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Twist and Turns in the Tragic Story of the Xuzhou Chained Mother

There are still many questions about the Xuzhou woman, but what is clear is that she now has come to represent many women like her.

Manya Koetse



It’s been three weeks and there were four official statements, but the story of the Xuzhou mother-of-eight is still seeing new developments, and it is sparking even more anger on Chinese social media.

While the Beijing Olympics are still in full swing, many on Chinese social media are focused on developments taking place some 430 miles south of the capital. Three weeks after the story of a mother of eight children being chained up in a hut next to the family home first sent shockwaves across Chinese social media, the Xuzhou chained mother is still one of the biggest topics discussed on Weibo.

The ball started rolling in late January of this year when a video of the woman, filmed by a local TikTok user, went viral online and triggered massive outrage with thousands of people demanding answers about the woman’s circumstances. The woman, who seemed confused, was kept in a dirty shed without a door in the freezing cold – she did not even wear a coat. Videos showed how her husband Dong Zhimin (董志民) and their eight children were playing and talking in the family home right next to the hut. These videos were all filmed in the village of Huankou.

What’s on Weibo first reported this trending topic on January 29, and after BBC also reported the story on January 31st, the Xuzhou mother also started making international headlines. Meanwhile, on Chinese social media, updates to new developments in the story continued to go viral.

Local authorities in Xuzhou, the largest city of northern Jiangsu, and the Feng county-level division, where the village of Huankou is located, started looking into the case after the video went trending. The first statement by Feng County was issued on January 28 and it said that the woman, named Yang (杨), married her husband Dong Zhimin in 1998 and that there was no indication that she was a victim of human trafficking, which was a concern raised by so many netizens.

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. Many people on Weibo were angry and drew comparisons to the 2007 movie Blind Mountain (盲山). That movie, directed by Li Yang (李杨), tells the story of a woman named Bai who is kidnapped and sold to a villager in the mountains, leaving Bai completely trapped.

Scene from Blind Mountain.

Netizens started to do their own research and suggested that ‘Yang’ could actually be Li Ying (李莹), a woman who went missing in Sichuan’s Nanchong 26 years ago. Online, many people called for DNA research to see if Yang was indeed related to Li Ying’s family.

The mother of eight in Xuzhou compared to the missing woman Li Ying.

While netizens were speculating about the case, it became clear that the husband Dong Zhimin was giving more interviews about his eight children (seven sons, one daughter), spoke of how his sons would become providers for the family in the future, and even promoted local companies. This only led to more speculation and online anger, and Weibo shut down some of the hashtags dedicated to this topic.


More Statements


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.

Yang did have mental problems before, but her condition allegedly worsened in June of 2021 when she displayed more aggressive behavior and was tied up in the shed. The statement said that Yang had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was receiving treatment.

On February 7th, Xuzhou authorities released a third statement with an update of their investigation, which had brought them to the village of Yagu (亚谷村) in Yunnan – a place that was mentioned on Yang’s marriage certificate.

With the help of local authorities, villagers, and household registers, they were able to determine Yang’s identity and stated that she was actually Xiao Huamei (小花梅) who was born and raised in Yagu, Fugong county. In 1994, she married and moved to the city of Baoshan, but she divorced and returned to her village two years later.

Her parents, now deceased, ordered a female fellow villager who had married someone from Jiangsu to take Xiao with her to receive treatment and look for a suitable partner for marriage. Although the woman took Xiao with her on a train from Yunnan’s Kunming city to Jiangsu’s Donghai, Xiao allegedly went missing shortly after arrival. The woman, named Sang (桑), never reported Xiao Huamei missing to the police and she also did not notify Xiao’s family.

The Xuzhou authorities further write that DNA research has confirmed that all of the eight children are the parents’ biological children.

A fourth statement was issued on February 10th through the Xuzhou official Weibo channel (@徐州发布). According to that statement, Yang’s DNA had been compared to that of the family of Xiao Huamei and it was determined that Yang and Xiao Huamei were definitely the same person.

The statement further said that three persons were held criminally responsible for illegal detainment and human trafficking in the case of Xiao Huamei: Sang, her husband, and Dong Zhimin, the father of the eight children.

Meanwhile, Chinese news outlet The Paper reported that the family of Li Ying, the missing woman who resembled Yang so much, received official confirmation that there was no DNA match between Li Ying and Yang.


Weibo Detectives and Journalists


Following the last statement, online anger did not subside. Was Yang’s husband only accused of ‘illegal detention’? What about rape and abuse?

