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Do Chinese classrooms need to talk about sex?

By Jemimah Steinfeld, for CNN
June 19, 2014 — Updated 0638 GMT (1438 HKT)

Chinese erotic artwork at a Sotheby's exhibition recently held in Hong Kong.
Chinese erotic artwork at a Sotheby’s exhibition recently held in Hong Kong.


  • Sex-related social issues on the rise in China, including sexual assault, STDs, unwanted pregnancies
  • Sex education is key to eradicating these problems, but educators have little incentive to teach
  • Traditional beliefs impede honest talk about sex
  • A one-minute Chinese video explaining important sex facts goes viral online

Editor’s note: Jemimah Steinfeld is a journalist who writes on youth culture in China. Her first book "Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in China" will be published at the start of 2015.

Hong Kong (CNN) — When Lijia Zhang was 10-years old, her mother told her babies are born from armpits.

"I thought that’s strange, because there’s no hole there," Zhang recalls, adding that she "had absolutely nothing" in terms of sex ed when she was growing up in Nanjing in the 1970s, beyond what her mother told her.

Now a journalist writing for English-language publications, Zhang publicly revealed her own experience of molestation by a schoolteacher in a recent opinion piece on the severity of child sex abuse in China.

Zhang is part of a growing number of voices calling for better sex education to combat child sex abuse, rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies.

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"With so little sex education and knowledge, you become very vulnerable to abuse," says Zhang.

Sex education is taught inadequately in school and avoided by parents, resulting in generations of Chinese children growing up wondering if babies come out of armpits, or from the garbage dump, as others have also cited.

"We’ve never had a class on sex ed at my school. We’re not even allowed to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend. No kissing, nothing," says Sun Meimei, an 18-year-old student at a top boarding school in wealthy Chengdu. Her teachers simply told her she would "be in trouble" if she had a boyfriend.

No incentive

Typically, Chinese students are taught the basic anatomical differences between the sexes and little else. There’s no real incentive for educator or student to learn about it. It then becomes a vicious cycle: no one learns about it so no one is in a position to later teach it.

But the puritanical classrooms hardly translate to a prudish society. A 2012 survey by the Qiushi journal showed that 70% of Chinese have engaged in pre-marital sex, up from just 15% of those surveyed in 1989.

Top-down efforts to make sex education part of the compulsory education curriculum were seen at the CPPCC this past March whentwo committee members spoke out about the issue. Meanwhile, Chinese Internet users have taken matters into their own hands, posting videos that teach crucial sex facts in one-minute clips, with some going viral and being watched millions of times.

Nothing to be desired

The repercussions of a population in the dark about the bedroom are vast. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the ascent and China has particularly high rates of syphilis, while sexual transmission now accounts for 81.7% of all new HIV infections.

Unwanted pregnancies are also rife. China has a staggering 13 million annual abortions, according to recent data published by China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission in 2013. In one instance a teenage girl underwent 13 abortions. These numbers would lower significantly if Chinese women knew how to use contraception effectively — but most don’t.

The lack of sex education plagues rural and urban areas equally. Meizhen Wu is a market researcher, investigating sexual health as part of her job. She had never heard of the human papilloma virus (HPV), a commonly transmitted STD responsible for 70% of cervical cancer cases worldwide. Wu only found out about it when her company put her in charge of work related to the HPV vaccine, which in China, is only available in Hong Kong.

Wu remembers her own sex education. It consisted of watching one 45-minute-long video explaining sexual differences between boys and girls.

The video was counterproductive. Wu says it reinforced gender stereotypes of girls as passive and boys as active and aggressive.

Herein lies a dark consequence of poor sex education: females are particularly compromised.

At school the focus is to get students to score high in exams in order to get them into good universities. Sex education is not considered important.
Lijia Zhang

A recent report from the United Nations revealed a shocking 22.2% of 998 Chinese males surveyed had raped a woman.

Children also don’t have the knowledge to protect themselves from unwanted sexual attention. A total of 125 cases of sexual assault on children were reported in 2013.

Richard Burger, author of "Behind the Red Door: Sex in China," says knowledge is as important for empowering potential victims as it is for curbing aggressors. "Better sexual education would teach men to respect women more and be sensitive to their sexual needs, including the right to say ‘no,’" he says.

Dirty talk

When the Communists came to power in 1949, talking about sex became strictly taboo. It was erased from public life, especially during the Cultural Revolution when men and women squeezed into gender-neutral Mao jackets and all energy was directed towards the revolutionary cause.

This changed during China’s opening up period starting in the mid-1970s. As years of state-sponsored puritanism began to dissolve, the first sex education courses were instated in Shanghai, in 1981. The same year saw the Ministry of Education announcing sex ed classes would be established in all middle schools throughout the country.

Even then, the government preached abstention over indulgence. For example, the 1988 sex education charter warned adolescents of the dangers of premarital sex.

Ultimately, a prudish attitude prevails and as yet no standardized and authoritative teaching materials have been issued on the topic.

The government approach dovetails with its concerns over "polluted" and "unhealthy" material: References to sex, including kissing, are constantly edited out of public life, such as the sex scenes cut from Ang Lee’s "Lust, Caution" or more recently, the censoring of an on-stage lesbian kiss during the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest.

Educators have also largely ignored what calls the government has made to improve sex education. In part, teachers are too embarrassed to cover the subject, but primarily they concentrate on meeting their own academic targets. Sex is not a subject tested in the all-important university entrance exam and teachers have little incentive to emphasize the subject.

"At school the focus is to get students to score high in exams in order to get them into good universities. Sex education is not considered important," Zhang explains.

The combination of misinformation and lack of teachers who are qualified on the subject is toxic.
Tao Lin, World Association of Chinese Sexologists

Parents spur this on, pressuring their children to concentrate on academics above all else. Zhang adds that Confucian thought doesn’t encourage open discussion of sex. As a popular saying goes: "Lust is the worst of all wicked things; Filial piety is the best of all good things."

TCM obstacles

Traditional Chinese medicine offers advice on coitus that can be at odds with modern science — again impeding honest talk about sex.

"There are big gaps between western concepts and Chinese traditional culture," says Tao Lin, president of the World Association of Chinese Sexologists. Within traditional Chinese thought, semen is believed to be more precious than blood, with one drop said to equal 10 drops of blood. Excessive sexual activity that causes the loss of semen from the body is thought to be harmful, explains Tao.

The combination of misinformation and lack of teachers who are qualified on the subject is toxic, says Tao.

"Contradictions arise between radical and conservative, right and wrong. The radical may explain the use of condoms in middle school while the conservative still insist on abstinence in college. Someone says puppy love is beneficial, while someone says puppy love should be prohibited," says Tao.

