China is a nation transformed: urban landscapes swell to the brim with rural citizens hoping to make their fortune, the newly rich run from the chaos of the metropolitan rat race, and many of the truly wealthy look for solace outside of China’s borders. This change has had its ups and downs, but it cannot be denied that the people of China are migrating en masse and that the consequences of this mass migration are being felt everywhere—even though the true costs may not be felt for decades to come. The key revolution of China this decade has been economic, one in which a society mills freely about the nation and abroad to seek a fortune or future unthought-of in previous generations.

For China’s cities, this means a great deal, chiefly that the rural population are searching for a lifestyle and a fortune in the urban areas where the pay is better, the work safer, and the outlook brighter. The explosion of the middle class has, for some, had the opposite effect, with China’s relatively young and wealthy looking for a less hectic life in the country’s more peaceful (and possibly more lucrative) areas. Some just want to get out of China altogether, and there are options for the super rich and hopeful parents alike to getting on the fast track to a fresh, new passport from a country of their choosing; just a few decades ago, China opened up to the world, and now the world is opening up to China. Chinese society, put simply, is on the move.

Rural Exodus

It is the largest human migration China has ever experienced. The change of political climate and economic policy in the late 1980s and early 1990s opened a door to the city for hundreds of millions of rural residents. Attracted by wages several times higher than what they could earn at home, not to mention the prospect of richer urban lives and everything else cities offer, they could not wait to abandon their “mud bowl”. Firmly stationed on the assembly line, these peasants-turned workers began to create the so-called Chinese miracle, becoming the backbone of economic development, and it never seemed to stop. Over the next 30 years, the ever intensifying trend completely changed the social fabric of the nation.

By 2013, the number of rural migrant workers reached268 million, accounting for nearly one fifth of the entire Chinese population. First found in the factory workshops and construction sites, migrant workers are now employed in every aspect of city life: express delivery, retail, restaurants, hotels, and more, with some going on to become successful entrepreneurs. They are at every street corner in every city selling, repairing, and serving tirelessly. There is no doubt that rural migrant workers can better themselves by moving to the city, but like everywhere else in the world in the history of urbanization, the dramatic social change is not without its problems. Some of these factors—not least of which is the sheer scale—are unique to China.

The already heavily populated urban areas are struggling to meet the needs of the large influx of migrant workers. Beijing, for example, already holds a population of well over 21 million, of which over four million are migrant workers. With an increase of 500,000 new migrants each year, resources are running dangerously low: infrastructure is lagging behind international standards, urban planning is challenged, and quality of life is poor and worsening for many migrant workers.

However, overcrowding tops the list of problems. This February a fire broke out in a “village within the city”—rural areas that slip through the cracks of urbanization where rural residents lost their farmland due to city expansion—in Shanghai Pudong New Area, killing a20-year-old Jiangsu migrant worker and his newly-wed pregnant wife. At the time of the fire, the two-floored brick building, constructed in the 80s, was crammed with25 tenants in small rooms separated by wooden boards. Like the victims, most were migrant workers employed in the local shipyard. The village, called Shanheng, had 3,000 locals and over 10,000 migrant workers living in rooms less than 10 square meters in size. Scattered gas tanks, aging wires, and even electric bikes are a constant threat to these workers’ lives. But rent is as low as 100RMB a month—a migrant worker has to save money where he can.

Such villages are common places for migrant workers to live. In 2010, China Real Estate and Finance published a survey of 404 migrant workers based in Beijing, showing that 63 percent of them live in old bungalows and self-built simple houses in these “villages within the city”, and 72 percent of them had an average living area of less than five square meters per person. In many of these crowded and unsanitary living areas, a bathroom or even running water is a luxury. With an average monthly wage of 2,609 RMB, migrant workers only spend about450 RMB on housing in the hope of taking more money back to their families. Some have even chosen shipping containers, wells and manholes as homes.

Alongside the extremely bad living conditions, environmental pollution also poses a huge threat to the health of the migrant workers. According to “Environment, Health and Migration”, a report completed this March by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, migrant workers tend to live close to pollution sources in heavily industrialized areas, which are typically where they work. Migrant workers are repeatedly exposed to water, soil and air pollution, leading to deteriorating health. Also, the latest figures from the State Statistics Bureau indicate that only18 percent of migrant workers have health insurance. For most of them, their poverty leaves them entirely unequipped to deal with illness.

Their trials, however, do not end there. The hukou, or household register system, is their final obstacle in being embraced by the city, a hurdle many never overcome. Installed in 1958, hukou are divided into agriculture for rural residents and non-agriculture for urban residents, and attached are very different medical care facilities, insurance plans, and educational opportunities. Disadvantaged rural residents have a hard time meeting the ever changing urban hukou requirements, even if they have lived, worked and paid taxes in the city for decades. Faced with complaints and criticism, the Beijing city government issued urban hukou to three migrant workers at the end of April this year, all of whom were “National Labor Models”—a gesture to show that migrant workers’ contribution to the city will eventually be rewarded. However, three out of over four million is fatuoustokenism and of no comfort whatsoever to the diligent army of migrant workers living on the ramshackle edges of Beijing and other Chinese cities.

Seemingly a group of perpetual outsiders, migrant workers are all-too-often discriminated against, mistreated, and brushed aside without so much as a moment’s notice. In its rush to modernize, China has clearly created a new urban underclass. They are called nongmingong (农民工) or mingong (民工), a name that has increasingly been associated with shabby appearance, boorish manners, poor education, intense physical labor, and an impoverished status—worse still, it’s a term now snobbily used as an insult. To counter such negative connotations, the state-run media began a campaign, which was really a piecemeal effort in semantics, and added “brothers and sisters” after mingong, hoping such a gesture would bridge the gap between rural workers and the city dwellers. But, a simple name change was never going to be enough. If migrant workers are indeed our brothers and sisters, we are pretty shameful siblings.



In early April, the tropical heat douses the city of Jinghong in a lazy languor. Dogs idly sleep under the branches of gigantic glazed palms. By half past one, the restaurants that were open at noon close and the streets are empty, quiet, with not so much as a taxi in sight. The entire city, despite its modern look, takes the time to have a prolonged midday snooze. Sitting on an aged bamboo armchair by the Mekong River, looking at the verdant yard of a hostel, the languid summer air relaxed me into a stupor. There was almost nowhere I wanted to go—I had already explored nearby villages, hot springs, and forests, that’s when the young receptionist, perhaps to save me from actually melding with the chair, said, “Maybe you would like Zhanglang (章朗).”

A typical Bulang ethnic residence in Zhanglang village

Flicking through a guidebook, Zhanglang, Yunnan Province, seemed to be an ancient Bulang ethnic (布朗族) village—an ethnicity I had never encountered before. It was only 100 miles west of Jinghong, and the description in the guide was smaller than a postage stamp. Riled by curiosity, I decided to raise myself out of my seemingly eternal slumber in the bamboo armchair and hit the road once more. With no direct route, I first took a bus to Menghai (勐海), the town nearest to Zhanglang, leaving the modern city of  Jinghong in the rearview mirror and rattling furiously onto a road that threaded through a vast rainforest. However, the dry season was lasting longer than it was supposed to, and the forest looked dusty and dry, even depressed somehow. After an hour and a half, I arrived in Menghai. The town, like so many newly-developed Chinese towns, was ill-planned, badly-built, and dirty. The main street seemed to consist almost entirely of motorcycle repair garages, and even the occasional restaurant seemed to take on the air of the garages, gloomy and dank.

The next day, I took a privately-run mini van further west, getting off halfway to look at a 300-year-old octagon pagoda (景真八角亭) constructed to resemble Siddhartha’s hat. I was having a good time, listening to the soothing sound of the wind stroking the bells that hung around the gray wooden pagoda and tried my best to interpret the frescos painted on the temple walls, which were, it seemed, all about the life of Siddhartha Gautama. The temple that once surrounded the pagoda was—like so many things—destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and rebuilt in 1978. Coming to terms with this often frustrated me during my travels. Such destruction is omnipresent. No matter how remote and offbeat the destination—regardless of the ethnicity, culture, and temperament of the local people—the temples were always destroyed during the peculiar havoc that was the Cultural Revolution.

A gate leading to the Buddhist temple in Zhanglang village

When I left the pagoda, I hitchhiked on a motorcycle driven by a local man who didn’t understand Han Chinese. I asked him tentatively, “Zhanglang?” and he nodded. Fifteen minutes later, he put me down at a gas station at a fork in the road and pointed to one of the paths. I couldn’t understand his dialect, but checking the map on my phone, I could see I was some nine kilometers away from Zhanglang. As I walked, the concrete road soon disappeared, giving way to a cobbled road, and then a dirt path. The mountains and valleys turned greener and gently rolled onwards. The land was clearly resident to a very hardworking people, and the entire valley appeared to have been turned into tea plantations.

I failed to hail another ride. Occasionally, a motorcycle would roar by, but they were always overloaded with women and children or goods. Having underestimated the time it would take me to get to the village, I didn’t even fill my water bottle before I left, only bringing along a Snickers bar for food. When, after two hours, the map finally indicated I was arriving in Zhanglang, I was exhilarated by the simple prospect of water. The village was of a singular rustic charm. It was tiny, and I walked through it in two minutes. Cottages clustered closely, most of them have two-storey wooden structures. The bottom storeys, supported by pillars alone, were without walls and used as shelter for livestock, as well as for the storage of logs and firewood. The second storeys were windowless and almost totally in the shadow of the massive, slanting roofs that were covered in small, black square tiles. They all looked weather-beaten but were still well-maintained and neat.

The village was exceptionally still. For a moment I even wondered if it was abandoned. Thus, I walked up and down the path, looking for any living human I could find. Finally, I heard the faint din of chatting from one of the cottages. I gingerly approached, and saw three old women sitting on the floor in the middle of what was clearly a merry conversation. All three of them were dressed in their own ethnic dress: their heads wrapped in black clothes, while wearing black coats and a black, ankle-length skirt wrapped by a blue waistband.

“Hello. Do you have any water?” I asked timidly. They looked at me inquisitively, but didn’t understand. I took out my bottle and piteously showed them that it was empty. Then the oldest woman stood up, and gestured for me to follow her.

As she walked, she started to talk to me in a slow drawl as if I were another woman from her village. We went into her cottage, up the creaking steps, and came to the second storey. The attic was spacious, but the roof hung very low, the only source of light was what seeped through cracks in the planks. The room was meant to be used as a sitting room and kitchen. The kitchen was a small ring of cinder on the ground with a tin pot supported by an iron tripod.

Yuban posing for the camera, leaning on her neighbor’s bamboo cattle pen

She gave me hot water from a thermos, and then, as if reading my mind, offered me food—rice and salt, which obviously was her lunch too. She was an elegant lady despite her age and was extraordinarily flexible, a woman who—through miming and a smattering of Mandarin words—I was able to discover had recently suffered a serious injury to her foot. I was not used to sitting on the floor, and soon my legs and back became numb and stiff, while she sat comfortably, nimbly bending to fetch anything within her reach. Without enquiring anything about where I came from or why I was here, she offered me her couch for the night as naturally as if I was her own family, which, oddly, made me feel slightly paranoid. While we conversed inefficiently and with great difficulty, the wooden stairs thundered, and a little girl in a school uniform came up. She was about 10 years old, and had large expressive eyes. “She speaks Han. She learned it from school,” the old lady said. Her name was Yuban, and we talked briefly before I remembered the Snickers in my backpack and gave it to her. She opened it and asked me what it was, and then put it aside. “You don’t eat candy?” I asked. “I am keeping it for my brother. He will come later,” she said. The brother soon turned up, shorter than the girl, but they looked very alike. I later learned they were twins.

Yuban and her brother stayed for a while and then as they were leaving, I don’t know exactly how, my lodging changed from the old lady’s cottage to Yuban’s home. My little patron’s home was two kilometers away in another village. The people of the two villages used to both reside in the first village, but the first village was so ancient that the government, concerned about overpopulation, subsidized some of the villagers and had them build new cottages in a new settlement. Her house was similar to the house of the old lady, only simpler. The attic was almost bare, the only furniture being two wide benches in a corner, one of which would serve as my bed. The planks that made-up the floor extended out of the attic, making a platform where they could wash clothes and bathe. A water tap rose from the ground to the platform like a tall flag pole. There was no toilet—or, rather, the toilets were anywhere outside where you could hide yourself well. The only electricity went to a pair of light bulbs.

