They might have lived centuries ago, but are still the talk of the day in Chinese books, television shows and online media. They were often beautiful on the outside but cruel on the inside. They were rebels of their time, and would bewitch men with their charms to win more power – some of them changed China’s history because of it. From ten to one: a top 10 of evil power women in China’s history, carefully selected and compiled by What’s on Weibo based on different online Chinese charts and books about ‘evil’ women of China.
(Updated April/2018: Check out our recent video on this topic here).
SECRET ROMANCE & LAVISH SPENDING
10. Lu Xiaoman (陆小曼)
Lu Xiaoman was one of the most famous women in China’s roaring twenties. In her own time, she was considered scandalous: she had an extramarital affair, was then divorced, and led a lavish lifestyle.
Lu was born in an upperclass Shanghai family in 1903 and became known as a beautiful, well-educated and talented woman. She spoke fluent English and was a gifted writer and painter. She became married to the erudite Wang Geng. Within the first years of their marriage, Lu fell in love with one of Wang’s friends named Xu Zhimo, who was one of China’s most famous poets at the time. Zhimo had been married before, but was already divorced in what has been described as China’s “first modern divorce” (Lee 2007, 389).
Lu and the poet soon got tangled up in a complicated love-affair, while Lu was still married to Wang. Eventually, she got divorced herself and remarried to Xu in 1926. Xu soon found out that he could not afford Lu’s lifestyle. She lavishly spend their money on luxury goods, delicacies and extravagant nights out. She rented an expensive apartment and hired 14 servants. Lu’s luxurious lifestyle eventually got Xu in serious financial trouble.
During a fight over their expenses, the two got into a fight and Xu left their home for a trip, during which he died in a plane crash. Because Xu left during an argument, and because he took an old plane since he could not afford a modern one due to Lu’s spending, some argue that it was Lu Xiaoman who actually “killed” her husband (Sina 2014; Hong Lee&Stefanowska 2003, 389-391).
FROM SUPERSTAR TO SUPERTRAITOR
9. Li Xianglan (李香兰)
Li Xianglan was an actress and singer who was loved by the Chinese people for her talent and beauty, but also hated by them for her nationality. She was a Japanese woman who pretended to be Chinese for many years. Yamagachi Yoshiko (her Japanese name) was born in 1920 Manchuria to Japanese parents. As the Sino-Japanese War was on the way, she jumped to superstar status. Being fluent in Mandarin, the Chinese audience did not know she was Japanese.
During these years, she played in seventeen different films, of which some were produced by Japanese studios to create pro-Japanese sentiment in China. When she was later arrested for treason, she had to expose her true nationality in order to avoid punishment.
She initially fled to the US and changed her name to Shirley Yamaguchi, but later settled down in Japan and took on the name Otaka Yoshiko, although she also remained known as Ri Koran (the Japanese pronunciation of her Chinese name).
Throughout her life, Li Xianglan had five different identities. When she passed away in the summer of 2014, many Chinese people still remembered her as a woman who lied about her identity and betrayed China. To know more about Li Xianglan, read ‘Caught Between China & Japan: Superstar Li Xianglan‘.
INCEST & MURDER
8. Wen Jiang (文姜)
Her charm and beauty was praised in the oldest collection of Chinese poetry, the Classic of Poetry (诗经): Wen Jiang. She lived during the 6th century BC as princess of the State of Qi, and became the wife of Duke Huan of Lu (present-day Shandong) with whom she had a son.
Wen Jiang was a politically powerful woman with a dark secret, as she was involved in an ongoing incestuous relationship with her own brother, Duke Xiang. When the affair was exposed, Duxe Xiang threw a big feast for his brother-in-law and got him drunk in the hopes of calming matters down.
The opposite happened, as things got out of hand and Duke Huang was killed on the same night – allegedly by the son of Xiang at his order. Although Wen Jiang initially was supposed to bring her dead husband’s body back to Lu, she ended up staying at the border of Qi and Lu, where her son build her a residence. She stayed there for the rest of her life (Cook 2007, 81).
ADULTERY & INFANTICIDE
7. Zhao Feiyan (趙飛燕)
Zhao Feiyan (c. 32-1 BC) was a beautiful woman of humble origin who was called ‘flying swallow’ (feiyan) because of her ability to dance elegantly like a bird. The ruling emperor of the Han Dynasty, Cheng, became enticed with her. He turned Feiyan one of his mistresses together with her sister Hede.
Feiyan soon became powerful. Emperor Cheng became so attached to her that he got rid of his empress in favor of Feiyan, who now became empress in spite of her low societal background. Although she had taken the place of the first wife, she had one problem: she could not bear a son. She went to extreme measures to try to get pregnant. She started sleeping around with palace slaves in the hopes of getting pregnant.
When Cheng’s other concubines got pregnant, Feiyan forced them into abortions and killed any living children. As a result, the Emperor never had a heir. When Emperor Cheng passed away, Feiyan was arrested and sent to his tomb. This is where she commited suicide (Zhao 2000, 89).
THE REAL MADAME BUTTERFLY
6. Shi Peipu (时佩璞): ‘M. Butterfly’
Although Shi Peipu was not biologically a woman, ‘she’ needs to be on this list because of her incredibly crafty ways and the fact she has cross-dressed as a woman for over two decades.
Shi Peipu was a spy working for the Chinese secret service, and was involved in what has been called one of the “strangest cases in international espionage” (Wadler 2009). For twenty years Shi pretended to be a woman during a love relationship with French diplomat Bernard Bouriscot in order to gather intelligence information from him.
