Chained Women in China 铁链女

By Cheng Rui 成睿

NANJING, CHINA — 25 years after Li Yang’s award-winning film “Blind Mountain” exposed the problem of human trafficking in China, the tragic reality depicted in the film is once again rearing its ugly head. The Chinese public has learned about Yang Mouxia, a woman who was sold like chattel, chained with an iron collar, and forced to give birth to at least eight children over the course of two decades.

在李杨导演拍出反映中国人口拐卖问题的电影《盲山》的25年之后,中国人目睹了比电影更为悲惨的现实。被拐卖而来的杨某侠在近20年间被强迫生育了至少8个孩子后,又被其“丈夫”用铁链囚禁在家中。

The female protagonist in “Blind Mountain” eventually escapes from captivity with the help of the police; in the international version, she also knifes her captor to death. In 2022, Yang Mouxia only escaped her imprisonment thanks to a terrifying video which went viral in late January 2022 as the Lunar New Year approached.

《盲山》这部电影的结局有两个版本。在中国大陆上映的版本中,女主角最终在警察的帮助下逃脱监禁;在国际发行的版本中,她用斧头砍死了想要囚禁她的“丈夫”。在2022年,如果不是农历新年前一段在网络上疯狂传播的抖音视频,没有人知道杨某侠还要像这样被囚禁多久。

The video, shot by a local blogger, was originally an investigative piece seeking out a local eight-child family in Feng County, Xuzhou. But when the video pans to a corner of the house, the mother of the eight children is seen disheveled, slurring, and shivering in thin clothes in zero-degree weather. Most worrisome were the iron collar around her neck and the chains behind her, cold reminders to women and parents of girls in China that the line between freedom and enslavement can be thin as a strand of silk.

这段抖音视频本来是徐州当地一位博主拍摄的一段带有猎奇性质的窥探徐州丰县当地一户有着八个孩子的家庭的视频。但随着画面被切换到房屋的一角,人们这才看清屋里还站着一位被铁链锁住的女性。她是这八个孩子的母亲,但她却蓬头垢面、口齿不清,穿着单薄的衣物,在零度左右的天气里瑟瑟发抖。她脖子上的铁项圈和身后的铁链更是在向中国的女性与女孩的家长们揭露一个残酷的事实:女性从自由到被囚禁可能只有一步之遥。

Who is she? Why was she in chains? Why are her teeth gone? How could she give birth to eight children amidst China’s family planning policies? As the video went viral and speculation fermented, netizens unanimously concluded that the mother had been trafficked and forced to give birth, and that the chains on her body were to prevent her from escaping.

她是谁?为什么要用铁链锁住她?她的牙齿哪里去了?在计划生育政策下,她为什么会生下这么多孩子?随着视频在社交媒体疯传,各种猜测也逐渐发酵,网友们一致猜测,这八位孩子的母亲是被拐卖而来,被迫与董某民生育了这八位孩子,而身上的铁链是为了防止她逃跑。

After the video began to cause a major stir on the Internet, local authorities began to strictly control all kinds of media coverage on the issue. Yet public concern continued to rise, so the Feng County government released a statement on January 28 which claimed that the chained woman, Yang Mouxia, is in a legal marital relationship with Dong Moumin and that no trafficking occurred. The statement continued that Yang Mouxia often beat children and the elderly for no reason, so her husband had no choice but to put his wife in chains. The statement also said that Yang Mouxia was diagnosed with a mental illness by a medical institution.

随着事件成为网络舆情的焦点,当地政府开始严格管控所有与八孩母亲相关的新闻报道。但随着关注度的持续上升,丰县政府在1月28日发布关于八孩母亲的第一份声明。声明中称,被铁链锁住的女子名叫杨某侠,与董某民是正常结婚,不存在拐卖行为。因杨某侠经常无故殴打孩子与老人,董某民不得以才将杨某侠用铁链拴住。声明还称,经医疗机构诊断,杨某侠患有精神疾病。

The public was not satisfied with the official response. Even if Yang Mouxia suffered from a mental illness, Dong Moumin had no excuse to chain her up. And if Dong Moumin and Yang Mouxia are legally married, then why has the Family Planning Commission — the governmental body which is supposed to assure compliance with China’s family planning policies —  not intervened in the process of Yang Mouxia giving birth to eight children?