As soon as she put down her backpack, Yuban announced: “We are running out of time. I have to hurry. I need to sweep the floor, wash the clothes, feed the pigs, and cook rice before my parents come back.” So, she briskly set about her chores. The water for washing clothes immediately turned dark, as their garments were soaked in mud; Yuban washed them quite unscrupulously. I guess she didn’t have the time, and, I suspect, modern standards of hygiene are more a product of our cramped, dirty cities. Then, she hoisted a bucket of porridge, which I later learned was made from banana branches, downstairs and poured it into a large tire cut into halves; three small black pigs hurried over and enjoyed their meal while contently swaying their tails. I was in awe of her efficiency, and as much as I wanted to, I could do little to help.

At about six, I finally met her parents coming back from the fields. Her mother had brown skin, big bright eyes, round and tight arms, not to mention the elegant, steady pace that can often seen on people who have only ever walked barefoot. The father was a short, lean man. Both were just 32 years-old. They each came back with a gigantic bag of fresh tea leaves on their backs. Yuban yelled something at them like a chirping bird, and they smiled at me and nodded and didn’t say anything. In this quiet and familiar way they accepted me as their guest. She started a fire and cooked us dinner, which was rice stir-fried in oil and soy sauce. Also, I got an egg—they fried the only egg they had for me. Over the next few days, I noticed that they had no vegetables and very little fruit in their daily diets.

In the evening, they went out and came back with a bed cover. “We borrowed it from a neighbor for you,” mother Yu said. The bench that was to be my bed already had a mat and a blanket, and I felt bad for the inconvenience. When I woke the next day I noticed that the light was on all night. I asked them why, and the mother said, “There are a lot of mice. They are not afraid of people and run around in the room at night. It’s better with the light on. We don’t want you to be scared.”

The next day, they awoke when it was still dark. “We are going to help another family harvest their sugar cane. We will come back late,” mother Yu told me. Yuban and her brother, too, were going to help another neighbor to pick tea leaves. Of course, Yuban brought me along because she was worried about me hanging around on my own, and also: “You can earn a lot of money if you pick tea leaves with us. Mother said you will need money because you go to a lot of places.” The pay was 20 RMB per kilo of tea leaves. We arrived at a small patch of tea farms in a deep wood. However, I, of course, was the slowest picker as I couldn’t quite discern younger tender leaves from older ones. I also couldn’t stop Yuban and her brother secretly smuggling leaves from their own bags into mine whenever they got the chance so that I would be paid more. It was humbling, almost devastating generosity.

Yuban and her brother skilfully pick tea, for which they are paid 20 RMB per kilogram

With their kind help, I earned 20 RMB, and the twins earned 30 RMB each. We finished the work in early afternoon and played in the woods for the rest of the day. They made two significant discoveries: that there was empty ground comfortably matted with thick leaves and that my phone could record voices. The recorder made them hysterically happy. They shrieked at it, listened to their own shrieking and rolled on the ground in laughter. Then they started to sing songs in their own language. This time they became a serious duo, and I listened in amazement. After they had fun recording their voices, Yuban dragged me to the village’s grocery store, insisting on buying me a snack. Truly, I felt like the most immature among us. There was only one grocery shop in the village, which was owned by a Han man who sold very limited goods. Yuban carefully chose a soy sauce egg for me.

The next day was a Thursday, the day when all the villagers go shopping in the Xidingxiang market, about 12 kilometers away. Yuban was excited and said she was going to buy a pair of dancing shoes, as they were choreographing a dance at school. She also looked forward to buying steamed buns and having rice noodles in a restaurant.

We got up at six and found the neighbors already gathering. There was only one mini van in the village, owned by the grocery store proprietor. Most families traveled on motorcycles. We divided ourselves into several groups and got on motorcycles, waving and hailing to each other, and headed to market like a large troop of soldiers, albeit undisciplined soldiers. It was a bustling market, where handicrafts like knives made by local blacksmiths mingled with cheap modern products like plastic sandals. It was also a significant occasion to socialize. People greeted each other heartily; liveliness and joy seemed to infect everyone.

Spices and herbs sold in Xiding’s Thursday market

Among the stalls, one that occupied a conspicuous corner was particularly loud. A Han ethnic man was selling electronic kitchenware such as kettles, pressure cookers, and induction cookers—all things that seemed unnecessary for the average Bulang household, as they didn’t have many electronic plugs in their homes. The man announced: “We have a big promotion. These sets of kitchenware are worth 999 RMB. But on this special day, we have a lucky draw. If you are lucky enough to get a coupon, you can get them for only 299 RMB!” The man enthusiastically displayed how the induction cooker could bring the water to a boil in just a few minutes. He quickly drew a solid crowd that looked at the products with curious eyes. He didn’t need to urge them to partake in the lucky draw, and, naturally, almost everybody was lucky enough to get a coupon. The villagers were overjoyed at this good luck. Seeing Yuban’s mother’s interest, I was concerned. These products were of dubious quality, the pressure cooker in particular looked dangerous. They couldn’t even read the manuals, which were in the Han language; this is all besides the fact that their electricity fees would spike if they managed to find a use for it.

On returning, we were again faced with the problem of too many people and too few vehicles. After some discussion, they squeezed me into the mini van. I sat next to the driver with a mother and a seven year-old boy on the other side. Six people—four adults, a child, and a baby—succeeding in squeezing into the back row. The van, on the verge of bursting with double the sensible capacity of passengers, bumbled homeward amongst much laughter.

Later that night, Yuban asked me to read her Chinese textbook with her. Her school only had two grades: the second and the fourth. There were only two teachers, and the locals didn’t care much about schooling. In order to make the parents send their children to school, the local government gives the parents a reward. Yuban took her homework very seriously. She started by reading a Chinese lesson called “Carole and Her Kitten”. The lesson, an obvious copy from an English text, began with, “Carole has always wanted a kitten. Father tells her, ‘Let’s put an advertisement in the newspaper.’”

She circled alien words like “newspaper” and “advertisement”. Even if I wanted to explain these to her, I doubt I could. When she read, she painstakingly emphasized every character. I soon realized that the whole article meant nothing to her. How, to a girl whose family owned no electronic appliances besides two light bulbs, could it be meaningful? Advertisements, doorbells, desserts, pianos, and other accoutrements of a Western urban family were all left unexplained. We moved on to another lesson entitled “Beijing Turns Bright”, which was about the beauty of our capital city when the lights are on at night—the ring roads, the lawns, the fountains. As I read it to her, not knowing why, I almost became angry: the ring roads and neon lights and Tian’anmen Square, it felt quite ridiculous to make Yuban think, in this setting, that these were beautiful.

After we finished the lessons, we walked hand in hand to one of the neighbors who owned a television. It was a moonless night, but the children were used to the darkness. They watched a Chinese animation called Boonie Bears, but they didn’t seem as interested in the TV show as in being in a big crowd, playing with other children. On our way back, I lifted my eyes and saw the Big Dipper shining down brightly above my head. In all my life, I had never seen stars loom so large and bright in front of me, putting Yuban’s lesson “Beijing Turns Bright” to shame, for that is something Beijing no longer has and may never have again.

Upon leaving, Yuban shied away from me, and when she had to bid me farewell, she said “bye” and then simply walked out of the house. She was crying. As I sat gloomily on the bus back to Menghai, a monk in orange robes came up and sat besides me. He was 18-year-old, living on the border of China and Myanmar and was on his way to a secularizing ritual in Jinghong. He complained that, until ritual took place, he was still a monk. “Where have you been?” he asked. I told him Zhanglang. Much to my surprise he knew the name and smiled, “Oh, they have really good tea.” He was right, of course, they do have good tea, and so very, very much more.

Manichean Middle Kingdom


In 228, in what is now Iraq, a boy of 12 had a vision. He saw the world divided into a great battle of good and evil, the sons of light caught within the flesh o f a wicked earth. The vision came to him again when he was 24 and he began preaching the word of his new faith. The boy was called Mani, a subject of the Persian Empire, which would eventually execute him as a heretic in 276. By then, the religion he founded, Manichaeism (摩尼教), already had millions of followers across the Empire and beyond. A few centuries later, it would reach into China, becoming, briefly, a competitor to Daoism and Buddhism for the souls of the Chinese people. It would survive centuries of persecution, only to eventually be driven extinct, remembered only by scholars.

Mani’s beliefs were a hectic mix of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism (the ancient dualistic religion of Persia), and Christianity, influenced by Gnostic Christian texts and apocryphal Jewish writings. As with Islam, born under much the same circumstances, Manicheans venerated earlier prophets, especially Jesus.

Its cosmology was fantastical, complex, and occasionally baffling. At the beginning o f time, said Mani, there was the World of Light and the World of Darkness—one pure good, the other pure wickedness. They competed in a series of weird and wonderful battles, where armed angels campaigned against a myriad of freakish demons. The human body, in the form of Adam and Eve, was created by Darkness, but the soul came from the World of Light and could be freed into its divine origin. The stark division between light and darkness gives us the term Manichean in English today, meaning to see the world in black and white.

But Manicheans rarely focused on evil, though their legends sometimes seem closer to Jack Kirby comic books than anything else, with their stories of heroic battles, incestuous copulation, and bizarre bad guys. In practice, the faith was a pacifist and ascetic one, sometimes to the point of extremes, with priests abstaining from sex, meat, and even ostentatious clothing. Among ordinary believers, it was a religion of community, cleansing, and devotion.

From its origins in the Middle East, Manichaeism reached out to the rest of the world. In North Africa, the future Saint Augustine was a Manichean before he converted to Christianity. It was a time of missionary fervor across Eurasia. Jewish, Buddhist, Islamic, Manichean, and Christian missionaries fanned out across Asia, yet Judaism’s period of proselytising was much briefer than the others. They reached the furthest corners of the earth; Christian monks were praying in the high places of Tibet as early as the sixth century, where in future years local believers would carve crosses into rocks and write divinations to “the god called Jesus Messiah”. In Europe, Manichaeism was soon stamped out by a dominant Christianity, although Manichean ideas surfaced in Gnostic heresies right up to the 13th century.

In Asia, however, the followers of Mani competed in a much more diverse and competitive spiritual marketplace. Manichaeism’s great coup in Asia was the conversion of the Uyghur Khanate, a massive Turkic Central Asian power that spanned from the Caspian Sea to Mongolia. Tengri Bogu, the Uyghur Khan, was converted by Iranian Manichean preachers and declared it the official religion of his empire in 762. The official memorial of his conversion praises the religion for turning the Uyghur from “blood sacrifices to a region of vegetarians, from a state which indulged in excessive killing to a nation that exhorts righteousness.”

His enthusiasm for Manichaeism may have been a way of countering the influence of Tang Dynasty (618-907) China, the Khanate’s most feared rival; China’s neighbours to the north and west looked for ways to forestall the Middle Kingdom’s cultural and economic influence. But paradoxically, ended up giving Manichaeism a way into China itself.

Manicheanism initially won a frosty reception in China. The religion had seen a boost in China, following an influx of Persian refugees and traders in the early eighth century, but in 732, its practice was strictly limited to foreigners, and locals were forbidden from converting.“The doctrine of Mani is basically a perverse belief…and will mislead the masses,” wrote the imperial edict banning its practice. It wasn’t just advocates of indigenous Chinese ideologies that feared the coming of the new doctrines, however; Buddhists, who saw the Manicheans as rivals for the souls (and the donations) of Chinese, were often among its fiercest opponents. In return, Manicheans claimed that while Buddhism might be the “Great Vessel”, theirs was the “Superior Vessel”.


The Chinese Manichaen Compendium. Some of the most complete works of Manichaen beliefs are found in China.

