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.

China’s New Left



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Confession Controversy: Update


Fang Jie, a retired Human Resource Bureau director in Shanxi Province, surprised his family when he learned how to use a computer at 70 years of age—writing a 100,000 word memoir of his father, a red army official who died 30 years ago. However, the Cultural Revolution where Fang turned against his own father, insulting him in public assemblies amongst the mob, remained completely unmentioned. Similarly, Yu Guangyuan is a well-known scientist and philosopher who published nearly 100 books, including personal essays and memoirs. However, in all his prolific writings, he never once mentioned his first wife who committed suicide in 1968 at the age of 34 after two years of ruthless physical abuse and persecution.

The Cultural Revolution was an unforgettable time of horror and regret for the people who participated and lived through it. Over 100 million people were involved in the movement, with nowhere safe from its brutality and no one above question. In its first month—August, 1966—1,772 people were tortured to death in Beijing by Red Guards’ bats, whips, fists, and kicks, a taste of the cruelty and terror that would rule China for the next 10 years. However, spectacularly, although almost every Chinese family has members who experienced the Cultural Revolution, it is rarely talked about even in private. Though there are not any official rules forbidding discussion of this dark time, it has become taboo for both the persecutors and the persecuted. With the exception of scar literature and a few scattered stories, the whole 10 years seem to be slipping away as China ages, lost, hushed, and forgotten. But, there are still those who—in modern day—are still willing to stand up and tell their sad tales of a country and a people in the grip of madness.

In 2008, 55-year-old linguist Wang Keming (王克明) wrote a confession of how he hit a peasant when he was young. During the Cultural Revolution Wang was forced to leave his hometown of Beijing to work on a farm in ShaanxiProvince. When the central government issued an order to carry out a new “movement”, a peasant called Gu Zhiyou was chosen as the enemy and, as such, received pidou. In a pidou, the targeted person is tried in public assembly, forced to confess their “sins” against communism and Mao, under a showering of insults, and is often physically abused while kneeling and tied up. Fortunately, in this small village, the pidou was more like a formality. After Gu received his pidou on stage, others helped him to rest and have some water. However, Wang, as a young man from Beijing where the revolution was much more cruel, was filled with anger towards the “enemy”. He continued to demand Gu confess his crimes against Mao and punched him hard in the face. In the 34 years that passed since that day, Wang has been trying to justify his actions, convincing himself that Gu must be guilty of something, but his inner turmoil continued. Finally, in 2004, he went back to Shaanxi, found Gu, and apologized. For all those years of personal torture and regret, it turned out Gu never bore a grudge. Calling Wang a “Beijing kid” like he did back then, Gu smiled and said, “It was a movement. You were only kids, what did you know?” Wang was overwhelmed by Gu’s kindness. He felt compelled to write down his experience, and published it in 2008. He wrote in the beginning of the article, “After I became middle-aged, I realized one fact: there is no such thing as an enemy.” And Wang didn’t stop at confessing his own guilt. He started a book project with several friends and sent out requests to people who had been through the Cultural Revolution, asking if they had any confessions to make. “We need to know the truth,” Wang told TWOC, speaking of his reasons for compiling his work. “We really don’t know much about the truth of the Cultural Revolution. Even though we do not know what really happened, we argue about how we should define that era. To this day, people are still arguing whether the Cultural Revolution was a good thing or not, and there still are people worshipping Mao. By confessing our guilt, we are offering our part of the historic truth.”


By 2013, through various efforts, he had 34 articles from 32 confessors. A man wrote to confess that he killed someone in a conflict between Red Guard groups. A woman confessed that her testimony caused a classmate’s suicide. Lu Xiaorong, the granddaughter of warlord Lu Zuofu, was not responsible for any persecution because of her family background; instead, she was denied higher education. However, she still felt the need to confess her “sins”, her sin of being brainwashed and not thinking independently. From Wang’s perspective, all these stories melt down to a major conflict: the conflict between political manipulation and human nature.

“I believe everyone who went through the Cultural Revolution is traumatized, whether they were persecutor or the persecuted, because we all have the same human nature. However, under some circumstances, human nature can be repressed and give way to the ‘Party nature’ (党性). When the ‘Party nature’ wind blew, hate would dominate. I felt that our generation was raised on hate. We were taught to cultivate our ‘Party nature’ since we were kids. For example, the textbooks told us to be unwavering in our political stance, take up the whip to beat your enemy, and crack down on all capitalists,” Said Wang. “Hate possessed us: wherever our eyes landed, we saw enemies. When such a generation is thrown into a turbulent age, they persecute others or become persecuted themselves—or become brainwashed. Hate was the drive for class struggle and all physical violence during the Cultural Revolution. However, when they are able to look back at history, and denounce the hate education they received, the ‘Party nature’ gives way to human nature. By confession, we are refusing to hate and seeking to love.”

“The purpose of my book,” Wang adds, “is to help people, especially young people, understand the Cultural Revolution and see the results of hate education. Nowadays there is no longer the physical abuse that happened then, but there is still intense verbal abuse out there. People are so hostile on the internet. They fight each other like gamecocks, all without any real conversation happening. People don’t seem to know that they can sit down and talk about things. I think a loss of traditional values, class struggles, and hate education all have played a part in this. No one seems to be aware there could be values other than money and hate in the world.”

The loss of values also concerns Wu Si (吴思), the editor of Yanhuang Chunqiu (《炎黄春秋》), a history magazine. In the same year, Wang Keming published his confession, Wu started a column in his magazine called “Confessions” (忏悔录).

“China used to have values higher than individual interests, such as the Confucian notions of mercy and conscience. During Mao’s era, we had other paramount values—Communist values. But, nowadays we have none. Then,who are we? We are degraded into a race that pursuesthe maximization of profits, which makes a fragile base for society. So, if a few people in this society stand up and confess, then at least it means that those people respect a value higher than profit. This value is neither mercy nor communism; it is conscience. These people give something for the whole society to respect, and they make our country look more civilized,” said Wu.