By now, there are multiple stories going around the Chinese internet of other women living in Xuzhou who might have also been a victim of human trafficking. What about them? What are their names? Who cares about them? Who is still out there looking for them?

Another issue raised by Weibo users was that of the age of Xiao Huamei, which was never mentioned in the official statement. Was Xiao Huamei underage when she was trafficked? How old is the Xuzhou mother of eight?

Determined to find out the truth, some investigative journalists and concerned netizens decided to do their own research.

Two Weibo users (using the accounts @小梦姐姐小拳拳, @乌衣古城, and @我能抱起120斤) drove to Feng County, Xuzhou, with the goal of verifying the information disclosed by the local government and pressuring them to arrest husband Dong for his crime. The women, who had been sharing all details of their trip on Weibo, were planning on visiting Yang and talking to other people in the area.

After they arrived in Feng County, the local police allegedly removed the slogans they had written on their own car, calling for Dong’s arrest. They were denied entrance at the facility where Yang supposedly is treated and someone tried to take their phone. When the two women went to the police station to report the attempted phone robbery, the police detained them for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (“寻衅滋事罪”). A supertopic on Weibo dedicated to helping the two women was taken offline.

One other important person dedicated to this case is the Chinese investigative journalist Deng Fei (邓飞), who has over five million followers on his Weibo account. On February 13, Deng said that according to Yang’s verified ID card, which he obtained via online channels, her date of birth is June 6, 1969. This means Yang’s age would be 52.

The photo on Yang’s ID card, which says she was born in 1969.

Deng and others questioned Yang’s age, especially considering their youngest baby just turned two. Would a woman in her mid and late 40s, living in such harsh conditions, still be able to have multiple babies? Why was her hair not greying at all? Were authorities lying about her age?

Deng Fei later obtained and published a photo of the marriage certificate of ‘Yang Qingxiang’ and ‘Dong Zhimin,’ which shows their marriage was registered in August of 1998 and was approved by the Huankou township. Here, Yang’s date of birth is also said to be June of 1969. However, what struck Deng and many others is that the photo on the marriage certificate seems to be a different woman from Yang.

The well-known screenwriter and author Li Yaling (@李亚玲) also researched the Xuzhou case, and she claimed that according to her sources, Xiao Huamei was born in 1977 and was initially sold to another man by Sang for 6000 yuan ($950) before she ended up marrying Dong. Li also claims that the vlogger who filmed the first viral video put the chains around the woman’s neck himself. The chains were already there, and were in fact used to sometimes tie up the mother, but they were allegedly only put on her to help get more attention for the woman and her impoverished family.

The account of the vlogger who originally posted the viral video has since been deleted.

After three weeks of developments and four statements later, there are still so many questions, and there are still many doubts about whether or not Xiao Huamei from Yagu village is really Yang from Huankou village, and who the woman in the photo is.

Another issue raised is that the oldest son of the family, Dong *gang (董某港) was born in March of 1997, but according to one of the earlier statements issued in this case, Dong Zhimin’s father took in Yang in the summer of 1998 and their marriage certificate was issued in August of that year. So whose child is the oldest kid?

Many people think that perhaps Xiao Huamei – who was trafficked in 1996 – was actually once married to Dong and is the mother of the oldest child, but that the chained mother in Xuzhou is another woman. Since Xiao Huamei was married before in 1994, the ex-husband could surely confirm if Yang in Xuzhou is indeed the woman he was once married to, but so far his identity has not been disclosed.


The Women in the Dark Rooms


While details surrounding the case of the ‘chained Xuzhou mother of eight’ are still being discussed a lot, it has become clear that by now, Yang has come to represent many more women like her.

Since early February, more stories have surfaced of other women like Yang, often suffering from a mental or physical handicap. One of these stories involved a disabled woman also from Xuzhou, Feng County – a video that showed her lying on the floor also went viral on social media including a second video showing the woman living in terrible conditions, although there has not been a follow-up on her specific situation.

In light of the recent developments, media insider Zhang Xiaolei (@媒体人张晓磊) posted a segment of a TV documentary from ten years ago on Weibo titled “The Woman Leaving the Dark Room” (走出黑屋的女人), in which a naked and confused middle-aged woman was kept locked in a hut in a village in Shandong province, just a one-hour drive from Huankou village. Zhang wrote that the reporter, with the help of local authorities, was able to rescue the woman and eventually succeeded in locating her family.

Still from the decade-old documentary (走出黑屋的女人) about a woman kept in a small house, just 40 kilometers away from where the Xuzhou mother of eight lived.