China advocates often boast of the country’s supposed history of religious tolerance. But in truth, the treatment of religion only looks good compared to the barbarities of medieval Europe. The marketplace of divinity was fiercely competitive, and the losers in the competition for the court’s affections suffered grim fates. Heretical texts were rooted out with inquisitorial intensity, aided by networks of religious informers, though exactly what distinguished the heretical from the heterodox varied wildly year to year. Yet the Tang were keen to stay on the good side of the Khanate. The Turkic peoples, initially the great rivals of China in the early years of the Tang—although the Taizong Emperor (唐太宗), the dynasty’s co-founder, rumoured to be a quarter-Turkic himself—became a mainstay of the regime, hired to fight the countries’ battles elsewhere. As a result, the Tang turned towards a reluctant tolerance of Manichaeism, and soldiers and white-clad, long-haired priests alike preached the word of Mani across China. Manichean temples became common in Chinese cities, often in the Uyghur districts. During its travels across Asia, Manichaeism seems to have picked up many Buddhist ideas, and to have shed some of the harsh dualism and Gnosticism that made the faith famous. But followers distinguished themselves from their religious rivals by their vegetarianism, far more strictly practiced than among Buddhists, their refusal to shave their heads like Buddhists, their veneration of Mani and Jesus, and the careful copying of their scriptures, to the extent that texts “separated by four centuries and the whole of the Eurasian landmass”, are virtually identical.


Influences of the Buddha of Light clearly appear in Manichaen beliefs.

As with many of history’s losers, our record of Manichaeism in China is written mainly by its enemies. But it’s clear that the religion, like Buddhism, appealed to some people in a way that the formalistic rites of Chinese worship didn’t. The emphasis on personal purity, the strong community of believers, and the morally clear, if supernaturally complex, preaching of righteousness won the faith many followers from outside the Uyghur and Persian communities where it started.

The religious competition between Buddhists, Daoists, Manicheans and others was also a contest of magic. Soothsayers, seers, summoners, and sages sought to outdo each other in wondrous feats, from the casting out of demons and the breaking of the evil eye to the conjuration of gods to converse with nobles or congregations. Manicheans became particularly known for astrology and exorcism, including sometimes being asked to employ their magical skills on behalf of the government.

To our eye, the tales of magic and miracles, of false faiths defeated by pure doctrines and evil spirits cast out, of fortunes told and minds read, of great wonders of endurance performed to demonstrate the strength of belief, may all seem like delusion or chicanery. Indeed, many Chinese scholars were equally skeptical, pointing to sleight-of-hand, confederates, shadow-puppets, and mechanical ingenuity as the source of marvels, especially among the sects they disliked. But among both the public and the elite, these claims were not only credible, but a major source of religious legitimacy.

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Physician, Heal Thyself


Thirty-year-old Fang Hua, an ER doctor in a Beijing hospital, would seriously reconsider applying for medical school if she could do it all over again. In 2009, Fang obtained a Ph.D. in cardiology from Peking University Health Science Center, one of the top medical schools in China, and then began working in one of the most reputable hospitals in Beijing. All in all, it looked like a promising career on the rise, but it didn’t turn out quite as expected. In the first year, her wages hovered at around 4,000 RMB per month. Having worked for four years, she finally got an insignificant pay rise, which looked all the more humble considering her workload and conditions. Once a week, she has to take a shift that works her from five in the afternoon to noon the next day, starting right after her normal work day. This means that, once a week, she works a 28 hour shift, seeing over 100 patients. It’s not the exhaustion that concerns her: “We are used to the workload, and always got by, but I constantly worry that I may misjudge something and make fatal mistakes. The shortage of staff always causes trouble.”

However, there’s an even more threatening force on the ward; for doctors, it can be more deadly than the diseases they face. “On almost every shift, we get a few really cross patients or their families who shout threats at us like ‘I’ll kill you’ or ‘I’ll hack you to death’. Fortunately, none of them have actually carried out their threats on me. I don’t know if they would really do it.” The soft-spoken Fang added, “We didn’t have this many conflicts in the past. I don’t know why. I only hope we will not become the victims.”

Fang has good reason to fear. Besides the excessive workload and low pay, doctors and medical professionals today face violence from their patients, attacks that have seen a marked increase over the past decade. From 2001 to 2012, over 150 violent incidents against hospital staff have been reported by the media, altercations that vary from physical attacks and kidnapping to public humiliation and murder. According to the Chinese Hospital Management Association, from 2001 to 2012, over 30 doctors died due to patient violence. By 2013, 73 percent of Chinese hospital staff reported being verbally or physically abused by patients. Over 61 percent of hospitals had seen yinao, patients’ demonstrations. In a typical yinao, the patient’s family sets up a mourning hall in the hospital lobby after the patient dies, even bringing in a coffin, floral wreaths, and burning paper money. They accuse the doctors of malpractice or negligence and demand compensation.

This year has already seen more than its fair share of atrocities: 45-year-old doctor Sun Dongtao was beaten to death after an allegedly unsuccessful surgery; 38-year-old Li Aixin had his throat cut by a patient for the same reason; 20-year-old nurse Chen Xingyu was attacked by a patient’s parents, causing temporary paralysis, because they objected to her ward arrangements; a doctor in Chaozhou, Guangdong Province was publicly humiliated in the street after a patient died of alcoholic intoxication.

This horrific series of events has made it even harder for medical professionals to speak out. Public hospitals are theoretically government-owned, and therefore they are not allowed to talk freely to media, just like civil servants. A Communist Party Committee secretary at a medical school, when asked about the rise in violence against medical professionals, told TWOC, “After what has happened in the last few months, accepting interviews from the media is basically out of question.”

Wen Jianmin is one of the few doctors who will speak openly about patient violence. Wen is a large, barrel-chested man in his 50s, with a square, bespectacled face that gives him an authoritative air. He is an osteologist with 30 years of experience, the director of the osteology department of Wangjing Hospital of China Academy of Chinese Medical Science, twice a delegate on the CPPCC, and an activist campaigning for doctors’ rights.

“I know doctors who are picking up taekwondo and nurses who put pepper spray in their front desk—that’s how frightened people are in our profession.” Wen Jianmin spoke loudly and angrily: “Imagine our situation: the first thing that concerns us is not how to cure a patient, but how to make sure we survive the day. When the patients grow violent, we call the police, but they stand by and do nothing until the patients smash our desks or start to hit us. And what does the hospital do? They tell us never to return an insult and never fight back when the patient attacks us. But I never followed this rule.”

He adds defiantly, “I always tell my students to fight back when they are attacked and to make sure their seats face the door so that they can notice if an attacker is coming. When they attack, I am no longer a doctor; I’m a citizen, and a citizen has a right to defend themselves.”

Nurses are in an even worse situation than the doctors. Ma, a pharmacy director in a Tianjin hospital who wished to remain anonymous, said, “In my hospital, humiliation and shouting falls on nurses daily because they do things like miss veins for injections or don’t react to patients’ needs. But, because of the hospital’s rules, the staff can never confront a patient—they can only silently weather them.” The 50-year-old woman added sympathetically, “However, you have to know, every nurse is overworked. In all these years, I’ve never seen a nurse get off work on time at 5 pm. Most of them stay until 11 pm or later. The next morning, they arrive at the hospital at 7 am, as usual. There are no elderly nurses here because you can only stand the work when you are young.”

In response to violence against medical professionals, one medical website made an “Anti-Violence Guide in Hospitals” based on advice given by over 2,000 doctors nationwide. The guide includes suggestions like, “avoid staying in the office on your own or with your back to the door”, “wear sneakers to work”, “save a prewritten SOS message in your phone”, and “shield yourself with your steel clipboard in case of stabbing”.

Where, then, does such hostility come from? Admittedly, part of the conflicts arise from the fact that some patients simply lose patience. China’s best medical services are concentrated in big cities. Private hospitals are expensive and sometimes unreliable; public hospitals, especially well-known ones, are permanently overcrowded and understaffed. A trip to the hospital is, sometimes, like going into battle.

 Doctor-1 Doctor-2

In order to look at a leg problem, Kong Weizheng decided to go to Beiyi Sanyuan, a hospital known for its expertise in osteology. He awoke at 4:30 am, taking a taxi to arrive at the registration window at 5:45 am, and, to his dismay, in the misty morning well before the first twilight of dawn, the queue was already 20 meters out of the hospital’s lobby. When he finally got into the lobby, he realized that the line snaked and folded many times over and that the lobby was more crowded than a temple fair. Seven security guards were deployed to keep people in order, and it was far from enough—there were already fights for several spots. Kong got his registration number in what took over an hour and noticed that three departments were already full for the day. When doctors started to see patients at 8 am, the waiting areas in front of their offices were already too crowded to move and Kong had to elbow his way anywhere he wanted to go. “And it’s not a particularly bad day,” Kong said. “Because when I got out of the taxi and was stunned at the sight, the taxi driver smiled and said, ‘Good, it’s not that crowded today.’” All over China, big city hospitals have always been this crowded, and things were even worse a few years ago, with a lack of online and phone registration. But even with these advances, spots in the virtual queue are limited.

While the long waits cause a lot of complaint, distrust is another, more serious, issue. In the past few years, several events have fueled this paranoia for malpractice. In 2010, a man called Chen Cheng sued a hospital in Guangzhou because he believed the doctor sealed his wife’s anus with thread because he didn’t pay the doctor enough hongbao, a sort of bonus or bribe. It later turned out that Chen’s wife had serious hemorrhoid bleeding and that the doctor had tried to stop it. There was absolutely no proof of Chen’s hongbao allegation. But it was too late; the headlines had already struck.


On January 25, 2011, the gate of Jinhua People’s Hospital, Zhejiang Province, was blocked by a family demanding compensation for their loss

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Televisually Impaired


Early March saw China’s biggest political meeting of the year, the much-heralded two sessions, which would see the great and the good of Chinese politics come together and debate some of the trickiest issues facing modern China: rampant corruption that’s seeing single families steal sums of money greater than the GDP of entire nations, stifling pollution that’s sending large swathes of Chinese citizens to early graves, horrific terrorist attacks, and how to deal with what is thought could be a very sudden decline in the economic success of the nation. One other issue stood out too: why can’t China produce a TV show that is universally loved by the Chinese people? You know, like the Koreans do.

The morning debate was set off by the incredible success of Korean soap opera My Love from the Star (《来自星星的你》) on the Chinese mainland, which gained billions, yes billions, of views online. What’s worse, the show, critically at least, isn’t even very good. Large numbers of people have even denied watching it out of sheer embarrassment.

Unsurprisingly, some officials missed the point. Wang Qishan heads up the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and is accordingly in charge of China’s largest anti-corruption campaign in its modern history. However, he managed to find time to wade into the debate, pointing out that although “Korean drama is ahead of  us” it doesn’t necessarily matter, as Korean culture is already based on Chinese values anyway: “The core and soul of  Korean opera is a distillation of  traditional Chinese culture…It just propagates traditional Chinese culture in the form of  a TV drama.” Considering the plot of  My Love from the Star revolves around an alien who crash lands on earth in the early 17th century and hangs out for the next 400 years until he meets Korea’s most famous actress, überbitch Cheon Song-Yi, whom he ultimately falls in love with—well, Wang’s words felt a bit stretched. It’s easier to wonder if all the debate was necessary anyway, surely Chinese TV couldn’t be as bad as that?


Young Chinese women holding up photos of the actors and actresses from the hit Korean show, My Love from the Star

If Chinese TV is bad, then there are reasons for it. That is to say that, relatively speaking, TV in China is in its infancy, particularly for entertainment purposes. The first national broadcast wasn’t until May 1, 1958, and throughout the 60s, if people were to watch any television at all it was usually as large crowds in a public area, huddled around a single black and white TV set, often viewing public service information of a, shall we say, high ideological bent. Expansion was slow; by 1978 the nation still only had one television per 100 people, but things changed rapidly during the 1980s. Between 1982 and 1986, six American TV stations signed deals to provide US TV programs to China, and by 1985 over 80 percent of the population had access to television. Today, the sheer volume of TV made in China is remarkable, and it has been posited that for every hour of the day, two episodes of a TV show are filmed—some 17,000 episodes a year. America, which has a far more mature market, makes about 8,000 episodes a year.

The question as to why China has not produced more internationally popular shows is a divisive one, often touching on national pride and identity. May Liu has worked in the media most of her life, including a four year stint making documentaries at the BBC. Today she is back in China and runs her own TV production and events company; to her, differences in quality between Chinese and American TV can largely be put down to Chinese TV being so new on the entertainment front: “Look at how long the two countries have been developed. China is at just 20 years right, so it is not necessarily fair to compare…The television industry is just like a kid, it has to grow up. And in the process of things, they get mucky. And, getting mucky is important; it has to happen.”

