Tag Archives: Women of China

Closer Look: Xiaolu Guo

“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.

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Author and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo | image from guardian

Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese filmmaker and author based in London. We met at Beijing’s Literary Festival in 2015, where we discussed writing techniques (she always writes by hand before word-processing, which is part of her editing process) and she borrowed my black biro to autograph copies of her books. She signed a copy of her debut book in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize, for me. I wanted to buy a copy of her latest novel, I Am China (published by Random House in 2014), but the bookstore’s order of had not made it through Chinese customs due to the controversial content of the book. Guo advised me to read it as an e-book, saying she didn’t think I’d be able to acquire a hardcopy in Beijing soon.

Below is an extract from Xiaolu Guo’s latest book, Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, which was published by Chatto & Windus on 26 January, 2017. This extract was originally published by the Guardian.



Some years later, after I had published a number of books in Britain, I managed to finish a novel that I had been labouring on for years. Publication was due in a few months’ time, but I began to worry that it would bring me trouble when I next tried to go back to China, since the story concerned the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and the nature of totalitarianism. What if I was denied entry because of this book? I decided to make preparations before it came out. So, since I had been living in the UK for nearly 10 years, I applied for a British passport.

I spent some months gathering the necessary documents for my naturalisation. After a drawn-out struggle with immigration forms and lawyers, I managed to obtain my passport. Now, I thought to myself, if there was any trouble with my books and films, I would feel a certain security in being a national of a western country. Now I could go back to visit my sick father and see my family.

A week later, I applied for a Chinese visa with my British passport. After waiting at the visa application office in London for about half an hour, I found myself looking at the visa officer through a glass barrier. The woman wore horn-rimmed glasses and had her hair cut short, military-style. She looked like a resurrected Madame Mao. She took my British passport and scanned me up and down. Her face was stern, the muscles around her mouth stiff, just like all the other Communist officials, seemingly trained to keep their faces this way.

“Do you have a Chinese passport?” She stared at me with a cold, calm intensity, clutching my British passport.

I took out my Chinese passport and handed it to her through the narrow window.

She flipped through its pages. The way she handled it gave me a sudden stomach ache. I sensed something bad was coming.

“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” she remarked in her even-toned, slightly jarring voice.

“Illegal?” I repeated. My surprise was totally genuine. It had never occurred to me that having two passports was against Chinese law.

The woman glanced at me from the corner of her eye. I couldn’t help but feel the judgment she had formed of me: a criminal! No, worse than that, I was a Chinese criminal who had muddied her own Chinese citizenship with that of a small, foreign state. And to top it all, I was ignorant of the laws of my own country.

She then flipped through my visa application, which was attached to my British passport, and announced: “Since this is the first time you are using your western passport, we will only issue you a two-week visa for China.”

“What?” I was speechless. I had applied for a six-month family visit visa. Before I could even argue, I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.

I stared, without comprehension, at this once-trusted document. The enormity of what had just happened slowly began to register. Although I was totally ignorant of most Chinese laws, I knew this for certain: when an embassy official cuts your passport, you are no longer a Chinese citizen. I stared back at Madame Mao with growing anger.

“How could you do that?” I stammered, like an idiot who knew nothing of how the world worked.

“This is the law. You have chosen the British passport. You can’t keep the Chinese one.” Case closed. She folded my visa application into my British passport and handed them to another officer, who took it, and all the other waiting passports, to a back room for further processing. She returned her tense face toward me, but she was no longer looking at me. I was already invisible.

Read on

‘Is this what the west is really like?’ How it felt to leave China for Britain, Xiaolu Guo for the Guardian

Hedonism, Reproductive Health, and Fighting Repatriation: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Interview: Part 3)





Closer Look: Jin Xing

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I was born in China. It is in China I must be reborn as a woman.

Jin Xing was the first transgender person to undergo sex reassignment surgery in China with government approval, and the first whose sex change was officially recognized by the Chinese government.

As a boy, Jin had an affinity for dancing and soon became a ballet dancer. At nine, Jin began performing in a prestigious troupe that was part of the People’s Liberation Army – ballet has long been considered a valuable propaganda tool – and serving as a soldier. By the age of 17 Jin was the number one male dancer in China, and had risen through the ranks to become a sergeant.

At the age of 19, she started set off to start from scratch as a dancer in New York. Jin, a major celebrity in China, was nobody in New York in the nineties. But that didn’t stop her. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Jose Limon. News of her successes in New York reached Beijing, and she was promoted to colonel even though she was not serving. Her career took her to Rome, where she learned Italian, and she toured Europe before deciding that sex reassignment was the right thing for her.