He adds that only one college in the country — Capital Normal University — offers an academic minor in sex education.

Protecting the future

With few avenues for young Chinese to turn to for information, the Internet and the arts have become key educators. An online survey showed that 88% of Chinese youth polled said they had learned about sex on their own.

There are signs of change. In light of child abuse cases, the issue of China’s poor sex education has recently gained traction. There’s growing support amongst parents for improvements and the government released a teaching outline in March for sex education lessons. It offers step-by-step guidance on how to instruct primary school children to better protect themselves from sexual abuse.

Many NGOs are also aiding the dissemination of knowledge. Tao’s organisation is one example, but he lists a series of other social organizations, such as the Ford Foundation and Path, who have all done "a great deal to promote sex education in China."

Lily Liu Liqing, country director from NGO Marie Stopes, which was established in China in 2000, says they aim "to empower young people to have open and informed attitudes towards love, sex and life" through a series of services. Their best known initiative is the You&Me clinics, where young people can receive information on family planning.

Not Dark Yet by David Walker

Posted: June 16, 2014 in Uncategorized

What a delicious evening. Last night, David Walker, a well-known Australian public intellectual and the head of the Australian Studies Center at Peking University, his delightful wife Karen kindly invited me and my Chinese sister Catherine (born to different parents) to dinner at Capital M, my favorite restaurant in Beijing.

We laughed so much that some customers complained (David remarked that those people should have complained about the thunder which was much louder than us). It is hard not to laugh in David’s company. He got a great sense of humour. And he is such a remarkable man: although ‘legally blind’, he seems to be able to carry on a normal and productive life.

In 2004, David lost his eye sight and became ‘legally blind’. This made him, a historian, rethink what kinds of history he was able to write. His latest book Not Dark Yet, is filled with historical and personal stories. We got to know David parents, both teachers, the grandparents and some highly interesting relatives, such as Luka Day, who married into Walker family and who was one of the first Chinese went to Australian and Laurie, an uncle who, while serving in the army during the Second World War, was executed for desertion. Of course, there’s David’s own story. These personal stories also reflect Australia’s contemporary history. The book is very much like David himself, modest, charming, witty and very humorous.

When a doctor declared him ‘legally blind’, David immediately asked: what is illegally blind? The answer is: some people do fake being blind. At his father’s funeral, he gave a speech. He gave such a good speech that people questioned if he was really blind. He commented that he didn’t realize the connection between a speech and one’s vision.

I returned home, thinking about David, his eye sight and life. I think as long as we are not too blind to see what we have in life, we’ll be fine.


‘Here Come the Workers!’

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Published: May 30, 2009


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Alan Dye, Photograph by Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

Reflections on Tiananmen Square, 20 years later.


Op-Ed Contributor: China’s Forgotten Revolution (May 31, 2009)

Op-Ed Contributor: Dance With Democracy (May 31, 2009)

Op-Ed Contributor: Exiled to English (May 31, 2009)

Times Topics: Tiananmen Square

WHEN I think about 1989, the date I remember most clearly is May 28, a week before the crackdown in Tiananmen Square. That was the day I organized a major demonstration of factory workers in Nanjing, hundreds of miles south of Beijing.

The reform-minded Hu Yaobang, who had been forced out of his job as Communist Party general secretary by hard-liners, had died a month earlier. When the government rejected their requests for his rehabilitation, Beijing students began marching toward and gathering in Tiananmen, demanding greater freedom and democracy. Their actions were like a match thrown onto kindling; soon students from all over the country took to the streets. They were then joined by millions of ordinary citizens, many of whom were disgusted by corruption, inflation and the lack of personal freedom. Though the Chinese democracy movement is identified with Tiananmen and Beijing, it was really nationwide in character.

At that time I was working in a missile-production factory in Nanjing, my hometown. The factory housed us in identical buildings, indoctrinated us in meeting rooms, and barred us from wearing lipstick or flared trousers and from dating anyone within three months of entering the factory. Every month, we had to show blood to the “period police” to prove we were not pregnant.

To escape, I taught myself English in the hope of getting a job as an interpreter. Even though I still worked at the factory, I started to wear short skirts and have boyfriends. I listened to the BBC and attended lectures at Nanjing University where we debated whether Western-style democracy was the answer for China.

On that Sunday in May, after watching televised images of workers in Guangzhou marching in the rain, I decided to organize a protest. I telephoned all my friends at the factory, and some of them informed their friends. We got the banners and placards ready in just a few hours.

Under the wary eyes of our factory leaders, about 300 of us set off, as if for battle. Walking at the very front, I held a red flag and felt a sense of liberation that I had never experienced before. Behind me two workers carried a cloth banner that read, “Here come the workers!” The little strips of bright red cloth tied to our arms and heads flared in the wind.

We marched toward the Drum Tower, Nanjing’s equivalent of Tiananmen. On the main street, our group melted into a flow of marchers. Before us walked students from a technical school; at our tail were several dozen workers from a glass-making factory. We chanted slogans like “Long live democracy!” “Down with the repressive government!” “Anyone who dares to crack down on the democracy movement will be condemned for 10,000 years!” Onlookers cheered us. Along the way, hundreds more workers from our factory joined in.

During that time, my ear was glued to my shortwave radio, and I learned about the crackdown at Tiananmen from foreign broadcasts. Feeling defeated, I left China in 1990. When I returned a few years later, I found a booming economy and, eventually, a space called “privacy” that hadn’t really existed before. People could finally dress and date as they pleased.

We’re still in a cage here. But for many, my fellow marchers included, it has grown so large that we hardly feel its limits. In that sense the 1989 protests weren’t a total failure. Without our efforts, China’s rulers might have not expanded the cage at all.

Lijia Zhang is the author of “‘Socialism Is Great!’: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China.”

More Articles in Opinion »A version of this article appeared in print on May 31, 2009, on page WK9 of the New York edition.

Past Coverage


Over the past two months, the relationship between China’s estimated 10 million Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people, most of whom follow some form of Sunni Islam, and the majority Han population has deteriorated after a series of violent incidents allegedly involving knife-wielding Uighurs in inland China. The bloodiest incident was theMarch 1 attack in southern Yunnan province, where four assailants killed 29 and injured more than 140 at a crowded train station. Many Han living in large cities, who may have previously regarded Uighurs around them either as peddlers on streets or singers on television, have now taken a darker and more fearful view.

Kurbanjan Samat is a 32-year-old ethnic Uighur photographer working for CCTV, China’s state-owned television station. He is a native of Hotan, a predominantly Uighur oasis town in the south of China’s Xinjiang autonomous region that has an urban population of 360,000, according to official data.

