Beijing-based women’s rights activist Xiao Meili recently introduced her friend Ma Hu with the first two parts of a three-part profile. Part one told the story of Ma Hu’s childhood, and how she dealt with her gender and sexual identity in a society that offered serious pressure for conformity on both fronts. Part two told of Ma’s experiences in Beijing, where she filed a lawsuit against China Post for gender discrimination, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. CDT has now translated the final part of the profile. After a brief recap, Xiao Meili tells of Ma Hu’s further struggles with mental illness, her difficulty coming out as a lesbian, and follows her back to the northeast for a closer look at her family life. All bold text was carried over from the original Chinese WeChat post:
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.
Ma Hu wanted to be a courier. But she was rejected by China Post just because she is a girl. She spent several years suing China Post, and she started working full-time on the issue of gender discrimination in employment.
In 2015, Ma Hu was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In 2017, she was hospitalized for a recurrent episode. This year in May, Ma Hu bade us farewell and went back to her hometown.
Before she left, we did about 10 hours of interviews. That was a long overdue conversation. We went through her experiences up until then.
In 2017, several feminist activists, me included, were repeatedly and forcibly evicted. The state security agents wielded their power, utilizing their identity as police and the lack of trust among the people, they intimidated our landlords and pretended to be the good guys. We were dragged into the endless loop of communicating with our landlords and having to move out. Within a year, we had been harrassed five times and had to move out three times.
Their reason was funny: it was for the sake of the Fortune Global Forum at the end of 2017. Before the state security agents came for us, we didn’t know what this forum was about. Then we learned it was held by an American magazine, and that many high-level officials and wealthy people would be attending. They often defame us as the “foreign forces,” but now because they wanted to hold this meeting with the real “foreign forces,” they used all these tactics just to get us girls to leave Guangzhou.
Losing our sense of security, we were constantly anxious. And whatever energy we had left, we used it to explain what happened, why it happened, and then watch all of those posts be deleted online. I’d guess the circumstances weren’t unique to feminist activists. Many people could feel the environment tightening up.
During that time, Ma Hu was still quite passionate and hopeful, because she was working at an art curation studio.
“Finally I had contact with artists, and the topics of discussion were something that interested me,” Ma Hu said. Half of the studio’s work was nonprofit, and the other half was promoting young artists. They discussed what else curators could do; how other people besides artists and curators might get involved. Listening to these boundless discussions, Ma Hu felt as if she was entering into a new field, just like when she first met the feminist activists during our Walk.
“The discussion was consensus-oriented. Oh my, it was so difficult,” Ma Hu said. The discussions didn’t have set limits on time or participants. Everyone was allowed to jump in. They were boundless. Ma Hu and another person who had similar experience couldn’t stand it. They said to the host: “This is so inefficient.” But the host stuck to this style.
“They believed that we’d know what to do only when everyone had fully voiced their concerns.” Indeed, after discussing a thousand different combinations of interpersonal relationships, and breaking the definitions of a thousand identities, people arrived at a fruitful result: to talk about depression from one person’s standpoint. And this person was Ma Hu. The exhibition was named “My Friend Ma Hu.” And during the discussions, people gradually got to know each other and became friends.
Ma Hu was so excited. She worked nonstop for 20 days. The first promotion of the exhibition asked people to find things related to depression. It was called “Finding Ma Hu.” The promotional ads said:
“Who is Ma Hu? S/he is both an imaginary and a real friend. S/he is everyone who has had similar experiences. By collectively building the image of Ma Hu, we hope to address the complex social relationships that face individuals dealing with depression, and the struggles that they have with themselves. Through these multifaceted inquiries, we can all find resonance in Ma Hu’s situation. If we could know more about our friend ‘Ma Hu’ through this exhibition, can we learn more about ourselves as well?”
The collection went smoothly. People who worked in art and public welfare, and people who wanted to know more about depression were interested. Ma Hu notified her family. Her dad, who always wanted her to be an artist, was quite happy.
But to everyone’s surprise, the ad was deleted the next day. Participants were bewildered. Even more surprisingly, the WeChat public account used to post the ad was also disabled that night. And the following day, information about the exhibition was deleted from Zhihu, Douban and other platforms too. “We were totally blocked on the internet,” Ma Hu said.