As a historian, Wu Si also sees something other than civilization in confession. “They also provide us with truths, truths that some people try to deny or ignore, but talking about these truths is how we can make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.”

However, the number of people who would stand up and speak about what they did during the  Cultural Revolution is still small. In fi ve years, Wu Si only received  about a dozen articles. “I would be exaggerating if I said those who are willing to admit they did the wrong thing in the revolution make up five percent of the Red Guards.”  Wu said.

Zou Dongfeng (邹东锋), an editor of a Hunan newspaper, had a similar experience when he wanted to publish confessions. His newspaper has an expansive elderly readership, and Zou called for his readers to confess their wrongdoings during the Cultural Revolution in the readers’ QQ forum. He received only three letters. “Most of the people don’t understand,” he said.  “Many of the people who used to be Red Guards just think they did the right thing, or they simply blame it on the era. They are not burdened by self-reflection.”

Wang Keming was in a similar situation. “Although I can’t say what we are doing has caused apathy, many people don’t understand us. Most of them say we shouldn’t be in any place to apologize because it was Mao’s fault, not ours. By confessing our guilt, we are taking the responsibility that Mao should have taken.”

Sixty-year-old Wang Youqin (王友琴) has no patience for such talk. Wang Youqin has been collecting personal accounts of the Cultural Revolution for 27 years, having interviewed over 1,000 victims, their families, and witnesses—ending in a book called Victim of the Cultural Revolution: An Investigative Account of Persecution, Imprisonment and Murder.

“These are only excuses,” she commented when asked about Wang Keming’s statement, significantly raising her tone. “Of course the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s fault. It couldn’t be more apparent. But how can one just spare themselves like that?  During the Cultural Revolution nobody had much choice, and it was not all your fault if you did bad things; but, now we do have choices, and we should act like humans.”

Wang is earnest for a reason. In recent years, her name has been connected with a name that was once an idol of the Red Guards, Song Binbin (宋彬彬). They both went to the Girls’ Middle School attached to Beijing Normal University. On August 5, 1966 (a month known notoriously as “Red August” for the massive massacre that took place), their principal, Bian Zhongyun (卞仲耘), was the first teacher beaten to death by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, and in 1994, Wang Youqin published an account of how she died after extensive research and interviews. More importantly, she mentioned Song, as one of the Red Guard leaders, was involved. Thirteen days after the incident, Song was received by Mao Zedong himself at Tian’anmen and put a Red Guard band on Mao’s arm. Mao asked for her name, which means “polite and elegant” and said, “You should be called Yaowu (要武),” meaning “be militant”.

After that, Song Binbin changed her name to Song Yaowu and became a Red Guard idol nationwide. Soon, an article appeared in People’s Daily under the name Song Yaowu, which advocated Red Guard violence, “I’m not going to let Chairman Mao down. I’m going to be militant and brave. I pledge to carry on the Proletarian Cultural Revolution to the end…Violence is truth; it existed before and exists now, and it will still exist in the future.”

While there is not yet direct evidence of Song involved in the violence, she was an important symbol during the Cultural Revolution. Not only did she become an idol, Red Guards nationwide took a vicious turn toward violence after Mao encouraged it by giving her a new name. Before August 18 there were only two
deaths in Beijing; after that, the daily death toll quickly rose into the hundreds.

In a 2003 documentary on the Cultural Revolution, The Morning Sun, Song Binbin defended herself. “I never participated in the Red Guard destructions, not even once, but there are rumors about me everywhere…I feel so wronged, because I was always against physical violence.” She further denied that she used the name “Song Yaowu” at all, rather that it was propaganda by the government.  Another Red Guard leader, Ye Weili, said in the documentary that the principal, who died with bruises and wounds all over her body, actually died of heart attack. Ironically, Song was chosen as an “outstanding alumni” at the middle school’s 90th Anniversary, and her photo was next to the photo of Bian Zhongyun.

Wang Youqin is outraged by this escapism. “The point is they don’t think they did anything wrong. They may not have necessarily killed people with their own hands, but they were a part of it; so, they have their share of responsibility. However, instead of confessing and apologizing, they attack those who tell of what happened.” For the past few years, Wang has been harassed by ex-Red Guards—both with personal attacks and hostile visits.


In stark contrast to Song Binbin and her supporters is the apology from Chen Xiaolu (陈小鲁), the son of General Chen Yi and the leader of the Xijiu (西纠),one of the most influential Red Guard organizations in Beijing. Chen wrote a letter to his middle school teachers to apologize for what he did during theCultural Revolution. He claimed responsibility for the bullying of his Red Guard group and asked forgiveness for being too cowardly to stop the many humanitarian crises of the time from happening. At the end of the letter, he wrote, “Recently there is a trend of justifying the Cultural Revolution. Personally, I think it is a point of personal freedom as to how to  understand the Cultural Revolution, but under no circumstances should inhuman behavior that violates the Constitution and human rights ever happen in China again!…My apologies come only too late, but to purge my soul—for society to move forward and for the future of my country—I have to make these apologies.” While in the mainstream media he is considered as an extraordinarily courageous man, he managed to enrage some of China’s more extreme leftists. On Utopia (乌有之乡), a leftist website, many articles satirized his apology, calling him a “villain” and even demanding that Chen should apologize to Mao Zedong because Mao takes the blame for the Cultural Revolution even though the Red Guards were the real wrongdoers.

It is always hard to draw a line between the wickednessof the times and the evil of individuals, especially in the case of the Cultural Revolution, and when presented with such a grave issue, most people have chosen to keep silent and forget.

On this point, Wang Youqin loves to tell a story she heard rom a science teacher.  The teacher worked on a farm during the Cultural Revolution, and he was in charge of a herd of cattle. There was a patch of thick grasses below
a big willow tree, which was a favorite food of the cattle,and, one day, the villagers slaughtered an old cow under the tree because it was too old to work; ever since then none of the cows would go anywhere near the willow tree even though the grass was delicious. The chickens, however, upon seeing the innards of their fellow hens chucked into the yard, would all hurry over and peck at the guts of their own kind.