Kurbanjan settled in Beijing, which lies more than 2,600 miles to the east of Hotan. In part to reach out to Han who might want to gain more insight into what is happening in Xinjiang, he spoke with journalist Zhang Chi in a lengthy first-person narrative article that was published in the April 30 issue of Phoenix Weekly, a Hong Kong-based news magazine.

Because of Kurbanjan’s inter-cultural fluency, the Phoenix Weekly article has received wide attention from China’s mostly Han readers on social media. Zhangsaid a friend told her that shortly after her article’s publication in Phoenix Weekly, President Xi Jinping had referred to it at a meeting, asking Communist Party cadres in Xinjiang to study the issues raised.

Kurbanjan’s story is fascinating but by no means typical for Uighurs. By his own admission, he is a rarity in his native Hotan. Not only does he hold a job at one of China’s best known state-owned enterprises (some would say propaganda machine), he can speak and write nearly flawless Chinese and has good personal relationships with Han friends and colleagues. While Kurbanjan does not shy away from discussions of the ethnic discrimination he and his family have experienced, he is also critical of what he sees as increasing religious extremism among Uighurs that he says is pulling the region "backwards."

Foreign Policy has translated selected passages from the Phoenix Weeklyarticle below, with permission. The original Chinese version can be found here.


Hotan is a very traditional Uighur area in Xinjiang, but our family is a bit different from others. Of the four children in my generation, three do not live in Xinjiang. One of my younger brothers runs the family jade shop in Shenzhen, a metropolis in southern China, and the other also works in Shenzhen at a wedding photography company as a photo processor. My sister is the only one living in Hotan; she works as a Mandarin teacher.

In southern Xinjiang, it would be nearly impossible to find another family like ours.

In southern Xinjiang, it would be nearly impossible to find another family like ours. I attribute that to my parents, especially my father. He loves talking to strangers, respects educated people, and is always learning something new. My father is originally from Artux near Kashgar [a city in Xinjiang], and his business philosophy and approach to life are quite different from other jade traders.

Around 1984, not long after economic reforms began in China, my father began a jade trading business and frequently traveled to inland China, and his worldview was significantly expanded. He often talked to us about his trips, the things he had seen, and the people he had met. He told us, "You are boys, you have to go out and see the world." He often told our family and friends that "I will get all three of my sons out of Hotan." Now, he has indeed achieved that goal. Our family and our religious views, as a result, are different from other Uighur families in Hotan.

When I was little, my siblings and I could not recite the Quran. During school breaks in the winter and summer, my mother wanted to send us to Quranic schools, but our father did not support it. They had many fights over this issue. My father thought that we were young and could choose for ourselves when we grew up and had our own understandings of the world. My mother was worried that if we didn’t study the Quran, we would be kuffar, or infidels, in the eyes of other Uighurs and become outcasts in the local community. My father told her that he alone would shoulder all the responsibility. When I was little, I didn’t know why my father thought that way, but gradually, especially in the past few years, as Hotan has become even more conservative and hostile in terms of religious beliefs, I have come to think of him as a great man.

In order to give us a better education, my parents moved several times in Hotan until they found a neighborhood that had studious children. In Hotan, it was really hard to learn Chinese (because about 96.4 percent of the population is Uighur). Until I went to middle school in 1998, I only knew a few Chinese characters, like "me," "you," "him," and "love." In 10th grade, I had a crush on a neighbor Uighur girl who was also learning Chinese, and I wrote "I love you" to her. That was my first time writing Chinese characters.

Because none of my siblings went to Quranic school, to this day my mother’s brothers and sisters won’t even talk to her.

Because none of my siblings went to Quranic school, to this day my mother’s brothers and sisters won’t even talk to her. Even when they run into her occasionally, they say things like, "We need a translator to talk to your children," implying that her children are quasi-Han, even though all of us can speak perfect Uighur. My siblings and I are also ostracized by our relatives. We have more than 30 cousins on my mother’s side but none of them would play with us when we were little. They called us kuffar. This has caused my parents a great deal of anguish and pain.

In fact, my parents are both devout Muslims. They pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, and help those around them to the best of their abilities. As I was born into a Muslim family, faith is in my blood, but only after I grew up did I understand what my father wanted from us: Only after learning knowledge and seeing the world could we understand religion, and turn the religious passages that we had memorized into wisdom.

Now my mother’s greatest wish is to go on the hajj to Mecca. Because Saudi Arabia gives China a quota on the number of people allowed to go on the hajj, and Xinjiang, especially Hotan, has too many applicants, she put her name on the list four years ago. However, now the party cadre in our village told her that she may never be able to go. [Ed: Approximately11,000 to 13,000 Muslims from China attend the hajj each year, depending on the quota determined by the Saudi authorities.]

The hajj is the most important religious duty in a Muslim’s life. My siblings and I want to do everything in our ability to fulfill my mother’s wish. In fact, in 2013 a village cadre had told my mother that it was her turn. She was full of hope but heard nothing more. My mother only found out later, after other pilgrims had returned from Mecca, that her spot was given away because she did not pay a bribe.

My parents did not want to bribe anyone in order to join the hajj because that would have been sacrilegious. But in Hotan, one cannot get anything done without bribery, and the need to pay for hajj spots was well known. I was irritated but still wanted to pay the bribe behind my mother’s back. I found a local official but he made more excuses, saying my mother could not go because she was over 60 years old, and also because my sister worked as a teacher in a public school.

I did not understand how my married sister’s having a teaching job could affect my mother’s spot in the hajj quota, but upon hearing this, my sister even offered to resign her position. I called the official back; he still said no, because my sister’s husband is also employed as a teacher.

In southern Xinjiang, it is hard for Uighurs to find jobs. Many work as police assistants or teachers because other government or party organizations are nearly impossible to get into. I once went to a remote village in Hotan prefecture. There were nine people on the local party propaganda team, and the only Uighur among them was a driver. I asked them, "You are all Han and do not speak the Uighur language, how can you do your job and reach out to the villagers?" Their answer? "It is what it is."

These local party cadres are completely out of touch with the Uighur community. How can there not be any resentment?

These local party cadres are completely out of touch with the Uighur community. How can there not be any resentment?

Regarding the issue of my mother going on the hajj, I think some of these Hotan local officials are wrong. What they are carrying out is not China’s official ethnic policy nor Xinjiang autonomous region’s stated policy. If it stays like this for the long term, there will be serious problems with the local community. It’s a good thing that my siblings and I are educated and will not go overboard in our reactions.