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Jin Xing training as a PLA solder, age 9 | image from hollywoodreporter


When I was six years old, I thought I should be a woman. I myself knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what was wrong or what was mistaken.



 

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Jin Xing in New York in the 1990s | image from hollywoodreporter

During her years in New York, Jin began to explore gender and sexuality. She considered the possibility she was homosexual. But at that time, homosexuality was still illegal in China, and considered a mental disorder. Similarly, very few Chinese people had undergone any kind of sex reassignment and none had been recognised by the state. This was a new idea to Jin, but America had opened her eyes to new things:



I discovered words — transsexual, transgender. I said, ‘OK, I belong to that small island.’ Then I started researching.



Jin underwent three surgeries in 1995, aged 28. She emerged from the last surgery, which lasted 16 hours, to tell her father: “Your son has become your daughter.” In reply, he told Jin: “Twenty years ago, I looked at you and wondered, I have a son but he looks like a girl. So 28 years later, you’ve found yourself. Congratulations.”

Since her sex change, Jin has started a dance company in Shanghai, adopted three children, married, and begun presenting her own hugely popular television talk show, The Jin Xing Show, on the basis which she had gained the nickname “Poison Tongue”. She’s often billed as the Chinese Oprah. But she is so much more than that.

With her celebrity status, Jin Xing has brought attention to LGBTQ+ issues and the difficulties faced by the LGBTQ+ community, who struggle against social stigma and legal discrimination. She is loved as a beacon of hope by young people across China.



I don’t want to change the world… I just want to be myself.



Read on

Meet the Oprah of China, Who Happens to Be Transgender, THR

Jin Xing: China’s sex-change pioneer, CNN

Behind the Spotlights of Transgender China, Whats On Weibo

China’s International Women’s Day in Pictures

A quick rundown of how International Women’s Day looked from the perspective of women in China – in pictures.

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Chinese news outlet Global Times provided a timely reminder of International Men’s Day | image from: twitter 

Global Times, a daily newspaper owned and published by the state-affiliated People’s Daily, decided International Women’s Day (known as Women’s Day in China), was an appropriate time to remind readers of International Men’s Day. Apparently, Global Times thought Men’s Day seemed a more effective “time to celebrate our achievements and fight against discrimination” than Women’s Day. Here’s looking forward to November 19th to see how they do so.

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Chinese search engine Baidu’s IWD doodle | image from baidu

Chinese search engine, Baidu, went for a celebratory angle this year, promoting restaurant, cinema and shopping deals for women on their special day. The image is a distinct improvement on the controversial doodle of 2015, going for a “modern women can have it all” feel.

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Google’s dynamic International Women’s Day doodle | image from: google 

In comparison, Google’s doodle was diverse and dynamic, including representations of a variety of influential women, and stressing the importance of intergenerational relationships – every women pictured (whether or not she had children in life) was shown sharing her experiences with a young girl.

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Demonstrators in NYC showed their support for Feminist Voices © Jun Chen

Demonstrators around the world showed their support for Feminist Voices, the Chinese women’s rights organisation whose social media accounts were temporarily blocked on 20th February for criticising Donald Trump’s misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic and racist policies. The overlaid green text is a reminder that the account has been forcibly inactive for 20 days so far (the total given was 30 days).

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Feminist activist Li Maizi spoke in London this week © Li Maizi 

Chinese feminist activist, Li Maizi (or Li Tingting), spoke at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), in London this week:

Marking two years since her arrest by Chinese authorities, activist Li Maizi of China’s ‘Feminist Five’ is joined at SOAS by a panel of experts to share her activism experience, and discuss the current state and future of feminism in mainland China. Unprecedented in the UK, this is a chance to hear from one of the PRC’s leading activists and one of the most inspirational figures in global feminist and LGBTQIA+ networks.

from: zhuanlan

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Storytelling was just one of a myriad of Beijing events that recognised International Women’s Day © Cas Sutherland

Meanwhile, in Beijing, feminists, women, members of the LGBTQ community and their allies celebrated in a variety of ways, meeting in solidarity to show continued support for the cause.

 

Identity, Breast Implants, and Wanting More from Life: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (interview: part I)

Inspired by her grandmother’s deathbed confession of being sold to a brothel, Lijia Zhang injects her cutting social criticism into her first novel, Lotus. The book delves deep into the sex industry in contemporary Shenzhen, following a young migrant woman, Lotus, who is eager to escape her life as a prostitute. A strong believer in fate, Lotus struggles against the pressures of modern city life without the requisite papers, trying desperately to raise funds for her younger brother’s university fees and maintain appearances of success for the family she left behind in the village.



