The suicidal and voiceless

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The past few days I browsed the Internet trying to find someone who could speak from the standpoint of Yang Gailan, the 28-year-old farmer and mother of four, who committed suicide after slaughtering all her four kids by axing and force-feeding them pesticide. Her husband killed himself a few days after losing his entire family in a single day. The tragedy stunned, confused and angered a lot of people, who only slowly came to the gruesomeness of the case following the revelation of disturbing details of the struggling family living in the remote mountains of Gansu province, located in the arid far west of China, one of the poorest corners of the country.

The closest I could get is a blogpost by Luo Yufeng, a popular online figure who came from an abject background and made her name by intentionally posing herself as a buffoon that attracted wide disdain and ridicule. Lately, she emigrated to the United States and reinvented her public image as a hard-working self-made woman who successfully transformed her existence, materialistically and intellectually. In the blogpost she said she could relate to Yang’s situation, not just to her material poverty, but also to the “despair” that haunted people like her. She recalled her own experience as a countryside teacher, where her teenage female students dropped out of school to get married and raise kids. “They told me that going to college merely postponed the same misery of trying to locate a low-paying job and barely got by. At the age of 15, the girls already saw no hope in changing their circumstances. Sadly, many of them were actually right in their assessment.”

This is one of the rarer pieces in the aftermath of the tragedy that tries to make sense of it from a poor person’s point of view. As in most events that capture phenomenal online attention, the space is dominated by educated, urban (and largely male) voices. In a way, they help amplify the story to enable a wider discussion. But the limitations of a middle-class world view also risk trapping the debates in pathetic premises resembling the gated neighborhoods of Chinese cities.

The article that almost single-handedly turns the poor family’s death into a national subject of debate is called “The ants in a prosperous time“. In a broad stroke manner, the author attributes the tragedy to extreme poverty and the society’s diminishing opportunity for upward mobility. “They are the downtrodden ants in a time of prosperity, unimportant, uncared for, neglected.” It calls on the society to better treat its disadvantaged, marginal members and advocates for significantly increasing welfare for such social groups.

The sentiment is familiar, which probably explains why it went viral on people’s WeChat walls almost two weeks after the incident actually happened on Aug 26. Prior to that, media reports about the killing, particularly the one by The Paper, were restraint in its attribution of specific causes. Information was simply too scarce to reach any conclusion about why Yang Gailan wielded the ax at her own children. Her grandmother was the last person to talk to the dying woman. By that time all four children were unconscious. The last words from Yang, if her grandmother’s recollection was correct, were bitter and enigmatic. She muttered about being “hard pressed” and insisted of taking her kids “with her”. The last minutes of her life did not give her the luxury of elaborating further.

But this does not stop commentators from imposing their own mental frames onto the case. The “ant” piece is an example of a class-anxious social group looking through a pre-defined lens at tragedy whose meaning is far from clear. By framing the case as a failure of a social structure to provide upward mobility, the piece caters to people who are constantly fretting about maintaining and raising their social status. They share a disdain of elites that keep a tight grip on precious resources and sympathize with the society’s most disadvantageous members. But it is hard to tell if a woman in remote Gansu mountains, for whom poverty has been inherited and internalized as a mode of life for generations of her family, would be primarily driven by a sense of social justice.

Another typical urban response to the case is even more reductionist. People fixate on the details revealed by media of the material possessions of Yang’s family: three oxen, three goats, twelve chickens, plus the tiny stream of income from Yang’s husband, a laborer at a pig farm in a nearby town. To the online spectators who busy themselves with calculation, these seem to be far from the kind of extreme deprivation that would account for the desperate act of homicide and suicide.

By negating the “poverty” narrative, critics try to override an overall sympathetic reaction to the tragedy with a stricter moral judgment. “She is first and foremost a murderer,” as one influential online figure would emphasize. Others call her a pervert and a psychopath. The response is not new. As this blog has explored before, online commentary about violence committed by marginal communities is becoming increasingly unforgiving and harsh. The view insists that no personal misfortune, social ailment or political suppression could be used to justify aggression against others. While an indiscriminate denouncement of violence seems morally infallible, in the public sphere the uncompromising stance also tends to shut out serious discussions about root causes, which are often blamed for “rationalizing” violence.

