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.
She was sort of right. Yao has used her fame to highlight a side of Chinese society that government censors never allow onto TV or cinema screens: stolen children, poverty, exploited migrant workers, abuse of authority, sexual assault, animal cruelty, forced housing demolitions. Her online advocacy is shifting the goalposts for what is permissible in Chinese cyberspace and has helped make it safe for the masses to join her on the frontlines. As the government ramps up its efforts at internet censorship, Yao is a test case for how online expression in China will evolve.
Yao’s devotion to minsheng, or people’s welfare, has made her a grassroots icon among China’s web users, who share and link to her posts by the thousands. In 2010, Yao joined what is now China’s most popular micro-blog, Sina Weibo (300m users and counting). Much like Twitter, which is blocked in China, Weibo allows people to express themselves in 140 characters—which goes a lot further in Mandarin than in English. In July 2011 Yao’s Weibo reached 10m fans. At the beginning of March, she was just shy of 18m followers and the third most popular micro-blogger in the world, trailing only Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.
After her make-up session, Yao emerged clad in a blue warm-up jacket and black tracksuit bottoms. Assistants orbited around her and stylists made last-minute adjustments. Then an American art director waved her over to look at a series of photographs depicting a ballerina in mid-flight. “I want graceful, loose. It’s not a martial arts picture,” he said.
In the centre of the room, several towering mirrors on wheels had been pushed close together into a square. For the next half hour, Yao and five of her reflections leapt—arms raised, back arched, toes on point—within the mirrored cell. Onlookers peered through the cracks. When the art director demanded more air in her jumps, she nodded. The scene captured one side of Yao’s appeal—she was down-to-earth, in attitude more like an obedient student than a major star.
But Yao also occupies a rare position in China. The country’s growing wealth has given rise to a shamelessly materialistic society nursed by corruption, and a grassroots movement that wants desperately to find a cure. Because she straddles both worlds, Yao is a unique figure—a cover girl who speaks truth to power.
Yao’s popularity attracts more than just public fascination. The authorities read everything she writes. Occasionally a post is deleted, or suddenly visible only to Yao.
“Weibo is a very honest expression of my mental world, but gradually I had to regulate my self-expression as a public figure,” she said. “At the beginning I would pour out negative things, but now I’m careful to convey only the beautiful side of the world.” When Yao highlights the daily indignities faced by her compatriots, they come dressed as inspiration, not criticism. She encourages the public to take responsibility for, say, an impoverished orphan or a unemployed migrant, rather than criticising the officials who are accountable for their plight. “A soft tongue can break hard teeth,” she said, with a sly grin.
Yao bears little comparison to dissidents, such Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo, who have taken formidable risks to protest against China’s authoritarian government and have been jailed, or worse. She is part of mainstream society, unwilling to jeopardise her career, let alone her freedom, by becoming too outspoken. But it is precisely because she is a movie star that her small deviations from the government-approved script have become so significant. It is a tightrope act that symbolises the uncertain and shifting boundaries of what it is possible to say in 21st-century China, where, despite censorship, citizens are beginning to use the power of the internet to improve their country.
Yao grew up in the southeastern province of Fujian, the daughter of a train conductor and postal worker. At 14 she won a full scholarship to a prestigious Beijing dance academy. Two years later, she enrolled in acting school. Tuition cost the equivalent of £8,500, a fortune for her parents. Yao can still recall the day her father brought her the money as a bagful of banknotes and coins. It was the first time she noticed he had grey hair.
Yao has kept a humble persona even as she has become one of the elite. In a country where Lamborghinis lack licence plates and government officials never carry their own umbrellas, she is an antidote to the imperious habits of China’s aristocracy.
These days Yao, 32, lives in a high-rise apartment building near Beijing’s 4th Ring Road. When I arrived the day after the advert shoot, she greeted me at the front door of her small flat wearing grey sweatpants and dirty pink slippers. She shared the flat with her boyfriend, a major Chinese cinematographer, and a rambunctious American shorthair cat named Patton. Yao retreated to a brown leather couch in the living room, which was dominated by a flatscreen television, large speakers, boxes of bootleg DVDs and a miniature fake Christmas tree. Black socks hung on a drying rack in her minuscule kitchenette. The view from the window is the quintessential modern Beijing landscape: sleek, soulless apartment blocks shrouded in smog.