On the surface, that’s a fair point. TV industries do not just magically appear fully formed, and in terms of development, China’s industry is probably where America’s was in the 1960s. And, certainly, while a lot of the younger Chinese generations, the so-called post 80s and post 90s generations, don’t have much positive to say about the state of Chinese television, the older generation are broadly content.

Liu certainly believes a lot of television is aimed at the older generation and in time it will improve: “There is a different focus for [older] generations. Like my mum, she likes to see things that happened in her lifetime. It doesn’t matter when it was made. It makes her think about the wonderful life they had…Look at China: it is a large population, you can’t have everybody at the same level as with Shanghai and Beijing.” Liu adds, “China will change a lot. For years the government hasn’t been confident. It’s not about politics; it’s about human beings…When you feel confident you can give people a bit more space. So, it is history. Think about how long they have had TV, for just 10 or 20 years. It is like starting from zero…But now that China is richer, they will need things that will make them happy.”

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Stolen Childhoods


“It’s just like a dream now,” says Wang Qingshun, sitting in an overstuffed hotel room armchair in Hangzhou. “I remember my home like it was a painting. I remember my father’s face. The rest of it, I don’t remember much at all.” He says it matter-of-factly, as though we all have these issues when trying to remember our childhoods. But Wang’s childhood has not faded from his memory. Rather, it was stolen by the kidnappers who snatched him from his home when he was just four or five years old.

“I think my father was chasing me to spank me,” he says, “and I was hiding somewhere. Then it gets blurry; I remember being in a car, driving past fields of rapeseed flowers, crossing mountains, and then getting onto a train. How I got here, I have no idea.”

Even the basic details of Wang’s life—the things we all take for granted—are unclear. He does not know his birthday or his actual age, though he believes he was kidnapped in 1988. He does not know where he’s from, though based on his accent as a child, and some other factors, he believes he may be from Sichuan Province. Even his name is unclear. Wang Qingshun is the name he was given by his “adoptive” parents, the people who bought him from the kidnappers. He remembers his original name was Li Yong. But which Li and which Yong? He can’t be truly sure.

Wang’s fate was not uncommon for children from his area at the time. “I remember that kids were often kidnapped and sold away from my original home,” says Wang. “It felt like when the Japanese devils invaded China; whenever someone mentioned the news [about kidnappings] people would get scared.”

But this is no scare story from Chinese history, and the problem remains as prevalent today as it was when Wang was kidnapped back in 1988. As Wang sits in the hotel room trying to remember more of his early childhood, parents all across China are experiencing the same horror that Wang’s birth parents must have experienced the day he disappeared. Decades after Wang’s kidnapping, children are still being taken and sold by traffickers at an alarming rate.


Two-year-old Jing Huitong holding a drawing of “father” and “mother” in Jinjiang Infant Asylum, Fujian Province—home to 24 kidnapped children. Rescued children who can’t find their parents have been coming here since 2005.

Putting a precise number to the problem is difficult, and estimates range wildly. The Chinese government doesn’t release statistics on the number of children kidnapped, although in the past it has pegged the number at around 10,000 per year. The U.S. State Department, in its annual report on human rights, pegs the number at around 20,000. Independent estimates range as high as 70,000.

The reason for the discrepancy is that the only real numbers to work with are the number of children rescued from trafficking gangs each year. “If we use this data to guess at the hidden data of how many children are kidnapped each year, and assume for example that one in three or one in fi ve are rescued, that will give you an approximate number,” says Pi Yijun, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law. “There’s really no more reliable method than that.”

In 2011, Chinese police rescued 8,660 kidnapped children. Using Pi’s examples as a range, we might roughly guess that in that same year, between 25,980 and 43,300 children were kidnapped. But there’s simply no way to be sure. What is clear is that kidnapping is a serious problem. “You can see that there has not been any major drop in this kind of crime,” Pi Yijun says.

Although decades have gone by, the business of trafficking in stolen children hasn’t changed much; what happened to Wang Qingshun is still typical of what happens to young boys who are taken by traffickers. Wang was sold to a new family. His new “adoptive” parents had given birth to only daughters, and as they were ageing they felt that they might not be able to conceive a son, but they wanted one. A relative had a line on a child they could buy, and they jumped at the chance. It’s not clear whether they knew that Wang had been kidnapped when they chose to purchase him, but they certainly knew he wasn’t being adopted through official channels.

Wang’s origins became clear when he arrived at his new home, though, because he made them clear himself. He told neighbors he was called Li Yong, not Wang Qingshun. He spoke with an accent so thick practically no one in his new Zhejiang home could understand him. In kindergarten, he says he got suspended repeatedly for getting in fights because he hit other boys who teased him for having “been purchased” (he claims he once even smashed something over another kid’s head in response to the teasing).

“Everyone knew,” he says, “everyone knew I wasn’t from there. Adults generally didn’t talk about it, but the other kids would make fun of me.” Despite the fact that his having been purchased was common knowledge, it took over a decade before somebody finally picked up the phone and called the police.

To understand why, you’ve got to understand that in traditional Chinese society, having sons was of paramount importance. Because daughters, when married, generally moved in with their husband’s family, a set of parents without a son would have no one to care for them in old age. Thus, in traditional society it was not uncommon for neighbors, friends, or family members to, essentially, give children to each other if one family had a surplus of sons but another had a deficit. If you already had four sons but your brother in the next village had none, for example, you might send your fifth son to be raised in his home. This was considered normal, and in the modern area, it’s still common in some areas for families to raise children that aren’t theirs. And although Wang’s case clearly involved some lawbreaking, many people are hesitant to get involved in other people’s business. The fear of reshi (惹事)—trouble for oneself—may help to explain why no one called the police on Wang Qingshun’s adoptive parents for such a long time.

When the police finally did get involved, there wasn’t much they could do. Wang’s adoptive father and his uncle were arrested and ultimately fined for having been involved in child trafficking, but after that the case went cold. Wang had been passed from handler to handler along his journey to his new parents, and although the police found the first of these men, they never got further than that.


On a classroom wall of Jinjiang Infant Asylum hangs the hand prints of
kidnapped children wishing to return home one day

This is typical of trafficking cases, which have proven notoriously difficult to crack. China has a national-level anti-kidnapping task force that oversees large-scale operations to take down trafficking rings and criminal gangs, and traffickers are punished severely—convicted child traffickers are often sentenced to death and executed. But solving individual cases often requires tracing back through numerous handlers and intermediaries, securing cooperation from local police forces in a variety of locations to attempt to ascertain the child’s point of origin, and collecting information from victims who are often too young or too traumatized to be fully aware of what happened to them. Even when a case is solved and a child is rescued, this doesn’t mean the police will be able to find the child’s original family.


Wang Zun and his wife Li Guangying from Kunming, Yunnan Province, hold a picture of their son who was kidnapped when he was only two weeks old. He has been missing ever since.

Another problem is that it isn’t always clear whether or not a child has been kidnapped. In the absence of concrete proof like a video recording of the kidnapping, police will be inclined to treat the case as a missing persons issue, at least initially, and since uncovering clues in a kidnapping case can be extremely difficult, many cases are confirmed as kidnappings only after the child has been rescued. Police and parents must struggle with the knowledge that a missing child could have been kidnapped, but he or she also could have run away, or even somehow have been killed.

And the situation is further complicated by the fact that when children are rescued, what seems to be morally right isn’t always what’s best for the child. In Wang’s case, for example, though he was kidnapped and sold, he was also treated well and raised as a son by his adoptive family, who he now considers to be his parents. Were he to have been ripped away from them, years after his kidnapping, and returned to his original family, it might have caused more psychological damage.


After 15 years of separation, in March, 2013, Wang Mofeng and his wife from Anhui Province were finally reunited with their son Wang Xiaolei in Fuqing City, Fujian Province, thanks to the efforts of the local police

Wang’s situation is comparatively lucky, though. Not all kidnapped kids are sold to new families. While sale into adoption (both domestically and abroad) is the most common motivation for the kidnappings of infants and toddlers in China, there are cases of children being kidnapped right up through their teens.

Older children may be taken by traffickers for use in street gangs. Sometimes they are made to beg on the street.  Sometimes they are made to perform street theater, contortions, and acrobatics for change. And, like something out of a Dickensian nightmare, some are forced to become pickpockets.

Du Chengfei, the director at the Xinxing Aid Center for Street Children in Baoji, Sichuan Province, says that the street children he sees who’ve been pickpockets are nearly always Uyghur kids, and “probably almost 100 percent of the time, they have been kidnapped and are being controlled by adults.”

In the cases of Uyghurs and other older street children, the kidnapping often works something like this: first, the child is approached by a trafficker or someone affiliated with the traffickers. This person maybe someone the child knows, like an extended family member or acquaintance. This person convinces the child to come with them and get a job in a city on China’s east coast. The child is told that their parents know about this arrangement, and that they’ll be helping their family—kidnapped children almost always come from poor families—by earning money that will be sent home to their parents (this, of course, is a lie). When the child accepts the offer, they’re taken to a new city and integrated into a street gang that likely includes other children but is overseen by adults who control what the children do, watch them when they’re on the street and take the money that they’ve earned.

The Beast Is Red


This year, as millions across the country were readying for the Spring Festival mass migration, 36-year-old Li Hao was preparing for his final journey.

On January 21, the former fireman was strapped down before being injected, in orderly fashion, with barbitone, a short-action anesthetic barbiturate, followed by a muscle relaxant of pancuronium bromide and, finally, potassium chloride, which finally stopped his heart for good—thus carrying out the sentence that had been handed down in 2012 for crimes that included multiple murder, rape, kidnapping, prostitution, and illegal imprisonment.

But it was a bizarre, and some might say uniquely Chinese, series of events that eventually led to the headlines in 2011 revealing how Li, then 34 and enjoying the lifestyle of a mid-level drone at the local Technological Supervision Bureau, had spent the last 22 months cruising karaoke bars in Luoyang picking up victims, while telling his wife he was moonlighting as a part-time night watchman.

In fact, there was a macabre truth to Li’s claim. He had, indeed, been keeping watch—albeit over a harem of kidnapped KTV hostesses aged between 16 and 23, held captive in a remarkably sophisticated prison, constructed four meters under a rented basement and locked behind seven iron doors.

In this subterranean kingdom, shut off from the outside world, the civil servant apparently exerted a compelling influence over the six women, who called him “Big Brother” and competed for his affections and sexual favor. Li, meanwhile, kept his victims weak through lack of food and water and occasionally tortured them for gratification, police say. Anyone who resisted was raped; two girls were put to death for “disobedience”.

Huang Yong, charged with murder of 17 boys but believed to have killed many more, faces trial

Huang Yong, charged with murder of 17 boys but believed to have
killed many more, faces trial

Eventually, Li progressed to staging “pornographic web shows”, acting as both producer and gaoler. Seeing an opportunity to make more money, Li even progressed to pimping, which proved a fatal mistake: one of the women was left alone long enough to make a bold escape. A relative later went to the police—who set about dealing with the matter as discreetly as possible.

Li was swiftly caught attempting to flee the city, and his extraordinary crimes and punishment might ordinarily have warranted a few terse statements somewhere in the Luoyang Evening News. But, a remarkable confluence of events would ensure the opposite. In the same September that Li Hao made his ill-fated flight, journalists from around China had gathered in Luoyang, drawn by the highly publicized case of Li Xiang, a TV journalist investigating so-called “hogwash” gangs. The gangs were selling recycled, toxic cooking oil dredged from gutters,and police claimed to have cracked the case.

Li Hao’s case was hardly exceptional—his deeds mirrored those of Zeng Qiangbao, a 39-year-old Wuhan janitor who received a suspended death sentence in 2010 for imprisoning and torturing a pair of 19 and 16 year olds for months; however Luoyang officials were pushing a Civilized City campaign and that meant stamping down on negative publicity even harder than usual.

After the reporter announced on Weibo that he was “following illegal cooking oil dens closely”, Li was found dead outside his apartment in the early hours, with 13 stab wounds. Police subsequently charged two local ruffians with robbery and murder. A botched mugging—or was there a conspiracy to silence the press, as others wondered. Had someone taken the crackdown too far? One who suspected so was Southern Metropolis Daily’s Ji Xuguang, a journalist from a powerful media organization outside Henan with a reputation for bold muckraking. Ji was still looking into Li Xiang’s death when he picked up a lead on the (far more sensitive) Li Hao story. Henan police, keen to put him off, threatened Ji with the serious crime of revealing “state secrets”—so Ji simply left Henan.

