 98).

China is in the midst of a “microblogging revolution” (Sullivan 2012, 773). Online government regulations and censorship have not turned Chinese Internet or Weibo into a social media prison. On the contrary, the Chinese Internet could be called “one of the most vibrant economic and social cyberspaces in the world” (Yeo&Li 2012, 7). The intense online discussions on corrupt officials or multiple food scandals have demonstrated that the relationship between the censors and the world of Weibo is not black and white. Although there are many limits to what can be posted, and control is strict, Weibo does offer a national platform to ordinary Chinese netizens where they can enjoy a relatively free online environment (Sullivan 2012, 774; Magistad 2012). Weibo is a place of continuous negotiation between citizens and government on what the boundaries are, and to what extent they can be stretched. In this way Weibo is a highly politicized space. It is clear that Weibo is a significant phenomenon to present Chinese society that will keep buzzing on the net for a long time to come.

 

2.Weibo Dead?
Au Contraire! 

 

Recently, many different media have stated that Weibo is dying as a consequence to 2015 rules that required users to register with their real names. More people allegedly switched from the more public Weibo to the more private messaging app Weixin, media argued, and Weibo would soon be on the way out as online free speech becomes more and more limited.

Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site

Although Weibo is not the more ‘private’ platform it used to be, it is still very much alive. Its daily active users are still on the increase, with 34% more in 2015 than in 2014. Its mobile monthly active users grew 57% in 2015.The private dimension of Weibo (talking amongst friends) has made room for Weixin, where P2P is the most important form of interaction. In December 2016, Weibo had 313 million monthly active users.

Sina Weibo is now a public social media platform and China’s most dominant source of news content, where netizens come for information acquisition, sharing and commenting. They also have added additional features to the platform (such as ‘Radar‘) to keep Weibo users coming back.

Weibo still has over 500 million registered users; and with over 212 million of them actively using the platform in 2015, and monthly active users reaching 390 million in September of 2016, Weibo is more alive than ever. Those who said Weibo was dead, were too soon to judge: WeChat has not killed Weibo and users are not leaving (yet). A number one trending topic still has up to 800 million page views and 4.9 million comments.

 

3.Sina Weibo
in Numbers

 

*Sina Weibo has more than 500 million registered users.

*There are 313 million monthly active users.

*85% of them use Weibo on their mobile.

*There are over 100 million messages posted by users each day.

*70% of Weibo’s active users are at university level.

*50.10% of Weibo users are male, 49.90% are female.

*With 90 million followers, actress Xie Na is the number 1 Weibo celebrity.

 

4.Weibo’s
Biggest Stars

 

Some of Weibo’s top celebrities have more ‘followers’ than any other star in the world. The top 10 celebrities from mainland China with the biggest fan base changes every now and then but the top five has been pretty stable for the past year.

What is noteworthy about this list is that it does not contain any ‘internet celebrities’ (网红 wanghong), meaning people who have become self-made online influencers through the internet, for which Weibo has become known over the past 1-2 years. One example is comedian Papi Jiang, who became famous by posting funny videos of herself. Nevertheless, the biggest Weibo stars are still the ‘traditional celebrities’ in the sense that they have made their big breakthrough through TV or cinema.

Many of them simply have become so big on Weibo because they were among the first celebrities to join the platform since its beginning in 2009. Big names in this list, including Yao Chen, Chen Kun, and Guo Degang, already had over 54 million followers on the platform in 2013.

Here we go with our updated list of Weibo’s biggest stars of 2017:

 

1. Xie Na 谢娜

90.485.623 followers.

The absolute number one this list is the ‘Queen of Weibo’ Xie Na (1981), also nicknamed ‘Nana’ – an extremely popular Chinese singer, actress and designer. One of the reasons she has become so famous in mainland China is that she is the co-host of Happy Camp (快乐大本管), which is one of China’s most popular variety TV shows. She presents the show together with, amongst others, colleague He Jiong, who is the number two in this list.