Shi Peipu originally was an opera singer and actor from Kunming, who moved to Beijing in the 1960s. The 26-year-old Shi met Bouriscot there at a Christmas party at the French embassy in 1964, where Shi came dressed as a man. Shi told Bouriscot that he was actually a female opera singer who had been forced by his father to present himself as a man because he desired a son so much. Bouriscot believed it, and their affair took off; a romance that also continued when Bouriscot was stationed abroad.
Shi got Bouriscot entangled in Chinese espionage practices and went to extreme measures to keep the Frenchman close, as ‘she’ even convinced Boursicot that she had become pregnant with his child. Shi adopted a boy and presented him as their alleged child. In 1982, Shi and Bouriscot moved to Paris where they were both arrested a year later. Boursicot attempted suicide when he discovered that Shi was actually a man. He was convicted of espionage and spent six years in prison.
Shi passed away in 2009. The Broadway play ‘M. Butterfly’ by David Hwang was based on this story. It was also turned into a film. About the affair, Boursicot later said: “When I believed it, it was a beautiful story” (KPBS 1993; Leung 2003, 119). Shi’s adopted child, Shi Dudu, lives in Paris and has a family with three sons.
ANYTHING FOR POWER
5. Wu Zetian (武则天): Empress Wu
Wu Zetian (625-705) was an empress during the Tang Dynasty, and become famous for being the first and only female in Chinese history to rule the country as an emperor. She reigned China from 690, when she was 65 years old. Her status as emperor was not the only reason she became a famous historical figure: she was known for being extremely ruthless, going to utmost extremes in order to maintain power.
Wu Zetian was born into a rich family and was well-educated. She was only 13 when she was introduced to Emperor Taizhong. She became his concubine, although she also took a liking to his son Li Zhi. When the Emperor died, the 27-year old Wu then, unconventionally, became a concubine to Li Zhi. She had a baby daughter, but it was soon strangled to death. Wu accused the first wife of Li Zhi of murdering her baby, although it is commonly believed that it was Wu herself who killed it to frame Li Zhi’s first wife. She succeeded; the empress was deposed, and Wu rose in in rank. Her power grew even more when she had a son, who became the new emperor.
When the young man died of a stroke, Wu took over his rule. Some historians believe Wu in fact killed her own son to ascend the throne. She was declared emperor in 690. Wu was known for killing or locking up anybody that stood in her way. She had her own army of secret police to spy on her enemies and eliminate them. She eventually abdicated to let her third son rule. Not long after, she passed away at the age of 80 (Custer; WIWH 1996). The popular 2013 Chinese costume drama Women of the Tang Dynasty is based on the era of Wu Zetian the generations that followed.
KILLING WITH CAKE
4. Empress Wei (韦皇后)
Empress Wei lived around the same as Wu Zetian. You might say Wu Zetian was a role model to Wei, as she tried to emulate her evil ways in order to gain power and influence. She was the wife of Emperor Zhongzong, Wu Zetian’s son, who was sent into exile when his brother was put on the throne. Wei joined her husband in exile. After 705, the emperor reascended the throne. At this time, Wei and the emperor had suffered many hardships while away from
After 705, the emperor reascended the throne. At this time, Wei and the emperor had suffered many hardships while away from court. Now that Wu Zetian had died, the spiteful Wei was determined to get a hold onto power. She began to interfere in state affairs. In order to get what she wanted, she manipulated and mobilized the clique of spies and supporters Wu Zetian had gathered while in power. In this way, Wei got to control the entire court. Her husband had become nothing but a puppet. She soon set out to remove and kill all of her enemies; she framed them with ingenious plots, got them exiled or executed. When her husband saw through her plans, she murdered him with poisonous steamed cakes – his favorite food.
In order to get what she wanted, she manipulated and mobilized the clique of spies and supporters Wu Zetian had gathered while in power. In this way, Wei got to control the entire court. Her husband had become nothing but a puppet. She soon set out to remove and kill all of her enemies; she framed them with ingenious plots, got them exiled or executed. When her husband saw through her plans, she murdered him with poisonous steamed cakes – his favorite food. Eventually her plans failed as her former sister-in-law jumped to power. Wei was beheaded in 710 (Peterson 2000, 202-206).
Empress Wei played by He Saifei in the 2013 television series Women of the Tang Dynasty (唐宫燕).
RUTHLESS & LAVISH
3. Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后)
Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) is one of China’s most famous empresses, known for her ruthlessness and resilience. She was born into a distinguished family of Manchu lineage and arrived at the Forbidden City as a concubine to Emperor Xianfeng in 1851.
She soon became his favorite, especially after she had given birth to a son. Xianfeng often discussed political matters with Cixi. She became well informed on state affairs and gradually grew more powerful. When Xianfeng died, Cixi did everything she could to gain political power. She ordered the suicide of the emperor’s regents and had her own son Tongzhi crowned as emperor.
She governed the state during his reign and during that of her nephew Guangxu. When he was put on the throne, she ordered him to reclusion in a palace within the Forbidden City, isolating him from the world and leaving him to see nobody but his wife and servants, who were then either put to death or banished. She effectively ruled the Chinese government for 47 years. Cixi was known for squandering money on luxurious banquets and expensive jewelry. At her banquets, she would request to be served 150 different dishes. She drank from a jade cup and ate with golden chopsticks. She was known for putting her own interests ahead of the nation until the end of her rule. At the end of her life, she still held grudges against her nephew Guangxu. She killed him through arsenic poisoning. She died one day later (Hilton 2013; SACU 2001; Spence 1990, 217-218).