Female suicide rate in the Chinese countryside is historically high, with rates hitting alarming levels in the 1990s, at points 26% higher than men in the countryside. Those rates have since then plummeted (as much as 90% by some studies) thanks to massive migration into the cities which results in relatively freer, more upbeat lives for women. However, for those who remain in the countryside, the day-to-day stress of life, not only poverty but also a host of pressures in relation to supporting the household which disproportionally fall on the shoulders of women, still can be unbearably heavy. As a traditional saying goes, there are only three solutions to women’s problems: “one – to cry; two – to scream; and three – to hang herself”.

When experienced observers look closer at the details dug out by in-depth reporting, what they discover is exactly the kind of suffocating household stress that has cornered Yang Gailan to a brink. In a penetrating analysis of the micro-politics of Yang’s misery, the author sifts through publicly available information and singles out Yang’s grandmother as a more plausible cause of Yang’s fatal decision on Aug 26.

As the de-facto matriarch of the Yang family, the old lady divorced two husbands in the earlier years of her life for their incompetence. After her daughter, Gailan’s aunt, later killed herself by ingesting pesticide, the tough woman was left with her slow-minded, quiet son, and his two daughters. Gailan’s elder sister was married early to outside the village. And the burden of serving her grandmother and her father fell squarely on her tender shoulder. Villagers recollected Gailan often being scolded by her grandma, who leaved the impression of being demanding and inconsiderate. In order to keep her in the family, the grandmother “adopted” a husband for her, instead of marrying her out. From that moment on, the 20-year-old’s fate as a servant to the family has been locked in, attending to two elders and raising four kids, all on her own, until on that day, she collapsed

These are mere deductions and interpretations, to be clear. The difference is only that some are slightly more restraint and cautious than others when it comes to offering a conclusive, meaningful reading of a case at once appalling and heartbreaking. In this regard, rural China lacks its own interpreter. As one pessimistic observer puts it, in a public sphere dominated by an urban discourse, “the countryside cannot articulate itself.” No farmer’s representatives, no peasant intellectuals, no rural women’s advocates emerge to help make sense of Yang’s destruction of her entire family. The countryside remains silent while urban spectators heatedly debate morality and social welfare.

But does the countryside automatically understands itself? Asks one voice. It claims that certain extreme behaviors simply evade comprehension, no matter where it happens. What the society can do, rather than prematurely declaring that it “gets” these incidents, is to bide its time and make note of all the observable facts until it can fully grasp what has been going on. The unstoppable impulse of the Chinese Internet to (over) interpret any occurrence of significance is “hindering us from reaching a genuine understanding of our world.”

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No country for Phoenix man

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Food occupies a sacred place in the celebration of the Spring Festival. The whole Chinese experience during these few days each year is built around eating: the careful preparation before, the sophisticated rituals during, and the extended wrap-up after the feast.

This year, one such dinner party went terribly awry and became a national spectacle. Not only did the extended wrap-up not happen, it actually involves a guest running away from it. And she did not just run from it, she ran hundreds of kilometers from where the dinner was to her home in Shanghai, in a borrowed car.

So how horrible can a table full of food be? The young woman posted a picture on a Shanghai-based web forum. For eyes not spoiled by the aesthetics of the Chinese cuisine, it might not be immediately obvious why it is that bad. It looks like there are plenty of meat on the table, all put in large steel containers that can hardly contain them. If relocated to another context, this might as well be a symbol of abundance. But for a Chinese, it is at once clear that this is an unrefined dinner from the countryside. The color is unsightly; materials are illegible at best; and the containers, steel rather than china, are simply indecent, particularly for a dinner on the New Year’s Eve.