“So mankind is somewhere between cows and chickens,”
Wang says. “But now that we have a choice, we need to
decide whether to be the cow or the chicken.”


UPDATE: Song Binbin recently made a tearful confession on Sunday regarding her part in the cultural revolution


Twitter and Facebook? Banned, no problem. Amnesty International and The New York Times? Completely blocked. Youtube and WordPress? Easy-peasy-lemonsqueezy. and Big Butts Like it Big? Not so much. Yes, China is famous for blocking, banning, and condemning any website that offends the nation’s delicate sensibilities, but pornography—perhaps the one thing that could have a consensus for blanket censorship—always seems to conspicuously slip through regardless of crackdowns and threats from the highest authorities. First, it must be said that China blocks a lot of pornography and has since New China was founded. But have the great people of the Middle Kingdom gone without their fix since 1949? Hell no. Pornography has always found a way in China, and online pornography is just the latest in a long line of failures for the censors.

Like it or not, this strange aspect of modern Chinese culture does not seem to be going away; the sheer scale of pornography on the world wide web is staggering, even for China’s busy censors. Often used for as a smokescreen for more—shall we say—political endeavors, online pornography has been used as a weapon on everyone from Apple to Ai Weiwei, all while some of the most popular pornography sites on the net remain unscathed. Couple all this with the famous whimsy of China’s censors and the situation becomes a decidedly strange and capricious war on an internet staple.

One of China’s early 2013 crackdowns on porn shut down 225 websites, 4,000 web channels, and 30,000 blogs; also, between March and May 2013, Chinese authorities seized 180,000 online publications, bragging of closing down 5.6 million illegal publications in all.
Nevertheless, online porn still persists and thrives.

The big bosses in charge of said censoring are the National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications, but the real warriors are those on the ground, the “Chief Pornography Identification Officers” (首席鉴黄师 shǒuxí jiàn huáng shī). Hunan provincial television interviewed a 70-year-old porn censor named Liu Xiaozhen earlier this year; the requirements for the job seemed to require training and simply being married.But, even though “anti-pornography” is the official government line, it can be a dangerous position to take. Some anti-pornography advocates have even received death threats. Such was the case of Wang Jipeng, who, in 2004, received a 3 am phone call with a man on the other end who said, “Stop writing articles against Internet porn immediately. We already have someone waiting to finish you off.”

Despite its illegality, there are those that support pornography intellectually—or at least its ability to level an age old playing field. Peng Xiaohui (彭晓辉), Chief Editor of Chinese Sexuality Research, and Deputy Secretary General of the World Association of Chinese Sexologists, believes: “China has never reached a position of being well-developed… It has been in a state of extreme wealth disparity, which led to an imbalance of allocation in sexuality resources.” But the online world levels the field, creating a sexual social harmony whereby everybody is able to get a satisfaction of sorts. Essentially, Peng believes that the banning of pornography is sociological and political, saying that— as the gap of “sexual resources” narrows: “The lower classes’ ‘anti-sex’ emotions will become more intense. So, the authorities will ‘raise their mainstream moral flags’.”

And those moral fl ags come with serious consequences, And those moral flags come with serious consequences, including fines of up to 20,000 RMB and potential jail time.This goes a long way in explaining why most of the porn in China is foreign. “Since there is a lack of home-grown Chinese porn productions, people have to take recourse to overseas products and miss out on uniquely Chinese definitions of eroticism,” says Katrien Jacobs, author of People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet and an associate professor in Cultural Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Statistics from pornography conglomerate PornMD earlier this year seem to somewhat hilariously support this fact, with the most-searched-for terms by country. As far as porn is concerned, in China, “Japanese” was a more popular search term than “Chinese”. Also, while most countries’ searched terms were fi lled with all the various fetishes and kinks that one could imagine — from “massage” to “BDSM”—China’s list was made up entirely of nationalities. Thus we have the bizarre scenario where an entire country’s erotic imagination is largely defined by its understanding of other countries’ pornography. This, presumably, leaves little room for the nation to create a unique sexual construction of its own. So, with domestic products mainly illegal and hard to come by, foreign products are the ones that get the censors’ axe.

But, despite recent claims that China’s censors number two hundred million, they can’t seem to get a handle on pornography on the Chinese internet. Peng believes that censoring pornography on the internet is not the real goal: “Anti-pornography is not the goal, rather it is a cover for eliminating illegal publications. The government does not really implement it unless there are political considerations; they just do a bit of acting.”

Peng believes that the elimination of online pornography is a dream, saying, “If they really carry out the anti-pornography, like the Mao period of the 1950s, that would be very extreme.”

Fang Gang (方刚), dean of Human Sexuality and Gender Research Institute at the Beijing Forestry University, agrees: “Over the long term, as to be expected, legalization of
pornography will not happen in China.” When asked whether or not the government’s policy on pornography would loosen or tighten in the future, Fang believes policies like this are a measure of pluralism, saying, “Loosening or tightening of the government’s administration is a barometer of political life; it’s very diffi cult to estimate.”
So, why is online pornography banned in the first place? Well, everyone is familiar with the carrion call: “What about the children?” And, of course, there are always calls for public morality and ethics; indeed, there are many good reasons for banning online pornography outright, but many believe the cuts run deeper in China.

Peng thinks that China’s constant crackdowns on porn are a symptom of authoritarianism: “As long as China refuses to accept universal values of freedom and equality, and continues to maintain ‘authoritarian’ rules, such banning will tighten rather than loosen.” However, this argument doesn’t really hold water when one considers that there are many democratic, western countries that also ban pornography and that a ban on online pornography doesn’t have to be the same as China’s blanket blocking of sites such as Youtube and Facebook.