A few years ago, my youngest brother did not do well in high school and became our family’s biggest headache. In 2007, he dropped out in ninth grade and started mixing with other young delinquents. My father asked me to get him out of Hotan. I asked my brother if he wanted to come to Beijing, but he absolutely refused to leave Hotan.

Fortunately by the end of 2007, a Han friend of mine from Sichuan opened a photography company in Hotan and I asked my brother to go help out. My brother became interested in photo processing and could sit doing that for eight or nine hours straight.

But after the ethnic riots in Urumqi in July 2009, there were some tiffs among the employees at my brother’s workplace. At the photography company, everyone other than my brother was a Han. The most serious incident started with the tiniest spark. One Han man was listening to a song by Taiwanese rap star Jay Chou but my brother preferred the Hong Kong rock band Beyond, so he changed the music to Beyond. The Han man called my brother an ethnic slur and my brother threw a water glass at him. Such a small thing had escalated into ethnic conflict.

My friend, who owned the business, fired the Han and scolded my brother. The Han thought the treatment was unfair and wanted to smash up the place. The Han had gathered more than 20 fellow migrant workers hankering to beat up my brother, but my brother had called up about 40 or 50 Uighur friends to come over as well. This was quite a dangerous situation given the ethnic riots that had just happened in Urumqi. My friend did not know what was going on and gave me a call. I was extremely nervous and told him to call the police immediately. The police came and took everyone away, averting bloodshed.

After that incident, I could not let my brother stay in Hotan lest something were to happen. I bought him a plane ticket to Shenzhen the next day and arranged a job for him at a photography shop there. After he arrived in Shenzhen, I told his new employer that I would bear full responsibility for his conduct and found friends at the local police station to vouch for him.

When he first went to Shenzhen, my brother had trouble fitting in. However, after only six months, he returned to Hotan for three days and already felt out of place. He told me himself that he had
"wasted almost 20 years in Hotan. Shenzhen is better and I will go back there."

Now my brother works for a chain wedding photography company in Shenzhen and he is a popular guy. I spoke to his supervisors and they all liked him. He works hard and has a special touch with colors. In Hotan, we didn’t have much green but a lot of warm yellow, like the color of a sandstorm. My brother is a master of the warm color palette.

My brother now gets along well with Han people around him. Out of more than a thousand employees in his company, he is the only ethnic minority and the only one from Xinjiang. Many of his co-workers had never had any contact with people from Xinjiang, but after working with him they now think well of people from there.

By now my brother has developed a good reputation at the company and has earned people’s appreciation through his hard work. I asked him, "Do you still want to go back to Hotan?" He replied, "No, I really like Shenzhen and want to settle here." He thinks Shenzhen is a very tolerant place, and his talent can be appreciated there. Nowadays, my brother is a totally different person from his friends in Hotan, in everything from manner of dress to lifestyle. My father no longer worries about him.

In Hotan, many Uighurs do not welcome Han in their homes.

In Hotan, many Uighurs do not welcome Han in their homes. If they hosted Hans, the Uighurs would throw away the plates, chopsticks, and bowls that the Han used. But our family was different, and I didn’t feel the ethnic divide as much growing up. We played with a lot of Han children when we were young. They also came to our home and ate the pilaf rice that my mother made. My best friend in Hotan is a Han who was born and raised there. He speaks fluent Uighur and often visits my parents on holidays. He told them, "When Kurbanjan is not here, I’m your eldest," and gave them a goat.

As a Uighur living in inland China, there are inconveniences from time to time, but I’ve gotten used to it. After the terrorist attack on Tiananmen Square in October 2013, I was driving toward Tiananmen Square when a police officer stopped me to check my car. I pulled over and politely obliged. I can understand this type of profiling; it was an unusual occasion.

Every time I have tried to check into a hotel in China, there would be all sorts of security checks or just flat-out rejections, and I can understand that as well. My Han colleagues who travel with me sometimes do not, and they ask the hotel staff, "Why check him but not us?" One time at the airport, my colleague almost got into a fight with the security guard because he had asked me to take off my shoes but not my colleague. I told my colleague that the security guard was only doing his job. Whenever I try to visit a foreign country, I also receive a very lengthy check.

My supervisors and colleagues at CCTV all like me a lot. I work hard and no one treats me differently because I’m a Uighur. When I first began working, however, there were some inconveniences, but people around me all accommodated me. On business trips with more than a dozen people, they’d search for a halal restaurant for me. I’d tell them that I’m fine with a Han restaurant but they would insist on finding a halal one just for me. If we ended up going to a Han restaurant, they’d ask the waitress to get me tomato with fried eggs and rice (which are acceptable to Muslims). My colleagues and I are all used to it now.

I’m not interested in politics. When I went to the United States and Turkey, some of my friends were quite worried about the contact I might have with foreigners. [Ed: Uighurs share much linguistic, cultural, and religious affinity with Turks. There is a large Uighur community in Turkey, where many have been able to obtain political asylum and Turkish citizenship.] But my father has taught me not to do anything that would destabilize society or come into contact with anyone with extremist tendencies. After I went to Beijing for work, I had many opportunities to travel abroad. My father said not to talk to strangers outside the country because they don’t understand what’s going on in China and Xinjiang especially. Even Chinese don’t have a good understanding of Xinjiang; how could foreigners? Many foreigners have made up stories or hyped up small matters into big ones, and use those lies as a way to make a living for themselves. "Don’t have any contact with them, just do your job," my father said.

It’s hard for me to get a passport in China. I can understand that as well.

It’s hard for me to get a passport in China. I can understand that as well. If other Uighurs like me had gone abroad with honest intentions to study or do business and returned to China with no incidents, there wouldn’t be such issues, but some Uighurs have told many lies after they had gone abroad, and I have gotten angry at them for doing that.

In 2009, I traveled to the northeastern city of Shenyang and the hotel I booked refused to let me stay. The police came to resolve this issue. I told them that I’m a hotel club member and made a reservation, and there is absolutely no reason not to let me stay the night. The police talked to me for more than two hours, finally letting me sleep at 3 a.m. The next day I went to an Internet café, and the guy at the café glanced at my ID card and, without even looking at me, told me that "Your ethnicity is not allowed to access the Internet."

Later I wrote an essay about these stories with the sarcastic title "Xinjiangers are Welcome Everywhere in China," but found out two weeks later that the essay was posted on the Internet and had gone viral. I opened my email inbox to find more than 300 messages, a lot of them requests from foreign media to interview me. I was dumbfounded and a little scared. I called a close Han friend and mentor and told him that I wanted to argue with them and set the record straight, but he said that they could twist every one of my words into a hundred.