Even though the authenticity of this dinner party is heavily contested, it is understandable that a white collar from Shanghai can feel frustrated with such quality of food. It was supposed to be her first dinner at the home of her boyfriend, a colleague from rural Jiangxi province, one of China’s most poverty stricken landlocked provinces. Before making up her mind to embark on that over-dramatic cross-country escape the next day, she sought support from fellow forum goers in Shanghai. The underlying message was not just about the dinner, it was about whether she should give up that relationship.

The post almost touched off a referendum on the issues of marriage, etiquette, and women’s right, among others. Compared to that, the suspicion that the whole thing was fabricated by the online forum to salvage its dwindling traffic is beside the point. The bizarre incident once again thrusts the issue of rural China into the national conversation. Only this time, the collective gaze turns unambiguously harsh.

The intellectual tradition that sympathizes with the peasantry runs deep in the Chinese culture. The canon of Chinese classics is stocked by beautifully written passages that bemoan the abject lives of its men and women in the countryside. That tradition paves the foundation for the egalitarian aspirations in much of China’s dominant political thinking throughout its quest for modernization. More recently, the precarious situations of “farmer”,”agriculture” and “countryside” capture the imagination of not only the country’s intellectsia, but also its leadership, making rural issue the nominal “number one” issue for the past decade.

That warmth toward the dirt roads, the paddy fields and the hunched figures laboring in them is dissipating. And strangely, the forces tearing that emotional attachment apart are supposedly “progressive” trends: the advocacy for women’s right, the belief in equal status of husband and wife, the care for children’s well being…

All that newfound hostility is concentrated in a term originated on the Internet: “the Phoenix man”. Its precise origin is untraceable but it is safe to say that it emerged out of the pages upon pages of online sharing of family tensions and dramas, at forums that excel at such topics, such as Tianya or Liba.

Even though the Phoenix, a mythological bird that regenerates itself through blazing nirvana, is often associated with luck and blessing in the Chinese culture, the “Phoenix man” is actually a satirical play of that cultural heritage. It refers to a category of Chinese male, who invariably comes from poor, rural roots and have received higher education in the cities. Through that education they manage to join the ranks of the urban middle class or even higher, get married to an urbanite, and settle down in one of the concrete jungles of the east coast. It sounds like an inspiring story of the China Dream but it’s not. The narrative of the “Phoenix man” is actually a wake-up call of the China nightmare.

The rural roots of the Phoenix man carry much “baggage”, both material and emotional, as the story goes. He feels infinitely indebted to his family, his relatives, his kinsmen, who are left behind in his hometown. Their sacrifice has propelled his rise in social ranks. So he needs to pay them back (and they feel entitled to that payment), often by squeezing his own modest resources. The urge to reciprocate starts to shape his personality: he becomes paranoid, petty and ultra-sensitive to his status. It takes a toll on his relationship, as his girlfriend/wife is often reluctantly drawn into his orbit of incessant repayment. There is a strong patriarch element to the legend. Despite coming from more modest background than his female partner, a Phoenix man is yet adamant in insisting that they play by HIS set of values. She can’t reject that ancient obligation to his village folks. She has to embrace it lest she loses his love.

The fact that in early 21st century a kind of prototypical personality can be so precisely and vividly pinned down through anonymous “crowd-posting” on the Internet is in itself something spectacular. To some extent, it can be read as a quiet, unobtrusive resistance to a suppressive relationship imposed upon a large number of Chinese women. Instead of an open revolt against their men through nasty fights, splits, divorces, they take to online forums to share, recount, and mock. Their collective work is no less powerful. In no time, there are novels personifying that character and television dramas visualizing that label.

But a supposed correction of one set of imbalance (men vs. women) has exacerbated another (city vs. countryside). And that other set of imbalance has been in a state of disrepair for a long time. The Chinese peasants have endured the fate of being an “afterthought” for millennia. They have been the subject of heavy taxation, brutal conscription and devastating collectivization. Even with political movements ostensibly run in their names, they end up becoming the loser, being locked up in their backwardness by a system that restricts their upward mobility in the society.