Zhang’s post was taken offline, as were other initiatives to raise more awareness. On Valentine’s Day, a group of people from Yueyang, Hunan, spoke up for the Xuzhou mother and posted a group photo in which they carried banners and hashtagged the post “stand up for human rights.” That post was also soon deleted, along with a letter signed by 10 graduates of Peking University to call for an investigation of local officials involved in the case, changes to the law, and more details on the Xuzhou woman’s identity.

Despite censorship, netizens keep posting about the case and putting pressure on authorities to do more research and take more action. How could Yang have been so neglected? Why didn’t authorities do more to prevent such a tragedy from happening?

Their calls do seem to have some impact, as the higher authorities of Jiangsu provincial government have reportedly now also decided to set up an investigation team to conduct an investigation into the Xuzhou case.

Meanwhile, there are many artists who are using their artwork, from sculptures to graphic design, to express their feelings about the case and condemn how local authorities have dealt with this case.

They also pay their respects to the chained-up woman in the video. Regardless of who she is, and how she got there, there is one thing everyone agrees on; her story is a tragic one, and no matter who gets punished for what happened to her, there are no winners here.


By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on Contact at, or follow on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar


    February 18, 2022 at 9:59 pm

    Menanwhile -> meanwhile

    Great, enlightening yet concise write-up

    thank you
    goed gedaan

    • Avatar


      February 20, 2022 at 6:36 pm

      Thanks so much for noticing, adjusted!

  2. Avatar


    February 19, 2022 at 6:46 pm

    No one believes this still happen in a 21st century in China, and I am extremely outrageous after reading this story, and can not find word for this kind of cruelty, immoral and illegal behavior in rural area. Everyone need to keep following this for answers and steps to complete saving of thousands of similar women in China. The gender imbalance due to the one cold policy has resulted in this kind of human trafficking of women in China’s rural areas.

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About Lipstick King’s Comeback and His ‘Mysterious’ Disappearance

After Li Jiaqi’s return to livestreaming, the ‘tank cake incident’ has become the elephant in the room on social media.

Manya Koetse



Earlier this week, the return of China’s famous livestreamer Li Jiaqi, also known as the ‘Lipstick King’, became a hot topic on Chinese social media where his three-month ‘disappearance’ from the social commerce scene triggered online discussions.

He is known as Austin Li, Lipstick King, or Lipstick Brother, but most of all he is known as one of China’s most successful e-commerce livestreaming hosts.

After being offline for over 100 days, Li Jiaqi (李佳琦) finally came back and did a livestreaming session on September 20th, attracting over 60 million viewers and selling over $17 million in products.

The 30-year-old beauty influencer, a former L’Oreal beauty consultant, rose to fame in 2017 after he became a successful livestreamer focusing on lipstick and other beauty products.

Li broke several records during his live streaming career. In 2018, he broke the Guinness World Record for “the most lipstick applications in 30 seconds.” He once sold 15000 lipsticks in 5 minutes, and also managed to apply 380 different lipsticks in another seven-hour live stream session. Li made international headlines in 2021 when he sold $1.9 billion in goods during a 12-hour-long promotion livestream for Alibaba’s shopping festival.

But during a Taobao livestream on June 3rd of this year, something peculiar happened. After Li Jiaqi and his co-host introduced an interestingly shaped chocolate cake – which seemed to resemble a tank, – a male assistant in the back mentioned something about the sound of shooting coming from a tank (“坦克突突”).

Although Li Jiaqi and the others laughed about the comment, Li also seemed a bit unsure and the woman next to him then said: “Stay tuned for 23:00 to see if Li Jiaqi and I will still be in this position.”

The session then suddenly stopped, and at 23:38 that night Li wrote on Weibo that the channel was experiencing some “technical problems.”

But those “technical problems” lasted, and Li did not come back. His June 3rd post about the technical problems would be the last one on his Weibo account for the months to come.

The ‘cake tank incident’ (坦克蛋糕事件) occurred on the night before June 4, the 33rd anniversary of the violent crackdown of the Tiananmen student demonstrations. The iconic image of the so-called ‘tank man‘ blocking the tanks at Tiananmen has become world famous and is censored on China’s internet. The control of information flows is especially strict before and on June 4, making Li’s ‘tank cake incident’ all the more controversial.

But no official media nor the official Li Jiaqi accounts acknowledged the tank cake incident, and his absence remained unexplained. Meanwhile, there was a silent acknowledgment among netizens that the reason Li was not coming online anymore was related to the ‘tank cake incident.’

