What you need to know
A rural woman’s personal story of struggle and survival has made her an instant literary celebrity.
Before Monday, Fan Yusu was just one of Beijing’s more than 7 million migrants. Then her autobiographical essay took over the Chinese internet.
Fan has since received offers for book deals, countless media requests, and an overwhelming amount of attention — so much so that she has reportedly left Beijing to chill out in the mountains and wait for all of this to blow over.
Before her sudden fame, the 44-year-old from Hubei used to work in Beijing as a domestic helper. Her spare time was filled with reading and writing, mostly poems. On Monday, she published a lengthy personal essay on NoonStory, a public account on messaging app WeChat that publishes original content from professional and amateur writers. The article was a hit, and readership exceeded 100,000 views within 24 hours.
“I Am Fan Yusu,” Fan’s story of a girl growing up in rural China while harboring a dream of making it in the big city, resonated with readers.
“I couldn’t stand the dull life in the countryside, where you have such a narrow view, so I came to Beijing,” Fan wrote of her decision to leave her village, adding that she was inspired by the novels and literary magazines she read while growing up. “I wanted to see the world.”
Fan strings together her childhood with descriptions of her adult life, and of how her youth shaped her: the patriarchy that hindered her mother’s career, her own experiences of abuse from an alcoholic husband, raising her two daughters as a single mother, and what it’s like being an outsider in the city.
While migrant workers have been crucial to China’s march to modernization, they often face discrimination, from difficulties in becoming official residents who can enjoy public welfare to being looked down on by native urbanites. Fan also raises these issues in her essay, where they manifest as poor treatment from her employers and policies that hindered the education of her daughters.
“I think what I write is real,” Fan told Beijing Times earlier this week when asked about why people have responded so positively to her story. “What I worry about is what everyone else worries about. Many people see the problems, as I do, but they can’t change anything about them.”
Fan is the latest example of a migrant worker gaining fame through an artistic pursuit. With accessible self-publishing platforms like WeChat’s public accounts and a growing appetite among readers for nonfiction and human-centric stories, finding a large audience is easier than ever. Fan lives in Pi Village, an area on Beijing’s outskirts that is home to many migrants, among them Li Ruo, who found fame through her collection of poetry. Beijing is also home to Jiu Ye, a folk band that tours the country performing songs about migrant life.
However, not everyone considers online reception to be a suitable yardstick for measuring a writer’s aptitude and worth.
Yu Xiuhua, another writer who found her fame after posting her works online, has been one of the harshest critics of China’s latest online literary celebrity. Yu, a farmer and poet with cerebral palsy, suddenly rose to fame after a Chinese poetry magazine stumbled upon her works republished them on its WeChat account. She soon became a literary media sensation, with some Chinese media even calling her “China’s Emily Dickinson.”
Today, many commenters are drawing parallels between Fan’s and Yu’s trajectories to fame, but the latter, who also hails from Hubei, doesn’t agree. “First, the text is not good enough — it is far from literary,” Yu said while listing the reasons why she dislikes the comparisons to Fan during an interview with online portal Phoenix. “I don’t want to be compared to Dickinson, let alone [Fan]. Everyone is unique.”
To Fan, all the attention and scrutiny appears to have been unsettling. “I do not believe [popularity] will bring about any change,” she said in a recent interview. “I just hope it will end as soon as possible. I’m a loner — I’m not used to so many people being concerned about me.”
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.
TNL Editor: Olivia Yang