Thanks to Ji, the resulting story of the Chinese man who kept his victims in a secret torture dungeon would make headlines worldwide, just as the Cleveland kidnapping case would in 2013. Had local authorities had their way, however, the scandal would have disappeared from view, like one of Li’s KTV girls.

“People don’t care much,” says Li Qiaoying, a former criminal psychology researcher with the Taiyuan Procuratorate in Shanxi. “Even in a village where a newcomer used to get attention, nobody nowadays cares…People only look after their own business.”

“I picked prostitutes as my victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed,” explained 54-year-old Gary Ridgway, or the Green River Killer, after the Seattle serial killer was finally brought to justice in 2003. They may as well be the words of Li Hao—or Wu Jianchen, a serial rapist who killed 15 in Hebei in 1993; or Li Shangxi, Yang Mingjin, and Li Shangkun from Guangxi, who killed 26 between 1981 and 1989; or Peng Miaoji who murdered 77 across Shanxi, Jiangsu, Anhui, and Henan, executed in 2000; or Yang Shubin, who was tracked by one resourceful police officer for eight years, following a trail of robbed and murdered KTV girls from Shenzhen to Guangzhou to Jilin, finally ending in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, where Yang and his gang had used their millions in blood-soaked RMB to set up a family-run massage business.

During the early to mid-20th century, when its serial-killer population exploded, America was a developed country engaged in rapid urbanization: densely packed slums became populated by anonymous migrants in constant fl ux, and its cities interspersed with vast tracts of deserted land—running throughout and serving as newly built getaway conveniences with highways and railroads. This helped birth the kind of shadowy, itinerant killer for whom anonymous and transitory existences are their fodder: the crosscountry trucker with a penchant for making friends at deserted rest stops, the mooching outlaws of In Cold Blood crawling through small towns in a stolen car and scouting for victims.

In the early 1980s, China underwent its own period of rapid industrialization, truncating over a century of American-style urbanization into just a few decades. Crime experts now point to the period of Reform and Opening Up as a time when society fragmented, communities scattered, and itinerant workers and criminals flourished.

The hukou [household registration] system, which had previously kept people strictly rooted in place, was relaxed and, frequently, simply overlooked; strange people appearing in the neighborhood no longer seemed strange. “The police don’t have effective control of who was in their district doing what,” says Yin, a criminologist from the University of Politics and Law who asked for his real name to be withheld. Disappearances are just as common: a migrant might go home, marry a villager, or have to deal with a family matter. They get a better job—or perhaps, if they’re a sex worker, their client wants a full-time mistress to himself. “Even parents don’t really know what their children are doing in the city or where they live,” says Li Qiaoying.

Then there are other potent ingredients, such as poor education in rural areas that leave many even unaware of such crimes. During 2012, a small county in Yunnan was traumatized by the disappearance of 17 young men. Local parents had fingered a plausible motive: the boys were being kidnapped and forced to work in illegal brick kilns near Kunming. Such kidnappings are not uncommon in the provinces, such as the case of Lei Yusheng, a Yunnanese boy who was snatched at knife point and forced to work with 30 other abductees for 10 hours a day.

April in 2010, Zheng Minsheng, who stabled eight students, was sentenced to death

April in 2010, Zheng Minsheng, who stabled eight students, was sentenced to death

This led some parents to pursue their sons’ fates in the hundreds of illegal kilns that dot the province—a diffi cult and dangerous task in itself—and one which police have little time for. What these anxious parents were not to realize was that their sons had actually fallen victim to an Ed Gein-like predator called Zhang Yongming, who lived a hermetic existence nearby in a shack filled (according to later-deleted mainland articles and Hong Kong media) with bags of bones, dried human flesh, and wine bottles filled with preserved body parts. Although the disappearances had been going on for months and although Zhang had a murder conviction from 1978, police never saw fit to investigate him.

Zhang himself was considered more a local oddball than a serious suspect despite his criminal past. An incident involving Zhang in 2011 gives a small window into the treatment of mental illness in the country: Zhang was caught strangling a 17-year-old youth outside his house with a belt but “laughed off the episode, saying that he was just fooling with the boy”, the media later reported. Only after a year of killing was Zhang caught.

Mental illness remains a closeted topic in China; neither medication nor modern psychiatric treatment is widely used and a 2010 analysis in British medical journal The Lancet estimated that 91 percent of the 173 million Chinese adults suffering mental problems receive no professional help whatsoever. Li Zhanguo, who targeted 11 men with severe learning difficulties between 1991 and 1995, is a different example of how China’s attitude towards mental healthcare can be exploited by villains: Li successfully counted on police and victims’ families to blame their disappearances on their illness.

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China’s Online Drug Bazaar


Waiting for the man has never been much fun: whether it is meeting Rajul with his Himalayan hash outside the Salvation Army Hostel in Bombay; scoring plastic bags brimming with ketamine from Fernando in an East London underpass; or pocketing cocaine of questionable quality from shady businessmen in darkened back alleys in Sanlitun, Beijing. But things are changing. The deep-web, cryptocurrencies, newly developed analogue drugs, poor regulation, unscrupulous chemists, and of course, humanity’s seemingly endless desire to get high are seeing the internet become an ever-expanding playground for drug takers and pushers alike. And, as far as production goes, China is firmly at the forefront.

“When do you want the product? Spring Festival is coming. We might be going home soon,” a dealer, choosing to be called Serendipity, asked via his QQ messenger account. The product he was casually referring to, while planning his hometown holiday, was a methamphetamine. Serendipity was big on customer service: friendly, down-to-earth, courteously, doing his level-best to answer questions regarding the purchasing process, the pick-up, not to mention queries regarding the differences in his seemingly vast array of illegal narcotics. In what sounded like a hamburger advertisement, his QQ profile claimed “100% Satisfaction, 100% Fast Delivery, and 100% Reputation”. Nothing else in his profile gave away the fact that he was a drug dealer, but he was not difficult to find. His QQ number was just a random one pulled from hundreds, thrown-up by the single, if somewhat unimaginative, Google search: “Meth Beijing Buy”.

Where Serendipity liked to play it relatively safe, other dealers were less subtle about the purpose of their QQ accounts, with names like “selling pure meth”. One of these accounts featured a personal message saying, “Selling pure meth, k, and yaba [a meth-type in pill form]. If sincerely want product, contact me on phone.”

One dealer simply had a profile picture of a mound of green and red pills piled high in a bowl. Alongside a mobile number, another dealer gave a detailed price list for all his many different grades of meth, each with their own exotic names, such as Yellow Toothpick, Cream Ice, Sugar Cube, and Diamond.

Serendipity was straightforward. As soon we said “nihao”, he went straight down to business, fi ring off two opening salvos: “How much do you need?” and “When do you need it by?” without so much as even asking what we were buying. Seeing his buyers were no meth experts, he immediately recommended his most expensive product: “900, two grams, the best, Diamond,” adding, “I’ve got the other kinds, but in terms of quality this is the most superior.” The payment method: Alipay. He offered two delivery methods: He would simply post it in the mail, or, in a more classic hand-off, we meet in a nearby supermarket and the product would be left in one of the lockers. Both methods, he promised, would ensure anonymity and safety.

Some dealers accepted small orders for recreational purposes, others only did wholesale. When asked whether his service extended to Beijing, the dealer, offering Yellow Toothpick, made his limits clear: “Minimum 2,000 kuai. When money arrives, I’ll ask my employees in Beijing to give you the stuff. Only in this way can I give it to you according to my price here, otherwise the price in Beijing is 350 [RMB] a gram (for the Yellow Toothpick).” When it came to ordering his cheapest product, ketamine, he only accepted orders over 30 grams.

Illegal pig feed additives, as well as ketamine and meth precursors were available on this website

Illegal pig feed additives, as well as ketamine and meth precursors were available
on this website

Authorities in China attempt to prevent drugs being sold online by using complex algorithms that prevent certain keywords from coming up in search engines and on the larger shopping websites, but such techniques are limited in their effectiveness. By being slightly creative with the search terms, these blocks are easily side-stepped. If you type the keyword “ketamine” you get hundreds of thousands of irrelevant results, but if you substitute it with its chemical formula C13H6ClNO, then thousands of B2B websites spring-up offering the product, usually but not always selling in large quantities: think kilos as opposed to grams.

Taobao, often lazily referred to as China’s eBay, is the nation’s most popular shopping website. Its range of products is immense: anything from breast milk soap right through to guns and even human corpses in formaldehyde, and, of course, drugs can be purchased. Most of the common names for illegal drugs are banned as search terms on Taobao, returning the notice “According to relative laws, regulations, and policies, items related to ‘[insert drug name]’ cannot be displayed”. Date rape drugs can’t currently be purchased on Taobao by simply typing in, say, Rohypnol, but the website’s auto-suggestions give the game away. Words dealing with the effects of the drugs can lead the dedicated searcher to Taobao suggestions based on other people’s searches, such as “female sex craze” and “increase sexual urge obedient”. These terms will lead enthusiastic buyers to the relevant substances. In time these terms will, too, become blocked, but sellers are invariably one step ahead of the game, finding ever-innovative ways to beat the system.

Today the main method of selling drugs on Taobao is in the form of a sort of intentional bait and switch, as pre-agreed by parties on either side of the transaction. Illegal drugs are simply sold as differently labeled products, i.e. instead of selling heroin, it is labeled as, say, tea instead. Obviously, this does not make it easy for buyers to find what they need. Online stores leave heavy hints so buyers know what the game is. The stores will say something innocuous along the lines of “if you can’t see the product you need online, please join our message group.” On joining such groups, buyers are given a Taobao store URL to purchase what are labeled as “vitamins”, “health tonics”, “tea”, or whatever fake products are used as disguise. At the end of 2013, Hunan police busted two brothers who sold over three million pills of Tramadol on Taobao, disguised as calcium pills and cold medicine. This was a part of a provincial level crackdown that lasted three months. A huge 416 kilograms of drugs were collected, as well as 33 guns, and 63 bullets—some 11,668 drug users were arrested. In the brothers’ storage facility, police found over 860,000 Tramadol pills, 1,000 Tramadol liquid vials, and 15,000 diazepam pills.

If purchasing drugs online seems relatively easy, well, that’s because it is. And it’s not just simply a case of lone cowboys or rogue Taobao stores leaving their contact numbers online. A whole host of “research chemicals” websites are available in the simplest of searches. Within a few days they deliver what you want, directly to your door, offering almost any payment method: Bitcoin, Moneygram, Western Union, credit, or debit card, some even offer a fapiao into the bargain, which is pure gold for any Chinese on an expense account. These companies claim that their products are intended for medical or research purposes, such as, for example, which looks, as one might imagine, like a site that sells research chemicals, even claiming it is “for any passionate and motivated organic chemist”. Sites like these are, at least on the face, above board and legal. Yet, in large bright neon pink letters, it also says, “Accelerate Your Drug Discovery.” While these websites claim to be legitimate research companies, at the same time their research chemicals have outré nicknames, such as “Nexus”, “Bro-mo”, “Venus”, or “Benzo Fury”, hardly the language of formal research laboratories.

Many of these chemicals websites are legitimately registered, even going so far as to proudly display all their certificates as required by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) of the Ministry of Public Security. Such certifi cation, while easy to get, is rarely enforced. One website, based in Nanchang, sold only fi ve different chemicals: Ractopamine, a drug used as a feed additive to promote the growth of pigs (banned in China); Hydroylimine hydrochloride and 0-Chlorophyl cyclopentyl ketone, two precursor chemicals used in the synthesis of ketamine (theoretically a vetinary drug, but one of China’s most popular recreational drugs); Phenylacetone, used in the in the production of amphetamine and methamphetamine; and methcathinone, a powerful and addictive psychotropic stimulant. For the methcathinone, the website even came with instructions: “Method of intake: put it on a tin paper, heat it up, it will turn into gas, inhale with a straw,” for what was evidently some very far-out research.