The “folk education movement” (pingmin jiaoyun) tradition, albeit marginalized in the upheavals of 20th century Chinese history, is probably the only serious attempt from China’s educated elites to “payback” to a class perpetually betrayed. That tradition manifests itself in recent years in the form of sympathetic accounts of the sorry state of the Chinese countryside by liberal intellectuals, journalists and artists.

Almost around this same time last year, a wave of nostalgic sentiments swept through the Chinese Internet. The annual reverse migration back to the countryside during the Spring Festival by the hundreds of millions who work in the cities creates first-hand accounts of the country’s struggling rural communities. In the most popular ones, authors lament about the dissolution of traditional rural values, demoralization of those remaining in the countryside and the disintegration of once strong bonds among people. The eruption of such sentiments became a national post-Spring-Festival topic that drew in the country’s most powerful media institutions.

This year almost saw that same mood unfold as the Lunar New Year approached. Weeks before the national celebration, a piece written by a female scholar who spent some time in her husband’s hometown in the underdeveloped part of Hubei province started to circulate on the web. It is a troubling account of a family and a community disintegrating under the pressure of poverty and sheer whims of life. Their social safety net is so thin that one construction contract going awry sent a relatively prosperous family deep into the abyss of debt. The stress spreads across the family and starts to eat into the life of the author and her husband, who is the only son in his family with a higher education and an academic job in the city. He is a “Phoenix man”. But the author, a deeply compassionate social scientist, was sophisticated enough to reject that label and to relate to the tremendous ethical burden her husband shoulders. She is also sorely aware of how stigmatization like this could close the only remaining channels of upward mobility for people from China’s poor rural regions. The article again raises concerns over the precarious state of the country’s rural communities.

But that concern was completely drowned out by the dubious dinner in Jiangxi province. In its place, a very genuine distaste descends on the farmers and the “lifestyle” they embody. In its most extreme form, a self-claimed “petty bourgeois” female writer goes all the way to explain, with a seriousness that borders on being scary, why social classes are not supposed to mingle, and why it is a good thing to have social stratums separate themselves naturally “like mud from water”. A girl who grows up knowing that steel plates are indecent does not deserve to marry into a family that prepares a dinner like this. The unabashedness and self-righteousness in her message are already glaring. What’s even more troubling is the unexpected surfacing of another line of assault, which, strangely, springs out of a concern for women’s fate in the province of Jiangxi. By highlighting the legitimately disconcerting data that shows Jiangxi as among the provinces with the highest fatality rate for baby girls, posters make a far-fetched case for the escape of our heroine, claiming that she has the right to leave behind a place that treats women in such hideously evil ways (The suspicion goes that peasants in Jiangxi province kill baby girls intentionally as a way of sex selection).

The problem with that argument is that it casts the systematic practice of sex selection of newborn baby simplistically as a moral failing of individual farmers, and from that reading women’s right advocates derives a kind of punitive indignation completely directed at the rural community. No question is raised about the role of the state in causing this problem: the issues of one-child policy or rural education never surface during such discussions. People seem to be complacent about stopping the questioning at the individual level of the poor farmers. They finally have someone to blame for the misery of Chinese women in the countryside.

The feminist backlash against the peasant class is the most intriguing turn of events in this saga about one silly dinner. It is hard to tell how much of that can be attributed to the systematic removal of the “root cause critique” from public discourse. As observer Song Zhibiao puts it: “Prejudice is often de-politicized. From the very beginning there is no mention of the government, as if the Chinese countryside is an isolated utopia, a self-contained sin that has nothing to do with the cities. It only deserves to die by itself, silently.”

In 21st century China, its aging, sick and disenfranchised countryside is faced with another menace: urban public opinion turning unforgiving.

 

* It has just been confirmed that the story of the dinner is completely fabricated.

Further reading on this blog: Poor Man’s Violence