Beijing-based women’s rights activist Xiao Meili recently shared part one of a two-part profile of her friend Ma Hu. This profile, shared on Xiao’s WeChat account, tells the story of Ma Hu’s childhood, and how she dealt with her gender and sexual identity in a culture that offered serious pressure for conformity on both fronts. CDT has translated part one in full, and will translate the second half shortly after Xiao Meili posts it:
In my last essay about Lin Xun, I mentioned:
“A friend who is a feminist activist was hospitalized for bipolar disorder. There she discovered that the patient in the same ward was a gay rights activist.”
Some people said this line made them laugh. Others said it made them cry.
This friend who was hospitalized is Ma Hu.
In 2013 when I was walking from Beijing to Guangzhou, someone whose internet name is “Donkey” came to walk with me.
She really was like a donkey: quiet, stubborn, enduring. And she had a pair of very big eyes.
Then I said: “I can’t keep calling you ‘Donkey’ (驴). It doesn’t sound smooth. Let’s split the character and call you ‘Ma Hu’ (马户).” Then, she stuck with this name.
My relationship with Ma Hu started during that walk. She was with me until the end of the trip, and we lived in Beijing together.
Ma Hu wanted to be an express delivery courier. But because she’s a woman, she was rejected by China Post. She sued China Post and the case went on for several years. And she started working full time to fight gender discrimination in employment.
In 2015, Ma Hu was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and moved to Guangzhou. In 2017, she was hospitalized because of bipolar. In May this year (just some time ago), Ma Hu said goodbye to us and went back to her hometown.
Before she left, we had an interview that lasted about 10 hours. It was a long overdue conversation. Together we tried to sort out all of her experiences.
Her story is long, but I don’t want to lose any part of it. So I divided it into two parts.
She Was Nearly Sent Away After Birth
Ma Hu was born in a small village in northeastern China. Because her family already had one daughter, she was given away to another family just days after she was born. But not too long after that, her dad felt bad about it and took Ma Hu back with tears in his eyes.
Because they had broken the family planning law, Ma Hu’s mother tried to hide it from the village but finally got caught. She was dragged to a shabby room with a bed in it. They gave her intravenous fluids, maybe glucose or saline, no anesthesia. Then they cut her belly open and sterilized her.
Because she had given birth to two girls, her mom was treated badly. No one helped to take care of her babies, and she had to work in the field. To this day, her mom would still talk about how she wanted a soda but no one paid attention.
Wanting to impress, her mom tried to dress up the two girls neatly and beautifully. She cared so much about hygiene that she almost tore the clothes by washing them. She was also strict about her kids’ grades. She wanted to prove that they were no less than boys.
Because it was too time consuming to do the two daughters’ hair, Ma Hu’s mom once took them to a barber to get them crew cuts, leaving only very thin bangs at the front. That was a boy’s haircut. Ma Hu wouldn’t stop crying after that, and she was teased by her classmates.
However, Ma Hu’s grandma—who once suggested giving Ma Hu away—began to like her because she looked like a boy. Boys in the family were all spoiled and had no self motivation. Ma Hu aced her way through school and was diligent. Later, Ma Hu unexpectedly became her grandma’s favorite kid. In her grandma’s eyes, Ma Hu had the virtues of both a boy and a girl. Her grandma used to say: “Everything about you is great, except that you lack one piece of meat.”
This made Ma Hu feel guilty since childhood. She felt that she had a deficiency, and that she didn’t meet her family’s expectations.
Ma Hu learned how to chop firewood, how to shovel snow, and how to fix small household electronics. She helped her dad do carpentry as well. “I know everything that a boy knows.” But she still couldn’t satisfy her family. What she remembered clearly was one time when her family was moving, her dad got tired moving the drawers. And he said: “Damn it, if only I had a son, he would have been able to help me move them.”
Grandma Brainwashed Me Into a “T”
T equals “Tomboys.” In this essay it mainly refers to the boyish one in a same-sex relationship between two women.
After she got her haircut, Ma Hu started wearing pants and never wanted to wear skirts again. She’d feel happy if she were mistaken as a boy on the street. She started playing with toy guns and soccer balls, because boys liked those things. Her grandma often asked her: “Are you going to marry a girl in the future?” Grandma’s words gave Ma Hu the room to like girls—to like girls from the perspective of a husband.
