Peking University graduate Sun Min was one of over a dozen student and labor activists detained by authorities in various Chinese cities between November 9 and 11. As of today, her whereabouts remain unknown. This most recent round of detentions is part of a state crackdown on rising labor activism by students or graduates of elite Chinese universities, led by self-described communists who espouse Marxist principles and have devoted themselves to promoting workers’ rights. An earlier round of detentions in August led to the disappearance of fellow Peking University graduate Yue Xin, whose current whereabouts are similarly unknown.
Earlier this week, CDT translated a profile of Sun Min, posted originally by the Jasic Workers Solidarity Group, which outlined her devotion to her activism. CDT now offers a translation of an essay by feminist activist Zheng Churan (also known by her pen name Datu, literally “Big Rabbit”), in which she connects Sun’s activism to China’s feminist movement, and declares the missing Marxist to be her idol. Zheng Churan is one of the “Feminist Five” activists who were criminally detained for over a month in 2015.
My Idol Has Disappeared
My idol has disappeared.
When I was writing this piece, I could barely put pen to paper. Agitated, I would delete each character I wrote. It’s easy enough to tell everyone Sun Min is my idol, but to explain why she is missing, that requires delving into my old life. I really don’t know what sort of language is up to the task of describing how it feels, having someone you love just vanish. It’s like when I once disappeared. My comrades had to let their tears flow before turning to words.
I conferred the title of ‘my idol’ on Sun Min long before I actually met her. It was a winter day in 2012. I’d gone to an industrial zone to chat about feminism with some workers. Back then I didn’t really understand class or labor. The discussion centered on the activism of my women’s rights group: we talked about fighting domestic violence, and sexual discrimination.
A big sister, having spotted our group of workers, enthusiastically gripped my left shoulder and said in a bright voice: “Sun Min, you’re back again?”
I awkwardly turned around to ask, “Who’s Sun Min?”
Big Sis gasped in surprise and said, “I thought you were Sun Min! You’re her spitting image! Really!”
We had a good laugh over this. I thought this twin of mine, Sun Min, must be quite popular. Big Sis had been so happy to see her.
After listening to the discussion on domestic violence and sexual discrimination, a male worker raised his hand to ask a question. I’d had enough of male spectators making trouble and asking their male power-oriented questions. I always felt a bit listless when it came to men’s statements. But to my utter shock, the guy asked some profound questions regarding feminism. For instance, he asked what kind of improvements in “female staff protection laws” against sexual discrimination to advocate for. He went on to raise issues concerning his encounters with domestic violence, and the obstructions he’d met with when helping to report injuries…
“Shoot! These men are so advanced!” Back then I couldn’t fathom how there could be such gender conscious men in a crude industrial zone. Where had they come from? Had they been planted in the earth? Were there seeds?
I shared this novelty with a friend, a local female worker. I sighed in amazement, the area’s soil had to be very good. She looked at me like I was fool. “You really think these guys could become so gender conscious naturally? It’s all thanks to Sun Min’s influence.”
This Sun Min, after completing a graduate degree in women’s studies at Peking University, had continuously served industrial zone workers. Because the proportion of males in this zone was high, she would seize male workers every day, while crouching at food stalls and drinking beer, educating them on gender equality and labor rights, meticulously and bit-by-bit. This was why, after several years, I was seeing such enlightened men, supporting women’s rights, in the industrial zone.
It was very difficult for me, misanthrope that I was, to imagine how Sun Min could struggle year after year, day after day, in the industrial zone, discussing class and gender with workers one by one. It was exacting work, the diligent winning of hearts and minds. Presumably it required a lot of patience and fervor.
That’s how I came to regard this Sun Min as one of my idols. I hoped to emulate her strength and diligence in upholding the feminist ideal.
I eventually met her, quite by accident. Sure enough, her red-framed spectacles were just like mine. Everyone said we looked alike. The difference was she dressed very casually, like she’d never thought about matching, and had thrown on a t-shirt and quick-drying hiking pants bought from an outdoor supply shop. Her short, slightly golden hair was cropped short to reveal her ears and forehead. Her conscientious eyes conscientiously regarded you. Tone earnest, she said, “Hello Datu. I’m a feminist too.”
Chatting, we were like close friends who hadn’t seen each other in hundreds of years. Possibly others couldn’t understand us as we talked and laughed like pigs. Sun Min wasn’t the type of girl to dress up. She spent her time in study and service. Still just a freshman undergraduate at China Women’s University, she joined the campus Three Rural Issues Association. Every week they went to a village on Beijing’s perimeter to teach the children of migrant workers, as part of an educational program for underdeveloped areas. In vast Beijing, these round trips took two hours, but Sun Min couldn’t get over how cute the children were. Many laborer parents were too busy supporting their families to take care of their children. This made Sun Min especially sorry. She spent all her time on these matters […].