Prostitutes are real people and I wanted to expose that. Most women come to prostitution through personal choice. Like any job, there are drawbacks. But their lives are not totally bleak either.



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Author Lijia Zhang

Zhang initially rose to prominence with the story of her rebellious journey from disillusioned rocket factory girl to international journalist. Her 2008 memoir Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China documents her escape from a mind-numbing job testing pressure gauges at a Nanjing munitions factory into the world of English Literature.

Lotus’s story begins more ignominiously. Starting in a brothel thinly veiled as a massage parlor, she finds herself toiling to create community around her through prayer, teaching local kids and befriending her colleagues. All the while she must placate her strict boss and navigate the demands of several lovers. Intrigued by her fierce independence and beauty, Bing, a photographer mockingly nicknamed ‘the monk’ for his somewhat convenient celibacy, rescues Lotus from the local police who threaten to repatriate her to the village. Their relationship starts to turn her life around, but she is not sure he is enough to satisfy her.

Through Zhang’s storytelling, real women’s lives bubble forth in a vivid perspective previously too stark to be explored. Having spent several months as a volunteer distributing condoms to sex workers, Zhang has observed China’s grittiest quarters first hand. By literally delving into the world of southern China’s sex industry, Zhang finds a literary value from and for China’s modern day prostitution complex.

Lotus reveals the current tensions surrounding change in today’s China, allowing the reader a nuanced insight into the migrant population, women’s rights, and the chasm between urban and rural populations in contemporary China.

The author holds a mirror to the inner-workings of a young woman who wants badly to free both her mind and her body. Zhang provides the reader a glimpse at the changes Lotus must undergo in order to make peace with herself and the vastness of life around her.

Zhang is one of the few mainland Chinese writers to write in English, and the novel is peppered with the flavours of China. The strength of Zhang’s connection to her heritage comes through in every phrase. This novel is not a translation, but the unfolding of this quintessentially Chinese story draws out the very essence of China itself. Her translation of Chinese sexual euphemisms masterfully carries both the poetry and the ergonomics of the carnal act.

Zhang’s telling of Lotus fleshes out the gritty truths of prostitution, it’s effects and utility in modern Chinese society. Although Zhang admits that she still wants to expose the true lives of Chinese sex workers in her non-fiction writing, there’s something about this novel no op-ed could match. Zhang’s style is utterly her own.


I spoke with Lijia Zhang in December 2016, just weeks before the publication of her long-awaited first novel. In part 1, she tells me her personal reasons for telling this unparalleled story, how she learned to relate to Chinese sex workers, and how her own struggle for self-improvement informed her character, Lotus.


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Lijia Zhang at her Beijing home, January 2016 © Cas Sutherland

 Why did you feel that you had to tell this story about contemporary China?

I tried to find out about grandmother’s life after her deathbed confession of being a concubine, but my mother knew very little about her life. So I have always been curious about these women. Then on a trip to Shenzhen I went to a hairdresser near my hotel and asked for a haircut. There were several women there but they said they did not know how to cut hair. I looked at the floor. There wasn’t any hair on the floor. I realised these women were prostitutes.

Prostitution is an interesting window to see social changes and it touches upon some serious social issues, such as migration and women’s rights.

Why write a novel, not a non-fiction book, about prostitution in China?

I wanted to become a journalist, and I did. I wanted to have a story published in the New York Times, and I did. I had always wanted to write a novel. So I thought I would try my hand.

I started Lotus when I was in my final year of my MA at Goldsmiths. The storyline has changed little, but the style changed a great deal. For example, I experimented with the point of view. I started by writing all the dialogue in pidgin English, with direct translations of Chinese, like “Toilet is where?”

I tried writing it from the perspective of Lotus, and later from Bing’s perspective, but that meant I could not tackle social issues like women’s rights, migration the aftermath of Tiananmen. So I decided to write it in third person, alternating between different points of view, and eventually it became Lotus.

How do your personal experiences inform the characters and events in your novel?

It took a lot of work to do all the research about these women. It took months and months of research over many years. I met so many people with so many stories.

I volunteered for an NGO dedicated to help female sex workers, where my main task was distributing condoms. On day two of my time as a volunteer, I met a really colourful character. I accompanied a staff member as she went to visit a sex worker. This woman was sitting outside, which is unusual because most women would hide inside. They wear revealing clothes but they don’t want to draw attention to themselves on the street. This woman was doing embroidery on the street – she was embroidering a church onto fabric. She took us inside, and the woman I was with commented on her breasts. I was amazed how much they talked about breasts. She spoke to prostitutes in their own language, to be on their level. She was a former prostitute and knew she had to engage them using the same language. They really trusted her.

