Image: Still from the documentary film Hooligan Sparrow
The following article was submitted to us for publication by the author, Parwana, who also translated it from the original Chinese into English. Given that we rarely receive such submissions from unknown sources, this piece should not be understood as laying out our own position on any of the issues it describes. Nonetheless, we feel that the article offers a timely and much-needed update on the state of affairs in China as regards the continuing travails of Chinese feminists. Chuang has reported elsewhere on the repression faced by feminist groups, and translated articles by and interviews with these groups. But following the state’s crackdown since 2015, such materials have become more sparse.
The piece offers an overview of the movement as it presently stands, while focusing in on one feminist whose work we have not looked at here before. The basic perspective described by the piece seems largely consistent with those of similar feminist activists. The public positions of these groups tend to be fairly mild (compared to their global context) focusing on “civil society.” The author characterizes common strategies that involve the creation of independent media, the building of networks and the adoption of “a discreet approach to work around politically sensitive themes, while waiting for the opportunity to come.” This comes off the back of experiencing a scale of repression that is clearly disproportionate with regard to the size of these organizations, their influence and the overt demands of their campaigns. Indeed, this notion of waiting, or patiently cultivating better conditions from which to struggle, has also been expressed to us by various activists involved in “labor organizing” over the years. In part, the repression feminists in China have experienced may simply be due to their links with foreign funders via various NGOs. But we would argue, along with many of these activists themselves, that there are clearly much deeper tensions building in Chinese society at the levels of gender, sexuality and family structure.
The activities of contemporary feminist currents in China — such as political education about the gendered division of labor, surveys into the prevalence of domestic violence, support services for survivors of domestic violence, and public discussion of issues related to sexual violence, the social contract of marriage and the imperative of women’s full participation in society — all make such activists appear as a threat to the ruling order. This is signaled by its continuous program of repression, not to mention recent propaganda campaigns upholding “traditional” conservative gender roles. Even though the key issues that feminists focus on may not appear to have been given a central position in the periodic mass unrest and proto-political activity undertaken by the working class in China, the state is clearly afraid of the contagious potential posed by the mass refusal of class divisions as lived through gender. We would argue that, in fact, it has been a mass refusal by migrant workers to reproduce traditional gendered roles (through the desire to stay in cities, to retain independence, to marry later and so on) that has, in part, given shape and form to previous years of unrest. We should not, then, understand “gender issues” as distinct from “worker issues” nor those of migrant workers specifically. Instead, gender divisions and the struggle against them have formed a deep undercurrent driving the entire history of migrant worker unrest in China. Though the groups of feminists described here are small, similar to their “labor organizer” NGO counterparts, the state has cracked down on them early and with disproportionate force. This seems to hint at a real fear that the conceptual tools of such groups could be taken up by the populace at large, giving a political structure to what has, thus far, been a powerful but ultimately depoliticized and disconnected cycle of unrest.
Has Ye Haiyan come to the End of 15 Years of Feminist Struggle?
Originally published in Chinese on April 2, 2020
On March 27, 2020, a once-applauded Chinese feminist activist Ye Haiyan (@liumangyan) posted a series of Tweets sobbing and pleading for help. In the videos, she said the local government of Inner Mongolia had been harassing and threatening her for months. She implored her thousands of followers overseas (including celebrities like Ai Weiwei) to save her life. She could no longer stand the pressure.
Ye says a local official surnamed Liu threatened to demolish the yurts she had built as a home and a guesthouse, from which she received donations. Ms. Liu warned that all Ye’s words on social media were being monitored, that she would face expulsion from the region and legal penalties for any inappropriate remarks. Ye gasped between words, tears rolling down her face while she explained that all her money and energy had been invested in building the yurt. It was now her main source of livelihood, so its loss would be unbearable.
To continue living in China, Ye has refrained from publishing politically sensitive articles online for years. Despite that, she feels increasingly helpless living in the shadow of a harsh political crackdown that seems to have no end. She has continued to face periodic evictions and obscure accusations that her behavior somehow violates state regulations. Nevertheless, she insists that everything she has done stems from her patriotism and sense of duty as a citizen.
Today, Ye’s fifteen years of work have been slowly whittled away, reduced to occasional sarcastic comments about her legacy on the internet. Her story encapsulates a larger, more ominous turn – the slow and steady quashing of dissident across China until it has become little more than hollow echoes.
The predicament Ye expressed on Twitter has become all too familiar over the past few years. The majority of Chinese social activists have experienced similar or even harsher repression. But how, exactly, did such a prominent figure among China’s most well-known grassroots feminists become reduced to crying for help in front of the camera?
Background: “Women’s Liberation” since the Socialist Era
There’s a widespread misunderstanding both within China and among leftists abroad that women were fully emancipated as early as the 1950s-1970s. That is not true. The socialist revolution simply subsumed women under a nationalist political agenda. That era’s policies were centered on the urgent demand for increased labor to support mass production, so they served to exploit and oppress women more than to empower them. Women were made to play the role of workers in factories and farms like men while suppressing their own interests and desires, all the while continuing to fulfil traditional roles – the beautiful, thrifty and chaste wife, the wonderful cook, the loving and gentle mother, and the obedient caring daughter-in-law. That ideal of womanhood was not fundamentally different from what the Chinese state still propagates to this very day.
