At a December 3 English press conference in Beijing, in reply to an anonymous reporter’s question on U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments on the national security threat posed by Chinese tech firms, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying employed a literary reference that was likely lost on most of the reporters present:
Q: In an article carried by Politico, US Secretary of State Pompeo wrote that “it’s critical that European countries not give control of their critical infrastructure to Chinese tech giants like Huawei, or ZTE”, that Huawei “maintains links to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army”, is “implicated in espionage” in some countries and has “allegedly stolen intellectual property” from countries including Germany, Israel and the United Kingdom. Pompeo also claims that China’s National Intelligence Law makes clear that the Communist Party of China can force any 5G supplier headquartered in China to turn over data in secret. Do you have a response?
A: In New Year’s Sacrifice, a short story written by a famous Chinese writer Lu Xun, there is a figure known as Wife of Xianglin who keeps telling the same story time and again. Mr. Pompeo is behaving just like her. But unlike her harmless monologue, Mr. Pompeo keeps repeating poisonous lies.
He wrote that Huawei has “allegedly stolen intellectual property” from countries including Germany, Israel and the United Kingdom. We have been asking about this and the US has been shunning the question because it doesn’t have the answer. So far, not a single country, company or individual can present conclusive evidence to prove that Huawei poses a security threat. On the contrary, Der Tagesspiegel stated in May that after years of review, the UK government, Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security and the European Commission all failed to find any backdoor in Huawei. […] [Source]
The character she referenced, the Wife of Xianglin (祥林嫂, also commonly translated as “Aunt Xianglin” or “Xiang Lin’s wife”) comes from Lu Xun’s 1924 story The New Year’s Sacrifice (祝福). She is a mentally traumatized and tragic figure, one who served as a way for the author to criticize many outdated and inhumane customs of feudal society (in the story, the woman is never given a name of her own—she is referred to only as the wife of her deceased husband—itself a criticism of the status of women in old China, a genre of criticism that continues to resound in China today).
The literary figure may not have been the most appropriate analogy for Hua to use in her attack on Secretary Pompeo. Due to the obscurity of the reference and the lack of any follow-up questions from the press pool, at Quartz Jane Li provides literary context, and explains why some Chinese may have found offense in the reference:
Aunt Xianglin is a character from “New Year’s Sacrifice” (祝福), a short story written in 1924 by Lu Xun, arguably the best-known modern Chinese writer. In the story, Aunt Xianglin, who is mentally challenged and works as a servant, is a widow of a young man who died of illness and works as a servant—she is never referred to by her own name in the story, only in relation to her first husband, Xianglin. She is later forced to re-marry by her mother-in-law for the dowry. The second husband also dies of illness, and their new-born son killed and eaten by wolves. Despite these unfortunate incidents, Xianglin presses on with life and returns to work as a servant. However, the family employing her believes she carries bad luck and forbids her from preparing the new year sacrifice, an important Chinese ritual for paying respect to ancestors. The incident breaks Aunt Xianglin, who later ends up begging on the streets, telling the same story repeatedly about her son’s death. She eventually dies quietly on a winter night.
[…[ Hua made the comments in response to a question raised by an unidentified journalist, who cited a Politico article that quoted Pompeo as saying European countries should not give control of their critical infrastructure to Chinese tech giants because of their close ties to Beijing, according to a transcript published by the foreign ministry. As one of the most hawkish US politicians on China, Pompeo often criticizes China on a range of issues including Hong Kong and Xinjiang, comparing China’s suppression of the Uyghur Muslims to East Germany for example.
By invoking Aunt Xianglin, Hua was resorting to deep-rooted tropes that are offensive to both women and mentally challenged people in order to denigrate Pompeo. “There is already lots of mockery of Aunt Xianglin in daily life. But somehow I feel sad to see her being made fun of like this on a national level,” said one user (link in Chinese) on social network Weibo. [Source]
While some netizens took issue with Hua’s choice, several official organizations and media took to Weibo to applaud the spokesperson’s “burn”:
[Beautiful Burn! Hua Chunying Says Pompeo Resembles Aunt Xianglin] U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo recently claimed that Huawei was suspected of conducting espionage in multiple countries, specifically mentioning intellectual property theft in Germany, England, and other countries. Hua Chunying’s response: “It seems to me, judging from Mr. Pompeo’s recent actions, he really resembles the Wife of Xiang Lin. The only difference is that Aunt Xianglin’s chatter was harmless nonsense. Pompeo’s rambling is all poisonous lies. [Chinese]
After seeing the official round of applause offered for this less than ideal literary reference, many netizens piled on, taking the opportunity to castigate Hua’s inappropriate use of a classic Lu Xun character, and her apparent misunderstanding of the archetype of Aunt Xianglin and the criticism that the author intended while penning her. CDT Chinese editors have archived a collection of netizen reactions, which are translated below:
桃**: Harmless “nonsense”? Aunt Xianglin spoke about her son’s tragic death and the tragedy she encountered in her life. How has that become nonsense? Mr. Lu Xun wrote the Aunt Xianglin character as a criticism of feudalistic morality and the cold ruthlessness of society at the time. Why is it that today we nevertheless have people publicly and voluntarily acting like those ruthless people who sent Aunt Xianglin to her death? I really don’t understand [Hua Chunying’s] comments.