During Li’s long hiatus, fans flocked to his Weibo page where they left thousands of messages.

“I’m afraid people have been plotting against you,” many commenters wrote, suggesting that the cake was deliberately introduced by someone else during the livestream as a way to commemorate June 4.

Many fans also expressed their appreciation of Li, saying how watching his streams helped them cope with depression or cheered them up during hard times. “What would we do without you?” some wrote. Even after 80 days without Li Jiaqi’s livestreams, people still commented: “I am waiting for you every day.”

On September 21st, Li Jiaqi finally – and somewhat quietly – returned and some people said they were moved to see their lipstick hero return to the livestream scene.

Although many were overjoyed with Li’s return, it also triggered more conversations on why he had disappeared and what happened to him during the 3+ months of absence. “He talked about a sensitive topic,” one commenter said when a Weibo user asked about Li’s disappearance.

One self-media accountpublished a video titled “Li Jiaqi has returned.” The voiceover repeatedly asks why Li would have disappeared and even speculates about what might have caused it, without once mentioning the tank cake.

“This cracks me up,” one commenter wrote: “On the outside we all know what’s going on, on the inside there’s no information whatsoever.”

“It’s tacit mutual understanding,” some wrote. “It’s the elephant in the room,” others said.

Some people, however, did not care about discussing Li’s disappearance at all anymore and just expressed joy about seeing him again: “It’s like seeing a good friend after being apart for a long time.”

By Manya Koetse 

Elements in the featured image by @karishea and @kaffeebart.


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More Than Just a Visit: Explaining the Chinese ‘Cuànfǎng’

‘Cuànfǎng’ became a popular word on Chinese social media and in official Chinese discourse this year. But what is it?

Jin Luo




Since Pelosi’s stopover in Taiwan, the word ‘cuànfǎng’ has been all over Chinese social media to refer to this controversial visit. But ‘cuànfǎng’ is more than just ‘visiting’ alone. Jin Luo explains.

It was a sleepless night for many Chinese people when U.S. House Speaker Pelosi flew to Taiwan on August 2nd of 2022. A new Chinese word created in recent years, cuànfǎng (窜访) appeared in the official statement that was issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry at 11 pm that night, and subsequently it appeared all over social media.

Meanwhile, a pop song released more than 30 years ago titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (“今夜你会不会来”) suddenly became a Weibo hot topic before it was taken offline. What is this word lost in translation, and why did people suddenly get nostalgic over an old romantic song?

Cuànfǎng: A ‘Sneaky Visit’

Here is the original wording in Chinese and the official translation to English from the statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the evening on 2 August:

In disregard of China’s strong opposition and diplomatic discontent, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited China’s Taiwan region” (“美国国会众议长佩洛西不顾中方强烈反对和严正交涉,窜访中国台湾地区.”) The word ‘visited’ in Chinese that is used here is “cuànfǎng” 窜访.

While the English verb “visit” is a neutral word by itself, the Chinese “cuànfǎng” 窜访 has much stronger connotations. According to the Wiktionary, the word is a derogatory, officialese way to say “to visit.” But it is not an easy word to translate, as there is no direct equivalent in English, and both the literal and implied meaning of the word need to be understood.

Cuànfǎng is actually a compound word: cuàn 窜 refers to fleeing, escaping, hiding, or running away; fǎng 访 refers to inquiring, seeking, or visiting.

Cuan as a compound character (Sohu).

To make matters more complicated, cuàn by itself is also a compound character. It is written as ‘竄’ in traditional Chinese: the top radical ‘穴’ means ‘hole,’ and the lower part is the character ‘鼠’ which means ‘mouse.’ The character, having the shape of a mouse hiding in a hole, therefore has the meaning of ‘hiding’ and ‘escaping.’

The origins of the character ‘cuan’ explained, image via

The mouse or rat is an animal that is more often associated with negative things in Chinese culture. They are often considered sneaky, dirty, running around everywhere, and able to reproduce quickly. With mice so often carrying a negative association, cuàn ‘窜’ also refers to a kind of hiding and escaping that is negative or objectionable.

The second character fǎng 访 is a neutral word that simply means “to visit.”

At the New York Times, Chris Buckley captured the underlying meaning of this word in writing: “The Chinese word used in the official statements for ‘visit’ — cuanfang — connotes a sneaky or illicit encounter, not an aboveboard meeting.”

The Evolution of Cuànfǎng

Although it is a relatively new word, cuànfǎng already existed before the Pelosi incident and was not created in light of this controversial visit.