公众对官方的这一答复并不满意。患有精神疾病并不是董某民用铁链将杨某侠锁住的借口;而如果董某民与杨某侠是领证结婚,那么杨某侠生育八个孩子的过程中,计划生育委员会为什么一直没有干预?

Under public pressure, Feng County officials released a second statement on January 30. This updated statement contradicted the first one, saying that Yang Mouxia had been a beggar living on the streets when Dong Moumin’s father found her and took her in to stay under the care of his son, with whom she has lived ever since. The statement implied that the Dong family had done her a favor by taking in her, and that she was chained because she often smashed things at home.

舆论压力下,丰县政府在1月30日发布了与第一则声明自相矛盾的第二则声明。声明中称,杨某侠是在乞讨时被董某民的父亲“收留”并从此之后和董某民生活在一起。声明还称,杨某侠因时常打砸家中东西,才被董某民用铁链拴住。

The public received this statement right as the Spring Festival arrived, but the festive atmosphere did not dull the heat surrounding the incident. People still could not believe the explanation given in the official statement, and the topic got hundreds of millions of hits per day on Weibo. The Feng County government issued a third statement on February 7, saying that Yang Mouxia, formerly known as Xiao Huamei, is a native of Yunnan Province’s Fugong County. According to the statement, Xiao Huamei was taken to Jiangsu in the late 1990s to see a doctor but was lost during the trip before being taken in by Dong’s father.

此时,春节已至,但春节喜庆热闹的氛围丝毫没有冲淡这一事件的热度。人们依旧无法相信官方声明对铁链女悲惨境遇给出的解释。微博话题每天数亿点击量的压力之下,丰县政府在2月7日发布了第三则声明,称杨某侠原名“小花梅”,是云南福贡县人,90年代末被同村桑某某带到江苏看病,走失后发生了被董某民父亲收留一事。

At this point, due to the government’s extensive public opinion control and news blackout, netizens no longer believed the official story and tried to discover the chained woman’s origin through private investigations. Some independent journalists went into Fugong County to visit the woman’s hometown. Bloggers Wu Yi and Quan Mei drove to Feng County to speak out but were soon arrested on charges of provocation and nuisance. After they were released from the police station, they posted about the abuse they had suffered at the hands of the Feng County authorities, but those posts were soon blocked.

此时,由于政府大面积的舆论控制以及消息封锁,网友已不再相信官方的一面之词,并试图通过民间调查来还原这位被铁链锁住的八孩母亲的身世。几位独立新闻记者前往云南福贡县,走访官方所声称的小花梅的故乡以及她的亲属。也有人试图前往八孩母亲所在的丰县一探究竟。微博用户乌衣(微博号@我能抱起120斤)和拳妹(微博号@小梦姐姐小拳拳)就曾驾车到丰县为铁链女发声。但很快,二人以寻衅滋事的罪名被逮捕。二人从派出所被释放出来之后曾发微博讲述他们在丰县派出所所遭受的虐待,但很快,这些微博都被屏蔽。

Netizens found photos of the chained woman’s marriage certificate and discovered that both the photo and the name — which was handwritten on the original certificate — differed from the woman shown in the video. At the same time, many netizens found that the woman’s features and age were similar to those of Li Ying, a girl who was lost many years ago.

网友很快找到了董某名与杨某侠结婚证明的照片,并发现结婚证明上的名字与杨某侠的三个字有所出入(因为是手写),同时,结婚证明照片上的人的五官也与杨某侠有所差异。同时,不少网友也发现,杨某侠的五官与很多年前走失的女孩李莹很相似,年龄上也吻合。

A wave of discussion was set off on the internet, eventually drawing the attention of higher-level political leaders. The Jiangsu provincial government organized a special investigation team, and on February 23 the government released its fourth, and so far final, public notification on the situation. In this statement, the government finally admitted that the woman in chains had been abducted and sold.