玉**: Lu Xun wrote that Aunt Xianglin was met with tragedy; that she’s an unfortunate victim. The character was meant to expose those who harmed her. Now, it’s finally public officials’ turn to publicly humiliate Aunt Xianglin. Is it really a shameful thing to be a “Aunt Xianglin”?
拢********: Have you read this story? Wasn’t Aunt Xianglin’s predicament caused by the oppression suffered by women in Old China? [Hua Chunying’s comments] feel like they’re targeting women, do they not?
点*********: So, let me get this straight. Being treated like livestock, being violently forced to sell your body, losing your son and your sanity, silently bereaving the loss of your son, and going through all the misfortune of women in Old China, in the end, you’re expected to just keep on blaming yourself. Even after experiencing the tremendous pain of losing your own son. “Oh, I’m so silly.” According to these officials, it would seem, [Aunt Xianglin’s] moans of agony are nothing but “harmless nonsense.” What “nonsense.” Lu Xun wrote to criticize the cannibalistic ruthlessness of old society, to reveal who the victims are, not to have you all humiliate her like those other characters in the story. But as it turns out, to this day, there are still people stepping on her misfortune, sucking on the blood of the vulnerable.
@***: Demonstrating Misogyny with Chinese Characteristics on the world diplomatic stage—what a Great Power Diplomatic Dream Team.
小*********: This analogy doesn’t make sense. Lu Xun was satirizing the cold-blooded bystanders of old society. People really think this is a “good attack”? What kind of sub-standard news people are these? They should have just kept quiet and let this comment pass. A pile of official accounts embarrassing themselves over this, triumphantly offering their quips, thinking Americans don’t know about Aunt Xianglin… If Americans were to reference a character from American literature, would you understand? This is worth being “proud” over? If Americans really did understand Aunt Xianglin, what an embarrassment that would be for the country. Surely, there’s no glory in the cannibalism of old society, right?
胡*****: In China years ago, we learned to be sympathetic to the tragedies Aunt Xianglin encountered, to be critical of injustice. Now, [Aunt Xianglin] is analogous to brainlessness and nagging… Times really have changed.
六**: The problem is, they don’t even know who Aunt Xianglin is. By her coming up with a diss like this, Americans would have to go searching through the Lu Xun classics [in order to even understand what she meant]!
尼****: Aunt Xianglin said her son was eaten by wolves. This is nonsense? Are you for real?!
一******: It’s shocking that as a woman you would consider Aunt Xianglin a negative example. This isn’t some obscure literary character—this is an important piece of required reading for at least the last two generations. She is herself a symbol. She is not a negative character; she is a hardworking yet fragile woman oppressed by the society of Old China. The only people who would make fun of her would be [feudalistic] landlords and ignorant passersby. Could it be… that you’re surnamed Zhao?
S*******: Who would have thought? It hasn’t even been 100 years, and the Foreign Ministry and Communist Youth League are mocking Aunt Xianglin. They’ve forgotten she represents the hardship endured by countless women of the feudalistic era. Yes, she’s an angry woman, but there’s a reason for her anger. Where is this ridicule coming from? Is it just that we’re now in a different era, or is it feudalistic powers on the rise? One shouldn’t take oneself too lightly, nor speak improperly, lest you block the way of earnest advice.
鳚****: Aunt Xianglin is a working class woman that endured hardship and suffering in old society. Invoking her name to insult others—wouldn’t that mean your views align with those who killed her?
霁**: A woman who endured great suffering in the old society, still now dishonored after her death by New China.
大****: This is the most cold-blooded, most outrageous diplomatic statement I’ve ever heard.
半*****: Those of you clapping your hands saying how great this is, are you not that group of people Lu Xun wrote about?
D*******: So this is how the government mocks working class people. Now I know.
A*********: I suggest she go back and read Lu Xun. [Aunt Xianglin] is a tragic character, discriminated against and extorted by old society. Have some sympathy and do some reflection. Now you’re using her to insult others—and you’re proud of it! Have some compassion for your own people.
N*********: Mocking Aunt Xianglin out in the open like this, you’ve forgotten your roots. You’ve forgotten that the power to govern was won through people sacrificing their lives—people who suffered such tragic fates in old society.
鱼**: How laughable! Aunt Xianglin dared to fight against oppression, and she failed tragically. She was a vivacious person who ultimately came to such a tragic end… Now [her story] has a negative connotation? With comments like that, it’s like your nine years of compulsory education were all a joke.
小*****：Xiao*****: Aunt Xianglin was hounded to death by the “not even spitting out the bones” cannibalism of the feudalistic morality of old society. Now she’s being denigrated by the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman (a woman!!). “Harmless nonsense”—that’s what she’s calling [Aunt Xianglin’s] pain of losing her own son. You’d think under normal circumstances the Foreign Ministry would have to come out and apologize to the public, right? All those fanboys and girls at the front of the comments section talking about a “beautiful diss,” “mighty Sister Hua”… this is the most depressing thing I’ve seen all day. [Chinese]
Translation by Bluegill.