The empress in pictures. Right photograph is part of a photo series of the Empress Dowager, 1903-1904. To learn more about these pictures, see this info page about an exhibition themed around them.
MURDER, MANIPULATION & TORTURE
2. Empress Lü Zhi (吕后)
Empress Lü (241–180 BC) was the first woman to become Empress of China. She was the wife of Emperor Liu Bang (Gaozu), founder of the Han Dynasty. Lü was very intelligent and her role was crucial in centralizing her husband’s rule. She became infamous for her cruelty and persistence in gaining ultimate power.
Empress Lü had several aristocratic and influential families killed so that the Emperor (and she herself) would maintain authority. After he died, she turned against his concubines. One of them was Qizi, who was very much loved by the Emperor. Qizi had born the Emperor a son, Ru Yi, who was the new heir of the household; something the Empress was displeased with. She had the young boy poisoned to death, and later turned against his mother. She mutilated Qizi by chopping off her hands and feet, scooping out her eyes, making her deaf and dumb with toxins, and abandoning her in a pigsty.
Up to her dying day, Empress Lü was known to make others suffer so she could have all the power to herself (Yao et al 2010, 64; Peterson 2000, 45-51).
The role of Empress Lü played by Wang Ji in 2011 costume drama The Han Triump (大风歌).
A VERY EVIL, VERY EVIL WOMAN
1. Jiang Qing (江青) or Madame Mao
Jiang Qing (1914-1991) is often pinpointed as one of the most evil women from China’s history because of her role during the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping once called her a “very evil, very evil woman” (很坏很坏的女人). Jiang played an important role during the Mao years as she was married to Mao Zedong and influenced his policies, especially those on art and culture.
She met Mao when she went to Yan’an in 1937. She was an actress in the left-wing theatre, and had been married and divorced twice before. She soon started to live together with Mao. Although Jiang initially kept her distance in political matters, she gradually became more influential and involved during the 1950s. She strengthened Mao’s position (and her own) by making sure that all influential people in the government and work units were loyal to Mao and herself. She removed those who allegedly were not. She soon gathered a group of supporters around her, and focused on the destruction of her enemies.
In 1968, she had the children of her enemy Zhou Enlai tortured and killed. As Mao’s health declined, she grew in influence. Together with Yao Wenyuan, Wang Hongwen and Zhang Chunqiao she formed the Gang of Four. After Mao’s death, the Gang was soon overthrown and accused of “persecuting to death” an estimated 34,800 people during the Cultural Revolution and having “framed and persecuted” 729,511 others during the years they were in power. Jiang maintained that Mao had supported her and that she had only obeyed his will (Spence 1990, 680-681; Kristof 1991). Although Jiang was initially condemned to death, she was later sentenced to life in prison. She committed suicide at the age of 77 in 1991 (Lee 2007, 259-263).
Cook, Constance. 2007. “Wen Jiang, Wife of Duke Huan of Lu,” In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds), Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E., 81. New York: ME Sharpe.
Custer, Charles. “Wu Zetian, China’s Only Female Emperor.” Chinese Culture http://chineseculture.about.com/od/historyofchina/fl/Wu-Zetian.htm (Accessed Dec 8, 2014).
Hilton, Isabel. 2013. “Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang – review.” The Guardian, 25 Oct http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/25/empress-dowager-cixi-jung-chang-review (Accessed November 19, 2014).
KPBS. 1993. “Theatre Preview M. Butterfly at North Coast Reportory Theatre.” KPBS On Air Magazine, August www.patteproductions.com/Previews/Archive/prev93/oa930800.htm (Accessed December 5, 2014).
Kristof, Nikolas. 1991. “Suicide of Jiang Qing, Mao’s Widow, Is Reported.” New York Times, 5 June http://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/05/obituaries/suicide-of-jiang-qing-mao-s-widow-is-reported.html (Accessed December 5, 2014).
Lee, Lily Xiao Hong and A.D. Stefanowska (eds). 2003. Biographic Dictionary of Chinese Women. The Twentieth Century: 1912-2000. New York: M.E. Sharpe.
Lee, Lily Xiao Hong. 2007. “Lu Xiaoman.” In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds), Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E.,389-392. New York: ME Sharpe.
–. 2003. “Jiang Qing.” In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds). 2003. Biographic Dictionary of Chinese Women. The Twentieth Century: 1912-2000, 259-263. New York: M.E. Sharpe.
Leung Li, Siu. 2003. Cross-Dressing in Chinese Opera. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Peterson, Barbara Bennett (ed). 2000. Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. New York: M.E. Sharpe.
SACU. 2001. “The Life of Empress Cixi.” Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding http://www.sacu.org/cixi.html (Accessed December 5, 2014).
Sina 2014. “花钱太多：徐志摩养不活陆小曼.” Sina News, 3 July http://history.sina.com.cn/bk/mgs/2014-07-03/163294573.shtml (Accessed December 5, 2014).
Spence, Jonathan. 1990. The Search for Modern China. Norton&Company: New York.
Wadler, Joyce. 2009. “Shi Pei Pu, Singer, Spy and ‘M. Butterfly,’ Dies at 70.” New York Times, 9 June http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/02/world/asia/02shi.html (Accessed Dec 9, 2014).