In fact, the UK, a nation well known for its egalitarianism and human rights, is also on the cusp of forcing internet users to “opt-in” to pornography with their internet providers. This would, point of fact, be an improvement for the system in China to some, but it’s not likely according to Fang: “Even this—individuals ‘opting-in’ to pornography— will not appear in China, since it was established on the basis that pornography is legal.”

However, there is a precedent for change in China’s policies on online pornography, somewhat similar to Britain’s “opt-in” policy: “That exact same idea was tried out in China in 2009, when the government tried to pass a law whereby only PCs with pre-installed Green Dam filtering software could be sold in China.” Officially, the software was for blocking pornography, which presumably would take the impetus off censors having to hunt down pornography and block it from everyone in the country. Instead, the focus would be on efforts to ensure computers had the Green Dam software.

The reason behind the Green Dam Project, as stated by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology was to, “build a green, healthy, and harmonious online environment, and to avoid the effects on and the poisoning of our youth’s minds by harmful information on the internet.” But, the policy died a quick death under accusations of hacking, surveillance, and more broad ranging censorship; in the end, the policy failed because of a lack of transparency.

Moreover, far from being a palliative for youth morality, censorship of online pornography can be used as a weapon. In April this year, Apple was asked to remove pornographic content from its apps, but most claim that this particular crackdown was aimed at Apple deleting politically sensitive material. In 2012, Ai Weiwei,a man once praised for his art and now damned for his political sensitivities, had pornography used as leverage against him. The offending items were a series of nude photographs.

As such, even with the noble intention of trying to save the country’s morality, China’s censorship laws often end up causing more than a little bit of embarrassment. Famously, China’s most trusted news network, Xinhua, recently published photographs of a pornographic film as an “actual” state execution in the US. If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, users who bothered to track down the original shots—a grizly, faux snuff porn film—would have noticed that this is one of the bits of pornography that the censors had missed. Surprisingly, it’s still not blocked.

That said, whether or not there is a future for pornography in China is still uncertain. Both sides may have justifiable arguments, but one side has a boat load of cash waiting. Given that China’s pornography market is so barren of domestic products, perhaps a view to a new industry could change things.

“I think that the benefits of legalization would be that there would be more room for diversified products as well as Chinese products,” Jacobs says. “Moreover, there is a lot of pornography consumption in China,just like in the rest of the world, but the ban still reifies the idea of social stigma or even criminal activity. So, there could be some changes in the future once China realizes that pornography could be promoted as part of the ethos of economic reform… Just like art and commodities, eroticism also needs to flourish in contemporary culture.”

Of course, not everyone agrees. There are many valid arguments, including those of Liu Yunshan, a leader in the Communist Party of China, who said, “Internet pornography is not only preventing the healthy development of the country’s internet services, but also eroding people’s mind, destroying the moral standard of the society and endangering young people’s healthy growth.” If this is true, then online pornography is clearly an issue China desperately needs to have an argument about and, more likely than not, a one-size-fits-all solution is going to be inadequate in addressing the problem.

Chinese You Need to Know

Online porn
Wǎngluò sèqíng




Duōyàng huà


Héfǎ huà



Politically sensitive
Zhèngzhì mǐngǎn

China is cracking down on online porn.
Zhōngguó zhèngzài yánlì dǎjí wǎngluò sèqíng.

I can’t get on Twitter, but I can download
free pornography.
Wǒ bùnéng shàng tuī tè, dànshì wǒ néng miǎnfèi xiàzài
Chéngrén diànyǐng

Crossing the Gender Lines


What’ve you got for me?” my editor asked. “Transgenderism in China,” I said. “Hm, yeah. That’ll be okay, if you can get first-hand access, of course.” I cockily told him this wouldn’t be a problem. In a country with an estimated 400,000 transgender people, surely a few would be willing to talk. Here in China, I had seen a few trans-people in bars and clubs and figured they could be easily contacted through the various LGBT support networks that exist here in Beijing; or—if all else failed— Craigslist personals.

Perhaps China's most famous transexual, Jin Xing poses in her studio

Perhaps China’s most famous transexual, Jin Xing poses in her studio

It all turned out to be not so easy. My first meeting with a Chinese transvestite was confusing. Due to a miscommunication on my part, the woman in question was expecting our encounter to be a far more casual affair. She told me plainly that she was unwilling to be interviewed and that no Chinese transgender was likely to be willing either.

However, she did open up avenues to Filipino transgender people living in China who, she said, would be far more willing to talk.

Jessica (born Robert) from Manila is 24 and speaks with the slightest of lisps and was happy to tell me of her experience, “living in this cruel society of ours”. We met at a Beijing hotel room where she was staying. She wore a snakeskin-print dress set off with a large diamante cross and looked the perfect picture of good health—definitely attractive.

There are various terms in English for transgender people: transvestite, transsexual, ladyboy, shemale, kathooey—those and many other terms that aren’t nearly as forgiving. In Mandarin, there’s 跨性别 (kuàxìngbié) meaning “to go beyond sex”; 人妖 (rényāo), “human monster”, an offensive term applied specifically to Thai transsexuals and rarely Chinese transsexuals; and, perhaps most common in the Chinese Mainland, 变性者 (biànxìngzhě), meaning “one who changes sex”. When asked if she felt uncomfortable with any particular label, Jessica briefly sounded like the straightest of males: “You can call me whatever you like. Just don’t call me gay.”

Jessica is proud to be a transgender and doesn’t see her gender as clean-cut or definitive. “Being transgender is good because I have a masculine side. When a man has a problem he deals with it. Women weave their way slowly toward answers. People like me are stronger. We can use both sides of our personalities.”

Regarding the process, Jessica says: “It’s hard to say exactly when I knew I was transgender. I can’t say it was when I was born, because when you’re born, you don’t know about such things. But by the time I was seven years old, I was always playing with girls and not with boys.”

Jessica takes the drug Progynova to develop feminine physical attributes. The drug works as an estrogen boost to induce metabolic changes in males, such as the development of breasts and fat distribution, which affects body shape.

