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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‘Good Doctor’, Digital Hospitals: How Mobile Apps Are Alleviating China’s Healthcare Problems
With the rapid digitalization of China’s healthcare, Chinese patients now have more ways than one to receive medical assistance.
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, originally published in German by Goethe Institut China on Goethe.de: “Good-Doctor Apps und Digitale Krankenhäuser.”
Social Credit System, artificial intelligence, surveillance cameras; these are some of the hottest topics making headlines in mainstream Western media when discussing China-related developments recently.
With the rapid digitalization of Chinese society, these topics certainly have come to play a more important role in social media discussions within the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But if there is one issue that seems to concern Chinese social media users the most, it is not facial recognition nor their ‘Sesame score’: it is the topic of healthcare.
In December of 2017, a photo showing a crying mother kneeling down beside a toddler on the sidewalk in front of a Shanghai hospital went viral overnight. The moment was captured on camera by a reporter who was visiting Shanghai’s Children’s Hospital.
The mother, Guo Yinzhen, is a single parent who had traveled from a remote village to seek medical help for her 3-old-son, who was suffering from congenital hydrocephalus or ‘water on the brain.’ Already having traveled to the city multiple times and spending all her money on medical bills, Guo could not afford the additional 100.000 yuan (€ 12.600) for medical procedures needed to save her son’s life.
Guo’s story struck a chord with Chinese netizens, who continue to share the heartbreaking photo on social media to this day. It has become emblematic of China’s healthcare problems.
Crowded Hospitals and ‘Healthcare Disturbance’
The key to an adequate healthcare system, no matter where in the world, is that there is a right balancing in the “iron triangle” of efficiency/cost containment, high quality care, and patient access. China, however, struggles with all three sides of this triangle.
Guo’s case is an extreme example, but many people in China dealing with less serious health issues and needing basic medical services also struggle to afford and access the healthcare they need.
Over 95% of people in China have health insurance, but people from different regions do not enjoy the same benefits and their out-of-pocket expenses can vary greatly. Uncovered medical costs can sometimes be catastrophic and simply unaffordable for patients and their families.
As more money flows are going to healthcare facilities in China’s cities, there is also the issue of varying levels of providers’ medical education and the overall healthcare quality, with the substantial majority of modern hospitals still existing in urban areas.
Easy access to the right kind of healthcare can be especially problematic for China’s rural population, as people often need to travel long distances and have to go through the lengthy process of registering and waiting for their doctor’s appointment, which sometimes requires them to stay in the city overnight.
For all of these reasons, China’s bigger public hospitals can get super crowded, sometimes resembling shopping malls on an end-of-season sales day. On social media, both patients and medical workers often complain about the stress brought about by the huge crowds and the shortage of doctors in hospitals across the country.
Perhaps it is no wonder that China even has a word to describe outbursts of violence between patients and doctors: ‘Yī nào’ (医闹, literally: “healthcare disturbance”).
One major problem within China’s healthcare conundrum is the lack of local family or primary-care doctors, which often makes bigger hospitals the first stop to any kind of medical treatment for Chinese patients.
The reasons for this issue are manifold. There is a general lack of trust in private and smaller local healthcare clinics, for example, and patients often choose to go directly to a bigger hospital to avoid making extra costs.
This makes it extra difficult for many community health care centers – that are already struggling – to make enough money and to retain qualified staff. In a society that is rapidly aging, the challenges facing China’s healthcare industry are only becoming more pressing.
A Doctor Today, Just an App Away
As China’s online environment is thriving, new innovative online apps are popping up on a daily basis. Some of these apps, that have found their ways into China’s most popular app rankings, are offering solutions to some of the country’s most pressing healthcare problems.
One of these apps is Ping’an Good Doctor (平安好医生), which was developed by health insurance provider Ping’an in 2015 and calls itself China’s “one-stop healthcare ecosystem.”
Employing some 1000 medical staff in its in-house team, contracting over 5,200 external doctors, and collaborating with 3000 hospitals and thousands of pharmacy outlets across the country, the app is somewhat of an “online hospital.”