Xie Na stars in many popular Chinese films and television series. She has also released several albums, founded a personal clothing line, and published two books.

Before getting married to Chinese singer Zhang Jie, Xie Na was in a 6-year relationship with her Happy Camp colleague Liu Ye.

Xiena made headlines in March 2017, becoming #1 trending topic on Weibo, when she announced she would go to Italy as an overseas student to study design.

 

2. He Jiong 何炅

83.883.937 followers

He Jiong (1974) has been the host of China’s popular Happy Camp TV show for over ten years. He is also a singer, actor, and used to be an Arabic teacher at Beijing’s Foreign Studies University. Chinese media have called He Jiong “a key figure in China’s entertainment industry.”

‘Happy Camp’ (快乐大本馆) is a prime time variety show aired by Hunan TV. It is one of China’s most popular TV shows in China. With a viewership of tens of millions, it often holds first place in China’s total viewing ratings.

 

3. Chen Kun 陈坤

81.067.976 followers.

Chinese top actor and singer Chen Kun (1979, Chongqing) is known for his roles in, amongst others, Painted Skin and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

Chen Kun, sometimes also known as Aloys Chen, is not only popular because of his acting work, but also for his looks – he is known to have a large gay fanbase. He is not shy about his looks, and likes to post a lot of photos of himself on his Weibo page.

 

4. AngelaBaby 杨颖

80.660.742 followers.

‘Angelababy’ (nickname for Yang Ying, 1989) has practically become a household name in China over the past few years. The actress and model started her acting career in 2007 and has taken on many roles in different movies and TV dramas.

Angelababy especially made headlines when she married Chinese famous actor Huang Xiaoming in 2015 and took extravagant pre-wedding photos in Paris. In the same year, she also set off a firestorm of debate when she underwent a medical examination to prove that she did not have facial plastic surgery to defend herself in a court case against a beauty clinic.

Angelababy is one of China’s “New Four Dan Actresses” according to the 2013 Southern Metropolis Daily, meaning she is generally perceived as one of China’s most bankable actresses.

 

5. Yao Chen 姚晨

80.570.259 followers.

In our 2015 list of Weibo’s biggest celebrities, Yao Chen was ranking first with 78 million followers. Although she has gained two million fans since then, she has dropped a few places in this list.

Fujian-born Yao Chen (1979) is a Chinese actress and Weibo celebrity, who was mentioned as the 83rd most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine in 2014. Being the first-ever Chinese UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, she is also called ‘China’s answer to Angelina Jolie’ (Telegraph).

Yao Chen was featured on the 2016 Pirelli Calendar.

Yao Chen is not necessarily China’s number one actress, but she was one of the first celebrities to share her personal life on Weibo since 2009, and interact with her fans. On Weibo, she talks about her everyday life, family, news-related issues, work, and fashion. She posts personal pictures every day.

The combination of her popularity due to acting work, combined with her frequent Weibo updates and closeness to her fans, have made Yao Chen a huge Weibo celebrity.

For the full list check out our 2017 top 10 of Weibo celebrities.

By Manya Koetse

References

Chen Zhaoqun, Pengfei Liu, Xiaohan Wang and Yuantao Gu. 2012. “Follow Whom? Chinese Users Have Different Choice.” Paper, Department of Electronic Engineering, Tsinghua University. Available online at http://arxiv.org/abs/1212.0167 (Accessed February 28, 2013).

Gao, Qi, Fabian Abel, Geert-Jan Houben and Yong Yu. 2012. “A Comparative Study of Users’ Microblogging Behavior on Sina Weibo and Twitter.” In: Masthoff, J.; Mobasher, B.; Desmarais, M.; Nkambou, R. (Eds.), User Modeling, Adaptation, and Personalization: 20th International Conference, UMAP 2012, Montreal, Canada, July 16-20, 2012 Proceedings, 88-101. Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Lunden, Ingrid. 2012. “Analyst: Twitter Passed 500M Users In June 2012.” Techcrunch.com (July 30). Available online at http://tcrn.ch/OdtB41 (Accessed February 28, 2013).