Her women’s studies research focused on female migrant workers. The female workers she encountered in the field, graduating from high school directly into factory work, reminded her of close friends from childhood through adulthood: forced to end their studies, obliged to work in factories and send money back home. She once told us about an incident she witnessed at a morning meeting in a factory. The boss hurled all kinds of abuse at his workers, his relaxed mouth like an anus spraying excrement. But everyone could only bow their heads. They couldn’t retort, just quietly endure the verbal abuse. Sun Min told us she was so angry she cried. She couldn’t just stop at research. She had to do something to address these injustices.
Sun Min was so full of righteous ardor I sometimes felt she was like one of those great, upright heroes in a model opera from the Cultural Revolution era. But I found Sun Min to be quite human, and interesting, and moreover her style of feminism was unique. For instance, she told me about the time her class was about to go on a field trip, and the boys had a destination in mind. She dissented, saying she didn’t want to go. She felt the boys were too bossy, not listening to their female classmates’ wishes. Therefor she convinced everyone to dispense with the trip, and let the boys go play by themselves. There was a parting on bad terms, but, she suddenly and earnestly told me, in the end it was for the best: the original destination ended up suffering a flood or earthquake. Surprisingly, vile male chauvinism had saved their lives. We both laughed. This interpretation of events was quite politically incorrect, but also very fucking true.
She was always telling jokes that were incredible from a materialist point of view. During her years in the industrial zone, she often had stomach problems. Chatting with workers, she sometimes just ignored meal times. Workers’ free time was often too short, so she often stayed up late. Little by little, her health worsened. She would have a thin cardigan with her, even in summer, to keep from catching a cold. Everyone urged her to pay attention to her health, and not die prematurely. But her self-mocking reply was, “Living to fifty or sixty would be just fine. What’s important is value of life.”
I always imagined that if she’d lived in revolutionary times, she would surely have been a heroine, wearing a sword and venturing forth to rid the people of a scourge. She loved Qiu Jin, the anti-Qing revolutionary. One Spring Festival, so as to avoid her family’s repeated urges to marry, she ran off on her own. On New Years Day she was in Hangzhou, on a shore of West Lake. At Qiu Jin’s tomb she sang “Strive for Women’s Rights.” We love freedom, we drink a cup of wine to freedom. And she wielded a sword, in a sense, freely and naturally saying, “Don’t love red wedding attire, love military arms.”
Of course, in many people’s eyes, people like her, brimming with idealism and fervor, are always a bit different or naive: When she couldn’t sleep, she’d lustily sing “Che Guevara.” She loved photographing scenery that harmonized with Chairman Mao’s “wait ‘til bright mountain flowers are in full bloom” season. She smiled in groves. Reading something exciting, she would share with you on WeChat Moments something like “Freedom has class attributes”… This sort of passion seems out of date, unsuited to the mainstream, but it is also scarce, and precious. Someone so natural and unrestrained, yet still doing the meticulous work of advocating for gender equality and women’s rights, must surely be full of goodwill toward humanity in her heart, someone who could never lose hope for the future.
So in touch with the common people, a heroine, yet she recently disappeared. There is news spreading that due to her support of workers’ rights and student causes, the police took her away. But as of now, we don’t know where she was taken, or what she’s been charged with. Many students involved with workers’ rights have disappeared. I don’t know what kind of terrible treatment they’ll be confronted with. It’s hard to understand the people who arrested them (or maybe they deliberately don’t let themselves be understood). The students pursue the ideals of justice and fairness. They can only be perceived by authorities as very stupid or naive, perhaps bored and out to make trouble. Maybe they’ll be asked: It’s not enough to just live your own life well? Why on earth defend the rights of others?
But surely they’re meddling in the affairs of others because they’re like that lake-reflected heroine Qiu Jin, with the same inner strength, possessing the same hope for a time of “bright mountain flowers in full bloom.” They want all of humanity to be free and at ease, together. They could never be satisfied with just making good lives for themselves.
If these words are criminal, please arrest all of us who hope for change and a better world (rather than a worse one). How about it? You people, who in your minds cannot tolerate enlightened people and things, or kindheartedness, or courage.
Where are they now, these brave and naïve people? Are they safe and sound? When will my idol return, so we can sing and drink, and make merry in this brief life? The weather is turning cold. Is she wearing warm enough clothes? Is she eating regularly? Is she sleeping adequately? Will she be falsely accused? Treated unjustly? Humiliated and shamed? Beaten up? Worn down by bombardment?
Regardless of all that I know or might know, I cannot forget Sun Min. I can’t forget her earnest gaze, her casual, mismatched, humble manner of dressing, her time-economizing cropped hair, someone who for the past 6 years spoke out for women, for giving them more power, with every word she uttered.
I hope you’re safe and sound. [Chinese]
Translation by Alicia.