Most transgender people report transgender inclinations at a very young age. Transitioning, however, is much more complex, given intense social and societal pressure. Many people remain closeted their entire lives. Once a person decides to transition, one must decide how far they want to go. Wardrobe adjustments? Hormone replacement? Breast implants? Sexual reassignment surgery (SRS)?

Though living as a woman now, Qian Jinfan was once a dashing young man

Though living as a woman now, Qian Jinfan was once a dashing young man

Unaware how far Jessica had gone, I inquired coyly about her breasts. She pulled down her top and bra and showed them to me, in all their glory—large and magnificent. She demanded that I feel them, as if to prove their authenticity. She had undergone silicone breast implant surgery in Thailand, renowned for having the safest and most advanced techniques in the world that you can get for 1,500 USD. They looked exactly like the real thing, albeit with smaller, slightly mannish nipples.

Jessica feels that SRS is not for her, citing both physical risks, such as surgical infection, and psychological risks. “It’s too psychological. Too psychological.” Jessica believes that, through this operation, the brain and physical sex drive become disconnected, forever altering the orgasm experience. She explained that those who choose to undergo this procedure do so because, “they just really want to feel like a woman.”

In Confucian culture, where fitting-in and honoring one’s parents is paramount, transitioning is so taboo that most ignore the desire altogether. Hailu is a 22-year-old male who has a deep desire to transition to female, but the social pressures won’t let him. Hailu says that from the age of seven, he felt different from everybody else, and, like Jessica, was always more comfortable playing with girls at school. He got bullied accordingly and this left him confused: “When I was small, I had no concept of gender differences; I only knew that I wished I was a girl. I didn’t understand why when girls made feminine gestures nobody laughed, but when I did everybody laughed. They would call me renyao, and I didn’t even know what it meant.”

To some, insults such as this might be ignored as run-of-the- mill, playground bullying, but it all had devastating effects on Hailu’s confidence, “After a while everything I did, talking, tone of voice, gestures, hobbies—they all become ridiculed.”

Although Hailu knew he wanted to be a woman, he knew nothing about the potential options, such as Hormone Replacement Therapy or SRS, only identifying as transgender after reading a book by China’s leading sexologist, Li Yinhe.

Hailu used to cross-dress in private, but has never done it in public and has now stopped wearing women’s clothes altogether, believing that if he were to transition to a woman it would have to be an all-or-nothing  decision. “I took herbal hormones for a while but not now. Whether it is taking medicine or clothes, it will just be for a moment’s pleasure. When you can’t make the full change, exposing yourself is meaningless.”

For the time being, Hailu has chosen to ignore his inner femininity publicly and will try to get on as best he can, “Cross-dressing will make you look like an alien, and you will probably lose your job. It’s too uncomfortable for me to interact with men; I can’t act their ways, nor can I talk like them. I don’t want to be like them or learn to be like them anyway.”

While for most transitioning and all the social stigma that comes with it is just not an option, a few select trailblazers are making the choice and on occasion are even making it more publicly acceptable, if only marginally so.

Jin Xing (金星), one of the first people in China to undergo SRS, is undoubtedly China’s most well-known transgender person. Born male, Jin served as a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army. At the age of 28, Jin transitioned to female and later became one of China’s leading ballerinas and choreographers. Despite her achievements and semi-acceptance from the Communist Party, Jin still suffers significant discrimination.

In 2011, Jin was selected as a judge on the Chinese reality series We Are the Music (非同凡响 Fēi Tóng Fánxiǎng) but was pulled from judging the final at the last minute, with officials from the Zhejiang Administration of Radio, Film and Television claiming that “transgender identities could have a negative effect on society”.

Transitioning is legal in China. It can only be carried out, however, under stringent guidelines published in 2009, such as registering with the police and being unmarried. The list is long and tortuous, and many believe it is unfair.

Qian Jinfan walks proudly as a woman on the streets of Foshan City

Qian Jinfan walks proudly as a woman on the streets of Foshan City

While the guidelines may seem draconian to some, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health also recommends: a 12-month preoperative experience living in an identity congruent gender, hormone treatment, and a written assessment from a mental health professional. Given the physical and psychological impact, SRS is not a decision to be taken lightly by patients or surgeons.

A further discriminating aspect of the transitioning process is that it effectively annuls the educational qualifications of the person in question. Past qualifications no longer match the person’s present gender and become defunct, with local governments not willing to change the educational databases in question. Getting a job is difficult for a transgender person anywhere in the world, but in China if you have transitioned and apply for a job, your qualifications cannot be verified. Many are forced to turn to the gray or black economies for employment.

In recent years, the Chinese media have taken an increasing interest in transgenderism, bringing more positive stories to light. Last year, 84-year-old Qian Jinfan (钱今凡) made national and international headlines in an interview with Southern Metropolitan Daily, publicly outing herself as transgender. International media dubbed her “China’s oldest transgender”. Born in Zhejiang in 1928 as a male, Qian worked as a calligrapher, art-critic, and government official, spending the first 80 years of  her life as a closeted transgender. In her youth, Qian said she would wear a bra under her clothes, and always walked with a sashay in her step. During the Cultural Revolution, Qian says she felt closer to being a woman, as everybody wore the same clothes.

In 2008, Qian started taking hormone replacement therapy and bravely wrote to her former employers, the Foshan Cultural Radio Television News and Publication Bureau, to explain her reasons for transitioning and her fear that she might lose her pension. To her amazement, her employers were incredibly understanding.