Magistad, Mary Kay. 2012. “How Weibo is Changing China.” Yale Global (Aug 9). Available online at http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/how-weibo-changing-china (Accessed February 28, 2013).

Millward, Steven. 2015. “Weibo hits 212M monthly active users, most now on mobile.” Tech in Asia, Aug 19 https://www.techinasia.com/weibo-212-million-active-users/ [8.9.15].

Sullivan, Jonathan. 2012. “A Tale of Two Microblogs in China.” Media Culture Society (34): 773-783.

Yeo, George and Eric X. Li. 2012. “Yin and Yang: Sina Weibo and the Chinese State.” New Perspectives Quarterly 29(2): 7-9.

Zhao, J., Wu, W., Zhang, X., Qiang, Y., Liu, T., & Wu, L. 2014. “A Short-Term Trend Prediction Model of Topic over Sina Weibo Dataset.” Journal of Combinatorial Optimization (28):613-625.

(Image: http://charliewang.me/a-close-look-at-the-sina-weibo-phenomenon)

Article by Manya Koetse for What’s on Weibo. 2013-2015.

©2015 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, Sino-Japanese relations and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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  1. Harald Gottschling

    October 12, 2016 at 11:05 pm

    I´m looking for shouse-brand “chou sen” , thank you
    Harald Gottschling

  2. Mandy

    October 6, 2017 at 10:05 pm

    Good article. Thanks for sharing.

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Backgrounder

Anorexia in China – Same, But Different

What’s on Weibo gives an overview of how anorexia nervosa is discussed in China and on Chinese social media.

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Although discussions on anorexia nervosa are limited in Chinese (online) media, anorexia does in fact exist in Chinese patients; some studies even suggest that levels of occurrence are not much different from Western countries. There are big differences, however, in the way anorexia is experienced and/or described in China.

“Does anorexia exist in China?” is one amongst the millions of questions recently posted on the Chinese Quora-like platform Zhihu.com. It is a question that pops up on Chinese social media every now and then, as the eating disorder is not often discussed in a Chinese context.

The empty dialogue page on Zhihu.com is telling for the general discussion of anorexia in China today. Anorexia nervosa, commonly called anorexia, is an eating disorder characterized by low weight that receives relatively little attention on Chinese online and social media compared to the English-language online environment, where there are countless support groups, discussion forums, and even the so-called unhealthy ‘Pro Ana’ communities where the behaviors related to anorexia are promoted.

Both anorexia in general, and the pro-ana communities in specific, received ample attention from Western media over the past few years. ITV recently reported about an “alarming rise in social media sites encouraging anorexic sufferers to starve themselves,” and that social media worsens the condition of people with anorexia who flock to these kinds of websites.

How come that on Chinese social media platforms, which see a different ‘skinny hype’ every year (from the ‘iPhone6 legs‘ to ‘A4 waist‘), there are few online discussions about anorexia nervosa?

 

A “WESTERN” PHENOMENON

“Eating disorders seem to be an exotic phenomenon to many Chinese, but it actually is not.”

 

General discussions of anorexia nervosa on Weibo, China’s biggest social media platform, mostly relate to cases of the disease in Western, Caucasian women. The young Australian model and performer Phoebe Combes attracted some attention on Weibo in 2017 for suffering from anorexia. “How come every time I read about [this disease] it concerns foreign women?”, one netizen wondered.

Photos of model Phoebe Combes were shared on Chinese social media in 2017.

Sporadically, speculative discussions do arise on social media about Chinese celebrities who may or may not be suffering from anorexia. Talk show host Chen Luxu (陈鲁豫), for example, became a topic of discussion when netizens started worrying about her frail appearance and said she was “too thin.”

Online commenters often call talk show host Chen Luxu (陈鲁豫) “too thin.”