I set up my tape recorder, as did her translator. When speaking with journalists, especially foreign ones, clarity is vital. A member of her team had confided in me that China’s state administration of radio, film and television is keeping tabs on Yao because of her Weibo activities, so she has to be careful.
“Before I’m a public figure I’m a human being, so I react,” she says. “Some things get me very sad and angry, so I can’t help posting them.” Yao’s concern with social justice is bolstered by her 2003 conversion to Christianity; she cited the Bible as helping orient her moral compass. “I don’t think what I’ve earned comes free, I’m required to do something more with my life,” she told the magazine Southern People Weekly in 2011. But in a country where the government frowns on preaching about organised religion, Yao keeps her faith mostly private.
Yao’s Weibo page features a cartoon of a cranky hard-boiled egg on a background the colour of mint toothpaste. She updates it an average of ten times a day. Her fans receive a mix of the cute (mostly photos of Patton), the inspirational (“life is a godsend”) and humanitarian calls to action, often accompanied by specific ways they can help: publicising the case of a four-year-old boy kidnapped by traffickers, along with the father’s phone number (retweeted 12,000 times); encouraging donations for a 12-year-old girl’s surgery after she was savagely raped, accompanied by the father’s bank account and ID numbers (retweeted 11,000 times); urging netizens to rescue stray cats about to be killed by local police (retweeted 5,800 times).
But social commentary in China can be dangerous. The Communist party shows little mercy to those who challenge its rule. In February, the dissident writer Zhu Yufu was sentenced to seven years in prison for posting a short poem on the internet calling for street protests. The verdict followed a wave of similar draconian sentences for online activism aimed at smothering demands for political freedom in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Last summer Yao entered her most politically fraught fight, after a crash between two high-speed trains in Zhejiang province killed 40 people. The tragedy proved a landmark in Weibo users’ ability to discover and disseminate information censored in the mass media, and led to widespread suspicions of a government cover-up. In the following days, reports on Weibo blamed the crash on one of the train operators, who had died in the accident; he was thought to have been too fatigued to react properly. He happened to have been a friend of Yao’s father and her defence of the operator—who sacrificed himself to save others by pulling the emergency brake rather than fleeing the train—was forwarded more than 260,000 times and received 71,000 comments. Soon after, the government absolved him of wrongdoing, though the lack of transparency in the official inquiry makes it difficult to know what actually occurred.
Such influence has its drawbacks. Anything Yao writes is endlessly shared and debated—and sometimes attacked. The pushback is “like being beaten with a brick,” she said. Asked why she spends so much time on Weibo, her reply sounds like a rough definition of grassroots activism: “Forwarding leads to attention, attention leads to action, action leads to change.”
In the west, Yao’s activities would merit little media attention. In China, she has helped reshape the conversation on behalf of a generation who want their voices to be heard. One of her Weibo followers, a 19-year-old university student named Wang Peijia, described her influence: “Yao has become the channel for ordinary people to tell their miserable stories and inflict the pressure of public opinion on government decisions.”
Yao’s concern about social issues distinguishes her from other Chinese celebrities. “More so than her peers Yao Chen is considered a public intellectual,” Han Han, one of China’s most popular bloggers and a sharp-tongued social critic, told me. That millions of people follow and forward her appeals represents a sea change in how Chinese people think of themselves and their responsibilities. “As people’s lives improve, they begin to pay attention to social issues and vulnerable communities,” he says.
The viral nature of Weibo has transformed China’s public consciousness. It nurtures a subversive irony about current events absent from China’s blustery traditional media—mockery of the latest morality campaign, photos of civil servants’ luxury watches, updates on the latest food contamination scandal unmentioned on the nightly news. Yao’s own cheery online voice often conceals a stinging indictment of corruption and apathy from the top down. She is a provocateur, in heels. What protects her from official censure, aside from her celebrity, is that she champions causes the masses can agree with. “She’s not a dissident. She’s just a good citizen,” said Han. “This country still isn’t much of a civil society, though, so she stands out.”