网络上掀起了一波讨论的高潮。终于,网络上的激烈讨论引起了更上级领导的关注。2月中下旬,江苏省政府组织专项调查小组。2月23日,江苏省委省政府发布了第四个,也是迄今为止最后一个,关于丰县八孩母亲情况的通报。在这一则通报中,官方终于承认,被铁链锁住的杨某侠是被拐卖而来的。

After the fourth official statement was issued, the topic seemed to vanish from public overnight. All doubts about the official announcement were blocked on the Internet, the information gathered by netizens over the past month was no longer available on social media, and some bloggers who had released key exhibits (e.g., the marriage certificate) during the investigation were banned from posting. From late January, when the original video was released, to the end of February, when the last official statement was issued, there was almost no media coverage of the incident, especially in the official media. Only two outlets, Sohu and Caixin, conducted relatively in-depth news investigations. Even the 2007 film “Blind Mountain,” whose popularity was revived after this incident came to light, was removed from Chinese streaming platforms.

在官方的第四则通告发出以后,网络上一切对于官方通报的质疑都被屏蔽,过去一个多月中网民们搜集整理的相关资料在社交媒体上也不再能被搜到,一些在事件调查过程中多次放出关键证物的博主被禁言。而媒体与新闻记者在此次事件中也噤若寒蝉。从1月下旬抖音视频流出,到2月底官方发出最后一条通告,主流媒体特别是官方媒体上几乎没有关于丰县八孩母亲的报道,只有搜狐、财新两家媒体对这一事件进行了相对深入的新闻调查。就连因为这次事件而被人们重新提起的电影《盲山》,也不知从什么时候起在中国的流媒体平台上不见了踪影。

Today, Yang Mouxia, known colloquially as the chained woman, is living in a mental hospital in Xuzhou. The public still has not heard her voice from any source except for her barely-audible whispers in the original Douyin video. Dong Moumin was arrested, and some officials in Feng County were removed from their positions. Relevant messages can no longer be seen on social media platforms such as Weibo, Douyin, and WeChat. People who care about the chained woman are once again back in an information vacuum.

如今,杨某侠,也就是铁链女,正住在徐州的一家精神病院。到现在为止,除了那条抖音视频中她不甚清晰的低语,人们仍没能从任何渠道听到她的声音。董某民被逮捕,丰县的一些官员被撤职。微博、抖音、微信等社交平台也几乎不再能看到相关的讯息。关心铁链女的人们再一次,回到了信息的真空。

Netizens continue to speculate about the reason for the official censorship. Some people noticed that a large number of high-level bureaucrats in Feng County are surnamed Qu (渠), and the attending doctor of the psychiatric hospital where Yang Mouxia is now located is surnamed Qu. Qu is a very rare surname in China, and now many believe there are  family ties between these bureaucrats. Is there a ruling family in Feng County that tacitly approves of abduction and even secretly manipulates it? There are also many rumors that high-ranking officials and prominent entrepreneurs were involved in various cases of female abduction and trafficking, but due to the lack of evidence, these speculations can not be confirmed.

人们都在猜测官方封锁消息的原因。有的人发现,丰县有大量的官僚都姓渠,甚至连杨某侠现在所在的精神病医院的主治医生都姓渠。渠在中国是一个相当罕见的姓氏,因此很多人相信这些当权者、医生之间存在种种亲属关联。丰县是否存在一个默许拐卖甚至暗中参与拐卖的当权家族?还有传言称,许多高级别的官员与著名企业家也参与进了各种拐卖妇女的案件之中。但由于证据的缺乏,这些猜测都很难得到证实。

The case of the chained women is by no means an isolated tragedy. The investigative report “Black Vortex,” published in 1988, documented a major trafficking case in Xuzhou that year. From August 1987 to January 1988, a 43-person criminal gang, in collusion with more than 40 cab drivers in Xuzhou, abducted more than 100 women from Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan and sold them in Xuzhou. The youngest of these women was only 13 years old.

铁链女事件绝非孤立的悲剧。1988年的调查报告《黑色漩涡》记载了当年在徐州破获的重大拐卖妇女案。从1987年8月到1988年1月的五个多月间,一个43人的犯罪团伙与徐州市40多名出租车司机勾结,将100多名他们从云南、贵州、四川等地劫持而来的妇女带到徐州贩卖。这些女性中年纪最小的只有13岁。

In the three decades since “Black Vortex” was released, trafficking has not disappeared; to this day, there are still a large number of trafficked women in Xuzhou’s rural areas, and people are not surprised to hear of purchased wives and imprisoned women. Even in the Yangtze River Delta, the most developed region in China, it is not uncommon for poor rural bachelors who are unable to afford the gift money for marrying a wife to buy or abduct a wife. The regularity of this behavior is why the chained woman’s fellow villagers did not call the police.