Through the app, users can look through an online database of medical professionals, order medicine at nearby pharmacies, get 24/7 online medical consultancy, search for information about both Western and Chinese Traditional Medicine, etc., but they can also use Ping’an Good Doctor as a fitness app to track their own health.
When looking for a specific doctor for a one-on-one consult, the app first lets users select an area of expertise (e.g. dermatology or gynecology), and then offers a list of different specialists in various price categories.
Doctors from well-known hospitals, for example, or those with excellent ratings, have a one-time consultation fee of 100 yuan (€ 12,60). Other doctors can be consulted starting from 30 yuan (€3,70). All costs can be paid efficiently via online payment apps.
Ping’an Good Doctor uses an AI-driven system to ask patients various questions about their symptoms and to automatically create a user’s medical record to save time. Based on the AI-generated record and the conversation with the patients – files such as photos can also be uploaded to the app -, the doctors can prescribe medicine or refer the patient to a hospital for an offline appointment if needed.
Ping’an recently announced that its number of registered users exceeded 300 million users, with 62 million monthly active users. Because the app keeps building on its AI-driven system, Ping’an Good Doctor can be expected to only become a ‘smarter’ smart health app the more popular it gets.
Although Ping’an is now leading within China’s medical app category, there are many other apps providing similar services, such as Chunyu Yisheng (春雨医生), Haodafu Online (好大夫在线), or DingXiang Doctor (丁香医生).
The emergence of these apps is just one of the many ways in which China’s digital developments, online media, and tech giants are impacting the healthcare industry, profoundly changing how patients receive healthcare information and access medical services now and in the future.
In a way, China’s medical consultation apps fill the void in offline primary care. Patients who would otherwise turn to hospital care as their first stop can now access medical consultations any time, any day, at a relatively low cost. Those who suffer from relatively harmless conditions could be diagnosed by a medical specialist via the app and get the medicine they need within a matter of minutes. With the growing popularity of these kinds of apps, many patients no longer need to visit a hospital at all.
Are smart health apps such as Ping’an Good Doctor the solution to China’s healthcare problems? No, they’re not. Struggling mums like Guo Yinzhen will not find the help they need there. But they do contribute to a more efficient healthcare environment where crowd flows in hospitals can be reduced, and patients do not need to spend a lot of time and money to stand in hour-long queues to get five minutes of their doctor’s time.
Although smart health apps could not help Guo Yinzhen and her son, social media apps could. As soon as their story went viral in late 2017, Shanghai Children’s Welfare Foundation Xiaoxingxin offered to cover medical treatments for the little boy, with a notable pediatric neurosurgeon operating the child. According to the latest updates, the boy’s situation was “looking good.”
Hopefully, the same holds true for the challenging sides of China’s healthcare industry.
 Burns & Liu, 2017: 3-4.
Burns, Lawton Robert, and Gordon G. Liu. 2017. “Introduction.” In China’s Healthcare Industry: A System Perspective, Lawton Robert Burns and Gordon G. Liu (eds), pp-1-116. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Economist, 2017. “China needs many more primary-care doctors.” The Economist, May 11 https://www.economist.com/china/2017/05/11/china-needs-many-more-primary-care-doctors [20.10.19].
Zhou, Viola. 2018. “Does China Have Universal Healthcare? A Long (And Better) Answer.” Inkstone, Oct 10 https://www.inkstonenews.com/health/china-translated-does-china-have-universal-health-care/article/2167579
This text was first published by 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.
How Chinese Kuaishou Rebel ‘Pangzai’ Became a Twitter King
He’s been called a ‘Twitter king’, but how did the unexpected online fame of this ‘Hebei Pangzai’ start?
He describes himself as the “inventor of tornado beer drinking style” and as an “ordinary peasant from China.” ‘Hebei Pangzai’ only joined Twitter in August of 2019, but he already has a Twitter following of more than 111.6K.
Although his account is temporarily restricted by Twitter at time of writing (“due to suspicious activity”), his popularity is only growing. Some Twitterers, such as the China twitterer Carl Zha (@CarlZha), are even initiating a “#FreePangzai campaign” to restore the account of the “one true King.”
But where and when did the online fame of ‘Hebei Pangzai’ start?
