In late January a Douyin vlogger posted a video of a middle-aged woman tethered in a freezing outhouse in Xuzhou city in Jiangsu province with a chain around her neck.
She was lightly dressed despite the freezing weather and dirty, with many of her teeth missing. Clearly the woman has been living in these appalling condition for a while.
In the footage the vlogger asks her if she is cold and she nods. He asks if she can understand him and she shakes her head. When she tries to speak it is garbled. She is clearly unwell.
The scene is shocking enough on its own. But the woman – at first known as Yang Qingxia – has also given birth to eight children, the youngest of whom is still a toddler. One of the boys, aged about eight, explains that he brings his mother food every day.
“Where is their compassion?” the vlogger asks, questioning why her neighbours and local government officials would allow this to happen.
Local officials responded two days later explaining that Yang was mentally ill and that she had been chained to the wall because she “often beat the children and the elderly for no reason”. It added that her family has already been provided with extra assistance “to ensure a warm Spring Festival”.
For many Chinese this was simply too much: the woman was clearly being mistreated; how had she been allowed to bear eight children when she was obviously unwell; was she even well enough to consent to marriage and sexual intercourse? And, why was her husband and his family not being investigated for human trafficking?
Despite various attempts to tamp down the concerns, the topic got widespread attention online with the public raging as to how a Communist Party basking in recent successes (a self-certified end to rural poverty; the domestic containment of Covid; and the Winter Olympics) could allow a vulnerable individual to slip through the net like this. Why, it was demanded, were local officials in the vicinity seemingly so willing to cover up a decades-long wrong?
Making matters worse, Yang’s husband, Dong Zhimin, had not even tried to hide that fact that he had eight children and a sick wife. He too had a Douyin account where, for years, he detailed their impoverished lives and the difficulty of raising “nine children” – by which he is understood to mean the kids plus his wife. In fact, he even made a small income from his family’s circumstance because seven of his children were boys (an extraordinarily high proportion) and ‘fans’ would ask him for tips on how to guarantee their own wives got pregnant with sons.
More recently the tone has been more one of general disgust than amazement at the gender imbalance of Dong’s offspring. “Why are women always sacrificed in men’s need for sex and an heir?” wrote one incensed Sina Weibo user.
Another contrasted the plight of the chained woman with the adulation heaped on Eileen Gu – a US-born freestyle skier competing for China in the Beijing Winter Olympics. “We shouldn’t only care about the girl whose neck is adorned with gold medals, but also about the woman whose neck is locked in an iron chain. Most of us can’t achieve the former, but we might easily become the latter,” wrote another.
The video emerged at a time when Chinese women are deeply concerned that China’s new-found focus on population growth will see them pushed into more traditional gender roles and away from careers. Others see it in the context of China’s weak enforcement of domestic violence laws and its failure to introduce legislation on marital rape.
Eventually the extent of the public outcry forced the Xuzhou authorities to investigate further, which in turn led to the arrest of Dong on charges of illegal detention, and of a couple from Yunnan on suspicion of abducting and trafficking Yang.
Officials said DNA tests had shown Yang in actuality to be a women known to her family as Xiao Meihua, who hailed from Yagu in Yunnan. Investigators said Xiao had married her first husband in 1994 but divorced two years later after she began to exhibit abnormal behaviour. In 1996 her family entrusted her to a Ms Sang (the wife in the arrested couple), who promised to secure medical treatment and find Xiao a good husband. She took Xiao to Jiangsu where she claims to have lost the young woman – though she failed to notify the police or the woman’s family.
Dong’s family in turn claim his father found Xiao begging in the northeastern province of Shandong in 1998. Dong senior then brought her back to Xuzhou and his son, already in his mid-thirties, married her the same year.
Many people find the story unconvincing, however. Why did the couple have one child 23 years ago and then seven more in the last decade (the last being born when the chained woman would have been about 50 years-old if the date of birth on the marriage certificate is correct). Another inconsistency is that Xiao’s family are looking for a woman aged 43.
Netizens have suggested that Dong never married the chained woman and that he passed her off as a woman who he married earlier but who has since disappeared.
The full truth may emerge now that the Jiangsu provincial government and its Party Committee has set up an investigation team to probe the case and gets answers.
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