The Pot Boils Over
The office of stability maintenance, the district governmental office, and the propaganda committee all went to talk to the event organizers. They were overbearing. They said: “Ma Hu is going to be investigated by the municipal government. Here’s their order. Ma Hu is a despicable person, always launching publicity stunts. She uses just about any means to get famous, and she has feminist activists behind her. Those people were jailed before and have dangerous backgrounds…” They asked about the relationship between Ma Hu and the organizers. They even asked whether “Ma Hu was the one who built this organization,” which was obviously nonsense.
For the stability maintenance agents, this was just their daily job. But for the organizers and the participants, this was a big crisis. The participants gathered together to try to understand what happened. Basically none of them had ever experienced anything like this, and so they had no way to judge the terrain. They were scared and agitated. Ma Hu, who had never been directly questioned by these agents either, also lacked experience.
The event participants had come together simply because they were interested. They hadn’t known each other for long. The stability maintenance agents took advantage of the lack of trust among people and the fear of the regime. They also utilized their common tactic: using their authority to defame someone. Only when a drop of water hit the sizzling pan would people realize how hot that pan was. But it was already too late to run away. In the end, there was some conflict among the organizers, the participants, and Ma Hu. Everyone felt hurt.
Following the intimidation, folks tried to guess why the exhibition was shut down:
- Because they thought the topic of depression did not convey “positive energy”: “And you collect things from people? Do you want everyone to get depressed?”
- Because Ma Hu was a despicable and dangerous feminist activist.
- Because Guangzhou was holding the Fortune Forum soon and no other events were allowed.
I laughed when I heard the third point: “I guess this was the main reason then.” Ma Hu said: “Yeah. I felt like I had become a target.”
Some people suggested that Ma Hu should lie low and leave Guangzhou for a while. Ma Hu packed up her stuff and took a taxi. During the ride, she called a friend and said she was leaving. Her friend said: “Is that really necessary? Is the situation that bad?” They chatted for a while, and Ma Hu asked the driver to turn around.
Her friend’s analysis went: the target was the event, not Ma Hu. Ma Hu was just a participant. Other friends suggested they should expose the whole thing. Ma Hu wasn’t particularly satisfied with these responses: “My feminist friends were all too rational. They didn’t stand in my shoes. It made me feel as if I wasn’t important.”
“My situation required me to be mindful of everybody. So, I couldn’t make any statement. But they said so many bad things about me, and I couldn’t let my own voice be heard. How could I endure this…” Ma Hu was torn. She didn’t know what to do. At the time, Ma Hu’s family wanted to surprise her. They booked their flights to Guangzhou to see Ma Hu’s exhibition. This made Ma Hu even more stressed out. She couldn’t let her family know what had happened.
Ma Hu had all these feelings stuck in her heart with no place to vent them out. Bipolar is a very emotional condition, plus she had stopped taking her medication months ago. Ma Hu said: “It was really killing me…”
A month later, the incident gradually cleared out, and so did the people affected by it. But Ma Hu was still where she was, and she was starting to feel a delayed effect.
She sent her family off and gradually became alienated from her friends. Ma Hu was living in a small place in the urban village, and she seldom left her home. She didn’t remember to wash her face or brush her teeth. She didn’t remember to eat. She felt very lonely. No one understood her situation. Her condition was even worse than it was during the March 7 [Feminist Five detention] Incident. Her mind was constantly empty. Time went by slowly. She relied on boring TV shows to kill time. When she was not watching these shows, she couldn’t help blaming herself: Why is it so hard to collaborate with other industries? Why can’t I handle any of my relationships well? Everything had been so good, what happened?
She came across several stories about suicide in the news, and thought perhaps death was a way out.
Ma Hu felt her mind was blurry, but she felt it was somehow clear at the same time. She tried using the fruit knife and kitchen knife in her home. They were both dull and couldn’t make a cut. She went to the supermarket, her whole body stinking, to buy a blade. She thought: “This would do it.” She made a gentle slit: “Oh, it is quite sharp.”
She worried that she would die here and no one would know, and that she wouldn’t be able to leave anything. What frightened her was not death itself, but what might happen afterwards. Ma Hu started a WeChat public account to document her struggles: to die, or not to die. If she died someday, this would be the only record she left. She called it her “alternative will.”
These notes made her friends nervous. They called Ma Hu. Ma Hu was having intense feelings and she couldn’t process what her friends said. She knew that people cared about her, yet she thought the care felt less like comfort and more like demands. Ma Hu thought she couldn’t fulfill people’s demand for her to look better. She couldn’t pretend to be alright like she had two years ago, because this time she was really in a bad shape.