Let’s begin our introduction to Pangzai with one tweet from March of this year, when Twitter user ‘Hunnaban Trenchboss’ posted a video from Chinese short video app Kuaishou (快手) showing a man – ‘Pangzai’ – wearing sunglasses and smoking a cigarette while preparing an incredible mixed drink.
The man in the video smoothly pops the cap off a bottle of beer with a chopstick, pours some in a large jar, then twirls the bottle and propels the rest of the beer in a tornado of force down his throat.
He follows that up by pouring in more beer, some blue liquor, an egg, some Pepsi, and a hefty glass of baijiu – which he dumps in only after lighting it on fire, igniting his finger, and coolly lighting his cigarette. He then chugs the entire concoction in a matter of seconds.
“How do I become as cool as this guy, The Coolest Guy?”, the tweet said.
The same video was shared again in August by a few Russian accounts, was retweeted by an American account, and then went completely viral, racking up millions of views and tens of thousands of retweets.
That video has now been viewed almost 12 million times on Twitter, and has inspired tens of thousands of fans who herald him as ‘king.’
The man in the video referred to as ‘Pangzai’ (胖仔, ‘chubby dude’) is Liu Shichao (刘世超), a 33-year-old farmer and small-time Chinese internet celebrity from a city called Xingtai in Hebei Province.
According to an interview with Technode, he found out about the video on Twitter when some of his new foreign fans opened Chinese social media accounts to find him and tell him about his overnight online fame.
“One message told me that I was a celebrity now in America,” he told Technode: “So I chatted with the person [who sent the message] for a whole day, with the help of translation software.”
He even posted a reply on the original viral video to alert everybody to his account.
Since then, Liu ‘Pangzai’ has amassed over 111,000 followers and has posted many more videos of everything from drinking, to cooking, to exploring his countryside hometown.
But it was the drinking videos specifically that earned him his following, both abroad and in China.
IT STARTED ON KUAISHOU
“Pangzai epitomizes the typical Kuaishou account.”
Liu began his internet career three years ago on Kuaishou, a Chinese short video app massively popular among China’s lower-tier cities and countryside.
In contrast to the polished, celeb-heavy platform Douyin, which is most popular among urban youths, Kuaishou is a platform for the masses. Its users are known for their crazy antics and general disregard for personal safety.
Pangzai epitomizes the typical Kuaishou account. Posting under the handle “Chubby Dude from Hebei” (@河北胖仔), he uploads videos of himself eating and drinking in eye-popping combinations, or sometimes smashing things – from bricks to unopened water bottles – with his bare hands.
Liu also gained notoriety, and a couple hundred thousand followers, from his mastery of the so-called ‘beer tornado technique’ (小旋风 xiǎo xuànfēng).
According to an interview with the BBC, he peaked at 470,000 followers on Kuaishou and was monetizing his online fame with some 10,000 RMB ($1420) per month.
Unfortunately for Liu, China’s Cyberspace Administration announced a crackdown on vulgar and illegal content across multiple social media platforms in spring of 2018, with a focus on Douyin, Kuaishou, and its sister news company Jinri Toutiao. Kuaishou was pulled from app stores until it cleaned up its act.
It is unclear just how many videos and accounts have been removed as a result of the cleanup. We can get a rough idea from an announcement by Kuaishou earlier this year that in March of 2019 alone, it removed an average of over 11,000 videos and blocked almost 1,000 accounts every day.
The result for Liu was that his account was suspended for four months and the majority of his most popular videos, including the one that went viral abroad, were removed for promoting ‘unhealthy drinking habits.’
When you look at his Kuaishou account today, you won’t see many videos focused solely on baijiu and beer chugging.
The videos that remain on his account do include drinking (and his signature tornado move) but it is always accompanied by eating food or some other activity (such as sitting deep in a field of corn, munching on roast duck and dribbling baijiu down a corn leaf into a glass.)
Liu still has 354,000 followers on Kuaishou. His Chinese fans, like his foreign ones, marvel at his cool and collected manner as he eats and drinks all sorts of disgusting things.
Canned herring features heavily in his most popular recent videos, where he can be seen sipping the juice directly from the can.
