Ping Fu Defends Memoir After Chinese Netizens Attack

Ping Fu, CEO of 3D software developer Geomagic and innovation adviser to President Obama, released her English-language memoir Bend, Not Break on December 31. The book traces her journey from oppressed youth during China’s Cultural Revolution to her current status as a successful U.S.-based entrepreneur. On January 23, Forbes published a profile of the author accompanied by a video interview:

“I knew they were coming for me,” says Ping Fu. It was 1966, the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao Zedong, and she was 8 years old. “I heard this huge noise in the courtyard and saw the Red Guard. Then I heard my mom crying, saying, ‘She’s so little.’ They grabbed me. I wasn’t even given a chance to hug my mom. I was taken away from Shanghai, the only home I knew.”

Taken from her parents, Fu was left to fend for herself and her younger sister in a government-run dormitory in Nanjing, China, where she lived for nearly a decade. There, she was brainwashed, starved, tortured and gang raped, becoming a factory worker and without proper schooling. Years later, when the schools reopened, Fu began rebuilding her life as a student at Suzhou University. It was short-lived. A few months before graduation, her senior thesis research on female infanticide in China’s countryside caught the attention of the national press. She was imprisoned and sentenced to exile.

Fu began her life in America broke, alone and knowing only three words of English. She put herself through school doing odd jobs and eventually earned a computer science degree, setting her up to become a leading innovator in the early dot-com era. In 1997, she launched tech firm Geomagic with her husband, creating 3D software to customize product manufacturing, from personalized shoes and prosthetic limbs to NASA spaceship repairs. By 2005, it had $30 million in revenues, and she was named Inc. magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year. […]

Two days later, Forbes posted a translation of the piece to their Chinese-language website, prompting many Chinese netizens to express doubt over the authenticity of Fu’s account. Forbes’ follow-up to the original piece, which also attracted negative comments, summarizes the critique:

Since the publication of my piece, first in English and then in Chinese on ForbesChina.com, along with coverage by other media outlets serious questions have been raised in the Chinese blogosphere and elsewhere about Fu’s credibility.

Writers on my blog have been critical too. Commenter Fugang Sun wrote: “I experienced Culture Revolution and know a lot horrific stories happened in that era in person…. However, most of the stories listed in article are faked.” In the same vein, another skeptical commenter wrote: “There are already many voices questioning the validity of Ms. Fu’s story. From my view and experience it may very well be what it is: a story.”

[…]It also raised eyebrows that she said she had been exiled or deported from China, when there is no official record of it. When I asked her to address it, Fu says “exile” is not the correct word, despite that it’s used in the press release being sent to media members to promote her memoir. The release first states “Ping was deported,” and later repeats “Ping was exiled.”

The torrent of criticism quickly poured onto the customer review section of the book’s Amazon page after microbloggers issued a call-to-arms [zh] encouraging English-speaking peers to post negative one-star reviews (as of this morning, 394 of 500 reviews give the book a one-star rating.) The Daily Beast reports on the “Amazon blitz”:

As of press time, it rated 1.6 out of 5 stars, with 315 out of 377 reviewers giving it the lowest possible one star, often under such headlines as “Absolutely a liar” and “A good book only on April 1st.” Under Amazon’s reviewing system, most of the critics were able to weigh in under a pen name—but many appeared to be non-native English speakers with a knowledge of Chinese history. “Only those cant [sic] read chinese and not familiar with modern chinese history will believe the story,” wrote one. “She had [sic] talked this fake story too many times,” added another. “Her father and my father worked together in the university since 50s until they retired … Ping Fu was also a Red Guard herself!” blasted a third.

On February 1, China Daily’s Chinese portal posted an article about Fu’s “exaggerations,” including a picture seeming to substantiate claims that she was a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution [zh]. The article was widely forwarded on Sina Weibo. Meanwhile, notorious (and controversial) Chinese “myth-buster” and academic watchdog Fang Zhouzi dug into previous media coverage of Fu to weigh in, blasting Fu’s claims one by one. South China Morning Post’s Jon Kennedy reports:

First up, Fu’s claim she was sent to a labour camp at age 8 or 9 with her younger sister where for the duration of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) she was kept apart from her parents, brainwashed, starved, tortured, gang-raped, forced into child labour and deprived of education.

Fu would have been a minor throughout the Cultural Revolution, Fang points out, never mind her younger sister; children that young being forced into labour camps was unheard of: “I haven’t seen this in anyone else’s memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, it must have been a tragic experience had only by Ping Fu herself.”

As for Fu’s claim of being deprived of education those ten years, Fang points out that in 1977 – when the holding of university entrance examinations resumed and Fu was accepted by Suzhou University – not only were all applicants get pre-screened for eligibility, but also less than 5 per cent of applicants were accepted that year. “Was she a prodigy?,” he asks.[…]

[…]Noting Fu told Forbes she arrived in the United States knowing only three words of English, Fang remembered hearing the same anecdote in interviews she’d given to other media, so he went back and checked and found different sets of those first three words:

Inc.: Please, thank you, help;
Bend, Not Break: Thank you, hello, help;
NPR: Thank you, help, excuse me.

Ping Fu and her publishers were quoted in the Daily Beast post (above) expressing concern that much of the criticism was being hurled by people who hadn’t read the book, as it is not available in China. Fu herself published a response on Huffington Post, answering each point of critique individually:

Why did you say you were in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution?

I did not say or write that I was in a labor camp; I stated that I lived for 10 years in a university dormitory on the NUAA campus. Chinese children don’t get put in labor camps. I also did not say I was a factory worker. I said Mao wanted us to study and learn from farmers, soldiers and workers.

If you were deprived of an education for those 10 years of the Cultural Revolution, and less than 5 percent of applicants were accepted when universities reopened, how did you get in? Were you a prodigy?

After 1972, school resumed (p. 128). We had few formal classes at my school at the edge of Nanjing in an industrial area. I studied nonstop (pp. 229-231) and was known by my family as “the girl who never turns off her lights.” (p. 231)

Suzhou University did not reopen until 1982. How could you go there in 1977?

A: This is a typo in the book (p. 232). I took the college entrance exams in 1977 and 1978, and was admitted in 1978. When I entered, I believe it was called Jiangsu Teachers College or Jiangsu Teachers University. Its name changed to Suzhou University before I left; it was the same university in the same location.

[…]You claim you were brutally gang-raped. Gang rape doesn’t happen in China.

A: Rape is a very private matter and this definitely happened. I know this was not a hallucination. I have scars. My body was broken.

Click through to read Fu’s entire response.

In much of the recent English media coverage citing Fu and her publishers (including Fu’s own response), the point that this book is a memoir is emphasized, as is the subjectivity of memory. The Guardian reports:

“When I was young, these are the stories being told to us and in my nightmares they come back again and again. That time was so traumatic. I was taken away from my parents,” [Fu] said.

But she now accepts that her imagination may have played tricks. “Somehow in my mind I always thought I saw it, but now I’m not sure my memory served me right. I probably saw it in a movie or something, and I acknowledge that’s a problem.”

[…]Adrian Zackheim, publisher of Portfolio books, Penguin’s business imprint, said he stood by Bend Not Break, adding that he had “absolute confidence” in Fu and her memoir. “I have no doubts that the book is substantially correct and that attempts to pick apart elements of it are political attacks.”

Zackheim said Portfolio had no plans to look into the veracity of the book. “This is a memoir of a woman’s life, it’s not a work of journalism. Are there errors in the book? I can’t say, but if there are they are errors of memory.”

Currently, Fu’s Bend, Not Break is #24 on the New York Times Best Sellers nonfiction list.