Ma Hu never doubted that she was gay. Since she was young, courtship from boys just made her uneasy. But when her girlfriends started dating others, she felt sad.
In high school, Ma Hu’s breasts became more noticeable. Her family then started to require her to be more girly. They were worried that Ma Hu wouldn’t be able to find a husband: “What kind of man will be able to handle Ma Hu… Perhaps we’ll have to find a sissy boy with long hair to balance her out.”
In recent years, Ma Hu tried to change her gender disposition because she hadn’t initially chosen to be like this. She tried to wear long hair and more feminine clothing, but she’d cut her hair after a while and she couldn’t get used to girly clothes. She couldn’t change it back.
Ma Hu’s dad learned painting when he was young. He didn’t make it into the art academy, and instead became a carpenter. He wanted Ma Hu to be a painter. Ma Hu took the college entrance exam for art students, and didn’t do well on her first try. The second year, she didn’t apply to universities outside of her province. Unexpectedly, she got admitted to the Oil Painting Department of a university in her province with the highest points in both art and general assessments.
While she was taking painting classes, Ma Hu made friends with a lesbian. Then she realized that she was a T. Tomboys wear chest binders, so she went to buy one. The store clerk quietly fetched one from the back of the store, as if they were dealing drugs. The chest binder was very expensive. Having completed her self identification as a T, and now that the college entrance exam was over, Ma Hu wanted to start dating.
She got to know her first love Ah Qing* from a QQ group chat. To pursue this girl, Ma Hu used her savings from working at a studio and bought her a gold ring. Then she put the ring in a rose-filled box and gave it to Ah Qing. It was very much in the northeastern style.
In a Relationship With Ah Qing and Her Entire Family
Ma Hu and Ah Qing entered into a relationship, but she felt as if she was dating Ah Qing’s entire family. Ah Qing’s family had connections to the officialdom. Their lives were all dependent on her maternal grandfather’s “guanxi” and resources. When it came down to Ah Qing’s generation, there wasn’t much “guanxi” left to utilize anymore. Ah Qing’s family is a miniature of how northeastern China went downhill.
Ah Qing and her mom were the poorest in their family. Ah Qing’s mom was the only daughter, and she sacrificed her entire life for her family. Because Ah Qing is a girl, her dad always treated her and her mom as if they were not part of the family. Ah Qing’s dad gave his paychecks to her paternal grandpa. Her dad didn’t leave them any inheritance after he died of illness.
Ah Qing wanted to sue her grandpa and uncle to get some of that money back. Ma Hu always accompanied Ah Qing to court. After two years, they managed to win back a little bit of money. But Ah Qing didn’t get anything. Her mom used the money to buy things for her uncle and her male cousins.
Ah Qing took care of her second uncle’s daily life as well her own family’s affairs. She was also responsible for sending food to her youngest uncle. Her mom thought this way she could earn her uncles’ money after they passed away. But Ah Qing knew that no matter how diligent she was, the money would go to her male cousins.
Ah Qing actually majored in a discipline that made it easy to land a job. But her mom wouldn’t let her work, and Ah Qing didn’t earn a salary. She only had a bit of pocket money every month to spend. A girl in her twenties had to live her life around all these household chores. When Ah Qing did these chores, Ma Hu helped her.
Ah Qing’s mom sacrificed everything for her family. The only thing she wanted to do for herself was to eat good food and buy some pretty clothes. She had diabetes and many foods were off limit, but she never followed the rules.
She liked to wear high-heels, but because of her diabetes, her feet were swollen. Whenever she saw a pair of high-heels that she could fit into, she’d buy them. After wearing them for one day, her feet would swell even more and would ulcerate. Then she had to go to the doctor, and Ah Qing and Ma Hu had to take care of her.
Ma Hu would help Ah Qing’s mom wash her feet. “I have never even helped my own parents wash their feet. I did all these because I wanted to be accepted by her family.” Ah Qing’s mom was retired but she couldn’t sit around and do nothing. She became a janitor at a school to make a few extra bucks. She dragged her diabetic body to sweep the school buildings, wipe the rails, and clean the elevators. Ah Qing couldn’t stand there and watch her mom work alone, so she’d help. And Ma Hu cared about Ah Qing, so she’d help too.