WIWH (Women in World History). 1996. “Empress Wu Zetian.” Women in World History www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine6.html (Accessed December 4, 2014).
Yao Dan et al. 2010. Chinese Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zhao Xiaoming. 2000. “Zhao Feiyan.” In Barbara Bennett Peterson (ed), Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century, 87-89. New York: M.E. Sharpe.
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A Baby for Sale, a Mother Chained Up – How Chinese Netizens Are Pushing Specific Social Issues to the Forefront
The stories of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother both developed in real-time while netizens pushed them to the front page, making them too big for state media to ignore.
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yi Magazin: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
It was December 6th of 2021 when a teenage boy posted a short video on Chinese social media. With a straight back, clear voice, and serious face, he looked directly into the camera and said:
“Hello everyone, I am Liu Xuezhou and I am looking for my biological parents. I was born in between 2004 and 2006 and around the age of three months old, I was bought by my parents, my adoptive parents, in Datong in Shanxi. I am healthy. I don’t have any congenital physical defects or diseases; I don’t have any obvious birthmarks or scars. At the age of four, my adoptive parents passed away due to an accident. I am now living in Nangong, Xingtai, in Hebei Province. I study in Shijiazhuang. I wish I’d found my biological parents sooner, to make up for what I missed. I hope you can help me spread my message so that those who suspect they might be my parents can see it.“
This video would be the start of a story followed by millions of Chinese netizens. It is the story of Liu Xuezhou (刘学州). The search for his parents and his death became one of the biggest topics on China’s social media of the past months.
Why did the tragic story of one teenage boy capture the entire nation? There are multiple reasons. By posting his call for help in finding his biological parents, Liu involved Chinese netizens in his journey from the start, allowing them to follow his story in real-time through his social media and news reports. Another aspect of Liu’s story is the resilience he showed despite his tough life, something that many admired about him.
But more importantly, Liu’s story is part of a recent broader interest in the stories behind the widespread problem of trafficking in women and children in China, with more people raising awareness on the tragedies caused by these practices and demanding justice for the victims.
Besides Liu’s story, the story of a Xuzhou mother-of-eight being tied up and living in abominable conditions in a shed also dominated online discussions for weeks on end.
Liu’s Story: Sold, Orphaned, Abandoned
After Liu Xuezhou posted the aforementioned video on Douyin, the Chinese version of the popular TikTok short video platform, it soon went viral and various Chinese news sites started reporting on Liu’s search for his biological family.
Liu’s resilience was impressive. In interviews, he said that his story did not define him and that he was determined to make something of his life. Since 2018, the young Liu was working to earn money while also going to school. His plan was to be admitted to university.
After his adoptive parents died in a firework explosion, Liu was raised by his grandparents and was sent to boarding school. Liu’s childhood was not a happy one. Being so young without parents, he was a target of school bullies and had to change schools at least four times until, by grade six, he had finally found a school where he could thrive.
Many people supported Liu and wanted to help the teenage boy, who was thought to have been kidnapped as a baby and then bought by his adoptive parents through an intermediary at a Datong hotel for 30,000 yuan ($4735).
Although Liu’s birth certificate said he was born in September of 2005, nobody was sure how old Liu actually was, and his grandparents did not remember the details surrounding his adoption. By late 2021, as a 16-something-year-old, Liu felt it was time to get some answers and find his biological parents. How did he end up being adopted? Was he abducted? Were his parents still out there searching for him?
Through his own efforts – sped up by finding his vaccination records – and with some help of the police, Liu was able to trace down his biological parents. On the evening of December 15, Liu sent a message to a journalist reporting on the case: “I found my mum and dad.”
His parents’ story, however, was not what Liu had expected at all. After DNA tests confirmed that they were in fact his biological parents, Liu was ready to meet them. But what was supposed to be a happy reunion turned out to be a bitter disappointment.
Liu’s biological parents, who were living in Datong, were not together anymore. Liu soon learned that he had not been abducted as a child, but that he had been sold on purpose by his father. His parents were unmarried when they had him, and Liu’s father turned out to have used the money they earned by selling their baby to marry Liu’s birth mother. They married and had another son, but then ended up divorcing. Both remarried again, and Liu’s father even got divorced two more times after that.
Although some of the unhappy circumstances surrounding Liu’s reunion with his parents came out through his posts on social media throughout January of this year, most of the details surrounding his situation only became clear when Liu posted a farewell letter on his Weibo account on January 24th, just a few minutes past midnight.
Titled “Born with little, return with nothing,” Liu posted a lengthy letter explaining his situation.
In this letter, Liu said that besides being sold as a child and becoming an orphan at the age of four, he was also severely bullied by classmates and molested by a teacher at school. His aunt, whom he loved as a mother, also left him behind after she moved away due to a broken marriage.
As he spiraled into depression, Liu felt a spark of hope when he saw the news about Sun Zhuo (孙卓), whose story became one of the major trending news stories of 2021. In 2007, when Sun was only four, he was stolen off the street by a human trafficker. His biological parents never gave up hope they would find their son again and sacrificed everything to be able to fund their search efforts. The Chinese film Dearest (亲爱的) was partly based on their story.
After a years-long search, Sun was found in 2021 due to the help of authorities and face recognition technology that helped trace the person suspected of abducting him. In an unexpected twist, Sun stated that he would prefer to stay with his adoptive parents, who had raised him for a decade. The story triggered many online discussions and raised more awareness on the issue of the trafficking of children in China in times of the country’s one-child policy. Sun’s biological father spoke to the media saying: “For 2022, my biggest wish is that all the abducted children can finally be found.”