30多年过去了,徐州地区的拐卖并没有消失。现在,徐州仍居住着大量被拐卖而来的妇女,当地人也对“买老婆”、囚禁妇女这样的行为见怪不怪。即便是在更为发达的长三角,农村穷光棍付不起彩礼然后想办法从人贩子那里买或者自己去劫持一个女性当老婆的现象也绝不罕见。因此,与铁链女同村的人看到她被这样囚禁但不报警的行为也就不奇怪了。

Of course, trafficking occurs not only in Xuzhou. In addition to organized crime like that which is depicted in “Black Vortex,” there are also many people who go to other parts of China to work, abduct local women, and bring them back home as wives. Some of the abducted women reluctantly accept the reality; others resist and try to escape.

拐卖绝不仅仅在徐州发生。除了像《黑色漩涡》中提到的有组织的团伙犯罪,很多人也在外出打工时劫持、诱拐当地女性并把她们带回老家为妻。她们当中,有的人无奈接受了现实;也有的人反抗、逃跑。

Another layer of the harsh reality is the difference in how trafficked boys and girls are treated. Trafficked boys are often treated as treasures and family heirs by buyers’ families, while trafficked girls are generally reduced to fertility tools and lust-satisfaction machines. Even more appalling is the fact that in some poorer areas, there are sometimes multiple buyers who share a single woman.

更为残酷的现实是,同样是遭到拐卖,被拐卖的男孩子往往被买主家庭当作掌中宝与家族的继承人,而被拐卖的女孩子则一般会沦为买主的生育工具、泄欲机器。更骇人听闻的是,在一些更为贫穷的地区,甚至会出现多人合买一名女性共用的现象。

Patriarchy and the preference for sons over daughters underpin the phenomenon of human trafficking in China, leading poor families to sell their daughters in exchange for some money and buyers’ families to treat the victim with contempt and abuse. An imbalance in the gender ratio has arisen as many families abandon or even kill female babies at birth. The gender imbalance has gradually led to higher and higher gift money requirements for men to marry a wife, and there are inevitably men who cannot afford to get married. As a result, there is a market for human trafficking as poor bachelors can get a wife at a low price. When the next generation is born, they continue to keep male babies and discard females, perpetuating a truly vicious cycle.

父权制与重男轻女的现象不仅会导致一些贫困地区家庭愿意卖女换财,更会导致买主家庭对于拐卖而来的女性的虐待。首先,重男轻女会导致地区男女性别比例失衡。很多家庭在女孩出生时就会抛弃乃至杀害女婴。性别比例的失衡进而导致男方所需要支付给女方家庭的礼金越来越高,地区内也因此势必会存在“讨不起媳妇”的男性。因此,人口拐卖在这些地区便有了市场。这些农村地区经济社会地位较为低下的“穷光棍”,可以以一个相对低廉的价格“买到老婆”。而在生育下一代时,他们继续选择抛弃或杀害女婴、留下男婴,形成恶性循环。

The Jiangsu provincial government took over a month to admit an obvious truth, changing the official explanation from legal marriage to being “taken in” and finally to trafficking. The public has been infuriated, not only by the chained woman’s situation in and of itself, but also by the official embargo on information and suppression of public opinion. According to an anonymous government official, government employees were asked to post pro-government comments under the government statements on social media and send screenshots for verification to their superiors. As the government ramped up its information suppression, the people became more angry and their speculations more negative.

从领证结婚到收留再到拐卖,官方用一个多月的事件才承认了一件显而易见的真相。除了杨某侠悲惨的境遇之外,更让人愤怒与不解的是官方对于消息的封锁与舆论的压制。一名政府工作人员称,他们被要求在社交媒体上政府通告的贴文下发表支持政府的言论,并截图发给他们的上级。而政府越是控制言论、压制信息,民众对于政府的愤怒更深,也有了更多不好的揣测。

According to one anonymous Chinese HNC student whose views reflected common concerns, “We can’t count on the government’s investigation report. Because back then, when registering the [woman’s] marriage, and when the government did the family planning screening, it was the same group of people who turned a blind eye to the trafficking and abuse. For those involved in trafficking, many of them may have even infiltrated the local government. They naturally won’t give the truth of the matter as they will protect each other as officials.”