Other messages told me I could go to Hong Kong, France, or Germany for interviews and they could somehow make me into a German citizen even if I didn’t have a passport. I deleted all those messages and did not go on the Internet for two days. Six months later, a friend in the U.S. came back to China and told me that he had read the essay overseas, but the title was changed to "Sorry, Your ethnicity is not allowed to access the Internet."

A lot of people from Xinjiang have an incomplete understanding of Turkey. Many who have visited Turkey don’t present the whole truth when they return to Xinjiang, but rather only what is useful to them. Many have over-emphasized the Islamic elements in Turkey and put it on a pedestal. But they have not considered why Turkey is able to achieve its level of development. Turkey has relied heavily on secularization and the convergence of all types of cultures. Turkish culture is very tolerant. Because the country stands at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, it has taken on both cultures. Its Islam is quite secularized and absorbs what’s good.

I think Turkey is a good place for tourism and business, but I wouldn’t be able to live there. Turkish people treat Uighurs as their brethren, but not real brothers. I think it’s an unequal relationship with Turks on top, like telling us that "I’m your big brother, you can depend on me" but they don’t help us in any real way. I’m not used to that.

Nowadays, the understanding and interpretation of Islam of many people in Xinjiang are quite different from what is actually in the Quran — they have become narrower and more hostile. Many friends have told me that the photos I took on my recent trip to Urumqi and Hotan are over-Photoshopped and way too dark. I tell them, "That is the color that I see and I feel. A normal black and white photo should have a transitional gray color that balances out the black and white, but now that balance is lost."

That is what I want to say: Most people in Xinjiang have lost this balance and turned toward a darker side. Xinjiang now has large swaths of black and small specks of white, which is unbalanced and depressive.

The religious understanding of many people in Xinjiang has become problematic.

The religious understanding of many people in Xinjiang has become problematic. We should be moving forward, but instead Xinjiang is now regressing. That is a scary thing. They say they want to "return to the Quran" but they do not really understand what that means. The government has not given them good guidance either. These factors have put the squeeze on the balance between religion and secularism, and extremism is on the rise.

In early 2014, I helped host a concert with some of Turkey’s pop stars in Xinjiang. Quite a few Uighurs were angry with me, because they believed that we were kuffar for singing and dancing. These people have begun to reject Turkish culture, which is really scary. Just a few years ago, young people in Xinjiang felt a lot of solidarity with Turkey, but people have become increasingly narrow-minded and cannot even tolerate Turkey’s secular culture. They want Xinjiang to become another Afghanistan.

Translated by Rachel Lu and Bethany Allen.

Tiananmen Revisited

Posted: May 17, 2014 in Uncategorized

When I was in HK last week, I used the tiny bit of free time I had to visit (attempted to visit, I should say) the Tiananmen Museum. I asked a lot of people for the direction but most of them had no idea about the museum or what happened in Tiananmen back in 1989. in the end, I learnt that the museum has been moved.

HK poeple’s lack of interest made me a little sad. I know ‘June 4′ has been marked every year in HK. but most people don’t seem to care, even though they live in a free society and have free access to

in the mainland China, so many young poeple have no idea about this historical event. others don’t care. The authorities have succedded in driving the democratic movement out of Chinese poeple’s collective memory.

for this reason, I am particularly pleased to see Louisa Lim’s new book. The Popele’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.

see below a review by Ian Johnson.


The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited
by Louisa Lim
Oxford University Press, 248 pp., $24.95

Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China by Rowena Xiaoqing He
Palgrave Macmillan, 212 pp., $95.00; $29.00 (paper)

Every spring, an old friend of mine named Xu Jue makes a trip to the Babaoshan cemetery in the western suburbs of Beijing to lay flowers on the tombs of her dead son and husband. She always plans her visit for April 5, which is the holiday of Pure Brightness, or Qingming. The traditional Chinese calendar has three festivals to honor the dead and Qingming is the most important—so important that in 2008 the government, which for decades had tried to suppress traditional religious practices, declared it a national holiday and gave people a day off to fulfill their obligations. Nowadays, Communist Party officials participate too; almost every year, they are shown on national television visiting the shrines of Communist martyrs or worshiping the mythic founder of the Chinese people, the Yellow Emperor, at a grandiose monument on the Yellow River.

But remembering can raise unpleasant questions. A few days before Xu Jue’s planned visit, two police officers come by her house to tell her that they will do her a special favor. They will escort her personally to the cemetery and help her sweep the tombs and lay the flowers. Their condition is that they won’t go on the emotive day of April 5. Instead, they’ll go a few days earlier. She knows she has no choice and accepts. Each year they cut a strange sight: an old lady arriving in a black sedan with four plainclothes police officers, who follow her to the tombstones of the dead men in her life.

Xu Jue’s son was shot dead by a soldier. Within a few weeks, her husband’s hair had turned white. Five years later he died. Qisile, she explained: angered to death. On her husband’s tombstone is a poem explaining what killed both men:

Let us offer a bouquet of fresh flowers
Eight calla lilies
Nine yellow chrysanthemums
Six white tulips
Four red roses

Eight-nine-six-four: June 4, 1989.

This is a date that the Communist Party has tried hard to expunge from public memory. On the night of June 3–4, China’s paramount ruler, Deng Xiaoping, and a group of senior leaders unleashed the People’s Liberation Army on Beijing. Ostensibly meant to clear Tiananmen Square of student protesters, it was actually a bloody show of force, a warning that the government would not tolerate outright opposition to its rule. By then, protests had spread to more than eighty cities across China, with many thousands of demonstrators calling for some sort of more open, democratic political system that would end the corruption, privilege, and brutality of Communist rule.1 The massacre in Beijing and government-led violence in many other cities were also a reminder that the Communist Party’s power grew out of the barrel of a gun. Over the coming decades the Chinese economy grew at a remarkable rate, bringing real prosperity and better lives to hundreds of millions. But behind it was this stick, the message that the government was prepared to massacre parts of the population if they got out of line.

When I returned to China as a journalist in the early 1990s, the Tiananmen events had become a theater played out every spring. As the date approached, dissidents across China would be rounded up, security in Beijing doubled, and censorship tightened. It was one of the many sensitive dates on the Communist calendar, quasi-taboo days that reflected a primal fear by the bureaucracy running the country. It was as if June 4, or liu si (six-four) in Chinese, had become a new Qingming, but one the government was embarrassed to admit existed. Now the crackdowns in May and June have lessened in intensity but are still part of daily life for hundreds of people throughout China, such as Xu Jue, the mother of a Tiananmen victim.

What remains? The author Christa Wolf used this phrase as the title of a novella set in late-1970s East Berlin. A woman notices that she is under surveillance and tries to imprint one day of her life in her memory so she can recall it sometime in the future when things can be discussed more freely. It is a story of intimidation and suppressed longing. Is this the right way to think of Tiananmen, as an act frozen in time, awaiting its true recognition and denouement in some vague future?