The state-run All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), founded in 1949, dominates women’s political discourse entirely in China, but it represents neither women’s interests nor protects them from harm and inequality. The ACWF has never publicly clarified their agenda, instead functioning like a state mouthpiece. It is actually grassroots NGOs that are campaigning for women. Some of these work with international NGOs, but many of these have been clamped down upon since 2015.
The emergence of “Hooligan Sparrow” – Body, Dignity and Sexuality of Marginalized Social Groups
If you ask people in China who still remember the name Ye Haiyan (叶海燕), don’t be astonished by their sneers regarding her sagged breasts and chubby body – this is most of what survives about her on the Chinese internet now. People laugh and say it is ridiculous that she, an uneducated worker from the countryside, exposed her “ugly” naked body in the name of activism. Some say she must have learned that from western feminists, and that she is a copycat, a sad clown.
Ye was born in a small village in Hubei Province. After graduating from middle school she moved to the city looking for a better life. Back in 2005, a set of her nude photos went viral after being posted on a popular internet forum Tianya under her alias “Hooligan Sparrow” (流氓燕). Ye declared ownership over her body by boldly displaying her imperfect curves and desires to the public – demanding freedom for women to enjoy sexual pleasure the same as men. The post sparked an uproar on the Chinese internet, confounding netizens rarely exposed to feminist ideas at the time. Ye became famous overnight.
Although her fame seems mostly notorious, Ye proudly identified herself as one of the “marginalized people” (社会边缘人). She set up a small NGO called “Grassroots Workshop for Women’s Rights” (中国民间女权工作室), engaging in public service work for vulnerable groups between 2007 and 2013. Notable projects included support for people infected with HIV and advocacy for the legalization of sex work.
During that time, a number of women writers like Mu Zimei and Lin Bai also started emerging from the internet, drawing widespread attention from the Chinese literary world with their sentimental style and themes centered on sexuality and female self-consciousness. Hence, the bottom-up Chinese feminist movement paved its way by leading the process of self-conscious awakening through online networks, and by stimulating the public discourse on feminism. It gradually established a foothold in Chinese society.
Critics on Chinese Social Media until 2013
Riding the wave of internet fame, Ye Haiyan remained active. She often challenged orthodox societal values, challenging people who harbored prejudices against women. In two of her best-known articles “I Surely Want Men, and I’ll Take the ‘Purity Memorial’ Too” (2006) and “The Biggest Resistance to Chinese Feminism is Women” (2009), she denounced two types of women, “traditional pugs” (传统哈巴狗) and “modern hot chicks” (现代辣子鸡), as both obstacles to the development of women’s power. The first term indicates those who yearn for love and approval from men, indulgently working to please them. The latter stands for younger and even well-educated women who exchange their youth and beauty for luxurious material enjoyments from men.
Unfortunately Ye’s audacious “corporeal strategy” and blatant speeches were considered insane in a country that still puts male superiority and traditional values on a pedestal. Many netizens ridiculed and cursed her as a pest. Ye didn’t give up, however, in 2011 opening a “10 yuan shop” in Guangxi Province to provide “affordable” sexual services for migrant workers, and to promote a better understanding of sex workers and the needs of their clients on the bottom rung of society. In an interview with Phoenix News in 2012, she rebuked the slurs by saying that she didn’t need recognition from netizens because she had confidence in her own values: “If they say prostitution is disgraceful, I would say that’s nothing compared to those whose job is to fawn over others.”
A year later, Ye rose again to the center of attention on social media by leading collective action against the sexual abuse of children and the corruption of school officials. The controversial protest, with participants jointly holding a sign labeled “Headmaster, Get a Hotel Room with Me, Spare the Children,” incited a whole slew of emotional reactions. Afterwards, a masked mob attacked Ye’s workplace and home, forcing her to defend herself and her daughter. The police sentenced her to 13 days in a detention center for “suspicion of deliberately harming others” but didn’t press any charges against the mob.
Support from International Feminist Circles
In contrast to the domestic reactions, Ye Haiyan’s feminist pursuits received widespread recognitions and support from overseas, including artists like Ai Weiwei and numerous western media outlets including BBC and the New York Times. In 2016, a documentary film Hooligan Sparrow based on Ye Haiyan and her activist struggles made it to international film festivals such as Sundance. The film won the IDA Documentary Award, and was shortlisted for the 2017 Academy Award for best documentary feature.
Ye’s unrelenting efforts contributed to the re-shaping of women’s consciousness and opposition to social inequality, earning her an undeniable role in China’s movements for the rights of women and social justice. Her name appears in almost all modern Chinese feminist movement chronicles. Her work, especially her social media engagement is widely discussed and quoted among many prominent feminist scholars in and outside China, including Wang Zheng (Professor of Women’s Studies and History from University of Michigan), Leta Hong Fincher (an American journalist and a scholar who specializes in Gender Studies), and Zeng Jinyan (a scholar, writer and human rights activist). In 2016 Zeng Jinyan wrote about Ye Haiyan in her book Feminism and Genesis of the Citizen Intelligentsia in China, commending Ye as a “unique social activist,” “a daughter of peasants who taught herself to become a civic storyteller, mastering a particular competence of language which challenges the discourse of knowledge production.”