It was Sun Zhuo’s story that inspired Liu to search for his own parents, and it was also Sun Zhuo’s story that brought more attention for Liu’s initial video, which struck a chord with many who hoped that he could also be reunited with his parents and actually stay with them.
Liu described how his biological father did not seem happy when Liu first contacted him, and seemed reluctant to meet. His biological father eventually did come to see him, but their communication afterward was not smooth. When his father told Liu that he was sold as a baby so that he could pay for the bride price to marry Liu’s mother, Liu was heartbroken and could not sleep for several days: he was not kidnapped, and his parents never searched for him.
His mother also was not elated that her biological son had found his way back to her. Liu felt unwanted, again, and was also searching for a home to live and was not sure who to turn to anymore. After he asked his biological father for help in buying or renting a place to live, he was blocked on WeChat. Liu then decided to take his parents to court.
Sharing screenshots on social media of the developments between him and his parents, Liu was condemned and bullied by netizens, who accused him of only wanting to find his biological parents for financial gains.
It was all too much for the teenage boy. In his farewell letter, he expressed the hope that the traffickers and biological parents would be punished for their deeds. Liu was later found to have committed suicide at a beach in the city of Sanya, and could no longer be rescued. Liu passed away within a month after meeting his biological parents at the age of just 15 years old.
By now, Liu’s farewell letter has been shared approximately 174,000 times on Weibo, it was ‘liked’ over 2,4 million times and has received thousands of comments.
The topic of Liu’s death exploded on social media and led to national outrage. Many people sympathized with the boy and were angry at all who failed him: “Poor child, abandoned and sold off by his parents, bullied and humiliated by his schoolmates, molested and discriminated by his teacher, cyberbullied by keyboard warriors. Now he’s dead!”
The injustice of Liu’s situation – starting with how he was sold as a child – is what angered people most. China Digital Times recently described how on the Weibo page of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the doctors who raised the alarm about the coronavirus outbreak, many people also mention Liu Xuezhou. Dr. Li Wenliang was one of the eight so-called ‘whistleblowers’ who tried to warn his colleagues about the Wuhan virus outbreak in late 2019, but was censored and reprimanded by local police for making “false comments.” He later became infected with the virus himself while working at the Wuhan Central Hospital and passed away on February 7th of 2020, sparking a wave of anger and sadness on social media.
Over the past two years, Dr. Li’s Weibo page has become a digital Wailing Wall where people send little messages to remember Dr. Li, tell about their own anxieties and worries, but also address social injustices. As recorded by China Digital Times, one among thousands of comments said:
“Two years ago today, I had a sleepless night because of you, and my Weibo account once got shut down because I posted something about you. Over the past two years, I’ve often wondered: will this world become a better place? But between the Liu Xuezhou incident and the woman in Xuzhou with eight kids, I’ve been disappointed time and time again. If you happen to see Liu Xuezhou, please be good to him.“
Looking at Dr. Li’s Weibo account today, it is not just Liu Xuezhou who is brought up by commenters; ‘the woman in Xuzhou’ is also mentioned by dozens of people as someone experiencing injustice. But who is she?
The Chained-Up Mother in Xuzhou
In late January of 2022, right around the same time when Liu Xuezhou was one of the biggest topics on Chinese social media, a TikTok video showing a woman chained up in a shed went viral online and triggered massive outrage with thousands of people demanding answers about the woman’s circumstances.
The video, filmed by a local vlogger in the village of Huankou in Xuzhou, showed how the woman was kept in a dirty hut without a door in the freezing cold. She did not even wear a coat, and she seemed confused and unable to express herself.
To give the full story, here is the original video that caused the social media storm, which is still ongoing today (tw distressing content, not sure why the lock is blurred, as if that is the most shocking thing about this video..) pic.twitter.com/UOA5zrfeQ4
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) January 30, 2022
Other TikTok videos that came out around the same time showed how the woman’s husband, a man by the name of Dong Zhimin (董志民), was playing and talking with their eight children in the family home right next to the hut where the mother was confined.
The video caused a storm on social media. Many netizens worried about the woman’s circumstances. Why was she chained up? Was she a victim of human trafficking? Was she being abused? How could she have had eight babies? Was she forced to have so many children? While netizens were speculating about the case and venting their anger, Weibo shut down some of the hashtags dedicated to this topic, but the topic soon popped up everywhere, and people started making artworks and writing essays in light of the case.
Following public demands, local authorities started looking into the case. An initial statement by Feng County, where the village of Huankou is located, was issued on January 28 and it said that the woman, named Yang (杨), married her husband in 1998 and that there was no indication that she was a victim of human trafficking.
The woman was dealing with mental problems and would display sudden violent outbursts, beating children and older people. The family allegedly thought it was best to separate her from the family home during these episodes, letting her stay chained up in a small hut next to the house.
The first statement raised more questions than it answered and more people, including influential Weibo bloggers and media insiders, started investigating the case. Meanwhile, it became clear that husband Dong Zhimin was giving interviews to other vloggers flocking to Huankou. Besides talking about his eight children (seven sons, one daughter) as future providers for the family, he also used his newly-acquired ‘fame’ to make money through social media. This only led to more online anger about Dong exploiting his wife and children.