Two new books tackle the Tiananmen events from this vantage point. One is set in China and is about repressing memory; the other is set abroad and is about keeping it alive. They agree that June 4 was a watershed in contemporary Chinese history, a turning point that ended the idealism and experimentation of the 1980s, and led to the hypercapitalist and hypersensitive China of today.

Neither of the two books claims to be a definitive account of the massacre, or the events leading to it. That history is recounted in Timothy Brook’s Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement, a work by a classically trained historian who turned his powers of analysis and fact-digging on the massacre.2 Even though Brook’s book doesn’t include some important works published in the 2000s (especially the memoirs of then Party secretary Zhao Ziyang3 and a compilation of leaked documents known as The Tiananmen Papers), Quelling the People remains the best one-volume history of the events in Beijing. His closing remarks sum up much of what has been subsequently written:

The original events slip deeper and deeper into a forgetfulness into which many, foreigners and Chinese alike, would like to see them disappear, as a new and more profitable relationship to the world economy disciplines the next generation away from worrying about civil rights.4
The two new books take place during this post-Tiananmen era, investigating how Tiananmen has come to shape Chinese society, and how it affected some of its principal participants in exile.

Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia is brilliantly titled, showing how much of what we take for granted in China today is due to efforts to forget or overcome the massacre. The book is a series of profiles of people who were involved in Tiananmen or were affected by it, some of which appeared as features on National Public Radio, for which she worked as a correspondent in Beijing for several years. This episodic structure has some drawbacks, primarily an absence of a complete background section early on about the massacre—what led up to it, how and why it happened.

But Lim helpfully starts out with a chapter called “Soldier,” which lays out the mechanics of the killing, as told from the perspective of a People’s Liberation Army grunt whose unit was ordered to clear the square. It’s well known that the army bungled clearing the square, first massing troops on the outskirts of town, then only halfheartedly trying to enter Beijing on successive days as crowds of people pleaded with and cajoled the young soldiers not to listen to their commissars’ propaganda and to go back to their barracks. Finally, when the troops were given clear orders to move, they inflicted horrific civilian casualties, which one can interpret—depending on one’s standpoint—as a result of the soldiers’ poor training, their superiors’ crude tactics, or as a deliberate attempt to pacify through terror.

Lim brings these broad-brush conclusions to life through her character, a befuddled, brainwashed young man whose unit had to be smuggled into town in transports disguised to look like public buses, while others came in by subway. It was the only way to get his unit past the civilian roadblocks and to spirit the soldiers and weapons into the Great Hall of the People, one of the principal buildings on the square that they used as a launchpad for their assault. In the days following the killing, we learn something even more surprising—how quickly ordinary people began siding with the soldiers, at least in public:

He did not believe this about-face was motivated by fear, but rather by a deep-seated desire—a necessity even—to side with the victors, no matter the cost: “It’s a survival mechanism that people in China have evolved after living under this system for a long time. In order to exist, everything is about following orders from above.”

The book continues with other chapters built around portraits of many different figures. We meet a student leader turned businessman, a contemporary student curious but cautious about the past, a reformist official under permanent government surveillance, a former student leader in exile, a mother of a dead student, and a nationalistic youth. Each helps Lim to make broader points about how costly forgetting is for a person, and for a society.

In her chapter on the former official, Bao Tong, Lim also makes use of newly published memoirs to question central tenets of how we understand the internal political machinations that led to the massacre. Until now, most observers have assumed that the students caused a split in the leadership, with Deng siding with hard-liners against Zhao, the reformist Party secretary who had some sympathy for the students. This was also Bao’s view until he read the memoirs of then premier Li Peng, himself a hard-liner, who argued that Deng had become frustrated with Zhao’s liberal tendencies much earlier. It’s hard to know if this interpretation is correct, but Lim is right to highlight it, showing how Zhao had been doomed from the start:

“This had nothing to do with the students,” Bao told me. He believes that Deng used the students as a tool to oust his designated successor. “He had to find a reason. The more the students pushed, the more of a reason Deng Xiaoping had. If the students all went home, then Deng Xiaoping wouldn’t have had a reason.”

This raises the question, much discussed over the past quarter-century, of whether the students could have avoided the massacre by dispersing a few days earlier when the military action seemed inevitable. In reviewing the material, however, one gets the feeling that not only Zhao’s fall but the massacre itself was almost inevitable. Deng had consistently opposed any political dissent and he seemed determined to send a message once and for all that outright opposition would not be tolerated.

Lim’s larger concern, however, is with how Tiananmen plays out in society today. Time and again, she demonstrates how little people under forty know about Tiananmen. In one chapter, the activist turned businessman finds that there is no point bringing up Tiananmen with his younger wife. “The reason they do not like to talk about 1989 is not because it is a politically sensitive topic or because it makes them uncomfortable. It simply does not register.”

This point is even more forcefully made in a chapter on a mainland Chinese student Lim met at an exhibition on the massacre in Hong Kong (where a museum devoted to it has just opened). She found the young man, named “Feel” because he had a feel for the English language, engaged and excited to learn more. But when she later visits him on his campus back in China, he is subdued and careful, learning as little as possible about what happened and conforming to the social norms prescribing that it be ignored. Lim explains the pervasive lying and mistrust among young people by quoting a statement by China’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo that China had entered an age “in which people no longer believe in anything and in which their words do not match their actions, as they say one thing and mean another.”

One of Lim’s most important points is that Tiananmen made violence acceptable in today’s reform era. After the violence of the Mao era, people had hoped that social controversies wouldn’t be solved by force—that there would be no more Red Guards ransacking homes of real and imagined enemies, or mass use of labor camps. And while many of these more drastic forms of violence have been curbed, the Party regularly uses force against its opponents, illegally searching and detaining critics. Street protests haven’t ended. Although the state talks continually of social harmony and reportedly spends more on “stability maintenance” than on its armed forces, China is beset by tens of thousands of small-scale protests each year, “little Tiananmens,” as Bao tells her. Some are innocuous protests by retired workers seeking pensions, but others are by people trying to defend their homes from being taken away, and they are punished by violent attacks by government thugs or by lynchings carried out by the notorious chengguan street police.

Lim tells her stories briskly and clearly. She moves nimbly between the individuals’ narratives and broader reflections, interspersing both with short, poignant vignettes, such as the artist who had cut off part of his finger to protest the massacre but now doesn’t feel he can tell his twelve-year-old son why. Clearly Lim has thought and cared a lot about the Tiananmen events, and she is taking a great risk in writing this book; if history is any guide, the book could make it difficult for her to return to China, where the government has a blacklist of academics and journalists whose works have touched on sensitive subjects. This makes her book courageous, probing one of the Communist Party’s sorest wounds.