Talk show host Chen Luxu.

For many netizens, however, the issue is often simplified to a mere “they should just eat more.” Despite general public unawareness about anorexia in China, more doctors and specialists are stepping forward to talk about the issue.

“When a Chinese doctor raised the issue of anorexia in China some twenty years ago at an international conference, foreign experts doubted if eating disorders existed in China,” one professional support site dedicated to anorexia and bulimia in China says: “We now want to promote awareness about eating disorders to patients and their families.”

In 2017, deputy director Ma Yongchun (马永春) of a hospital in Tongde, Zhejiang, spoke out to Chinese media website AcFun.com, saying that although eating disorders seem to be an exotic phenomenon to many Chinese, it actually is not. She also warned about the negative effects of social media platforms promoting unhealthy body images or unhealthy eating patterns.

 

THE STORY OF YUN

“Her condition spiraled out of control when she spent days on end watching live streams on Chinese social media that promote unhealthy eating habits.”

 

The AcFun article featured the story of one of Ma’s patients named Yun (alias), a 33-year-old former athlete from Zhejiang who weighed only 36 pounds with a height of 160 cm when she was at her lowest point – and on the verge of death.

She told AcFun that she became anorexic after being forced to eat a restrictive diet by her grandparents during her teens. When her entire athlete team suffered from gastroenteritis, her grandmother only allowed to her to eat bean curds and rice for months on end.

The story of ‘Yun’ who suffered from severe anorexia was featured in Chinese media.

Unable to continue eating her forced diet and not allowed to eat anything else, the young Yun developed an eating disorder. At the age of 19, she was diagnosed with anorexia by doctors at the Tongde hospital – a diagnosis that was followed by years of ups and downs. Yun’s condition spiraled out of control when she spent days on end watching live streams on Chinese social media that promote unhealthy eating habits.

Weighing only 36 pounds at her low point, Yun was barely able to move. One day, when she was alone with her sister’s small baby, she found herself too weak to pick up the infant went it was desperately crying. For Yun, it was a turning point in her decision to beat the illness.

Although many doctors gave Yun low chance of survival, a team of doctors including Ma Yongchun eventually were able to give Yun the help she needed. She now maintains a healthy weight.

 

UNHEALTHY ONLINE TRENDS

“Vomit Bars are online forums where netizens nicknamed ‘Rabbits’ encourage each other to vomit after eating.”

 

Doctors such as Ma Yongchun are part of a growing group of specialists in China raising awareness on eating disorders in China and warning against unhealthy online trends – which are on the rise.

Over the last years, online discussion boards such as Baidu Tieba have seen the phenomenon of ‘Vomit Bars’ (催吐吧) – a phenomenon somewhat comparable to the online ‘pro-ana’ movement on English-language internet sites.

‘Vomit Bars’ are online forums where netizens nicknamed ‘Rabbits’ (兔子) encourage each other to vomit after eating. Several live streaming sites also have people promoting weird or unhealthy eating habits, such as eating non-food products or binge eating – something Dr. Ma strongly condemns.

A girl binge eating on a live stream.

On Chinese social media, organizations helping those suffering from anorexia or other eating disorders are present, but not popular.

Although the Chinese Eating Disorder Recovery Web (@进食障碍康复网) only has a weak following online, their offline mission is strong: “China’s health care system can no longer ignore the growing group of eating disorder patients in China.”

 

ANOREXIA ON THE RISE OR NOT?

“There are no official statistics on the occurrence of anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders in China in the past and present.”

 

The topic of anorexia in China has also received more attention in international media and academic publications over the past decade.

Some English-language media, such as the LA Times, suggest that with changing beauty standards, skinny trends, and more influence from Western popular culture, eating disorders are “on the rise” in China.

Whether or not this is actually true is hard to say; there are no official statistics on the occurrence of anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders in China in the past and present. A study from 2013 among Chinese female college students in Wuhan, considered one of the best estimates of national rates, however, found levels similar to Western countries (Tong et al 2014).

In Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines are Changing a Nation, the authors (French & Crabbe 2010) also suggest that eating disorders such as anorexia are indeed present in society and that an increasing number of urban Chinese, mainly young women, are suffering from it (171).

Even if anorexia were to occur as much in China as in the West – which has neither been refuted nor confirmed – the way in which the disease is described and/or experienced seems to be significantly different.

 

SAME DISEASE, DIFFERENT MANIFESTATIONS

“Chinese patients showed few, if any, of the classical concerns associated with anorexia.”

 

Various studies over the past years have established that there are differences between Western countries and China in how anorexia develops with regards to patients’ preoccupations concerning appearance and body image.

In “The Myth of Chinese Barbies: Eating Disorders in China including Hong Kong” (2014), researcher M. Getz writes that eating disorders are traditionally conceptualized as a Western mental health issue, specifically because the ‘fat phobia’ aspects of the illness are often stressed the most. According to study, this attention towards appearance seems to be less important to Chinese patients (746-747).

This idea is further strengthened by Sing Lee, an expert in eating disorders in Chinese communities, who argues that Chinese patients “showed few, if any, of the classical concerns associated with anorexia” (747).

A major way in how anorexia in China is often different than in other (Western) countries is that it is somaticized. This relates to the fact that mental illnesses in China still carry a stigma and often go undiagnosed due to the lack of mental health care institutions.

Since physical problems are more socially accepted in China than mental health issues, people who suffer from anorexia in China are more prone to talk about their problems in the form of somatic symptoms such as distaste for food and not being hungry, or abdominal problems (Getz 2014, 750).

Levels of industrialization, media influence, eating habits, societal pressure to be thin, family pressure to succeed, etc., all may play a role in the occurrence of anorexia. Especially One-Child Policy generation children allegedly experience more pressure in their lives to perform.

As the development of anorexia in China goes hand in hand with social stigmas and superstitions regarding mental health issues, a traditionally strong food culture, a general unawareness on eating disorders, and many other cultural factors that may influence the manifestation of the disease, one can see why studies have found that “eating disorders are not culture-bound or culture-specific, but rather culture-reactive.” The reasons why patients develop anorexia and how it is manifested can, therefore, radically differ per culture (Pike & Dunne 2015).

 

ONLINE DISCUSSIONS

“I simply can’t eat any food. I have no interest in food. Even if I am starving I still do not want to eat.”

 

These findings are also apparent on the various anorexia support message boards in China, where people suffering from the disease share their experiences. Rather than talking about fear of being fat, many commenters only discuss their loss of appetite and stressful lives.

One netizen on Zhihu.com writes:

I am suffering from anorexia right now. The pressure at school is too much for me. I don’t have any time to relax. It’s all about studying. I simply can’t eat any food. I have no interest in food. Even if I am starving I still do not want to eat.”

Another person writes:

I think I have anorexia. But I am not sure. (..) I simply do not want to eat. If I see food, I have no desire to eat it. I only eat some breakfast and some dinner, an egg at 7.30 and some rice at 17.30.”

A new study on anorexia in China by Zaida Aguera et al (2017) confirms the idea that anorexia in Chinese patients is often experienced or communicated physical rather than psychological, as they are “culturally encouraged to use denial and minimization to cope with conditions deemed taboo” (9).

Because the way anorexia presents itself is different, researchers argue that its treatment also requires a different approach in China than in other countries that have developed own national standards on treating eating disorders.

The treatment options in China, however, are still limited. The first and only closed ward for eating disorders opened in Beijing six years ago. But the recent increased media attention raised by doctors such as Ma Yongchun and heightened focus on mental health care in China indicate that there will be more options for Chinese anorexia patients in the future.