One night Ma Hu felt clearer for a few hours. She couldn’t stand being so dirty and went to take a shower. The shampoo touched the cut from before and it hurt so badly. Stimulated by the pain, Ma Hu thought: “I cannot die. If I die like this, I die for nothing and I leave nothing behind.”
Ma Hu found out that a hospital offered online consultation. The doctors said: “You have to come to the hospital.” She went, all dirty. The doctor saw her and said: “It’s good that you could still come.”
The doctor strongly recommended hospitalization. But that meant her family had to come with her. Ma Hu didn’t want to tell her family. The doctor said: “Then you could just take medication, but your body won’t be able to handle it. You may not recover for six months, but I cannot say for sure what will happen to you in six months.” So Ma Hu had to tell her family.
“Why didn’t you say anything before it became this bad?” Her family was in great shock. Her mom Ah Juan quickly came down to Guangzhou. She was a tough person but she broke down when she saw the cut on Ma Hu’s arm. Ah Juan said: “What did you do…” She didn’t know what to say, and Ma Hu didn’t know how to comfort her either.
After being hospitalized, Ma Hu felt good: she had regular meals and medication. Nurses would come to monitor her taking her drugs. She and Ah Juan occasionally went out to have a decent meal. Ma Hu felt relieved that she could finally talk about her condition with other people.
Ah Juan got herself together and took good care of Ma Hu. The hospital had shabby facilities and there was no place for patients’ families to sleep—Ah Juan had to crash on the twin bed with Ma Hu.
Ah Juan was a neat person and felt the hospital was too dirty. There was nowhere to take a shower, and a patient who shared the ward with Ma Hu often moaned at night. Ah Juan was in menopause and suffered from insomnia. She almost collapsed after a few days like this. Ma Hu said: “I felt like she was the one who should be hospitalized.” She tried to get Ah Juan to go home to rest at night.
Ah Juan didn’t feel at ease leaving Ma Hu alone at night. One night she said reluctantly: “I’ll go home tonight then. I’ll shower and take a rest.” Then she went through the details of how Ma Hu should eat dinner, and what to look out for. She stayed until the hospital’s bed time.
The patients who shared the ward with Ma Hu left deep impressions on her. One of them was a high school student who didn’t want to take the college entrance exam. She faked a depression and asked to be hospitalized. She was kicked out by the doctor after a few days.
Another one was a girl who fell ill after the college entrance exam. She had been here for a long time. She could not get herself out of that test preparation mental state. She recited the formulas and political education material aloud every night. If you stopped her, she’d get very anxious: “What else can I do if I don’t study? I won’t be able to get good marks otherwise.” The girl’s mother was loud too. The ward was filled with their voices at night.
The girl was always looking for things: “Where are my books? My comb? My cell phone? My laptop?” Once her dad came to take care of her for several days. He hid her laptop and cell phone and thought that would quiet her down. The girl looked for them everywhere and didn’t know what to do. She was so worried: “My laptop! All my study materials are in there. The final exam questions that my instructor sent me are in there!” She searched for it fanatically. She’d only stop if you gave her what she wanted. But after that, she’d start studying out loud again.
She always wanted to get out. She tried many times. And every time she acted up, they’d tie her to her bed. Once she tried again and said she wanted to get out to buy stationary. She was strong. Her mom was a small person and couldn’t catch her. As she ran by Ma Hu, Ma Hu caught her instinctively. The girl said: “I have to go get notebooks. I’m out of notebooks.” Ma Hu said: “I have some. I’ll let you use them.”
Ma Hu took her hand and guided her back to the ward. She was again tied up in bed. Ma Hu felt guilty for lying to her. As she was being tied up, the girl said: “I want freedom… You tied me up and I don’t have freedom…” She murmured about freedom again and again.
The girl on the bed next to her was named “Xiaoyu.” She had no energy to talk and could not take care of herself. When she was having her period, her bed would be drenched with blood. Once Xiaoyu sighed at night: “Aunties, could you lower your voices a bit? I can’t sleep…” After living together for many days, this was the only sentence that Ma Hu clearly heard from Xiaoyu.
Xiaoyu’s mom once chatted with Ah Juan: “What does your daughter do?” Ah Juan said: “Nonprofit work.” Xiaoyu’s mom said: “My daughter also works in nonprofit.” But I doubt they knew what their daughters did exactly.