Lim’s final chapter is one of the most worthwhile, but also suggests some of the problems of her book. Instead of a profile, she recounts the crackdown on protesters in Chengdu, a large southwestern city and China’s second-most-important center of intellectual life. Lim dug up State Department cables and interviewed eyewitnesses who described the extremely violent suppression of the protests there. It is a frightening chapter, written with verve.

At times, however, Lim is a bit too breathless in describing the novelty of her findings. Other writers have made the broader point that what happened in 1989 was a nationwide movement, especially in The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces (1991), edited by Jonathan Unger. As for the events in Chengdu, Chinese authors have discussed them, especially the writer Liao Yiwu.5 Lim is to be commended for recounting the events in a more complete form, and for finding so much new information. But the fact that outsiders often reduce June 4 to a Beijing story mainly reflects the fact that the nationwide events of 1989 still haven’t received full-scale treatment in a single volume. This probably says more about the myopia and fragmentation of modern academic studies than it does about Lim’s main theme of amnesia.

Rowena Xiaoqing He also moves the picture beyond Beijing in her moving and very personal account of life as a political emigrant, Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China.6 Now a teacher of a popular undergraduate course on Tiananmen at Harvard, He was a high school student during the protests. Still, she was a passionate participant in the demonstrations in her southern Chinese hometown of Guangzhou, joining protests despite her parents’ misgivings. After the protests were crushed there, she dutifully memorized the government’s propaganda so she could pass her university entrance exams, graduate, and eventually land a good job during the start of China’s economic boom.

In her heart, however, she couldn’t forget the protests. Eventually, she surprised family and friends by quitting her job to get a graduate degree in Canada. She chose education as her field of study, thinking that it was central to avoiding another Tiananmen. She also began an oral history of the uprising.

Her book is written in the tradition of contemporary academic narrative research, which invites her to tell her own story as a way of making clear her standpoint. We learn of her upbringing during the Cultural Revolution, the problems her family faced, and how her father’s idealism was crushed during the Mao period. She spends time with her mother in an opera troupe, and is shuttled between city and countryside as her parents struggle to adapt to that era’s political winds. All of this helps us understand the sense of entrapment that the Tiananmen generation felt growing up during the Mao era, and the resulting desire to break out and embrace the 1989 movement.

He’s own story is balanced by three other stories of better-known participants: the student leaders Yi Danxuan, Shen Tong, and Wang Dan. Her questions and answers are interspersed with parenthetical notes that explain her interlocutors’ answers, silences, and moods.

Although the stories of Shen and Wang are fairly well known, He’s gently probing questions and psychological insights help us understand the sometimes egotistical idealism of these people, who plunged into the student movement despite entreaties by their parents not to get involved. As Yi puts it to her:

My friends and I never thought that the government would order the army to open fire although early on my father had said that would happen. This showed that we didn’t understand the nature of the regime well.

The people He writes about can be considered failures. Their battle lost, they were forced to live abroad, where they remain in a permanent state of mistrust and unease—little wonder considering that state authorities continue to try to hack their computers and follow their movements. Even if they constructed workable lives for themselves in business or academics, as He puts it, Tiananmen is,

in many ways, a continuing tragedy because the victims are no longer considered victims and the perpetrators no longer perpetrators. Rather, the latter have become the winners against the backdrop of a “rising China.”

But He has deeper concerns than keeping score. Instead, she is trying to figure out what happens when something one loves is extinguished. Does it really die or does it continue on in other forms? Is the exiles’ memory less valid than the reality of a political and economic oligarchy that has obliterated the idealism of an earlier generation? Which vision has more staying power?

For me, research is an experience in space and time, a connection between here and there, between the past and the future, with us living in the present, trying to make old dreams come true. The roots are always there, but our dreams may die. I hope this project will keep the dreams alive—not only my own but also those of others.

At times, He’s book is wildly romantic and too heavily focused on the experience of students to be representative of the entire
movement—thousands of workers also participated, and are hardly mentioned. But I found it a convincing and powerful account of a central experience in contemporary Chinese life. One shouldn’t forget that, because of Tiananmen, some of China’s greatest public intellectuals of the late twentieth century died in exile. Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan, and Wang Ruowang are among the most prominent (Fang and Liu contributed to The New York Review).

In this, China’s exile movement parallels the great émigré communities in Europe during the twentieth century: the Poles in London, the Russians in Paris, the subterfuge and mistrust of Eastern European and Soviet ethnic minorities in cold war Munich. They were sometimes ridiculed and reduced to backdrops in spy novels, but they also had their dignity and an ultimate triumph, even if for the most part they did not become well known in their home countries after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Living in today’s China, one realizes that amnesia is pervasive and exile all too common, but so too is the idea that the Tiananmen events still have meaning—that they continue to have a presence, not only in the negative sense of causing repression and censorship, but in more positive ways too. I was reminded of the New York Times correspondents Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, who titled their 1990s best-selling book about that era China Wakes. Today, such a book would probably be about GDP, peasant migration, and aircraft carriers, but their genius was to include Tiananmen too, not merely as a background to economic growth—including the theory of the economic takeoff as, in effect, compensation for political repression—but as part of a broader awakening among the Chinese people, even if the political aspects of that awakening have been eclipsed by the economic development of the past quarter-century.

If this sounds naive, consider that almost exactly a decade after Tiananmen, ten thousand protesters quietly surrounded the Communist Party’s Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing, asking that their spiritual practice, Falun Gong, be legalized. Had they missed the government’s brutal message, or were they on some subconscious level emboldened by a rising consciousness among ordinary people—a sense that they had rights too?

The Falun Gong protesters met with intense repression, including torture, and most people are now more circumspect in pushing for change. But in talking to intellectuals, activists, teachers, pastors, preachers, and environmentalists over the past years, I’ve found that almost all say that Tiananmen was a defining point in their lives, a moment when they woke up and realized that society should be improved. It can’t be a coincidence, for example, that many major Protestant leaders in China talk of Tiananmen in these terms, or that thousands of former students—not the famous leaders in exile or in prison, but the ones who filled the squares and streets of Chinese cities twenty-five years ago—are quietly working for legal rights and advocating environmental causes.

It’s true that many of these people are at least forty years old, and one can rightly wonder, as Lim does, about the upcoming generation, for whom idealism might seem childish or irrelevant. But idealists are a minority in any society. Cynicism and materialism are of much concern, but Chinese people themselves—including young people—discuss their presence and their danger in person or online every day.