As for the Zhihu poster who asked about anorexia in China – they are still waiting for an answer. In the meantime, they have suggested an own solution in the underline, writing: “There just is so much tasty food in China, that  anorexia in China is probably is much rarer here than in any other country in the world.” No one else responded.

By Manya Koetse

References

Agüera, Z., Brewin, N., Chen, J., Granero, R., Kang, Q., Fernandez-Aranda, F., & Arcelus, J. 2017. “Eating Symptomatology and General Psychopathology in Patients with Anorexia Nervosa from China, UK and Spain: A Crosscultural Study Examining the Role of Social Attitudes.” PLoS ONE, 12(3), 1–13.

French, Paul, and ‎Matthew Crabbe. 2010. Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines are Changing a Nation. Imprint: Anthem Press.

Getz, M.J. 2014. “The Myth of Chinese Barbies: Eating Disorders in China including Hong Kong.” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 21: 746-754.

Pike, Kathleen M., and Patricia E. Dunne. 2015. “The Rise of Eating Disorders in Asia: a Review.” Journal of Eating Disorders 3:33. Available online https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40337-015-0070-2 [17.1.18].

Tong, J., Miao, S., Wang, J. et al. 2014. “A Two-stage Epidemiologic Study on Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Female University Students in Wuhan, China.” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 49(3): 499-505.

Are you suffering from an eating disorder and need help? For information on eating disorders and how to help if you are worried about someone, Beat (UK) or ANAD (US) has advice for sufferers, friends and family.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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Backgrounder

Remembering San Mao – the Bohemian Writer That Captured the Hearts of Millions of Chinese

27 years after her suicide, bohemian writer San Mao still strikes a chord with Chinese netizens.

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Renowned author and world traveler San Mao (三毛) was one of the first Chinese mass media celebrities. Exactly 27 years after her passing, Weibo netizens collectively commemorate her free spirit, inspirational life, and tragic death.

In a time when Beijing’s first fast-food restaurants opened their doors, people were hooked on Teresa Tang’s sweet voice, and television sets entered Chinese living rooms, pirate editions of books by the wildly popular Chinese author San Mao first started spreading all over mainland China.

Before this time in the late 1980s, the female author was already a celebrity in Taiwan and Hong Kong since the 1970s; not just because of her many books, newspaper columns, song lyrics, and public lectures, but also because of her free, cosmopolitan, and “legendary” life that captured the imagination of many Chinese eager to look beyond their own borders.

Researcher Miriam Lang (2015) describes San Mao as “one of the first mass media celebrities in the Chinese-speaking world” (440).

On January 4th 2018, the 20th-century writer became a trending topic on social media when various media commemorated her. Chinese state media outlet People’s Daily dedicated a post to the iconic author on Weibo, titled “Today, we cherish the memory of San Mao.”

People’s Daily writes:

She was born in Chongqing, moved to Taiwan, studied in Spain, and settled in the Sahara. All of her life she pursued freedom and touched the hearts of many with all of her words. Her love-story with Jose stirred people’s emotions. Her mother said that maybe her life was not perfect enough for her, but we now know that her life-long pursuit of her dreams has already become romantic legend. Today, in 1991, writer San Mao committed suicide.”

Besides that the post itself attracted thousands of comments and was shared nearly 3800 times, many other media outlets and netizens also posted their own commemorations to the author on Weibo. One post by the Communist Youth League received more than 100,000 comments on January 4th.

“She was the first author I really loved,” one person comments: “Whether she was in the Sahara or Madrid, the way she describes her love has become like a little gemstone in my own life.”

 
A Woman Writer Named Chen, Echo, and San Mao
 

San Mao is known as the wandering writer. Throughout her life, she moved from place to place; a life pattern that already started forming in the early years of her childhood.

San Mao was born in Chongqing, China, in 1943. Her parents, mother Miao Jinlan and father Chen Siqing, named their little girl Chen Mao Ping (陈懋平). Chen, however, later preferred to be called Chen Ping, and gave herself the English name of ‘Echo’ to honor her painting teacher. Once she started writing, she used the pen name San Mao (三毛), which is how she came to be remembered.