Xiaoyu didn’t eat much. Her mom once pointed to Ma Hu and said: “Look at her. She always has a good appetite. She never misses a meal. You should learn from her. She also works for a nonprofit.”
That was when Ma Hu and Xiaoyu learned that they both worked in the nonprofit sector. Xiaoyu was spirited all of a sudden. When their moms left, Xiaoyu asked Ma Hu quietly: “What do you do?” Ma Hu said: “Feminist activism. What about you?” Xiaoyu said: “Gay rights activism.” The two chatted quietly for a long time. They didn’t expect to run into each other in here. Xiaoyu was in good spirit and moved down from her bed, crawled up to Ma Hu and said next to her ears: “Don’t tell my mom. I haven’t come out to her yet.” And Ma Hu said to her quietly: “Neither have I…”
Mom’s Persistence, Dad’s Grievances
After Ma Hu was discharged from hospital, she and Ah Juan went back to northeastern China to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Meanwhile, Ah Juan and her husband fought and wanted a divorce. Ah Juan had always wanted a divorce. She and her husband had always fought with each other.
Ah Juan didn’t receive much education, she never finished elementary school. After getting married, she had to take care of two daughters and do house chores. Ma Hu’s dad Old Deng is a carpenter. He started a small business making wood covers for heating pipes. Ah Juan was in charge of sales. She would take the train from her town to go to work. The commute was more than 2 hours roundtrip, and her home was far away from the train station. In winter, she could not ride her bike and had to walk—it was 30 minutes on foot. She wanted to save money and would only call a motorized tricycle if she had two kids with her. She didn’t want her kids to catch a cold.
Because she had girls, no one helped her to take care of them. Her family was poor when she first got married, and her husband’s family wouldn’t help either. Old Deng gave away his land and house to his siblings and didn’t even tell Ah Juan. He thought those were his family’s belongings and that he didn’t have to talk to Ah Juan about it.
As their financial situation got better, Ah Juan never grudged anything to help her in-laws. She never even bought such nice things for her own parents. The in-laws would come to Ah Juan when they needed just about anything. But no matter how much she’d done, it was never enough—she was treated as if she were not part of the family. Ma Hu’s aunt-in-law, on the other hand, had a son and didn’t have to spend any money for the in-laws. She said she was saving up to buy a house for her son.
Old Deng felt wronged. He said to Ma Hu: “I’m just like you. I have many dreams too, but your mom won’t let me pursue them. And now my whole life has passed.” Ah Juan was in charge of the money. She made sure the family had enough money to survive. She just wanted the four of them to have a decent life.
Nearly every year, Old Deng would fall into some sort of scam. Two years ago, he was tricked into a pyramid scheme and bought a whole bunch of useless medications. Although he never admitted that he was scammed, he never took those drugs either. And this year he wanted to spend 10000 yuan to learn fortune-telling. “My dad thinks because he earned the money, he has the right to spend it however he wants. So every year he’d act up and hope to have the say in the family.” Ma Hu said: “He is very stubborn. No one can change his mind.”
Ah Juan and Old Deng went to the civil affairs bureau to get a divorce. They were required to take a picture for the certificate. As Old Deng was sitting down, Ah Juan hesitated. They didn’t get the divorce after all.
Ah Juan is getting old. She isn’t well educated and no one wants to hire her except for hard labor. But her body won’t be able to handle that.
Old Deng had a fight with Ah Juan. He went out and walked briskly around the lake, lap after lap. “Through his whole life, he never figured out a suitable way to vent,” Ma Hu said.
He returned home at around 11pm. Ma Hu wanted to talk to him alone and offer comfort. The topic of Ma Hu’s illness came up during the conversation. Her dad asked whether she had emotional problems besides work. Ma Hu said: “Partly yes.” Old Deng asked out of the blue: “You are not homosexual, are you?” Ma Hu said: “Would you accept that?” Old Deng said: “No…” He paused for a while and said: “Actually I had some mental preparation. Before you were hospitalized, I asked your aunt for a psychic reading. I wanted to know if there was any insurmountable setback. Your aunt read out that you were gay. I asked her not to tell others.”
The next morning before Ma Hu got up, she heard Old Deng, Ah Juan, and her sister talking about her in the living room. Her sister learned she was gay three years ago. Ma Hu heard Ah Juan say: What would the future hold for this kid… Then she kept crying. Old Deng and Ma Hu’s sister tried to comfort Ah Juan. Old Deng heard Ma Hu getting up and took Ah Juan to another room. He was worried that it might affect Ma Hu’s mood.