Although society is slowly becoming more tolerant, it was not always necessary in the same way. Professor Josephine Ho, Chair Professor for the Study of Sexualities, National Central University, Taiwan, is a formidable academic—viewed by many as the godmother of the Taiwanese Queer Movement— and has written extensively about transgenderism in China. According to Professor Ho, cross-dressing, if not outright trangenderism, has a long and rich history in Chinese culture: “It was deemed as performance, a casual, momentary breaching of the gender boundary. It wasn’t until the modern era when the sexes began to mingle in public, that gender divisions [as we know them today] became more strictly upheld. ”

As in the case of Qian Jinfan, Jin Xing, and the world over, as far as transsexuality is concerned, it is usually males-to-females that are the object of fascination. The Chinese documentary Brothers (《兄弟》Xiōngdì), directed by Yao Yao (妖妖) differs, and tells the story of Tony, a female-to-male transgender person as he begins his journey to undergo a sex change. Initially Tony was wary of making the film but decided to speak out when one of his friends—also a female-to-male transgender person— suffered horrifying abuse at the hands of his family. His friend saved enough money to have a mastectomy, thus flattening his chest, but when his parents found out they forced him to have breast implants and arranged a man from the same village to rape him, an attempt to “normalize” him.

During the film Tony says, “Everybody always talks about LGBT, but nobody cares about the T. Nobody even knows what it stands for. What about the T?” In some sense, Tony’s words are understandable, in a society that is barely beginning to grapple with the social realities of homosexuality, transgenderism might just be a step too far. And at this juncture, many transgender people are choosing to live quietly outside the limelight deciding against demanding more rights, opting to stay under the radar instead.

Looking at homosexuality over the last two decades, a huge number of activists campaigned loud and proud, doing anything within their power to get closer to equality. But it wasn’t always like that; in the past many of the more closeted homosexuals would criticize their “out” counterparts for bringing unnecessary attention upon them, making it more difficult to live their lives. The situation is somewhat analogous with the transgender community in China today. As director Yao says, “Transgender people may hate Tony for making the group public because most of them want to conceal their identities.”

This chimes with Guo Yanan, a transgender coordinator at Aibai Culture and Education Centre (爱白文化教育中心, a non-profit organization that serves the Chinese LGBT community) , who says that while we hear the occasional positive transgender story in China, “at the same time, after an operation many transgender people decide to take a new identity; they will be completely out of their circle from the past. They will change their address and work and are no longer willing to contact with old friends.” Accordingly, it is rare to come into contact with positive stories about transgender causes. They prefer to live alone, accepting their lot.

Activists have fun after an LGBT Pride Parade in Taipei

Activists have fun after an LGBT Pride Parade in Taipei

If Chinese transgender people are not yet willing to make a stand for themselves, it then raises question, who else will? LGBT groups are always looking to take up the mantle, with “Increasing Transgender Visibility in China” always high on the menu, but is increased visibility really what they want? Others demand an increase in government awareness, insisting on enhanced legal rights, but Professor Ho is unsure about this approach: “There is a recent trend in the transgender movement hoping that legal reforms in regard to change of identity papers and benefits for transgenders would make their lives normal and perfect. This of course does not touch the deeply-rooted prejudice surrounding sex and gender. Blind faith in the state and the laws is quite damaging for those pushing for more thorough changes in society.”

China famously removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 2001, and this has, of course, led to significant changes in the way Chinese society views being gay. The destigmatization has been slow but steady. I asked Guo if she felt this would be helpful if this happened for transgenderism in China. She was quick to point out this is less an issue for China than the whole world.

In spring of this year, the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) changed the term Gender Identity Disorder to Gender Dysphoria. This pleased many transgender advocates who claimed it was a better term as it now implied a temporary mental state of distress, primarily caused by not being able to fit into society, as opposed to an all encompassing and perhaps permanent mental disorder. However, there are still those who claim it should not be listed in DSM-V at all, pointing out that there are many transgender people that are perfectly happy and that it is stigmatizing to have it on any list of mental disorders at all.

In what seems like a very Chinese mix of domineering Confucianism, inadequate legal frameworks, and considerable confusion and misunderstanding, life for transgender people in China is fraught with difficulties, and accordingly they are marginalized and ostracized from their societies and communities. In the past, China has proved itself ultimately flexible on such complex issues, but, for the time being at least, a lot of work needs to be done to improve the conditions, and unshackle the intense social constraints, under which this particular minority continue to live. Success stories, it seems, are few and far between.


Chinese You Need



sexual identity
xìngbié rèntóng

breast implants






He knew he was a girl since the age of seven.
Cóng qī suì kāishǐ, tā jiù zhīdào zìjǐ qíshí shì gè nǚhái.
从七岁开始,他就知道自己其实是 个女孩。

Transgender people are still facing great pressure from society.
Biànxìngzhě réngrán miànlínzhe jùdà de shèhuì yālì.



Additional Research by Weijing Zhu (祝伟婧).

Prostitutes and Poets


Prostitution is oft cited as the oldest of professions, but is it possible that it might just be the most noble as well? Today, we view prostitutes, typically, as women who engage in sexual activity for payment. However, back in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), a modern man would be astounded by the brothels of the day and the women living in them; modern interpretations simply fail to grasp the complexity of the “prostitute” of yore. Our sexual time traveler would find an artistic trade that transcends the simple and tawdry exchange of sex for money.

For a long time in ancient China, prostitution was completely legal. As scholar Lin Yutang (林语堂) wrote: “One can never overstate the important roles Chinese prostitutes played in romantic relationships, literature, music, and politics.” The contradiction between the modern and the ancient concepts of prostitution in part comes from the origin of the word itself. The Chinese character for prostitute, 妓 (jì), is not so much to do with sex but instead “a female performer”. These women did not just offer sex but rather the pleasure of their company through music, singing, dancing, and even poetry.

In ancient China, noble ladies did not need to be intelligent or talented to be respectable, and ancient China, for all its delicate charms, could be hard on women. A proverb first seen in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) book The Elders Thus Say (《安得长言》Ān de zhǎng yán), is frequently quoted describing the ideal woman: “A woman is virtuous as long as she is ignorant.” The Chinese woman is supposed to be obedient to her husband, dutiful to her children, mind her domestic affairs and be virtuously
ignorant on all other matters.