Chen Ping aka San Mao during her time in the Sahara.

San Mao’s early years took her from wartime Chongqing via Nanjing to Taiwan, where the 6-year-old girl had trouble fitting in at school. She preferred reading books over doing schoolwork, and while she read literary classics such as Don Quixote at an early age, she failed in mathematics and received low grades.

After a teacher at her Taipei school embarrassed her in front of her classmates by drawing a ‘0’ grade on her face and making her parade around, she refused to continue her classes there and was home-schooled by private tutors and her own father, who was a lawyer (Chen 2007).

San Mao as a young girl.

After studying Philosophy at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan, the 20-year-old San Mao set out to broaden her horizons and moved to Spain, where she enrolled at the University of Madrid. It was the start of her bohemian lifestyle, that brought her from Spain to Germany, from the Sahara Desert to the Canary Islands, and from Central and South America back to Taiwan.

San Mao experienced many adventures but also had to face many difficult times. Her first great love whom she was to be married to, a German teacher 19 years her senior, died of a heart attack when San Mao was 26 old.

Chen Ping aka San Mao with her good friend Father Barry Martinson, a Jesuit priest.

Ten years later, her Spanish husband Jose Maria Quero Y Ruiz, whom San Mao lovingly called ‘He Xi’ (荷西) and with whom she had spent six years in the desert, tragically died during a diving accident.

San Mao and her Spanish husband ‘He Xi’ (荷西).

Miriam Lang, in her study of San Mao (2015), describes her as “unusual for a woman of her time and place”; she traveled far from home, married a non-Chinese man, and remained childless. Nonetheless, Lang notes, San Mao was also traditional in that she represented herself as a “happy housewife” while married, and expressed conservative feminine values in her books (443).

San Mao and Jose.

Although San Mao published her first book at the of 19, she did not really gain fame until the release of her first book The Stories of the Sahara (撒哈拉的故事) in 1976. This work revolves around San Mao’s personal experiences in the Sahara desert together with her husband Jose (Ying 2010, 162).

 
An Unhappy Ending
 

In the decade following her husband’s death, San Mao first set out on a 6-month journey to America but then traveled less and finally settled in Taiwan in 1982, where she started teaching literature and creative writing at the Chinese Culture University.

San Mao in the US.

Being a celebrity, her classes were always packed – students lined up to attend her lectures.

In 1989, she first visited mainland China again since her childhood, where she started working on the screenplay of Red Dust, a love story set during the Sino-Japanese war. Although the film eventually received much acclaim – even winning the prize for Best Film at the Golden Horse Awards of 1990 – San Mao received criticism for creating a “too positive picture” of the leading male character, who was perceived to be a traitor to the Chinese nation (Lang 2015, 442).

Despite all of her activities in her later career, San Mao never parallelled the success she had with her stories about the Sahara. In 1990, San claimed she had won a literary prize in Spain for novella written in Spanish, but the work appeared to be non-existent (Lang 2015,442).

In early 1991, San Mao admitted herself to a hospital in Taiwan where she was tested for cancer. The results turned out negative, but San reportedly asked the nurse for a sleeping pill for the night and asked her not to wake her (Chen 2007).

San Mao ended her own life by hanging on January 4, 1991, at Rongmin General Hospital. She was 47 years old.

Father Jerry Martinson, a Jesuit priest who knew San Mao for years as the brother of her close friend Barry Martinson, told UCA News two weeks after her suicide that San Mao “desired to escape from her fame’s pressure and emotional entanglements, and to reunite with Jose (..). His death was a trauma in her life.”

He also said that Antoine Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince was San Mao’s favorite reading: “At the end of the story, the Little Prince wanted to go back to his planet, reachable only through short suffering.”