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Super Cops


It’s a big, bad world out there, and most of us rely on that thin blue line for protection. but when the normal methods fail, when the system breaks down, when that little extra something is needed, there are a number of officers that put their comrades to shame. These super cops vary in profession and distinction – some are masters of a single criminal art, some put deductive reasoning in the front seat, and some use cunning and patience. together, these men track murderers, thieves, poachers, and kidnappers, using a particular skill set to hunt the hunted in their own special way. Whatever their expertise, these sleuth get the job done. From the elderly figure cut by China’s premier detective Wu Guoqing to the brave face of scientific certainty in Wang Qingju, all the way through  to the patient voice of Zhang Yong – these detectives are a cut above the rest, an insight into what it takes to be extraordinary in an ordinary job. Where others see a dead end, Wu sees motive; where the beat cops see mystery, Wang sees science; and where villagers hear rumor, Zhang hears opportunity. Undoubtedly, there are far more police officers throughout the country – all equally brilliant tales to tell – deserving of praise and commendations, but these intriguing crimes and the officers behind them should inspire any young beat cop, or, for that matter, any lover of mystery and subtle genius. Being a police officer is not an easy job, but if the deeds of these fine specimens are anything to go by, lawbreakers of China better beware.

The Cinderella Man

Give him a foot, and he’ll find your foe

A house in Shangqiu, Henan Province, locked from the outside, was doused in petrol and set alight, killing a five-year-old boy and badly injuring an old lady and her daughter-in-law on February 3, 2002. The fire destroyed almost all trace of the murderers, except a string of footprints belonging to a man and a woman. The police later found the woman’s shoes and socks discarded in a well nearby. However, the case was stuck there. Like a gruesome caricature of Cinderella, finding justice for the victims rested on finding the owner of the shoes.


The local police turned to Wang Qingju, an expert footprint specialist, for help. Arriving at the scene and checking the footprints, Wang caught the police off guard telling them that the pair they were looking for were, in fact, both men. “It was a man who was wearing a woman’s shoes that were smaller than his own feet,” said Wang. “The pace is 80 centimeters long, usually belonging to a young male. A woman’s footprint is usually evenly pressed towards the ground, while the footprint in question had very different pressures on each end, particularly heavy on the big toe. I was positive that the footprints belonged to a man, and that he was younger and shorter than his accomplice.” This helped the police to identify two brothers who had been involved in a territory dispute with the victims, and planned to kill them to solve the problem.

Wang Qingju has been applying his expertise in crime detection for over 30 years and has solved over 1,200 cases. By looking at footprints he can do a quick criminal sketch, determining the person’s gender, height, age, weight, physical condition, and, of course, the way they walk. Sometimes the description can go into incredible detail. For example, after examining a string of footprints left by a bank robber, Wang told the police, “The man walks with his left shoulder thrusting forward and the right shoulder slightly leaning backwards.”

In many cases, Wang Qingju’s arrival is a godsend. In the case of a safe-breaking in a private home, the only clues were a single fingerprint and a string of footprints. Inspecting the footprints, Wang told them: “The suspect is a male around 30 years old. His height is around 178 centimeters. He is a large man and has been driving, frequently, for many years, because of the particular indents on the soles. From the way the burglar went straight to the safe, he is probably a friend of the house owner.” These descriptions led directly to the right suspect, the homeowner’s cousin and mahjong partner.

Of course, Wang Qingju was not a born footprint genius. He became familiar with footprint identification in 1974, on becoming a criminal detective. The police was stuck with an arson case and sought help from China’s first footprint expert, Ma Yulin. Ma, born in 1908 in Inner Mongolia, initially developed his technique by identifying runaway sheep, tracking them down via their footprints, later using this technique to solve crimes. Ma, being to sick to come, sent his student to the scene, whose skills blew Wang’s mind. Fascinated, Wang spent several years studying footprint identification, adeptly mastering the technique. The accuracy of footprint identifi cation depends heavily on a specialist’s experience.


On May 28, 2010, a young girl was raped and murdered on her way to school in Taikang, Henan Province. At the scene police found a single hair belonging to the criminal and a string of footprints. DNA testing alone left them with no suspects. Over 400 officers made little headway. As in many other cases, it was time for Wang to step in. His verdict was that the criminal was at least 30 years old and 166 centimeters in height. This quickly narrowed down the suspects, particularly to a man named Chen Haigang who had been jailed for three months previously for harassing a female student. Chen fit the profile and police found a pair of shoes in his home that had exactly the same soles as the footprints from the crime scene. However, Chen was already on the run and the police needed more substantive evidence. They tested the DNA of Chen’s son, but it turned out that the DNA at the crime scene wasn’t a familial match. With that, police had to give up on their only lead and look for a new suspect.

Despite Wang’s obvious authority and experience, confidence began to wane, and his Sherlock-like powers of shoe deduction looked like little more than hocus pocus. However, Wang, after 25 years on the beat, is not the type to give up easily. He demanded to see the soles of Chen’s shoes again and asked that they be cut open so that he could examine them more thoroughly. Reluctantly, the police caved to his wishes, destroying a possibly invaluable piece of evidence.

Wang cut the shoes open and saw two clear impressions made by two bare feet. The bone structure, the pressure points, and the shape of the feet all matched perfectly with the criminal’s footprints. “Everything matches. It has to be him,” Wang boldly claimed.

The police were caught between the obvious DNA evidence clearing Chen and Wang’s expertise. The police chief, after much deliberation, decided to take Chen Haigang’s father’s DNA for one final test. The result shocked them all: this time, the DNA was a faithful match. As it turned out, the boy they tested was not Chen’s biological son. Only with Wang’s considerable powers of deduction, not to mention confidence in his own abilities, was the murderer discovered.

Now, 75-year-old, Wang has been retired for over 10 years, but he is still hired as an expert consultant by the police. His employer, the Henan Public Security Bureau, established a “footprint studio” for him, where he submerges himself in footprints and their fine details. “It is the only thing that fills my head,” he says. Around 10 years ago, the Ministry of Public Security issued a notification that shoe impressions could no longer be used as evidence in court. The ministry have their reasons, but ever since the notification, Wang has been looking for a way to digitize footprint identification so that they no longer need to rely on experienced experts like him. “You can change shoes, but you can’t change your feet,” he says: “The future lies in digital identification. We need to develop a highly-accurate computer program that, once receiving a scanned footprint, can automatically identify the characteristics of the suspects.” His dream project is to build a gigantic scan archive of footprints, and that one day, footprint can once again be used as effective evidence on court. It’s a big project, but if Wang proved one thing in his illustrious career, he is not a gumshoe to give up on.

The Chinese Holmes

The perfect detective stands guard for six decades

On his first day of school, aged just 14, Wu Guoqing had never seen a car, couldn’t read, and couldn’t tell the time. Born in Inner Mongolia in 1936, brought up on horseback, this illiterate boy would one day grow to be a well-trained criminal investigator and profiler—one of the best in China. By 1962, he was already deemed a rare talent, and that talent would go on to solve over 1,000 cases in 60 years on the job. Now at 78, he remains the premier criminal expert in the Ministry of Public Security. His tenure has seen more than its fair share of monsters, bloodthirsty killers, not to mention callous bombers—all dangerous criminals he helped catch—such as the likes of Zhou Kehua, an infamous serial killer in 2012, and Ma Hongqing, who was responsible for an explosion, killing 83 and injuring 93. He has long had a special ability for noticing the minutest of details at any crime scene. When the police are looking one way, he points to something as innocent as a bag of pickles to put them on the right track, while building a rough but useful profile of the killer along the way.

In fact, the case of the bag of pickles perfectly illustrates Wu’s mastery of deduction. In a Shandong village, an entire family—three generations together, including a little girl—was brutally murdered. Clues and motives were hard to come by: the family was much loved, poor as church mice, and, by all accounts, without enemies. Scratching their heads, the police consulted the great Wu Guoqing, hoping his legendary prowess might just give them the edge they so desperately needed. Much of the scene suggested a robbery gone wrong, but a bag of pickles led Wu to believe the police were barking up the wrong tree. Wu noticed that they were identical to pickles made by the family—a gift; locals from the countryside often give such gifts to family members—inappropriate between city relatives—indicating that the culprit might not be a panicked burglar, but rather a cold, calculating murderer willing to kill their own family at a moment’s notice.

The pickles were found to the right of the front gate, and, from here, Wu’s imagination took hold—except this particular imagination was no flight of fancy, but, rather, born from years of hard-won experience. He was able to see everything from the killer’s perspective. He imagined, correctly, that the pickles were set down on the right side of where the killer would have been in the courtyard, set down in order for the killer to stab the woman of the house in the back with his right hand. Using Wu’s profile and clues, the local police were able to quickly find that the murderer was the husband of a family relative. The family had been exceptionally kind to him, even lending him money on several occasions. Their most recent loan was for 7,000 RMB. However, rather than pay them back, he murdered the entire family. “The murderer was cold-blooded. When we interrogated him, we all wept, feeling so bad for the victims,” Wu told Modern Express when he recalled the 2007 case. When he cracked that case, Wu was 71 years-old.

In so many other cases, his long-time expertise is a matter of pure instinct and experience. On December 23, 2005, a long distance bus in Xuchang, Henan Province, exploded, causing 11 deaths and three serious injuries. It was reported as an accident as the local police believed that, as it was so close to the New Year, it was probably fireworks that caused the explosion. But when the report hit Wu Guoqing’s desk, he thought the report lacking and sensed something was wrong, promptly deciding to investigate himself. Then 69 years-old, Wu set out for Xuchang, 800 kilometers from Beijing, and quickly assembled a technical team of 30 people to examine the bus thoroughly, recording every last piece of possible evidence. Sure enough, they found a lump of black, badly deformed plastic next to the ticket collector’s seat, the bottom of a plastic container. Lab tests confirmed that it held petrol, but that, in itself, was not enough to prove foul play.

By then, the technical team had grown impatient; they had been checking and testing piles of ash for ages, but nothing was turning up. But Wu was relentless, insisting they push on. Soon, a tiny scrap of metal was found, but no one knew what it could be, except Wu that is. Almost instantly, he worked it out: “I know what an alarm clock looks like, and I know what an alarm clock looks like after it explodes,” Wu told CCTV. “It was the metal compound of a timer.” With this new evidence in mind, the team was able to put together old evidence, 40 suspicious pieces altogether, such as batteries and unspecified electronics. With that, Wu drew his final conclusion and had the pieces sent off to the lab for tests—all were contaminated by both gasoline and dynamite. “It was a time bomb,” Wu concluded.

All down to Wu’s hunch, they were eventually able to catch the bomber—He Shiya, an owner of a hardware store who was well-versed in electronics. He had been having an ongoing extramarital affair but knew his wife wouldn’t agree to divorce, so he plotted his sick scheme. He hired a young man to plant the bomb, and worse still, killed him afterwards. He Shiya was sentenced to death.

But all this is merely a drop in the bucket of Wu’s illustrious career. He has overseen and consulted on over a thousand crimes. It’s not just for his ability to notice the mundane that he is widely famed either; he’s also an expert profiler. After serial killer and thief Zhou Kehua, who murdered at least nine, was shot by the Chongqing police, Wu Guoqing, at 76, told a CCTV journalist, “We closely studied all the crime scenes and videos and based our strategy on it.” Zhou was a tough case, as Wu pointed out: “Zhou made my head ache because he never stayed at a hotel—he acted on his own and never squandered his money.” Based on this and a number of other factors, Wu profiled Zhou as a drifter, a tramp, a man who could survive in the wilderness. So, they canvassed the woods in Chongqing and drove him into the city where the murderer was out of his element. This proved an extremely successful tactic, and, once again, Wu got his man.

In the 1990s, the only Western mysteries available were those of Sherlock Holmes, and ever since, Wu has been dubbed “The Chinese Holmes”—even by his stoic colleagues at the Ministry of Public Security. But there is one big difference, as so many criminals have found out over the years, Wu is real. And the label works too; after cracking a case involving an explosion and four dead police officers, he once told the Yangcheng Evening News “We have to be objective and balanced throughout an investigation. Professionalism should trump any personal feelings.” This Sherlock-like miracle detective retired in 1997 but has since been rehired by the Ministry as a consultant; he is still working some of the biggest criminal cases in China and still, at the age of 78, attends personally to crime scene investigations. Wu’s experience spans the whole of New China, a calm, guided sentry standing watch over the Middle Kingdom.