As the social media storm intensified, more official statements ensued. On January 30, Feng County local officials responded to the controversy in a second statement, in which the Xuzhou mother was identified as Yang *Xia (杨某侠) who allegedly once was “a beggar on the streets” in the summer of 1998 when she was taken in by Dong family and ended up marrying their 30-something son Dong Zhimin.
Local officials did not properly check and verify Yang’s identity information when registering the marriage certificate and the local family planning department also made errors in implementing birth control measures and following up with the family. The statement said that Yang had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was now receiving treatment.
A third, fourth, and even fifth statement issued by authorities on February 7th, 10th, and 23rd confirmed what many on Weibo had suspected all along, namely that Yang had indeed been a victim of human trafficking. Xuzhou authorities said their investigation had brought them to the village of Yagu in Yunnan, a place that was mentioned on Yang’s marriage certificate.
Yang was identified as Xiaohuamei (小花梅), born and raised in Yagu. Yang’s DNA had been compared to that of the family of Xiaohuamei, and the DNA match confirmed that Yang was indeed Xiaohuamei. According to the statements, Xiaohuamei married and moved to another city in 1994, but she divorced and returned to her village two years later, which is when she allegedly also showed signs of mental illness.
Her parents, now deceased, then allegedly ordered a female fellow villager to take their daughter to Jiangsu to get married there. According to the woman, she took Xiaohuamei with her on a train from Yunnan to Jiangsu’s Donghai, but she allegedly ‘went missing’ shortly after arrival. The woman never reported her as missing to the police and she never notified the family.
That woman, along with another man and Dong Zhimin, are now held criminally responsible for illegal detainment and human trafficking. Xiaohuamei was reportedly sold to a man in Donghai for 5,000 yuan ($790) in 1998. Though Xiaohuamei managed to escape, she was sold twice again, eventually ending up with the Dong family.
While details surrounding the case of the ‘chained Xuzhou mother of eight’ are still being discussed on Chinese social media, it has become clear that by now, ‘Yang’ has come to represent many more women like her. Over the past few weeks, the stories of other women who also might be a victim of human trafficking have surfaced, and the public outcry demanding justice for trafficked women is ongoing.
One Social Media Spark Starting a Wildfire
Both in the case of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother, it should be noted that their stories initially did not catch the public’s attention because official news media reported them, but because of first-hand videos being posted on TikTok (Douyin) and then being picked up and shared by bigger accounts.
Both Liu’s video and the short video featuring the mother of eight were posted on accounts that were not necessarily very popular: starting as a small spark in an online environment with over 900 million social media users, they were shared, commented on, and then spread like wildfire.
Both stories developed in real-time while netizens were following the case, both stories eventually became too big for Chinese state media to ignore, and both Liu and Yang highlighted bigger social issues in contemporary China, mainly those relating to human trafficking.
Since these cases went viral, there has been a heightened focus on the problem of human trafficking, which mostly occurs in China’s poorer areas with weak governance. The trafficking of especially women and children has various purposes, including forced marriage and illegal adoption in areas where there is a shortage of women (along with a preference for baby boys).
China Daily recently reported that lawmakers and advisers are now pushing for heavier punishment for human trafficking crimes, suggesting that the current penalties imposed on the buyers of women and children are too weak; the maximum prison sentence for those who purchase abducted women and children is three years.
In the case of the Xuzhou mother, there has been online censorship but the ongoing intense public outrage eventually did lead to higher-level research into the case. The mother was rescued from her terrible situation, the human traffickers involved are being held responsible, and so are 17 officials, who will be punished by authorities for their wrongdoings in the case.
As for Liu Xuezhou, his adoptive family members have recently filed a request at the Sanya Public Security Bureau to launch another investigation into his case. Their request was accepted on February 23rd, with multiple people being suspected of criminal offenses, eventually leading to his death. On Weibo, many people are now demanding punishment for Liu’s biological parents.
In late January of this year, following the tragic ending to Liu’s story, Chinese state media1 emphasized how the widespread attention for these kinds of stories in the social media era is also changing how government agencies should interact with the public.
According to Dr. Liu Leming, associate professor at East China University’s Political Science faculty, government agencies need to follow up and respond more quickly to social incidents like these in the internet era: “When public issues emerge, people who are involved in social problems or incidents want to know, more than anything, whether their requests have been seen and who will handle their concerns.”
In light of these recent stories, the public is happy that actions have been taken, but they are not satisfied with how these cases were handled. Many argue that authorities have failed in being transparent, that local governments have not done enough to prevent these cases from happening, and that China should do more to put an end to human trafficking.
And so, they are still posting the stories of children like Liu and women like Xiaohuamei to keep raising awareness and to keep pressuring local authorities and lawmakers to take more action to eradicate these practices.
As Liu is no longer alive and Xiaohuamei, still hospitalized, cannot defend herself, Chinese netizens keep raising their voices for them. In doing so, they have not just impacted how authorities dealt with these specific cases, but they are also changing how cases such as these will be handled in the future.
One Weibo user discussing Liu and the Xuzhou mother wrote: “We need to get to the bottom of these kinds of stories: who is to blame, who made mistakes, and where do we go from here?”
In the meantime, online posts, videos, and artworks honor both Liu and Xiaohuamei, so that their stories will not be forgotten. “Dear little one, springtime has come,” one among thousands of messages still flooding Liu Xuezhou’s Weibo page says: “You have endured too many things that you should have never experienced. It should have been us, the adults, taking care of these things for you. You please go and rest now, we will finish the rest for you.”