The women inside the shop commented on her breasts in return, so she explained that she herself had had surgery. They said “I’m thinking of getting implants, can I see?” So they went into the back room and everyone looked at her breasts. The breast implants had not settled well. It was a cheap procedure, and one of her nipples went sideways. She had been told that massaging them would help so she was always massaging her chest. When I got back to the NGO centre, I told the other staff what had happened. They said she was always showing people her breasts! 



My husband left me for a younger woman. That was horrible for me. I fell apart. But I used my break-up to understand Lotus’s struggle to deal with the crisis and to become independent.



Her fellow villagers call Lotus “the toad who dreams of eating swans meat”, meaning someone who dreams too big. How does your own struggle for self-improvement come through in Lotus?

Lotus wants more from her life. People often laugh at those who think or behave differently. These women send money home to their families. This is really important for them. It improves their position in the family and gives them face. They must be seen to be successful. They want to show their best side to people in the village.

My friend and I went to visit one woman’s hometown with her. On the day we travelled there, she wore very nice clothes and when we arrived in the village, she took off her trainers and changed them for a pair of leather high-heeled shoes.. On the bus there, she introduced herself, and us, to other people from her village: “hey, I am the second from the Mao family, do you remember me? This is my friend, an international writer and this is a doctor.”

It is the same for other professions, too. I met a man who was a garbage collector in the city. He usually wore very dirty clothes all the time. But when he went to his home village he wore a very smart coat, with a fur trim around the neck. He looked so smart. It is very important to appear successful to the people in the village.

They cannot really tell people the truth about their life in the city. It can be quite lonely. Telling the truth is the worst thing that they could do.

When Lotus chooses her own path for the first time, she decides to open a school instead of settling down with the father of her unborn baby. Is her choice to become a single mother a realistic one in contemporary China? What does the future look like for a woman in her position?

It is realistic. Single mothers exist and they live their lives. Many live in these villages that were once stand-alone places but have now been engulfed by the city. They are supported within that community. She may not have the correct papers for the baby but they will be ok. 

A woman like Lotus might marry the baby’s father just for the papers. Lotus is very smart and savvy. I don’t think she has decided yet. But she may not maintain the relationship with Bing, because she realised that she can’t be herself when she’s with him. He is very selfish really. He doesn’t really consider her needs. He was a more sinister character in previous versions. But Lotus has always been very strong, quite unlike the way Bing sees her.

My husband left me for a younger woman. That was horrible for me. I fell apart. But I used my break-up to understand Lotus’s struggle to deal with the crisis and to become independent.

Read on 

Sexuality, Contraception, and Challenging the Patriarchy: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Part II) ZhendeGender

Hedonism, Reproductive Health, and Fighting Repatriation: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Part III) ZhendeGender

 

Dating in China [part 1]

Learning that an ex is married. Walking away from a Tinder date. Getting set up by your boyfriend. These women tell true stories of their dating experiences in China.

#1

I was dating this guy from the States for a month or so, and long story short, he ditched me out of his fear of commitment. One year later I found out that about ten months after breaking up with me, he got married to a Chinese girl. Apparently she’d tried to commit suicide, so he “had” to marry her. The best part is that only two months into their marriage, when I heard this story from common friends, they were in the process of getting a divorce. I’m not sure why, but she attacked him and went to the police, said it was in self-defense, I think he spent a few days in jail. I don’t know what happened afterwards.

– Spain, 32

 

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image from: Vanity Fair

#2

This was my very first Tinder date. I was expecting to go out with a 26-year-old guy, who had said he was outdoorsy, was a teacher in Beijing, and seemed very fun loving. His pictures were not the best pictures on Tinder; I couldn’t see him very well in some of them. But I thought I had a general idea of what he looked like. He looked, you know, cute enough. So our plan was to meet at the subway and walk over to get some food in the hutongs.

I arrived at the subway and couldn’t find him anywhere, I couldn’t see him, so I sent him a message. He replied right away, with, “I think I see you, I’m coming up behind you.” I turned around and I looked and I looked, and didn’t see anyone who looked at all close to what I thought. All of a sudden this guy is right there, he’s waving at me and he’s like, “Hi, it’s me.”

I was completely caught off guard because this guy was about ten or eleven years older than his profile said he was. I was very shocked by his appearance. I mean if he had told me that he was older, that would be one thing. But I was very caught off guard and kind of had to calm myself down to be polite, and we ended up walking over to dinner. Just the entire time I felt like, “wow, the very first thing that I see is that you’ve lied to me about your age very, very blatantly.” Ten plus years is a pretty significant gap.