Since the word’s first appearance, translators have had some difficulties in properly translating the term into different languages.

Research papers in translation studies and international relations in China suggested that cuànfǎng is a “new derogatory term invented in recent years, specifically for the purpose of maintaining national security and unity, and condemning and exposing the national separatists” and “demonstrated the big wisdom of Chinese diplomatic discourse users; vividly described the image of the separatists, that they go on the run sneakily, just like thieves and mice” (source, in Chinese).

Other sources interpret it as “the unjust, improper visit conducted in order to reach hidden political agenda, to agitate and peddle the separatist ideas,” and:

1. You went somewhere where you were not supposed to go;
2. The visit was not accepted or welcomed by the (Chinese) government;
3. The purpose is to shake justice and create conflicts
” (source, in Chinese).

Cuàn was mainly meant to add an emotional aspect to the term and shows the contempt of the person who uses it.

Image via Wainao.

The word was first prominently used in Chinese official discourse when the Foreign Ministry in 2006 referred to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Israel. Since cuàn has the meaning of fleeing, it is especially suitable when referring to political dissidents who went into exile overseas.

Since then, it has been used again for further visits of the Dalai Lama to other countries (US 2014, Mongolia 2017), as well as for Rebiya Kadeer, Lee Teng-hui, Shinzo Abe, Joshua Wong, and others.

Although it is clear that the term is not only applied to Chinese dissidents, it is generally applied to those who conducted visits that were perceived to be hostile towards China, with Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit serving as a clear example.

Since the Dalai Lama has been living outside of China and conducted numerous visits to other countries, cuànfǎng was previously mostly used in this context until Pelosi’s visit, which ended up being good for more than 80% of the search results of cuànfǎng on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

If cuànfǎng is a word with such strong emotional connotations, why was it simply translated as “visit” in official English-language documents? Some say it is because of the mere difficulty to translate this word, while others say it is the routine sanitization of English translations by the Foreign Ministry.

David Gitter, president of the Center for Advanced China Research based in Washington D.C., said that the external goal of Beijing can be different from the internal goal towards the nationalist domestic audiences, and that “more accurate yet counterproductive translations … [often] breach normal diplomatic language.”

At this point, it remains up for debate whether this is a linguistic constraint or a political choice.

Tonight, Are You Coming or Not?

While the term cuànfǎng has been widely used in official discourse, it has also become a popular online word. Chinese netizens seemed to be as passionate as the Chinese Foreign Ministry – and perhaps even more so –  in condemning Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and demanding radical countermeasures.

Chinese netizens were watching the entire event unfold with mixed feelings – on the one hand, there was a strong sense of patriotism and anger, on the other hand, the massive attention to the event also turned it into something that was almost as exciting as a celebrity drama.

On that specific evening of Pelosi’s nearing arrival in Taipei, Chinese netizens were doing two things: watching real-time tracking of Pelosi’s flight, and listening to a classic pop song released in 1991 titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (今夜你会不会来) (video). Back in the previous century, Hong Kong singer Leon Lai expressed the emotions of someone waiting for his lover to arrive in this melodic song, singing:


Would you be willing to stay for me


Tonight, you tell me


Are you willing to accompany me through my dream?


My everything



Tonight, are you coming or not?


Is your love still there or not?


If your heart has left already


I would rather not have a future


Tonight, are you coming or not?


Is your love still there or not?


Don’t let all my wait


Go all in vain


In the middle of the uncertainty about whether Pelosi would come to Taiwan or not, this song served as entertainment for netizens and became a “collective carnival” of people jokingly applying the song to Pelosi, turning her into a ‘mysterious lover’ that might or might not show up. (Later, some were unable to play the song anymore, although it remains unclear if this was due to geographic restrictions or because the song was actually taken offline by censors.)

“Taiwan has been preparing for your cuànfǎng ‘sneaky visit’, are you coming or not tonight?” some netizens wrote, combining the title song with the cuànfǎng term. In doing so, Pelosi became both a ‘sneaky mouse’ and ‘mysterious lover’, both a target of condemnation and subject of fun and banter.

All jokes and cuànfǎng references aside, Pelosi did end up realizing that visit, and its aftermath, including a second Taiwan visit by a U.S. congressional delegation, has had a substantial impact on U.S.-China relations that were already strained before the move.

Will there be more cuànfǎng to Taiwan? It’s likely not an issue of if, but when. For next time, at least we’ve got cuànfǎng covered.


By Jin Luo 

Featured image by Alexa from Pixabay


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