很多HNC的中方同学也对官方给出的声明持怀疑态度,一种具有代表性的观点认为:“我们不能完全相信政府的调查报告。因为当年,在为被拐卖而来的杨某侠登记结婚时,在计划生育排查时,对拐卖与虐待视而不见的是同一帮人。甚至,那些参与拐卖的人,很多可能已经渗透进了当地政府。他们官官相护,自然不会给出事情的真相。”

From the poor mountainous areas in the west to the eastern coast, any woman could be a target of trafficking. Once trafficked, women are plunged into an abyss in which they are unable to save themselves or even ask for help. Their buyers, who are able to legally marry them through official channels, rape them and use their children to get more social assistance from the government. How easy is it to traffic a woman? Maybe it’s a smothering hammer; maybe it’s a little ecstasy mixed into her drink; maybe it’s taking advantage of her kindness to lure her to a deserted place.

从西部贫困山区到东部沿海地区,任何一个女性都有可能成为被拐卖的对象。一旦被拐卖,女性将陷入无法自救甚至是无法求救的深渊。她们的买主则能够通过官方渠道与她们结为合法夫妻,强奸她们,用她们生下的孩子骗取国家的补助。而拐卖一个女性有多容易呢?或许就是一记闷锤,或许就是在她喝的饮料中掺了一点迷药,或许就是利用她的善心把她引诱到一个无人之处。

“The Distance Between Us and Her” (Photo Credit: Weibo ID “TiAn咸鱼安”)

我们和她的距离

China has very strict laws against trafficking and has conducted numerous special operations against this crime, but the punishment is heavy only on sellers, not buyers. As long as the demand exists, there will always be people willing to take the risk for the high profits. 

中国有着非常严苛的打击拐卖的法律并针对拐卖犯罪开展过多项专项整治行动,但法律对于买主的处罚相对卖方要轻得多。只要需求存在,总有人愿意为了高昂的利润铤而走险。

Some deputies to the National People’s Congress and members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference have suggested that buying and selling human beings should have the same penalties. In 2021, the General Office of the State Council issued the “China Action Plan Against Human Trafficking (2021-2030),” which calls for harsher penalties against the “buyer’s market” for human trafficking and further refines the reporting obligations of health care workers and people registering for marriage. However, this plan has yet to be tested by time.

今年两会期间,多名人大代表与政协委员都提议在人口贩卖问题上要实现买卖同罪。2021年,国务院印发《中国反对拐卖人口计划(2021-2030)》,计划呼吁对拐卖人口的买方市场进行更为严格的处罚并进一步规定了卫生与婚姻登记工作人员的举报义务。但是这一行动计划的效力还有待时间检验。

The fight against trafficking can’t just be conducted via legislation. Trafficking, especially female trafficking, has a deep and seemingly unshakeable social foundation. Without a fundamental change in mainstream attitudes, prohibition of trafficking will not be effective.

打击人口拐卖不能只靠制定法律。人口拐卖,特别是对于女性的拐卖,在中国有着难以被动摇的社会基础。如果不能从观念上加以改变,打击拐卖将会变得非常困难。

To this day, millions of netizens are still deeply concerned about the plight of the chained woman. Chinese women with happy lives are not bystanders; they are survivors who were fortunate enough to avoid infanticide and trafficking. Continued attention to the chained woman case not only gives some semblance of justice, or at least recognition, to this woman who has endured torture and pain for decades. More fundamentally, it’s about the hope that women everywhere will have a basic sense of dignity and the right to be free from fear.

直到现在,数百万的网民依旧关注着铁链女的境遇。中国的女性们意识到,她们并不是这一事件的旁观者;她们能拥有现在的幸福生活,只是因为她们足够幸运,没有遇到会抛弃女婴的父母以及人贩子。人们持续地关注铁链女,不仅仅是希望能给这位数十年生活在折磨与痛苦中的女性一个公道,更是希望每一位女性能拥有最为基本的安全感以及免于恐惧和迫害的权利。

Cheng Rui is reporting from Nanjing, China.

成睿 南京报道

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