Accidental celebrities: China's chastity heroines and charity

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Celebrity in China, 2010, pp. 67 - 84
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From 1997 to the present day, the Chinese media has covered the stories of more than 30 young women who have leapt from the windows of highstorey buildings, often resulting in serious physical injuries, to escape being forced into prostitution.1 Four of these women - Tang Shengli, Hong Zhaodi, Dong Shujun, and Liu Qinqin - were portrayed as accidental celebrities. This term refers to ordinary members of the public whose misfortune, bravery or good luck, makes them an object of media fascination and a celebrity-commodity for a short period of time, and 'through a process over which they can have very little control' (Turner 2004: 21, 38; Turner et al. 2000: 113-5). The Chinese media celebrated Tang Shengli and her counterparts as women who would rather die than engage in prostitution - As modernday lienü, a term that is usually translated into English as female chastity martyr. Lienü have a long history in China, with the earliest known text in the Chinese tradition on moral education for women being Liu Xiang's (79-8 BCE) Lienü zhuan [Traditions of Exemplary Women] (Kinney 1999). Consisting chiefly of biographical accounts of women in early China who exemplified particular virtues, the text not only inspired generations of Chinese women 'to cultivate traditional values such as filial piety and maternal kindness', but also lauded 'practices such as suicide and self-mutilation as a means to preserve chastity' (Kinney 1999). The veneration of lienü reached its zenith during the Qing Dynasty (1644- 1911), when unprecedented numbers of women committed suicide, following sexual assault, rape, or even a suggestion of sexual misconduct, in order to provide public proof of their virtue, purge their humiliation, and enact revenge against their assailant (since cases of suicide were subject to rigorous investigation). The imperial state also rewarded such women by canonizing them as lienü, hence the modern translation of chastity martyrs. This process vindicated and honoured the victim and, by extension, her family through the creation of a public arch and other memorials to commemorate her virtuous actions (Theiss 2003: 203-4). While tapping into established cultural resources, the media-led celebration of Tang Shengli and her counterparts as contemporary lienü is more usefully translated into English as chastity heroines, not martyrs. The depiction of these women as lienü is more a case of misplaced analogy than a claim that they are identical to the lienü of eighteenth-century China, as underscored by the fact that Chinese commentators sometimes place the appellation lienü in inverted commas (e.g. Zhongyang dianshitai 2006). Quite apart from different historical contexts and values, Tang Shengli and her counterparts did not leap from high-storey buildings with the intention of committing suicide and thereby avenging any actual or perceived sexual humiliation. They jumped because they were held captive and had no other physical means of escaping potential sexual slavery. Even as reporters capitalize on Tang Shengli's claim to be an 'old-fashioned girl who would rather die than engage in prostitution', they note that her decision to jump was dictated by the fact that there was no other immediate means of exiting her place of confinement and she did not anticipate serious injury (Tan 1998). Furthermore, Tang Shengli and her counterparts are not dead and thus obviously cannot be 'martyrs'. The translation 'chastity heroines' therefore captures the ambiguous media portrayal of these women as exemplary, i.e., virtuous Chinese women, but also as women whose actions constitute a desperate response to threats of forced prostitution or acts of sexual violence, and whose subsequent responses to the reality of long-term hospitalization and physical rehabilitation are truly heroic. The media fêting of accidental celebrities Tang Shengli, Hong Zhaodi, Dong Shujun, and Liu Qinqin, as idealized symbols of feminine purity has attracted criticism in some Chinese media circles for perpetuating outdated feudal-Confucian conceptions of appropriate female behaviour and for failing to promote modern understandings of women's rights as human rights. A standard claim is that the media-led celebration of Tang and her counterparts as women who are willing to defend their sexually based honour to the death upholds outdated and patriarchal sexual mores by suggesting that a woman's virginity is her most prized possession, even more important than her life. Moreover, it encourages women who find themselves in similar circumstances to respond in the same manner, chiefly by failing to provide any other alternatives (Bo 2001; Lian 2002; Luo 2005; Pan 2003; Sheng 2003; Wang Qianrong 2001; Wang Yueguo 2003; Zhang Yang 1999; Zhang Xiao 2004). An examination of media accounts of China's contemporary chastity heroines reveals that their temporary celebrity status, while largely confirming traditional conceptions of ideal womanhood, also performs a positive social role. In particular, it facilitates the emergence of a new kind of Chinese citizen - That is, a charitable citizen who voluntarily gives money or assistance to strangers in need and who thereby demonstrates love of humankind. This chapter highlights the evolution of government and community responses vis-à-vis the provision of charity to the socially vulnerable, as well as the role played by the media in producing the temporary celebrity required to stimulate that charity in the first place, by comparing the forms of assistance that were offered to Tang Shengli in 1997 and Liu Qinqin in 2005-06. © 2010 by Hong Kong University Press, HKU. All Rights Reserved.
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