As wives and concubines were expected to abide by social codes, Chinese men were in need of intellectual counterparts of the opposite sex. Marriages were matters of social hierarchy, leaving endless scholars and aristocrats with marriages that lacked both the affection and communication that can be found on a deeper, more spiritual plane. Prostitutes were exceptions to the rule. Unlike the girls brought up in ordinary families who were deprived of education, prostitutes were taught to become—not merely entertaining performers—but the mental equals to aristocrats, scholars, government officials, and all manner of high society.

As the Dutch sinologist Robert van Gulik observed in his 1961 book Sexual Life in Ancient China, when Chinese men courted prostitutes they were more looking for a friends with benefits type scenario, sometimes not even requiring sex at all. By enjoying the company of these skilled, entertaining, and intelligent women, they could escape from their sexual obligations to their wives and concubines, as well as the dull atmosphere of their homes. Flipping through The Complete Poetry of the Tang (《全唐诗》Quán tángshī)—one of the most colossal compilations of Chinese poetry—reveals the influence of prostitutes upon Tang Dynasty culture. Of the 49,000 poems, over 4,000 are related to prostitutes and 136 were written by prostitutes themselves.

Prostitution flourishing in the Tang Dynasty was probably due to the founding of a new governmental administration called jiaofang (教坊)—literally meaning “The School”, but “conservatory” may be more exact—a high-end finishing school for girls. They trained in music and dancing as well as literature, calligraphy, and a host of other highbrow entertainments such as chess and literary drinking games. The jiaofang system lasted several centuries, at least until the middle of the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). The prostitutes trained in jiaofang were called “official prostitutes” and provided entertainment for officials and scholars alike. In Chang’an, these registered prostitutes usually needed to have at least one excellent quality to establish their fame; dancing, singing, and literary talent were all highly revered skills.

Rather than sex, brothels’ main income came from the holding of feasts. The madams running the brothels didn’t encourage the prostitutes to have sex with their guests as this would decrease their value, and, of course, the fear of pregnancy was ever-present. Sexual relationships usually happened with the prostitute’s consent, and she usually maintained only one sexual relationship at one time. If a man wanted to pursue a sexual relationship with a prostitute, he had to be careful; if it came to light that the prostitute had a major patron of high rank, things could get ugly.

The key to a prostitute’s popularity was usually not her body but her mind. In The Notebook of a Drunken Man《醉翁谈录》Zuì wēng tán lù), a book by Song Dynasty (960-1127) writer Luo Ye (罗烨), the writer gives a faithful account of Chang’an’s biggest brothel, Ping Kang Li, and described in detail several of its more famous prostitutes and their respective characters. Interestingly, most of the prostitutes were not known for their beauty—some of them were even quite plainly described as being average looking. But, their intellect and poetry made them desirable.

Not everyone could afford the pleasures of these prostitutes; according to the writings of Song scholar Sun Qi (孙棨), the residence of a first-class Tang prostitute contained spacious halls, yards with artificial hills and ponds, and exquisitely decorated furniture. In his masterful essay “Prostitutes and Concubines” (《妓女与姬妾》 Jìnǚ yǔ jī qiè), Lin Yutang wrote: “To approach those women was not as easy as it seemed. The men usually needed to spend months and even years in pursuit, squandering thousands of silver goblets.” Red light districts were a veritable who’s who of high-society, nothing like the seedy backstreets of today.

Aside from the upper-classes, young scholars made up the backbone of a brothel’s clientele. The Imperial Exam was held in Chang’an every three years, during which time young (and old) examinees flocked to the capital. The exam was a way for the government to screen officials, and passing it gave you the chance to acquire a comfortable administrative position as well as heightened social status. It was an unwritten rule that those who got the degree would throw lively parties in brothels. The Chronicles of the Tianbao Era (《天宝遗事》Tiānbǎo yíshì), a historic book on the Tang Dynasty, recorded a night in the Ping Kang Li brothel: “There you can find all the elite young men in town, and it is packed with scholars who have just excelled in the imperial exam, roaming around with their name cards.”

Poetry in the Tang Dynasty bore the same influence as the top hits in today’s music charts. A famous scholar’s poem could make or break a prostitute’s fame; A poet named Cui Ya (崔涯) was such a prostitute critic. “Every poem that he wrote about a brothel would immediately spread in the streets and alleyways in town. If it was in praise, then the prostitute’s gate would be lined with carriages and horses; if it was negative, then the prostitute would be so panicked that she couldn’t eat or drink,” wrote Tang Dynasty scholar Fan Shu (范 ) concerning Cui Ya’s authority. In short, Cui Ya knew his prostitutes. The poets’ relationships were, in many ways, symbiotic. The prostitutes served as the perfect muse for the poets’ writings, and the poetry allowed both to find fame. With that, the intimate relationship between poet and prostitute blossomed.

Like Cui Ya, Liu Yong (柳永), a Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet, spent his entire lifetime writing poems for prostitutes; unfortunately for Liu, his fame as a poet was so great that it backfired, crushing his hopes of becoming an official. When the well-known young man took the Imperial Exam and passed all the tests, the emperor rejected him, saying: “What do you need feats and fame for? You should just fill your cup and softly sing.” As a result Liu gave up all hope of become a politically-accomplished man and spent all his time and talent writing odes to the prostitutes with which he was so enamored.

Liu intimately befriended the finest prostitutes of his era, finally finding himself impoverished and living off the financial aid of others. He died penniless but not friendless. Dozens of his prostitute “friends” funded his funeral. According to the Ming novelist Feng Menglong (冯梦龙), on the day of his funeral, “The whole city of Chang’an was dressed in white as his funeral procession was followed by all the prostitutes in town. The ground quivered with their mourning voices… For years to come, on every Tomb Sweeping Day, famous prostitutes would visit his grave and hold ceremonies. Those who didn’t attend the occasion would be too ashamed to appear for the spring excursion.”