Yao does not stray toward the red line of blaming those who rule her country. Chinese entertainers have been blacklisted for much less: director Zhang Yimou’s film To Live was banned for its depiction of Party officials, while in 2008 the actress Tang Wei was blacklisted from Chinese cinema for her explicit sex scenes in the acclaimed Ang Lee film Lust, Caution.
In June 2011, Yao posted the tragic news that a relative of hers in Hunan province tried to commit suicide by drinking rat poison. The government had appropriated her land for the construction of a reservoir and when the woman attempted to petition local officials for fair compensation, she was detained.
While this type of injustice happens on a daily basis in China, publicly discussing such matters is risky. Soon after the post appeared, Yao deleted it—but not before it was forwarded and image-captured by her fans, who continued to spread it online. There is no evidence the government had a direct hand in Yao’s decision to delete her message, but the incident highlights the fear that haunts public discourse in China—citizens, rich and poor alike, must practice self-censorship.
“[Figures like Yao Chen] claim they’re not political because in China saying that means you’re asking for trouble,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, a Beijing-based internet analyst. But when you’re asking for social change and people are following you and thinking about what you write, the writing is a political act. “They just dare not speak its name,” he said.
The government is not taking any chances. In March, all micro-blog users were required to register with their real names and identity numbers in order to use the service. The official reason is to stop the spread of “rumours.” Censors already delete “harmful” postings, but critics say the new rules are intended to frighten web users away from spreading information about political malfeasance. The regulations also reveal the government’s discomfort with the huge Weibo following of some users: “Posts by users with over 100,000 followers will undergo item-by-item examination. No post will be published before it is checked.”
Being a star in China presents other dangers more familiar to western audiences. Last year Yao and her husband, another actor, divorced. While China’s morality wardens prohibit tabloid-style gossip from appearing in the press, Weibo provided a forum. Did someone cheat? Did her greater fame make him jealous? Who was at fault? In the following months, Yao stuck to a positive if wounded script, telling Southern People Weekly the trauma had “passed but it left scars. It hurts if you touch it.” When I asked her about it, her face became a mask. “I felt powerless,” she said.
An escape came last spring, when the UN Refugee agency, or UNHCR, made Yao its honorary patron for China. Followed by the Chinese media, Yao visited refugee camps in the Philippines and Thailand, posting about her trips on Weibo. The reaction from her compatriots was not what she expected. “People judged me, writing comments saying there are so many poor people in China, why would you care about refugees abroad?”
Yet many Chinese also take issue with donating to domestic organisations, which are often linked to the government and thus offer little insight into where the money really goes. Yao’s advocacy eventually inspired a wave of philanthropy to the UN agency from the Chinese—and helped turn “UNHCR” into a top internet search term in China in 2011.
Before seizing the Weibo mantle, Yao was usually typecast as the quirky sidekick. Now she is the main attraction, and her art is imitating her life. She has just finished filming the movie Search by award-winning director Chen Kaige in which she plays a reporter investigating a suicide triggered by online harassment. The film “reflects the pressure to survive” in modern China, said Yao; it also reflects the power of the web. The film is based on an internet-published novel and its plot—examining the responsibilities of netizens, or internet citizens—opens a window into how profoundly the web has changed China.
Thanks to the internet, the Chinese are having conversations about their society with millions of their compatriots in real time. And they are using that opportunity to provoke change, whether through campaigns that rescue dogs bound for restaurant kitchens or by donating to charities that help refugees. What drives them onto Weibo and into each other’s lives comes down to one simple goal, Yao told me: “Every soul desires justice.”
More China coverage from Prospect:
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The new face of China: No other modern Chinese leader has cast such a spell over the country as Bo Xilai. He has built a personal brand that shimmers with hues of Clint Eastwood’s take-no-prisoners justice, George Clooney’s swagger and L Ron Hubbard’s religious zeal, says Dan Levin
China: at war with its history: The Chinese leadership refused to commemorate the centenary of the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty. Obsessed with survival, will it allow challenges to its version of the past? Isabel Hilton reports
The Key to China: To grasp the new spirit of this country, Julia Lovell recommends this fresh, contrarian short fiction