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Martyr’s Anthem


When it comes to national anthems, most countries are stuck with patriotic dirges or paeans to monarchy. Compared to these, China’s “March of the Volunteers” (《义勇军进行曲》) is a stirring piece, a cry to resistance, a call for national pride, and a martial anthem. But the history of the song, and the tragic fates of its creators, speaks to the complicated and bloody appropriation of patriotism by the State.

“March of the Volunteers” started as a film number, composed in 1934 by young musician Nie Er (聂耳) and established playwright and lyricist Tian Han (田汉). There are plenty of romantic legends about the song’s origins, such as the text being scrawled by Tian on tobacco paper after being thrown into a Shanghai prison by the Kuomintang. The real origins are more mundane; although Tian was temporarily in jail when the song was composed, Nie simply took the last stanza of a long poem, “The Great Wall”, Tian had written for an upcoming play and set it to his own rousing tune.

Nie and Tian shared similar backgrounds, although, at 35, the playwright was 13 years older than the baby-faced Nie. They both came from educated, upper-class families, Tian from Hunan and Nie from Yunnan. Inspired both by political fervor and nationalist sentiment, both joined the Communist Party in the early 1930s, throwing themselves into Shanghai’s thriving left-wing drama scene. Both were English speakers looking to the West for how China’s traditions and national spirit could be revived. And, like many Chinese intellectuals of the time, their intellectual life was tied to Japan, where they both frequently travelled. Tian studied drama there from 1916 to 1922, and Nie’s brother was pursuing his education in Tokyo. Japan was a looming menace, but it was also an inspiration: an Asian nation that had gone from a backwater to a modern power in a few short decades.

At only 22, Nie was brilliantly talented, capable of picking up almost any instrument. His songs drew upon both classical and popular Western and Chinese forms, a swirl of melodies that produced consistent hit-making. Born Nie Shouxin, he gave himself the name Er, literally “ears,” after a classmate’s nickname bestowed thanks to his musical skills. By 1935 he had written 41 pieces, mostly for theater or fi lm, their titles—“Village Girl beyond the Great Wall”, “Singing Girl Downtrodden”, “Song of the Broad Road”, “Song of the Newsboy”— hinting at their mixture of the sentimental and the political. The songs were themed around the patriotism of all Chinese, from educated overseas returnees to ordinary peasants to the euphemistic “singing girls”.

A young, brilliant musician--was instrumental in the creation of "March of the Volunteers"

A young, brilliant musician–was instrumental in the creation of “March of the Volunteers”

Tian was once as much of a prodigy as Nie, composing one-act traditional operas as a teenager. But it was his time in Japan that really made him, exposing him to modern Western dramatists who remade his ideas of what theater could be. He ditched class to go to plays and frustrate his fi ancée by his 50 willingness to abandon dates with her for a chance to see a new production. Caught up in politics, he could annoy his literary contemporaries; Lu Xun (鲁迅), China’s greatest modern writer and a friend of Tian’s, once dubbed him one of the “four villains” whom he disagreed with most.

Tian spoke of wanting to be the “Ibsen of China” and ditched the high-toned language of traditional theater for the vernacular, telling stories of ordinary Chinese and putting everyday modern life on the stage; his 1922 play is called, wonderfully, A Night In A Coffee Shop. But he looked to older Western sources as well, providing the fi rst translation of Hamlet into vernacular Chinese in 1921 and Romeo and Juliet two years later. He saw literature as the heart of a nation, quoting with approval Thomas Carlyle’s claim that the British could live without India, but not without Shakespeare. His patriotism was such that, born Tian Shouchang, he renamed himself Han, as in “Han Chinese”.

Tian Han was temporarily in jail when he composed China's National Anthem

Tian Han was temporarily in jail when he composed China’s National Anthem

As well as dramatists, his heart was captured by Walt Whitman, whom he saw as the great “bold and pure soul” of the US, the epitome of, in his words, “the song of freedom they (Americans) have composed.” With a practical interest in directing as well as writing, he built stories around elaborate visual and audio effects; the roar of a tiger, the light of a distant mountain, the chatter of a village square. These skills made him a natural for the burgeoning Shanghai film industry, and his passion for the cinema was such that he ruined his eyesight in dimly-lit theaters. Today, many of his plays can seem clumsy, especially after he moved away from the commitment to literature of his early years to a more didactic political approach by the early 1930s, but in the Chinese theater world, he was part of a revolution. His political sentiments led to a brief imprisonment by the Kuomintang; his popularity won him a release.

With this duo of genius behind it, it was no wonder the “March” was a success. It hit the public in two forms; in the film Sons and Daughters of the Storm (《风云儿女》), fi rst screened a Shanghai’s Jincheng Theater on May 24, 1935, and in a popular recording by EMI Music released at the same time. The film was sentimental agitprop with a communist bent, designed to stir up anger against the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and inspire national resistance and revival. The most striking scene is the last, where the “March” is sung as the film cuts to the tramping, sandal-clad feet of the peasant and worker volunteers, along with the formerly decadent intellectual protagonist, hefting rifles and preparing for the national struggle ahead.

The “March” long outlived the fi lm it was composed for. It became one of the most popular songs in China, especially after full-blown war with Japan began in 1937. It was reprinted in newspapers, sung in brothels and pool halls, hummed by guerrillas in the mountains as they prepared for battle. By 1939, African-American singer and Communist activist Paul Robeson was singing it in concert, in Chinese, in sympathy with the struggle against imperialism. While its origins were on the left, it was equally popular with Nationalists as Communists.

But Nie never knew his own success. By the time the film premiered, he was in Japan, visiting his brother in Tokyo. Just two months later, he drowned while swimming in the ocean. Rumors immediately circulated that the death was no accident and that Nie, who may have planned to travel to the Soviet Union after Japan, had been murdered either by Kuomintang agents offended by his Communism or Japanese secret police determined to rub out a source of Chinese nationalism. The truth remains unknown. Dead at 23, the young musician’s remains were brought back to Yunnan three years later, buried at the foot of the Biji Hills where he spent his childhood.

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China’s Labor Corps


In the tiny French commune of Noyellessur-Mer, facing the English Channel, a stone Chinese archway rises incongruously at a cemetery entrance. Inside, over 800 graves are marked with Chinese names, birthplaces, death-dates between 1916 and 1920, and Biblical phrases in Chinese and English.

The dead of Noyelles came from the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), a force of 100,000 Chinese who, from 1916 onward, dug many of the trenches that criss-crossed war-torn France. The British-led CLC, and another 40,000 men working for the French, carved out defences, built barricades, fixed railways, and mended telegraph wire. The Chinese Labour Corps was the creation of wily Chinese statesman Liang Shiyi (梁士诒), once the technophile Minister of Railways under the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). It was an attempt to get on what he saw as the winning side of the war and ultimately better China’s place. Germany, like the other Great Powers, held considerable concessions in China, and siding with the Allies, even if only quietly at first, would position China to reclaim those colonies at war’s end.

It was appropriate enough, then, that the majority of the laborers he negotiated to send to France were from Shandong, where the German concessions were sited. The British and French officials involved in negotiating the contracts were looking for strong Northerners, and the men were said to be often “six feet tall”, a striking height at the time.

The legal status of the laborers was somewhat dubious; as, officially, a non-belligerent China could not supply military aid to the Allies without violating its neutrality. The Germans protested against the creation of the labour corps to the Chinese government, which replied by specifying that this was a purely civilian deal, handled through a conveniently created “private company”, the Huimin Company, and if this supply of labor happened to be used for martial purposes, that was nothing to do with them. That the Huimin Company had been brought into existence by Liang Shiyi purely for this purpose was not allowed to trouble this legal fiction. The laborers themselves have left little record. Almost entirely illiterate, their histories were set down by others, whether the British officers who dealt with them or the educated Chinese who accompanied them as translators. Farmers and migrants from rural villages, their transition into the war was also a transition into modernity.

As they entered “the sausage machine” of processing, their traditional queues were chopped off; they were washed, fingerprinted, and given a number,not a name. In his book, Strangers on the Western Front, Guoqi Xu demonstrated why this mechanistic process was made necessary; in the book, a British officer is recorded saying, “The man didn’t know his own name. If you questioned him, he’d say ‘Well, I come from the Wong family village, so my name is probably Wong.’ You’d say, ‘All right, well what is your personal name?’ and he’d grin and say ‘Wong’. We’d say, ‘Well, what are you called at home?’ and he’d say ‘Well, I’m known as Number Five, or Little Dog, or Big Nose.’

But the conditions were praised by the workers, who enjoyed the food, the hot baths with soap, and the clean housing. Even shipped in crammed holds, or in packed railway carriages across Canada, they remained, according to their supervisors, cheerful and practical, “the finest lot of men I have ever seen.” While they were often the target of racism from locals who had little contact with them, and from a military hierarchy that sometimes treated them like prisoners, locking them away in camps when off-duty, soldiers and officers who worked alongside them were full of admiration. They dug an average 200 cubic feet per day,compared to 140 for a British worker.

And like the soldiers around them, they died. They were killed in artillery shelling, as they dug embankments or strung wire under the fire of German guns. They were killed by snipers, unable to distinguish civilian workers from Allied soldiers across the haze of No-Man’s-Land. They were killed by German soldiers unable to make fine distinctions in the angry fury of breakthroughs into the enemy’s trenches. Most of all, they died of disease, coughing and spluttering their last in the great wave of post-war influenza, which slew more worldwide than the war itself.

Traditional Chinese belief valued being returned to one’s birthplace so highly that an entire profession of “corpse-walkers” existed who would single-handedly, and literally, walk dead men back to their hometowns. But there was neither the knowledge nor the infrastructure in place to send corpses back to Shandong. Instead they were buried among the rest of the Allied fallen, clustered in tens or twenties in some places, or not commemorated at all. The first that a distant wife, now widow, might hear of it was when a payment stopped or comrades returned, with the absent presumed dead.

Just how many of the laborers died is a matter of contention. The official Allied total was just under 2,000, but this is certainly an underestimate. Some Chinese academics have placed the total at 20,000, but more out of a need to emphasize China’s contribution and suffering than out of actual evidence. Likely numbers may be around 8,000 to 10,000.

Liang Shiyi’s dreams of Chinese rejuvenation at the expense of a beaten Germany did not come to fruition. Although China officially joined the Allies in 1917, it never sent soldiers, since the war ended before a proposed expedition force could be sent. Instead those men were sent to Mongolia, which had declared independence in 1911, in a brutal and futile attempt to reimpose Chinese rule that ended in ignominious defeat by the White Russian warlord,Roman von Ungern-Sternberg.

And in one of the most short-sighted and toxic moves of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 (and there were many), Japan, busily engaged in trying to reduce China to its colony, was granted Germany’s former holdings. Chinese students erupted, fanning the flames of the country’s revolutionary ideologies and newfound nationalism.

Of the CLC, around 3,000 stayed in France, where they became part of a Chinese presence that would provide an intellectual home for hundreds of influential figures, from Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) to Ho Chi Minh (胡志明). Tens of thousands returned to their hometowns with strange tales of foreign lands, corpses strung on wire, and the rattle of machine guns. In the next decade, after the Republican government collapsed and the country was split among warlords, these memories became all too practical.

Maoist Vacation


Decades ago it was common for families throughout China to place an image of Chairman Mao in the center of their homes. Today this is a rare sight in most Chinese homes, unless you happen to live in Nanjie Village (南街村). In fact, a portrait where Mao’s smile beams from within the center of a radiant red sun is an all too common decoration for each of the village’s identical apartments. Such adornments were decided by the communal decree of the village committee, the portrait also serving as an electronic calendar and clock. On the right of the portrait, it says: “Mao Zedong is a human being, not a god.” Fair enough, however, immediately to the left, it states: “Mao Zedong Thought excels any god.” Nanjiers are familiar with this particular slogan: not only because they see it everywhere, but because it appears to be the guiding motto to their lives. While other parts of China went through the Reform and Opening Up in the early 80s, learning to embrace the market economy, Nanjie Village remained a collective and embraced Maoism. For a while, this fast track to communism was applauded throughout the country. However, when a model is largely ignored, it’s not unfair to assume it has not been a resounding success, and Nanjie Village is still the last collective of its type in China.