Li Wa (李娃), a Tang Dynasty prostitute, flirting with a guest in her residence. Portrait by Wu Youru (吴友如), a Qing Dynasty painter

If Liu and Cai were Lennon and McCartney, then Bai Juyi (白居易) was unquestionably Elvis. Bai was a poet in the Tang Dynasty who also achieved fame for his friendships with prostitutes, with over 100 prostitutes mentioned in his poetry. His best known poem records his encounter with a prostitute on a boat. The poem, aside from its unerring literary virtue, reveals the typical life of a prostitute. On a misty, cold autumn night, Bai was attracted by the delicate sound of a four-stringed lute known as a pipa while he was feasting by the river of an obscure town, knowing it must have been played by a prostitute from the capital city. He sought out the girl, and she told her story.

She was the best student of the pipa masters in Chang’an, and in her younger days she was the belle of society, heralded near and far. “The moneyed youths vied for the chance to present me brocades, and I receive numerous silks every time I finished a song. Combs mounted with gems were shattered beating to the rhythm, and many a time, spilled wine stained my scarlet skirt.” But the carnival couldn’t last forever, and, like all great beauties, she became old. Like many of the prostitutes of the time, she married a merchant. Her husband was seldom home, and she ended up playing her pipa alone  on a boat. Bai sighed, “We are both roaming souls in this world. Now that we’ve met, there is no need for us to know each other.”


A portrait of Xue Tao (far left) by an anonymous Ming Dynasty painter

The connection between prostitutes and poetry didn’t stop at appearances in the poems of males fawning at their feet; many were gifted poets themselves. The most famous was Xue Tao (薛涛), a government official’s daughter who was educated in poetry and painting as a young girl, and by the age of 15  she was already widely-known for her poetic talent. Unfortunately, her father died when he brought his daughter to Sichuan, leaving Xue Tao in financial hardship. She registered herself in the
jiaofang as an offi cial prostitute and, undoubtedly, made the best of the career. She hosted celebrities—from revered scholars to high offi cials—and exchanged poems with almost all the important poets of her time.

Even her residence became a tourist spot. If a man of decent social rank went to Chengdu without visiting Xue Tao, he would be embarrassed to say he had been to Chengdu at all. For most of her life she had been financially supported by Wei Gao (韦皋), a military general and the governor of Sichuan Province. On his death, Wei Gao left her a significant fortune, and she resigned herself to a quiet life by Washing Flower Brook (浣花溪 Huàn huāxī) near Chengdu, eventually dying at the ripe, old age of 73. Today there is still a park in Chengdu containing a pavilion where Xue is reputed to have contemplatively looked over the river.

Xue’s contemporary, Yu Xuanji (鱼玄机), was another legendary poet, but had an altogether different tale to tell. Like Xue, Yu was known as a genius poet in her youth and wrote of her envy for men in a poem, “I resent this skirt that hides my poetry, and in vain I envy men with degrees.” She was married to the scholar Li Yi (李亿), as his concubine. However, Li couldn’t handle his fi rst wife’s ferocious jealousy, so, to protect Yu, he sent his mistress to a Taoist temple to meet with her in secret. During the Tang Dynasty, a Taoist temple could have very irreligious connotations. When Emperor Xuanzong (唐宣宗, 810-859) visited a Taoist temple, he was astounded and enraged by the “nuns” wearing heavy make-up and dressed in bright colors who were obviously not living the chaste and secluded life that was expected of them.

In the Tang Dynasty, 21 princesses became Taoist nuns, and they were known for their extravagant way of life in the temples, with no abstention from wine, partying, or men. For women who felt displaced as wives or concubines, Taoist temples were a haven, and with Yu Xuanji’s talents and libertine ways, she remained there. Li never returned.

She had many sexual affairs, and her love poems were seldom addressed to the same man. However, she was later accused of whipping her maid to death—accusations that are likely false—and was executed at the age of 22. Her poems are still alive, displaying her liberal, individualistic nature and, ultimately, she received far greater critical acclaim than her contemporary Xue Tao. Today, academics hold her up as an early feminist icon.

By the Ming Dynasty, prostitutes’ social statuses had marginally changed. They could attend scholars’ meetings and even called themselves “brother” in their correspondence. Liu Rushi (柳如是) was a prostitute who lived during the transition of the Ming and Qing dynasties—one of the most independent figures in the history of Chinese women. When she wanted to make the acquaintance of Qian Qianyi (钱谦益), a famous scholar, she eschewed traditional gender roles and simply bought a boat to travel to see him on her own. She dressed herself in men’s clothes, and according to her biographer, Shen Qiu (沈虬), “carried an air so elegant and frank that she might as well have been a hermit.” Qian fell in love with her when he read her writings and eventually became her husband. Liu was also a fervent patriot who refused to surrender to the reign of the Qing government and involved herself in anti-Qing actions for most of her life.

The Qing Dynasty brought with it, however, the death of the jiaofang, and as modernization progressed, prostitutes with noble talents became increasingly rare. Thus, perceptions began to change: it became common to make fun of prostitutes’ illiteracy and their clients’ vanity. The business of prostitution became greedier, and sex as a commodity took the place of the fine and honorable ancient Chinese prostitute. By the Qing Dynasty and right through to today, the noble art of prostitution has been in decline—making them little more than objects of men’s sexual desires. They are no longer seen as having great minds, being supreme dancers, pitch-perfect singers, or enchantresses who both write and are revered in the finest poetry. For all the barbarism of those bygone days, perhaps the tale of the ancient Chinese prostitute is one that modern man can take to heart.

Chinese you need:





Taoist nun





Shēchǐ de

A Taoist nun would be synonymous with a prostitute in the Tang Dynasty.
Zài táng cháo, dàogū yǒu kěnéng shì jìnǚ de tóngyìcí.

A prostitute couldn’t become famous if she couldn’t write poetry.
Bù huì xiě shī de jìnǚ chéng bùliǎo míng jì.