“I was so pure back then. I just thought whatever the obstacles might be, we’d have to stay together, and be loyal to each other. We were so love sick,” said Ma Hu. Ah Qing didn’t have other friends. Their conversations were always about Ah Qing’s family. And they weren’t particularly close with the other lesbian friends that they knew through the QQ group chat. Some girl from the group chat actually scammed Ah Qing for some money. “I’m the only one she’s got,” said Ma Hu.
Ah Qing’s biggest wish was that Ma Hu could find a good job after graduation. Then she could move in with Ma Hu and leave her original family, so that she wouldn’t have to do so many chores. Once she saw a tomboy driving a small white car in her neighborhood, then the tomboy and her girlfriend walked out from the car. Ah Qing envied their lifestyle. She always said to Ma Hu: “Let’s also get a small white car in the future,” even though Ma Hu wasn’t particularly fond of white cars.
I Didn’t Want to Help the Teachers Wash Their Brushes
The biggest impression that Ma Hu’s university life left on her was one of bureaucracy. Ah Qing bought Ma Hu a very expensive pen and asked her to give it to her guidance counselor so that she could become a Party member. “Her family is like that. Everything is about connections, whether it’s seeing a doctor, going to school, finding a job or going to court…” But Ma Hu didn’t get selected, because you’d have to be a member of the student council before you could become a Party member. The guidance counselor actually felt bad and gave Ma Hu a title of “outstanding Party-member-to-be.”
Many students proactively tried to please the teachers. They helped the teachers wash their brushes to establish good relations. The students didn’t think about what they wanted to convey with their works, all they cared about was whether the teachers liked their paintings. The more your paintings resembled your teachers’, the higher scores you’d get. So they would paint multiple ones because chances are the teachers would like one of them.
Ma Hu rebelled against this type of grading system. At the final exam, she placed four blank canvases in front of her. When the teachers came to judge her painting, she drew a long stroke on the four canvases, numbered them, and reorganized them in a different order. The name of her work was “Grades.” The teachers had a long discussion about it. No one knew what they said. But Ma Hu’s work actually got a high mark.
Ma Hu got to know a female teacher named Liu Yun*. Liu Yun thought Ma Hu was creative. She liked hanging out with her and a boy from her class. Ma Hu said Liu Yun knew what was important for a person. Liu Yun always showed Ma Hu something new.
From Liu Yun, Ma Hu learned about modern art, and fell in love with it. One day Ma Hu saw a book about feminist art at Liu Yun’s place and was blown away. The artwork by Judy Chicago, “The Dinner Party,” left a particularly deep impression on her. “I thought: What is this feminism thing after all?!”
Who Am I? What Do I Want to Do?
It was almost senior year, and Ma Hu’s classmates were all competing over opportunities for employment and graduate school. Being a teacher wasn’t something Ma Hu wanted. She didn’t want to live a kind of life where you could see the end of it. Ah Qing tried to persuade Ma Hu to network and find a job. In her junior year, Ma Hu started to argue a lot with Ah Qing. And finally she decided to break up with her.
Liu Yun asked whether Ma Hu wanted to go to graduate school, but Ma Hu didn’t want that either. Graduate school just provided a couple more years to get by in school, and you’d still have to network with the teachers to be able to get in. The classmates were fighting brutally for jobs and positions in graduate school, but Ma Hu didn’t want any of those. She didn’t know who she was, or what she wanted to do. She was quietly weeping in her bed every night. Although she didn’t know what kind of a person she wanted to be, she knew that compromising wasn’t something she wanted. She wouldn’t be free that way.
Then, on Weibo, Ma Hu saw that I was doing “Mei Li’s Feminist Walk.” She was drawn by this thousand-mile walk from the north to the south. How about leaving this environment for now? Ma Hu messaged me: “Hi, I want to walk with you for 40 days.”
*Ah Qing and Liu Yun are pseudonyms
Translation by Yakexi. Stay tuned for CDT’s translation of part two of this profile.