In Chinese Cyberspace, A Blossoming Passion

Sister Lotus has posted lovelorn prose as well as photos of herself.
Sister Lotus has posted lovelorn prose as well as photos of herself. "I will not be censored," she declares. (Photos Taken By Chenmo Of Chenmo Studio - Photos Taken By Chenmo Of Chenmo Studio)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 19, 2005

BEIJING -- Suddenly this summer, Sister Lotus is all over China.

Hotly debated on Chinese-language Web sites, her saucy photos get millions of hits. National magazines dote on her, and China's television crews are taping away. Late to catch on, Communist Party censors now officially frown on her. Some sociologists warn that Sister Lotus cannot be good for China's teenagers; others smile and predict her fame will be fleeting.

But nobody, including Sister Lotus, appears to know what this is all about.

"I think it's crazy," she said in an interview.

Sister Lotus, who turns 28 on Tuesday, is Shi Hengxia, and comes from a small town in Shaanxi province. Over the last few years, she tried and failed to gain admission to Peking University and then to Tsinghua University, China's most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

Undaunted, and blessed with a deep reservoir of daring, she posted the story of her determination on both universities' Web sites. China has a recent tradition of personal sagas on the Web, including those from young women chronicling their sex lives in a way that could never get by a traditional publisher. But these were different -- sincere, maybe naive -- and they touched a nerve among students.

Then a friend suggested that, since she was looking for a boyfriend, she might try posting an appeal for amorous bids as well. Pretty soon the sites were full of lovelorn prose from Sister Lotus, along with titillating -- but clad -- photos showing her in a variety of poses that must seem arty in Shaanxi.

"Lotus coming out of crystal-clear water" was the title of one such posting.

"I have no idea what was going on, but I got a lot of e-mails in response," Sister Lotus said over a bowl of tripe soup, stroking her long black hair and smiling vaguely at what she set in motion. "People wanted more pictures. Most of them liked me, but of course a few were critical."

Throughout the spring, the phenomenon grew, metastasizing into off-campus Web sites as well. As they studied for year-end exams last month, millions of student-age Chinese were finding distraction by logging on to review Sister Lotus postings.

The mainstream media, focusing on the North Korea nuclear crisis and official declarations from Chinese leaders, were slow to discover the boom. But by the beginning of July, Sister Lotus appeared to be looking out from the magazine racks at every newsstand in China.

Inevitably, the journalists went to experts for their perspectives. Interviews and roundtables appeared, accompanied by photos showing Sister Lotus dancing in the park or thrusting her chest out to form an S with her body.

"In one sense, the phenomenon of Sister Lotus is the victory of common people," said Zhang Yiwu, a Peking University specialist in modern culture. "Also, it shows the influence of the modern medium, the Internet."

Xia Xueluan, a sociologist and Peking University colleague, was less sanguine. "The lack of beliefs among young people leads them to fulfill their needs in a lower way," she said. "And of course, that is not a good thing."

But a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Li Yinhe, advised that the best thing was to wait for the storm to pass. Sister Lotus, she predicted, will be hot "for another three minutes."

Students interviewed at the universities that turned Sister Lotus down took a similar attitude, saying they and almost everybody on campus were part of the craze but did not take it seriously.

Zhou Min, 25, a PhD student at Tsinghua, said one of his classmates got so excited when he bumped into Sister Lotus in a hallway recently that he missed an evening seminar. A Peking University graduate student, Ye Shulan, 27, said it was all for fun. "I think you can just be entertained and laugh her off," he said.

For some commentators, Sister Lotus has grabbed the imagination of young Chinese because she is affirming her individuality so blatantly in a society where children are generally taught to conform and avoid sticking out. Others expressed concern that, despite the economic boom, life in China must be lacking something if Sister Lotus can so grip the attention of young people.

For reasons that, as is customary, they did not explain, Communist Party censors recently barred the broadcast of a Sister Lotus program prepared by China Central Television, the government-run network. They also made it clear to Web site operators that the fun had gone on long enough. By then, however, the phenomenon appeared to have taken on a life of its own.

"I will not be censored," Sister Lotus declared.

She contacted the administrator of one Web site who agreed to record her dancing and explaining herself to critics. The segment was posted last week. Then the Hong Kong-based Phoenix satellite television network broadcast a live interview with her Friday, and aired it a second time later in the day.

Sister Lotus, dressed in a see-through blouse and tight jeans with spangles on the thighs, said she had quit her job at a publishing house since the publicity exploded. Gesturing with applied grace, she announced that she was just about finished with a book in which she urges young Chinese to follow her example and not give up in the face of adversity.

Career prospects look bright, she added. She has auditioned for a soap opera, and a television network whose name she would not reveal has been in touch about a job.

"I am preparing for a career as an anchorwoman," she said, smiling again.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company