For information and support on mental health and suicide, international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
1 Cao Yin and Li Yang. 2022. “Policymakers, Lawmakers Respond to Opinion Voiced Online.” China Daily Hong Kong, January 28, Page 1-2.
Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.
This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.
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Full Translation of Peng Shuai’s Weibo Post and Timeline of Events
On the night of November 2nd of 2021, a Weibo post by the 35-year-old Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai (彭帅) sent shockwaves across social media. In her lengthy post, the three-time Olympian describes details surrounding an alleged affair she had with the 75-year-old Zhang Gaoli (张高丽), who served as China’s senior Vice-Premier (2013-2018) and was also a member of China’s highest ruling council, the Politburo Standing Committee (2012-2017).
Here, we will give you a short timeline of the things that unfolded from the moment Peng Shuai’s story was published on Weibo, as well as providing the full text of her post and a translation.
Timeline of Events
November 2nd, 2021
On the night of November 2nd of 2021, 35-year-old tennis player Peng Shuai posts her story on her Weibo account, where she has over 590,000 followers. The post comes online at 22:07 and is sent through a mobile phone.
Although Peng’s post was only online for about twenty minutes before it was deleted, its impact was irreversible. Peng Shuai’s Weibo account remained online, but the name ‘Peng Shuai’ started to be censored on Weibo and other Chinese social media platforms, where online discussions about the tennis player and Zhang Gaoli were soon silenced. Peng Shuai’s post and the ensuing silence triggered a wave of global concern about her wellbeing and whereabouts.
November 3, 2021
Peng Shuai’s story makes headlines in the international media, with many Western media outlets describing the issue as a “#MeToo allegation.” within the context of the global #MeToo movement, suggesting Peng’s post was a “MeToo post.” The tennis star did not mention ‘#Metoo’ in her own writings.
November 16, 2021
Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka attracts more international attention for Peng’s whereabouts when she posts the #WhereisPengShuai hashtag on Twitter. Two days later, tennis star Serena Williams also writes on Twitter: “I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”
November 17, 2021
While the issue is still completely silenced in Chinese (social) media, the English-language state media outlet CGTN addresses the commotion on Twitter on November 17, when they share a screenshot of an email allegedly sent by Peng to WTA Chairman Steve Simon, saying she was not actually missing and not unsafe.
November 19, 2021
While many people still raised their concerns on Twitter – and a White House spokesperson even said the Biden administration was ‘deeply concerned’ about the reports alleging that Peng Shuai had gone missing – photos of Peng Shuai in her home showed up on November 19th, posted on Twitter by Chinese journalist Shen Shiwei (沈诗伟) claiming the tennis star posted them on her WeChat moments herself.
November 20, 2021
One day later, a video was also shared on Twitter by the same Shen, showing Peng enjoying dinner with friends and having conversations in which it was clearly indicated that the date was November 20, 2021.
November 21, 2021
During that very same weekend of November 20-21, Peng also reappeared in public when she attended the Junior Tennis Finals in Beijing. This was also the very first time in 19 days that she ‘reappeared’ in mainland China’s online media spheres, where photos of her attendance at the games were also shared online.
On that same day, it was announced by the Olympics governing body that International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach held a 30-minute long video phone call with Peng Shuai. Chinese sports official Li Lingwei and the Chair of the Athletes’ Commission, Emma Terho, reportedly were also on the call, during which Peng explained that she was safe and well at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected.
November 22, 2021
A Weibo post published by the French embassy in Beijing marks the first time for Peng Shuai’s case to be addressed on Chinese social media.
In their post, the French embassy expresses concerns about the lack of information surrounding Peng Shuai, and reiterates its belief in promoting freedom of expression, equality between men and women, and combating sexual and gender-based violence. The post receives many replies, but its comment section is heavily censored.
December 1st, 2021
The WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) announces the suspension of all tournaments in China amid concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai.
In a statement by Steve Simon, WTA Chairman & CEO, the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, was said to also be related to concerns about risks that all players and staff could face if the WTA were to hold events in China in 2022.
Due to the Covid19 situation, there were no WTA events scheduled for China in the near future.
December 7, 2021
The US announces a “diplomatic boycott” of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China. American athletes will still compete at the Winter Games. Although this boycott was not necessarily directed linked to Peng Shuai, many media outlets did connect it to concerns over the tennis player.
December 19, 2021
In an interview with Singapore-based media outlet Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报), Peng Shuai claims she did not accuse Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her.
A video issued by Lianhe Zaobao shows a reporter asking Peng questions during a skiing competition event in Shanghai, where Peng could be seen talking to Chinese basketball player Yao Ming. When the reporter asks Peng if she is free, she answers that she has always been free and is not being monitored.
When the reporter addresses the allegations of sexual assault, Peng says:
“First and foremost, I must emphasize. I have never said or written about anyone sexually assaulting me. That’s a very important point. On the Weibo post, that’s my personal issue.”
Peng also confirms that the English email that was screenshotted and published by CGTN on November 17 was written by her in the Chinese version, but that it was translated into English for her since her English language skills aren’t good enough to write such an email herself.
Full Text Translation of Peng Shuai’s Weibo Post
In a previous post, What’s on Weibo gave a partial translation of Peng’s Weibo post. Here, we will provide a full translation. Please note that this is a translation provided by What’s on Weibo and not an official translation issued by any other party.