Nanjie Village is a tiny place that casts a grand shadow. Part of Linying County—roughly 800 kilometers southwest of Beijing, Luohe City, Henan Province—the village only covers 1.78 square kilometers, housing 3,400 permanent residents. The No.107 National Highway passes through the west of the village and separates it from the rest of the bustling county. One side of the highway is a typical scene you might find in any small town in a fourth-tier city: grimy streets crowed with peddlers, small dingy shops, and suspect hair saloons where young women chat away with not a pair of scissors in sight. The opposite side of the highway is an entirely different world. Walking down the broad and less than subtly named Communism Avenue (共 产主义大道), one can hardly tell if you are going forward in time or backward. Everything is pristinely clean, and a nostalgic aura infests the air. Buildings firmly out of the 1990s are neatly in order, red slogans stretch across complexes, and a plethora of propaganda posters paper available walls and billboards. The heart of the village is definitely the Dongfanghong (the East is Red) Square (东 方红广场), on which a marble statue of Mao Zedong is watched by two armed guards day and night. Behind the statue stand portraits of the “Big Four”: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, their facial hair varying in magnificence. And for background music? A speech from Mao, of course, perpetually on loop. The square functions in much the same way as a church might in the West: not only do new party members take oaths here, but all new couples in the village get married in a single collective ceremony on National Day, where they bow to the Mao statue. Their wedding gifts? The Selected Works of Mao Zedong.

Each year, up to half a million visitors from around the country (even around the world) come to admire this village’s red culture as well as its lifestyle, which many villagers claim is heavenly. For starters, villagers are entitled to free medical care, housing, electricity, water, and gas. Furniture and essential electronic equipment are issued to every family. From the moment a child is born, the village arranges everything for them: free education from kindergarten to college and even graduate school. For those who fail the college entrance exam, the village funds vocational school. For every villager there is always a job waiting in one of the 26 different enterprises owned by the collective. While the outside world struggles with soaring real estate prices, medical bills, and shrinking job opportunities, all seems well in the leftist utopia that is Nanjie Village.


Built in 1992, there are two models for villagers’ apartments: the 75-square-meter two-bedroom for two-generation families and the 92-square-meter three-bedroom apartments for three-generation families. Called “Happy Community”, this area currently houses over 960 families.

As to how all this was achieved, 62-year-old Party secretary of the village committee, Wang Hongbin (王宏 斌) lauds the power of Maoism: “For decades, we have been committed to Mao Zedong Thought, using it to arm and educate our people. As a result, the collective economy is developed, and we are living a fairly comfortable life with common prosperity in the near future.”

Despite Wang’s claims, it wasn’t really Maoism that inspired him to start the collective, but it certainly helped maintain it. Red songs such as “The East is Red”, “The Voyage Depends on the Helmsman”, and “Socialism is Good” are broadcast daily, and everyone is encouraged to study Mao’s works. Above all, devotion to the collective is highly promoted, or what they call “the spirit of the fool” (傻子精神)—a fool who does not care about individual gain or loss, instead devoting himself to the good of the collective. Villagers certainly need such spirit to make peace with their work; compensation is usually only few hundred RMB, regardless of performance.

On being asked about salary, Sheng Ganyu, director of the Publicity and Education Department for Nanjie explained that only 30 percent of villagers’ benefits come as direct fi nancial compensation, the remaining 70 percent are benefits such as housing, education, food stamps, and vouchers that can be used in the market. “In order to set an example, all members of the village committee and leaders of enterprises have even lower salaries, only 250 RMB,” he says. “And they enjoy no other special treatment.” Two hundred and fi fty or 二百五 in Chinese also means “foolish”. Therefore, the cadres’ salary is, quite intentionally, a gesture of devotion to the collective. They call themselves “two hundred and fifty cadres” (二百五 干部), serving the people wholeheartedly.

When asked whether such low salaries damage motivation, director Sheng proudly says: “In the distinct environment of Nanjie Village where everyone is highly moral and responsible, I don’t think they will have a problem—at least most of them won’t.”

“It’s definitely not enough!” said an employee at a sales company in Nanjie. “Our food stamps are just for flour, steamed bread, and noodles; as to the vouchers, it’s never enough and we have to buy everything with money like everywhere else.” With a job in sales, his salary is still fixed at a couple of hundred. When asked about the apparent mismatch of this arrangement,

the employee sighed, explaining, “We don’t mention incentives because we care more about devotion.” On being asked if a different arrangement might make him more devoted, he simply answered: “This is not a problem I can discuss,” and pointed me in the direction of the village committee, “Go ask them.” For those who are less “devoted”, working outside the village is common.

“The monthly welfare is only about 60 kuai and it takes at least 300 to survive. With other spending, the salary here is simply too low,” said a villager explaining his reason for abandoning the “heavenly” Nanjie Village; instead, he operates a small business outside, earning a monthly income of a few thousand RMB.

If those who are inside want to get out, then those who are outside want to get in. Nanjie currently employs over 10,000 outsiders in its various enterprises, more than three times the number of locals. Their salaries are higher (still only 1,000-2,000 RMB), but they don’t get the other benefits. Among them is 20 year-old Zhang Yanli, who moved from an adjacent village to work as a tour guide at the local tourism company. Her job is to show visitors around and present them with a perfect “communist community in the making”, which she is not a part of. “Outsiders who are selected as outstanding workers for five years in a row and have worked there for 10 years can be awarded the title of ‘honorary villager’, and they will get the same benefi ts as the other villagers,” she explained. Although she is not sure if she wants to stay in the village for that long, it certainly strikes her as a good opportunity. While the village produces many jobs for the area, some people express concern at such practices in a “communist collective”, comparing it to capitalism—with workers creating surpluses and decreasing value.


Over thirty elderly people in the senior home in Nanjie enjoying free medical care and seen after by the collective

As to the 250 RMB salaries of the village cadres, it has long been regarded as merely a slogan, with many villagers suspecting corruption. In 2003, director of the village Wang Jinzhong died of a heart attack. It has been alleged that at least 20 million RMB in cash and multiple deeds with his name were found in a safe in his office. Villagers attending his funeral told a journalist from Southern Metropolis Daily that several women with small children showed up, claiming to be mistresses who bore his illegitimate children, asking for a share of the money. Wang Hongbin later denied such claims, stating that only 30,000 in cash was found. Despite the suspicion, there are those who believe in the 250 spirit. In 2007, Li Na, Mao Zedong’s daughter, personally donated 100,000 RMB to Nanjie, asking for it to be used to better the living conditions of those in the leading posts. In Wang’s letter to her, he thanked her for her devotion, saying he believed it to be a great encouragement for Nanjie to continue its work for its communist community. A little cash certainly seems to inspire devotion.

A favorite hangout for the villagers and neighboring residents, Chaoyangmen city gate was partof a 50 million budget project to surround the entire village with walls. The plan was later aborted due to a lack of funds.

A favorite hangout for the villagers and neighboring residents, Chaoyangmen city gate was part of a 50 million budget project to surround the entire village with walls. The plan was later aborted due to a lack of funds.

Wang has been leading the village for the past 37 years and was the paramount advocate in its creation. Back in 1980, when traditional farming was still the main livelihood for the villagers, he led the establishment of a flour mill and a brickyard, in which he personally contributed funds. The next year, when rural reform and the household contract system began, the mill and brickyard were contracted to individuals. However, the two small factories as well as local agriculture were a failure under such a contract; villagers chose to leave the land uncultivated and the contractors neglected to deliver profits or paychecks. Starting in 1984, Wang decided to take back the factories and the land, a sort of micro-nationalization if there were such a thing. On the morning of March 14, 1986, villagers gathered in front of an announcement issued by the village committee and learned that they were all in this together: now all villagers tended the land jointly while the rest of the labor supply would be arranged to work in the factories. In return, the A favorite hangout for the villagers and neighboring residents, Chaoyangmen city gate was part of a 50 million budget project to surround the entire village with walls. The plan was later aborted due to a lack of funds. 46 village would be arranged to work in the factories. In return, the village would provide all members with food. This marked the beginning of Nanjie Village as a collective.

The village is filled with red slogans and mao images, this one depicts a comment from Ma Weirui, a former member of the Central Committee of the Party: “People’s commune of Nanjie is good”. On the left it says, “Socialism is a bridge”, and on the right “Communism is Heaven” and on the right “Communism is Heaven”.

The village is filled with red slogans and mao images, this one depicts a comment from Ma Weirui, a former member of the Central Committee of the Party: “People’s commune of Nanjie is good”. On the left it says, “Socialism is a bridge”, and on the right “Communism is Heaven” and on the right “Communism is Heaven”.

Nanjie Village takes great pride in its reputation as “The Hundred Million Red Village” (红色亿元村). From food, drink, and medicine to printing, chemicals, and tourism, the collective that is Nanjie Village Group claimed to have an annual output value of over one billion RMB as early as the 1990s. It is said that the village developed at a speed faster than the special economic zones, such as Shenzhen. The rapid growth of the village enterprises coincided with Maoist fervor. It seems that Mao Zedong Thought has taken an effect after all, but perhaps not in the way claimed. In a village speech in 1990, Wang Hongbin said: “Right now, it’s easy for Nanjie to get a loan…Authorities of different levels all want to make a Nanjie model… Governmental funds will come our way, millions of RMB. We have to grasp every opportunity and give Nanjie a total makeover in the next two to three years.” Wang was spot on. In the surging wave of national reform, Maoism became a reassurance against the worries of capitalist invasion and brought him huge sums of bank loans and funding facilitated by the government. Before long, Nanjie had begun its ascent. Alongside those of Mao, it seemed the village was also invoking the ideas of Deng Xiaoping: for Nanjie, getting rich was glorious.

Backed up by loans, Nanjie did not just stop at building factories and setting up companies. Apart from the identical apartment buildings for all the villagers, public facilities in Nanjie are top-notch: fi ve park areas, a zoo, a small artificial mountain set with bridges over a moat; a grand mosque was built for Hui Muslims who make up 10 percent of population, as well as a large swimming center. It also boasts a city gate tower and city walls—not bad for a place with a little over 3,000 residents. Wang made a name for himself along the way, becoming a “national model worker” and an outstanding Party member of Henan Province. He has also repeatedly been selected as a National People’s Congress representative.

Maybe he was bewildered by all the possibilities (or perhaps his own delusional nature), but in 1999, against many objections from other members in the village committee, Wang decided to fund a study to invent a perpetual motion machine—largely considered a complete and utter scientific impossibility. A few months later when the machine was “done”, three brand new Audis were bought for tests. After their engines were removed and the magic machine installed, as one might imagine, nothing happened—with that, 20 million RMB went to waste. It was only four years later that Wang publically stated that he was deceived by charlatans and expressed regret. Always a lovable figure among the villagers, he was forgiven and was never called to account for the loss.

The days of rum and honey in Nanjie lasted for a while, that is, until the loans caught up with them. At 73, Zhu Gengxi enjoys the sunshine on the steps of the grand city gate but is worried about the future. “It looks well on the outside, but that’s not the truth. If only we had built all these with our own effort,” he says. “Now that we owe the bank so much money, we can’t even pay back the interest.” In a study conducted by sociologist Feng Shizheng at the Renmin University of China, it was found that the increase in Nanjie’s output correlates exactly with its bank loans—the loans dangerously higher than the profits. At its most extreme, in 1998, the ratio was nearly seven to one. “The rapid growth of Nanjie is the result of bank loans rather than self-generation,” said Feng, adding, “a typical case of high growth but low efficiency.” Later, as the state-owned commercial banks went through a transformation and turned into shareholding enterprises, Nanjie was put on a black list for future loans due to its bad credit history. Today, the village claims to have minimized its debt to lower than 400 million RMB and continues to try to pay back each and every last kuai it blew.

Most ordinary residents in Nanjie get on with their daily lives without too much complaint. This does not mean they are unaware of the dissonance in which they live. But when unable to make changes to their environment, people often fi nd ways to make peace. Zhang Wenjian, a 58-year-old local supermarket employee is content with his current status; his salary is not high, but it’s enough. “The world is never equal,” he says, “so there’s no point making comparisons to others. I have a job, food on my table, and a roof over my head. It’s everything I need.” And if this is what communism means to the village of Nanjie, then the village is certainly living the dream.