Throughout her life, San Mao visited over 54 countries and wrote a total of 26 complete works (Chen 2007; Lang 2015, 442; Huang 2017). An English translation of her work Stories of the Sahara (1976) is expected to be released by publishing house Bloomsbury in 2018.

 
Online “San Mao Fever”
 

The suicide of San Mao generated a new wave of “San Mao fever” in the 1990s. And now, more than two decades after her death, the Chinese celebrity still has major appeal to social media users, who post her quotes, photos, and audio segments.

“How I love San Mao,” one person writes: “Her every word is just immersed with her wisdom.”

But not all commenters are equally positive. Some say that San Mao is representative of a time when Chinese women “blindly followed” western values, adoring foreign men.

For the majority of commenters, however, San Mao is a name that brings out new inspiration or old memories. “Whenever I think about her stories from the Sahara, it just moves me.”

One Weibo user honors San Mao by posting one of her quotes*:

Often, I asked myself, what is distance? Then I heard my own answer, saying that distance is what I desired most in life – that it is freedom.
A freedom far, far away, like the air.
At that moment, I realized that I had slowly released myself from all the things I didn’t need that were binding me to my life. I then thought: I can go to the most remote corners of the earth if that is where my heart wants to go.
It was in that moment, that my freedom had finally arrived
.

If you are interested in this story you might also be interested in reading the story of Li Xianglan, the superstar who was caught between China and Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The Stories of the Sahara (in Chinese) can be purchased from Amazon:
The story of the Sahara (Chinese Edition)

The complete works of San Mao can also be purchased in Chinese online:
The Complete Works of Sanmao (Chinese Edition)

iTunes also offers The Stories of the Sahara in Chinese:

By Manya Koetse

Sources & References

Chen, Shaoshua. 2007. “San Mao – Taiwan’s Wandering Writer.” Women of China, November 30. http://www.womenofchina.cn/womenofchina/html1/people/writers/8/8989-1.htm [4.1.18].

Huang, Echo. 2017. “The brave, tragic adventurer who inspired generations of Chinese girls to adopt her nickname.” Quartz Magazine, April 24. https://qz.com/963273/the-world-traveling-writer-san-mao-inspired-generations-of-girls-to-adopt-her-nickname-echo/ [4.1.18].

Lang, Miriam. 2015 (2003). In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds), Biographical Dictionary of Chinese women – The Twentieth-Century 1912-2000. London/New York: Routledge.

Treichel, Tamara. 2013. “The Echo Effect.” Global Times, March 10. http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/767044.shtml [4.1.18].

UCA News. 1991. “PRIEST SAYS WRITER WHO COMMITTED SUICIDE WANTED TO BECOME CATHOLIC NUN.” UCA News, February 21. https://www.ucanews.com/story-archive/?post_name=/1991/02/19/priest-says-writer-who-committed-suicide-wanted-to-become-catholic-nun&post_id=32086 [7.1.18].

Ying, Li-hua. 2010. Historical Dictionary of Modern Chinese Literature. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press.

Images

http://www.baike.com/wiki/%E4%B8%89%E6%AF%9B%5B%E4%BD%9C%E5%AE%B6%5D
http://designblog.rietveldacademie.nl/?tag=mask
http://cq.people.com.cn/GB/365409/c24845560.html
http://www.360doc.com/content/14/0623/15/700274_389097947.shtml
https://www.lemiaunoir.com/san-mao-mujer-escritora/
http://www.sohu.com/a/142240780_767795
http://www.sohu.com/a/130964781_488738
https://elpais.com/elpais/2016/10/25/inenglish/1477405923_390849.html

* “常常,我跟自己说,到底远方是什么东西。
然后我听见我自己回答,说远方是你这一生现在最渴望的东西,就是自由。
很远很远的,一种像空气一样的自由。
在那个时候开始,我发觉,我一点一点脱去了束缚我生命的一切不需要的东西。
在那个时候,海角天涯,只要我心里想到,我就可以去。
我的自由终于在这个时候来到了.”

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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2017

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