Now, however, searching the name Ye Haiyan in Google yields only outdated articles. Her life seems to have stopped around 2017.
No Home and No Future
Since 2010, the electricity and water in Ye’s home and office have been frequently shut off, and she has also been the target of numerous anonymous threats and violence. After staging the protest against child abuse in 2013, she was blacklisted by the police and was evicted multiple times, keeping her on the run from city to city for three years. Living under constant government surveillance and repression has left Ye feeling helpless, so she has kept a low profile.
In 2019, Ye and her family finally settled down in Xilamuren, a remote grasslands region of Inner Mongolia. They rented a plot of land and built a couple yurts to live in and use as a guesthouse, hoping to make a living by hosting travelers, along with selling some paintings and writings online.
Ye’s dream to be the first “grassroots leader of the Women’s Federation” (民间妇联主席)” has come to nothing after years of struggle and suffering. She doesn’t dare publish sensitive articles or piercing comments anymore. The protest actions and performance art she used to manage have now become history. The state is not satisfied with this, however, and the local police never cease their periodical surveillance and interrogations. She can no longer move about freely, and her passport has been confiscated.
Grassroots social activists like Ye Haiyan have faced great difficulties, especially since 2015. After many arrests and crackdowns, news and activities from Chinese feminists have gradually disappeared. After supporting the “Feminist Five” in 2015 and initiating the #MeToo campaign in 2018, Chinese feminist groups such as “Feminist Voices”(女权之声) were forced to close. The few remaining feminist and other social rights voices in Chinese society have become even more marginalized than before.
The iron hand of the state utilizes traditional media as well as social media to paralyze the development of civil society. Any non-conformist speech can survives for only a few hours among small groups on social media. Because of the collaboration formed by the didactic state media, influential celebrities and social media influencers, systematic smears frequently discredit social activists and their engagements. As a result, the majority of people refuse to recognize social activism and its efforts, which distances it from the very groups that these efforts are trying to reach. Under these circumstances, how can a movement which has neither a mass foundation nor policy support survive?
However, perhaps one day the political environment in China will change. Some independent media groups and individuals are now trying to adopt a discreet approach to work around politically sensitive themes, while waiting for the opportunity to come. They concentrate on building up networks, patiently cultivating sober and independent thinking communities. Yet it is impossible for Ye Haiyan, and many others like her who had already achieved notoriety in China, to go back to a quiet and anonymous “normal life.” Their names are blacklisted, and their every move is being monitored. Barely able even to survive, the idea of continuing with activism, even discreetly, seems out of the question.
From Unforgettable to Forgotten
After all the fame has faded away, Ye is paying a heavy price for trying to act independently under the authoritarian regime. Things have actually become more difficult as time passes. The contributions she made for women and marginalized groups had only a minor impact on Chinese society, and her aspirations and sacrifices have been gradually forgotten. As she put it, that she is living like a “wild dog.”
After enduring 15 years of feminist struggle, today she is vulnerable and helpless. Even though she has voluntarily withdrawn from the public, the idea of being free from surveillance and leading a normal life in China seems like an unattainable dream. Now she can only beg through Twitter for help and shelter from a distance, but perhaps her tears and grey hair can convey more than her words can express. As of May 12th, there have been no further updates from Ye Haiyan on Twitter since the day she posted her S.O.S video on March 27th.
 While this is the terminology we would casually use, it falls into the problem of characterizing unpaid labor as not work, or “real” labor as being factory work and so on. Of course unpaid, domestic and reproductive work — often done in larger quantity by women — is labor too. Here we use the term “labor organizer” to denote NGOs and small groups of activists who generally focus on industrial workplaces, although they are rarely the ones actually organizing any large-scale labor actions (which are almost always organized by ordinary workers).
 Twitter叶海燕 @liumangyan, https://twitter.com/liumangyan/status/1243416978540249094
 “Invention and Intervention: The Making of a Female Tradition in Modern Chinese Literature,” Lydia H. Liu DOI:10.1525/california/9780520211032.003.0006. Also see “Sorghum & Steel” (for example page 80, from issue 1 of the Chuang journal), and “Red Dust” (for example pages 100-102 and 127, from issue 2).
 知名女学者拍半裸照声援叶海燕, https://www.bbc.com/zhongwen/simp/china/2013/05/130531_aixiaoming_protest; “‘Hooligan Sparrow,’ a Chinese Activist’s Hair-Raising Defiance of the State,”
 Hooligan Sparrow, Sundance Institute https://www.sundance.org/projects/hooligan-sparrow
 纪录片《流氓燕》：一个女人和她的中国, https://cn.nytimes.com/china/20160722/hooligan-sparrow-ye-haiyan-review/
《中国女权 – 公民知识分子的诞生》曾金燕, City University of HK Press, 2016.