That day, Ah Juan decided to become a janitor at a nightclub. It was a 24hr per shift job, and was too taxing. Ah Juan didn’t used to want to go. After about 30 hours, Ah Juan came home and told Ma Hu: “Your dad and your sister told me about you. I am a conservative person, and I don’t know much about this… but as long as you are happy.” Then she said: “And you need to think about this too, this won’t work…” And for the next 10 days, Ah Juan didn’t cry in front of Ma Hu.
Ma Hu’s parents don’t know how to express their emotions and feelings. They often get into arguments. The sisters started teaching their parents how to communicate. For example, when they were going out, Old Deng would say: “Don’t you feel cold wearing just this?” Ma Hu told Old Deng to instead say: “It’s cold outside. Wear more clothes. I care about you.”
Her family wanted her to come home. They thought Ma Hu’s job was too stressful. Ma Hu was planning her life in Guangzhou with her girlfriend Ah Mang. They discussed every detail until Ah Mang decided to get back together with her ex-girlfriend. She was not coming to Guangzhou anymore.
Ma Hu learned this news when she was at her friend’s house. She hid in the kitchen to weep. Since she was young, Ah Juan had never allowed her to cry, so she seldom cried out loud. But this time she forced herself to cry out. Her friends came to comfort her. She didn’t want others to see her cry and covered her face with her hands. She cried for so long that her hands got spongy. After that, she felt relieved. She finally had nothing to worry about. She quit her job.
After the decision was made, Ma Hu felt relieved. One night she was gathering with her colleagues and friends. She said: “We’ve worked together for so long, but do you know me?” After quitting her job, Ma Hu felt more energetic and started to talk to her friends more. Her friends asked whether she really wanted to go home. Ma Hu said: “Yes.”
Ma Hu started to look forward to returning home. She no longer had that sense of rebelliousness and the longing to leave. She wasn’t running away from anything. She simply needed to go home. “My family didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them. I had to go home and face them,” Ma Hu said.
At least she could eat her meals regularly after going home. In addition, northeastern China was in dire need of events related to gender issues. Ma Hu started thinking about what she should do and was looking forward to meeting new friends.
Long after the March 7 Incident, I heard Lu Pin said that young people in social movements were often fragile. We are people with borderline characteristics, so we hope to find answers to our questions, and to change society. Because we don’t have the burden of vested interests, we are more capable of action. But these characteristics also make us fragile, and contribute to a lack of social resources. Participating in social movements has widened rifts within our families and strained our existing social connections. If the movement is hurt, we have limited elasticity to take that blow.
I often blame myself for my naivety and powerlessness. I often want to help people and help myself out of kindness. But I don’t know what kind of a monster I am actually facing.
Everyone knows that many articles get deleted, and many truths get hidden. It’s like killing weeds. Feminist Voices’ social media accounts were disabled. Then many professional marketing accounts defamed us as “cross-border pimps” and “country splitters.” And some accounts that only post jokes and gossip were also deleted. There are many guesses, but no one knows the real reasons behind it. Perhaps even this big apparatus itself, which doesn’t have a unified character, doesn’t even know the reasons for sure. But what we do know for sure is that this machine, increasingly, can do whatever it wants. The monster is fully grown.
There are people who left comments to ask me: “Why didn’t they go harass other people? Why did they only harass you? What is the matter with you?” And I understand: when people are living in an environment where resistance isn’t allowed, they can easily long to believe in the powerful. Otherwise how do they deal with their situation? It takes courage to accept the truths of the world that one lives in.
From time to time, some people would say to me: “You all shouldn’t be that radical. Don’t provoke them. Only then can we get things done.” However, if it wasn’t for the people standing in front of you, you’d also become radical. But of course you’ve seen, we are actually pretty useless (LOL). Soon, this will be the challenge that more of us have to face together.
Before more pains come, what I can do is share with you my experience of walking in the dark night. From these people, I gain the strength to outgrow the darkness.
I asked Lu Pin: “What should we do in this ever more terrible environment?” Lu Pin said: “Live on. Outlive them. Only then can we see hope.” Yes, we need to live on with healthy minds and bodies. And I hope we can grow too. I want to use their words to document our flesh and bones. In a cyberspace full of hostility, I hope to carve out enough room for a hug, and build some trust between people that cannot be easily broken.
This is why I wrote down these stories.
Thanks for reading this. [Chinese]