Film star Yao Chen is pushing the boundaries of free speech in China. How far will she go?by Dan Levin / March 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 2006, a martial arts sitcom called My Own Swordsman, set in a mythical Ming Dynasty-era tavern, had its premiere on Chinese television. For 80 episodes, the inn’s zany cast of characters flew over tiled roofs, drank rice wine and fell in and out of love, all the while battling corrupt imperial officials and slaying would-be assassins. A young actress named Yao Chen provided much of the comic relief, playing a sassy, altruistic waitress who knew kung fu (her signature move was known as “the fist of toppling mountains and moving oceans”). To get a sense of the show and its production values, recall the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, then imagine a straight-to-video sequel written by Ricky Gervais.
Yao has had other prominent television roles, including a communist spy in the series Lurk and various white-collar funny girls. In the past few years, she has become a household name. In 2011, she reprised her Swordsman role in the film adaptation, which raked in roughly £20m, a box office blockbuster by Chinese standards. Yao’s face adorns the sides of buses in adverts for instant noodles and appears in magazines for Head & Shoulders shampoo or Toshiba laptops. Her ascent into the pantheon of Chinese pop culture was confirmed in January at the Shanghai branch of Madame Tussauds, where her wax doppelgänger, wearing a pink gossamer minidress, was unveiled alongside Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Chan and Susan Boyle.
One freezing morning in January, I arrived at a long brick building on the outskirts of Beijing to meet Yao, who was doing an advertising shoot for Adidas. Inside the hanger, she sat at a dressing room mirror, eyes closed, as a makeup artist painted her thick eyebrows into neat black strips. When the man stepped back to admire his handiwork, she returned to scrolling through her micro-blog feed on her iPhone, the main way she connects with her fans and the wider world. A stylist began blowdrying her hair, yanking her head back with each whisk of the brush. Then it was time for hairspray. Yao did her best to ignore it. “I feel like a boxer sitting in the corner of the ring, and they’re preparing me for the fight,” she told me.