Equally telling is a widespread yearning for something else—a search for values and a deeper meaning to life. Some Chinese find this in religious life, hence the ongoing boom in organized religion. But many are active in other ways, too. Some are resuscitating and recreating traditions, or engaging with the age-old Chinese question of how to live not just an ordinary life of labor, marriage, and family, but a moral life. It would be simplistic to trace this concern solely to Tiananmen, but some of this humanistic impulse surely is rooted in that era’s unbounded idealism. Perhaps this is another, less didactic way of looking at Tiananmen: as a sacrifice, unwitting and unwanted, that helped define a new era.

This certainly is how He sees it. After the massacre, she went back to high school, defiantly wearing a black armband of memory for the dead. Her teachers made her remove it, and she cried bitterly, thinking the dream was over:

When I was forced to remove my black armband in 1989, I thought that would be the end of it. Bodies had been crushed, lives destroyed, voices silenced. They had guns, jails, and propaganda machines. We had nothing. Yet somehow it was on that June 4 that the seeds of democracy were planted in my heart, and the longing for freedom and human rights nourished. So it was not an ending after all, but another beginning.

The number of cities involved in protests was highlighted in an exhibition after the massacre in Beijing’s Military History Museum and cited by James Miles in The Legacy of Tiananmen: China in Disarray (University of Michigan Press, 1996). ↩

One should also note the works of Wu Renhua, a Tiananmen participant and author of two Chinese-language works, as well as a forthcoming book by Jeremy Brown of Simon Fraser University. Thanks to Perry Link for pointing these out. ↩

Reviewed in these pages by Jonathan Mirsky, July 2, 2009. ↩

Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 218. The book was originally published in 1992. The 1998 edition adds an afterword from which this was cited. ↩

For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), reviewed in these pages by Perry Link, October 24, 2013. ↩

For a version of Perry Link’s introductory essay to the book, see “China After Tiananmen: Money, Yes; Ideas, No,” NYRblog, March 31, 2014. ↩ Quick Reply

I’ve just returned from HK where I gave a speech to the International Trademark Association’s Annual Conference about how to give a good public speech. Below is a much edited version.

I became a public speaker after the publication of my last Socialism Is Great! in 2008. At first, I got invited to attend literature festivals around the world. (I was very lucky to have received a few invitations as I am one of the few Chinese writers who can speak English.) Naturally I talked about my book and my experience as a writer. That wasn’t too difficult – I’ve never have trouble talking about myself privately or in public. Then other organizations started to invite me to talk about China related issues, which I felt confident to do so, having worked as a journalist for years. I discovered I very much enjoyed speaking in public. In fact, I love it. When I stand on the stage and speak in front of audience, I get a kick out of it!

The next thing I knew was that various speech agents got in touch and signed me up as a public speaker. Now I often give key note speeches at company’s annual conferences or some business seminars. I don’t really understand economy. But I use my story to offer a broad social context of China’s reform and opening up or to give China a human face, to explain where China is coming from. I also give inspirational speeches, again using my own story to inspire people to break the boundary and to chase their dreams.

Several factors might have helped me to get there: by 2008 I had become a social commentator, often been interviewed by the world media, notably BBC, CNN and such. Also, I worked for two years as a talk show host, which has helped me to cope the pressure of speaking under spotlight. There’s another factor, which is my little secret: I was the number two child in the family, I never had too much attention. Now I crave for all kinds of attention。

There’s yet another and important reason: I see the meaning of what I do. You know, my self-appointed mission in life is to be the cultural bridge between China and the outside world. China has grown too important to be ignored yet there’s so many misunderstandings and even fear about china and china’s rapid rise. What I try to do is to help people outside China to understand where china is coming from, what are happening and where is China going. Once you understand china better, there’d be less fear.

The first public speech I ever gave was back in 1989 when I organized the demonstration among the workers from the factory in Nanjing. I addressed a large gathering of about ten thousand people at Gulling Square, our equivalent of Tiananmen Square. I talked about why I, a little factory worker, wanted to organize a demonstration because I believed that the individual could make a difference. I had absolutely no experience in public speaking. Yet I won such applause that it thundered in the sky. It was because I spoke with passion and the words came from my heart.

This brings to one point I’d like to make. That is: when you give a speech or a presentation, you, too, should speak with passion and conviction that you have something meaningful to say. No one likes to hear a flat or half-hearted speech.

My next point is to bring your own story to the presentation. Last year, I gave many keynote speeches at a series of training sessions for company executives organized by the London Business School, the organizer said to me: your story is just perfect. Even the details are perfect. If you worked for a toilet seat factory, we might not have invited you. You probably did not work as a rocket factory girl, but everyone has a story and a personality. Everyone is special in some ways. It might be interesting to bring your character to the presentation, if you are willing to run a little risk instead of being safe and generic. Let your personality shine through in your presentation.

Of course, I also follow some very basic rules: do your homework properly. People often say to me: “Oh, you are so natural!” Natural? Well I’ve put in enough work to make it appear to be natural. Anyway I never read from my notes. A piece of paper is a wall between you and the audience. You wouldn’t want that. You want to engage with the audience.

Know your audience. For example, if I give a talk to a group with little China background, I would explain some basic concepts such as the Cultural Revolution and so on.

Now humour. I usually start with a joke. It relaxes your audience and grabs their attention. But no need to try too hard. After all, you are not a stand-up comedian.

Finally, bear in mind that listening is a very different experience from reading. Usually people don’t get 100% of what a speaker is saying. So you should use simple sentence structure, simple language, no jargons. This suits me perfectly. English is not my native tongue. I tend to use simple sentence structure and don’t know too many complicated words.

On that cheerful note, I’ll end my speech. Thank you for your attention, which I enjoyed very much.


Posted: May 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

I turned 50 today.

I spent the day travelling back from HK, after a very successful speech. As soon as I returned home, I took my girls to Feast at East Hotel where we enjoyed, well, a feast. Then I had a swim at the hotel. Back at home, I opened some of the many gifts I received on Friday at my birthday bash.

What a day. What a life!

Looking back at my life, I couldn’t help but feeling extremely fortunate: I have two beautiful, healthy daughters; I have many good friends scattering around the world; I have travelled to so many places, including some far-flung, wacky places such as Tibet and Uzbekistan; and I’ve lived a full life.

When my mother retired to let me to take over the job back in 1980, she was 43. I thought she was old. Now at 50, I feel so young and still in my prime. Compare to my younger years, I know much better who I am and what I want from life. Indeed I feel a lot happier with myself.

50 is a great age. I’ve accumulated some life experiences yet I am still young enough to dream and to embark on new adventures.

Yes, life starts at 50!