“This has to be the most unaffected anyone has ever been by eating canned herring,” says one fan. “The flavor is disgusting! 99.9% of people who try this would vomit,” another online commenter replies.
AN UNEXPECTED TWITTER KING
“Liu is like many young men from the countryside of Northern China: open, friendly, humble, and genuinely excited to share his life.”
This year, Liu seems to have embraced his newfound international stardom with grace and savvy.
He uses Twitter’s in-app translation to help him communicate with fans and has been highly interactive on the platform.
Liu ‘Pangzai’ was also quick to open up a Paypal account and share it with followers, and has recently made YouTube and Instagram accounts to prevent scams pretending to be him. He has also collaborated with a Twitter fan to sell T-shirts online in America.
Many online fans have dubbed him ‘king’, perhaps the highest praise one can receive on the internet today.
But in contrast to the sunglasses and chill demeanor of his videos, Liu does not appear to be an internet celebrity overly obsessed with being cool.
Instead, he is like many young men from the countryside of Northern China: open, friendly, humble, and genuinely excited to share his life (and drinking habits) with the rest of the world.
After reposting all of his old drinking videos from Kuaishou, Liu started asking Twitter fans what they would like to see from him. Many responded that they wanted more about his life in rural China.
He has since followed up with videos showing him fixing a pipe with his friends, exploring his local market, cooking sweet potatoes, and, of course, a tutorial on how to master the ‘tornado beer’ technique.
Many have expressed concern for his health in light of his drinking habits, but he has assured everybody that everything he does is “within his ability” and that he doesn’t drink like that very often.
Liu is grateful for all the support and praise he has received from abroad. “It’s crazy to have all of these foreign friends all of a sudden,” he recently said in an interview with Deadspin: “I really have to thank them a lot. If I have a chance I will find them and we can drink together.”
Seemingly to that end, Liu has recently organized a party to be held near his hometown in China, exciting fans all over the world and spurring many to apply for passports and visas.
The date is set for December 14, 2019 in Zhuamadian City, Hebei Province; too soon for many to make it, but he promises another party in the spring. There is talk also of organizing a visit for Liu ‘Pangzai’ to go to America.
WINDOW INTO CHINESE SOCIAL MEDIA
“Liu’s growing notoriety abroad seems to have flown completely under the radar of the Chinese internet.”
Although there are many vloggers like Pangzai in China, he stands out on Twitter as some sort of window into Chinese social media, especially because this online world is usually so separate from the Western realms of social media.
The recent explosive growth of Chinese social media apps such as TikTok has not done much to facilitate this kind of cultural interaction between China and the West.
Although Tiktok is, in fact, a Chinese app (called Douyin 抖音 in China), there are actually two different versions of the same app in mainland China and abroad, meaning that the other ‘Pangzais’ of the Chinese internet still remain within the social media spheres of the PRC, rarely gaining fame outside of the Great Firewall.
In China, aside from his fans on Kuaishou, Liu’s growing notoriety abroad seems to have flown completely under the radar of the Chinese internet. He is mentioned only one or two times across Weibo, and searches for his name and handle on WeChat, Baidu, and various Chinese tech news sites bring up nothing.
Liu is a rare example of genuine soft power coming out of China. A pure, grassroots man of the people with strong cultural appeal who sincerely enjoys sharing his life and his culture with the rest of the world. His tweets are full of affection and appreciation for his fans, as well as frequent prompts for followers to share their own lives and customs of their home countries.
To watch his introduction to Twitter and rise to fame is to see the best of the internet: cultural interaction, genuinely shared delight, and mutual admiration inspired by hilarious antics caught on camera.
His Twitter fans express their hope that Twitter Support will soon lift the temporary ban on their ‘Twitter king.’ To them, it’s perfectly clear: this online king is nowhere near dead, long live Pangzai!
Follow the #FreePangzai hashtag on Twitter.
Update: Panghaizi is out of Twitter jail!
Want to read more about unexpected online celebrities from China? Also see:
The Story of Two Farmers Who Became Internet Celebrities;
The “Vagrant Shanghai Professor”;
From Farmgirl to Fashionista: Weibo Celebrity Fairy Wang.
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