The other thing was that he was significantly shorter than I was. Which for me… I’m a tall person, I’ve always been tall and I’ve just kind of embraced it. I don’t want my height to at all take away from the fact that there could be a great person out there who is a different size than me. That doesn’t discount them or make them unworthy of conversation or a date in my mind. I’ll really go on a date with a lot of people.

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Beijing’s hutongs © Cas Sutherland

It was my first time on a Tinder date, and I was just like, okay you know, he’s just a person and I’ll have dinner with him and that will be it. He insisted that I walk back with him, and I said “oh, you know, after dinner I think am going to go home, I’m pretty tired.” He said, “no, no, come for another drink with me”, and I was like, “oh, you know, I think I’m going to go,” so he insisted on walking with me.

But he kept commenting about it, and how awkward I must feel that he was so short in comparison to me. I felt that he was putting words in my mouth. I didn’t like that, so I said, “well if you feel uncomfortable that’s up to you, but I don’t feel uncomfortable. I’m going to feel the way that I feel.” But he kept poking and prodding about the fact that I was really tall and he was so insignificant in comparison to me and that I would crush him. It just made me feel really self-conscious and really bad, and he just kind of continued to do this throughout the night.

At that point, I was like, you know what? I should just ask him: “why did you lie about your age on Tinder? Why didn’t you say how old you were?” He said “oh, I didn’t lie.” I said, “well, yeah, you did.” He’d blatantly lied. All of a sudden he just started yelling at me, and he was like: ”Who do you think you are saying that I lied to you? That’s a bunch of ridiculousness and it’s just horrible. I can’t believe you would say that!” He just kept yelling so I just kept walking and I walked home.

That was such a horrible event. Not a nice person, did not say anything nice, didn’t try to get to know me at all, just put words in my mouth, said really rude things. I wasn’t really having it. I thought: if I go on another Tinder date, I really need to vet better before I do.

-United States of America, 28

 

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image from: pinterest

#3

A couple of years ago I dated a Chinese guy for a few months. I met him on a dating app, which he told me he used specifically to find foreign girls. He frequently made comments about how he preferred Western girls because they were more “open” and he thought Chinese girls were too conservative and traditional. All of his exes were also Westerners.

We’d started sleeping together and had been going on more and more dates. One night my boyfriend invited me over to his place saying he wanted to introduce me to a friend of his. I went, thinking this was an indication that things were getting more serious between us, because I hadn’t met any of his friends or family before. When I arrived, I noticed that there were several unopened bottles of liquor on the table, which was strange because I had never seen my boyfriend drink anything more than a can of beer with dinner.

He introduced me to his friend, and immediately they asked if I wanted to take a shot. We had a few drinks before my boyfriend held up his phone dramatically, saying he had to leave immediately because a friend of his was sick and needed his help going to the hospital. I stood up to leave but he insisted we should both stay without him as long as we wanted, and told us to have fun.

After he left, his friend started plying me with whiskey, asking about my past sexual experiences and what I thought about Chinese boys. When I wouldn’t drink more he asked me what was my favourite kind of alcohol then said he was going to go downstairs to buy it. It was getting uncomfortable so I left, and he escorted me to the door with a disappointed look. “I really hoped you would spend the night with me,” he said, and I laughed awkwardly and hurried away.

The next day my boyfriend texted me as if nothing was wrong. I ignored him. Several days later he asked me if I was angry at him for some reason.

“Did you make up an excuse to leave me with your friend last weekend so we would sleep together?” I texted him.

“Yeah he saw ur picture and thought u were cute and asked me to help him spend the night with u,” my boyfriend replied.

I told him: “I’m not a prostitute you can share with your friends.”

“I’m sorry u feel that way,” he replied. “That’s not what I meant at all. I thought western girls were open about this kind of thing. Didn’t u like him?”

I didn’t dignify that with a response. He tried again, messaging me a few more times before finally to ask me if I had any pretty friends to set him up with. After that I blocked him.

-United States of America, 23

 

Further instalments:

Humiliation by comedy in a Beijing bar. Parents say, “break up with him” because boyfriend is not Chinese. [part 2]

A Chinese first boyfriend who ruined dating for years. Suffering through sleep apnea on a first date. Offered money for sex with a stranger. [part 3]

Guy uses Chinese whispers to ask for a date. Remedies for dating in inauspicious circumstances. [part 4]

Date says more attractive with clothes on. Does an open relationship translate to open dates? Getting an I.O.U. for accepting a drink. [part 5]

These stories are shared by the women who experienced them in their own words. All stories took place in Beijing, China, unless otherwise stated. Identities are kept secret out of respect for the individuals in the stories.