“I know I can’t say it clearly and that it’s useless to say. But I want to say it anyway. I’m such a hypocrite. I’ll admit I’m not a good girl, I’m a bad bad girl. About three years ago, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you had retired and asked Dr. Liu from the Tianjin Tennis Center to contact me again to play tennis at the Kang Ming Hotel in Beijing. After we finished playing in the afternoon, you and your wife Kang Jie took me with you to your home. You then took me to your room, and like what happened in Tianjin over ten years ago, you wanted to have sex with me.”
“I was very scared that afternoon, I had not expected things to go this way, someone was guarding outside,1 because nobody would believe that a wife would allow this. Seven years earlier we had sexual relations once, and then you – promoted as a member of the Standing Committee – went to Beijing and never contacted me again. I had buried it all inside me, and since you were not planning on taking responsibility at all, why did you come and look for me again, take me to your house, and force me [逼 = force, press for] into sex? I have no proof, and it would be impossible for me to keep any evidence. You denied everything afterward, but it is true that you liked me first, or otherwise, I wouldn’t have had a way to come into contact with you.”
“That afternoon I originally did not agree and cried the whole time, and I still had dinner with you and auntie Kang Jie together. You said the universe is so big, that the earth is just a grain of sand in the universe, and that we as mankind are not even a grain of sand, and you said a lot more to alleviate the load on my mind. After dinner I still did not want to, and you said you hated me! You also said that in these seven years, you never forgot me and that you would be good for me etc etc. I was afraid and panicked and carrying the emotions of seven year ago, I agreed…yes, we had sex.”
“The feelings between two people can be very complicated, I can’t clearly explain, [but] after that day I again began to open up to your love. In the days I interacted with you afterward, purely from how we got along, you were a very good person and also treated me well. We would talk about anything from modern history to ancient times, you spoke to me about so much knowledge and talked about economic philosophy, [we had] endless talks about topics. We played chess together, sang songs, played ping pong, billiards, and, including tennis, we could always have a good time. Our personalities got along well together, it looked like we were a great match.”
“Since I left home early in my childhood, I felt a lack of love in my heart. Facing everything that was happening, I never thought I was a good girl. I really hated myself, hated why I had to come into this world and experience this disaster. You told me that you loved me, very very much, and that in the next life you hoped to meet me when you are 20 and I am 18 years old. You said you were very lonely, that you felt miserable, we had days of endless chats, endless talks, you said there was no way for you to divorce in your position, that if we’d met while you were in Shandong, you could have still divorced, but that there was no way now. I thought about staying with you like this without attracting public attention, which was okay in the beginning, but the days slowly started to change, and there was too much injustice and insult. Every time you let me go, your wife would say many offensive insulting words to me behind your back, [giving me] all kinds of sneers. When I said I like to eat duck tongue, auntie Kang Jie would go and say ~ ugh, how disgusting. During Beijing’s winter smog, I said sometimes the air is not very good, and auntie Kang Jie would tell me ‘that’s just your suburbs, we do not notice a thing here.’ And so on, there were many of such talks, but she would never do it when you were there. It was similar to when we were together – when it was just the two of us you’d be this way, when there were others there you’d act that way. I told you that these kinds of words were really painful to hear.”
“From the first day I met you up to today, I’ve never used a penny of yours, and I’ve never used you for any personal benefits, but a person’s status is very important. I deserved all of this, I courted disaster. From beginning to end, you have always asked me to keep my relationship with you secret, let alone tell my mother that we were in a relationship. Every time she brought me to the Xishiku cathedral, I would have to change to your car to be able to enter the courtyard. She always thought I was going to your place to play mahjong and cards. We were transparent individuals in each other’s lives. Your wife seemed like the Empress in Empresses of the Palace (甄嬛传), and I can’t describe how bad I felt, and how many times I wondered if I was still an actual person myself. I felt like a zombie, I was pretending so much every day that I didn’t know who the real me was anymore. I shouldn’t have come into this world, but I didn’t have the courage to die. I wanted to live a simpler life, but things turned out contrary to what I wanted.”
“There was a big dispute on the night of the 30th [October], and you told me to come to your place on the afternoon of the 2nd [November] so we could talk things over. Today a phone call came that something had come up and you’d contact me again. Evading everything, with the excuse that we would get in touch another day ……, this is the same “disappearing act” as seven years ago, getting rid of me after you’re done playing with me. You said there were no transactions between us, that’s true, with all the feelings and money between us, it had nothing to do with power and wealth. But I have nowhere to leave my feelings of the past three years, it’s very hard to face. You were always afraid that I would bring some kind of recorder and leave evidence or something. Apart from myself, there is indeed no evidence left, no recordings, no videos, only my distorted real experiences. I know that for someone of your status, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid. But even it’s like striking a stone with an egg, and courting self-destruction like a moth to the flame, I will tell the truth about you. With your intelligence, I’m certain you will deny it or you can blame it on me, or disregard it. You always said you hoped your mother in heaven could bless and protect you. I am a bad woman who doesn’t deserve to be a mother, but you are a father with both a son and a daughter. I have asked you this before: if it was your adopted daughter, would you have forced her to do this? Do you still have the courage to face your mother after everything you’ve done in your lifetime? We sure all like to pose as people with high morals…”
By Manya Koetse
1 There’s been some discussions on the correct translation of this part of the sentence (“一个人在外帮守着”). One of our readers suggested translating it as “an outsider fending for herself,” although others dispute that translation. “A person guarding outside” is another way to translate this sentence: “I was very scared that afternoon, I had not expected things to go this way, a person on guard outside, because nobody would believe that a wife would allow this.”
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