Searching for Elder Sister Kou Yanding

Kou Yanding was taken away by police in Beijing on October 10th for “picking quarrels and provoking disturbances.” Kou Yanding is a bestselling author on such incendiary subjects as trying on parliamentary procedures in Chinese villages and endurance walking. Until today, nobody knows her whereabouts, and her family only knows that she was detained and her home was searched by the police and shut again with a police lock.

Kou_Yan_DingHer sister wrote (in Chinese) on 10 December 2014, the International Human Rights Day.

Our 85 years old father longs for your returning home. Second elder sister was running between Haidian Police, Detention House, and the City Letter and Visits Office. Although we knew the confirmation that you got detained by the police, but nobody knew why and where you were detained. Everytime, we went to search for you based on what was told by the police, but failed in vain.

The following is my translation of an article written by Zhai Minglei (sina weibo翟明磊在雾里) on 14 October 2014.

At this moment, in Shanghai, I am writing a memoir. In this country, very often some people got disappeared without trace for being the voice of conscience. This is more dreadful than death. In two days, two of my good friends, Guo Yushan 郭玉闪and Kou Yanding寇延丁, were detained. When this happens with my own friends, it is an unbearable anger and helplessness. Perhaps there will be a new style of writing in China, a style of memoir about the disappearance of good friends of conscience. I think we can name it “Style of Sorrowful Memoir”. In such a dark age, words do not have power; however they can still warm our freezing hearts. There are not many people who know Kou Yanding, so I will write about her first.

我所认识的寇延丁What I Know about Kou Yanding

Our getting to know each other for the first time was interesting. One day, I received a letter, because I worked a bit for public interest, the sender wanted to meet me and discuss my experience. The signature of the letter showed “Tarzan Kou Yanding”. The writing was brief and straight, I thought the writer must be a foreigner and a man, and got this name after the movie, until I picked up the phone. I could not help laughing in my heart.

As agreed, I went to Jinyan’s Office. I went downstairs of the office building a bit earlier. When I passed a bench nearby a meadow, a lady attracted my attention, not because of her looking, but the peacefulness surrounding her. She was sitting there quietly and the whole world seemed quiet because of her. From my intuiting, I knew that must be her, and I smiled and went upstairs.

When I arrived at the office, she entered soon. The interview went smoothly. To her, I have an inborn trust, and spoke straightly about my suffering, timidity and frustration. She wrote afterwards “Zhai Minglei: the Child who Speaks the Truth”. I feel that she has a real sympathetic heart.

Just like the title of her article, I am a curious child. Of course I asked her why her name is “Tarzan Kou Yanding”. The answer is simple, Yanding is from Mountain Tai (one of the five highest mountains in China, the Chinese translation of Tarzan is also the name of this mountain) and grew up at the foot of it. She has a cottage in the mountain, each winter, she returns there and hides herself from the world. She then talked about the pancakes made of ivy flowers, people who climb the mountain, the fresh milk from the local farm, beautiful flowers in her yard, and days in the mountain. She also warmly invited my wife and I to live in her cottage. Her eyes shine bright, her hair has some grey, her heart is sensitive and shy. She is a freelancer, but more like a hermit that competes nothing with the world.

During the interview, I told her one of my favourite stories, which she wrote into her article: a scorpion wanted to cross a river, and asked a frog to help and promised that she would not sting him. The frog agreed and took her on his back. However when they were half way across the river, the scorpion stung the frog. Before they were going to sink, the frog asked the scorpion in cry: “why you did that? Don’t you know that it will make both of us die?” The scorpion also cried, “I know that I should not do that, but I cannot help stinging, because it is my nature.” Kou Yanding wrote,

“In this world, there are always such people, their longing for freedom surpasses their expectation of being safe, and walk on a path that only belongs to themselves after being lost, continuous exploration and occasional hesitation.”

In retrospect, I thought these words are her prophet for me and also for herself.

At that moment, I was working for the civil society. There was always some risk. Yanding wrote about why she gave up asking one question about my wife.

“The first time I met Zhai Minglei was in an afternoon. He was catching the evening train back to Shanghai. I sent him to the ticket checking stop at Beijing Station. It was an express train and Zhai Minglei should be home overnight. However the next morning, I received a phone call looking for him. He did not arrive home at the time he should have arrived. Cao Xia (Zhai’s wife) was worried and looked for him everywhere. Later it was known that Zhai Minglei was two hours late home due to traffic jam in Shanghai and his phone was inaccessible because of power failure. It is just a false alarm. Later when I went to Shanghai, I met this beautiful lady with sweet voice. I also got to know the magazine edited by them. One article in the magazine written by Cao Xia is “When my Love Dies”. It records a dream, in the dream, her love departed from her. It is a painful dream of suffering. After reading it, I put back the magazine, and only talked about the beautiful scenes in my hometown Mountain Tai, and dropped my question about if being afraid as I originally planned.

Yanding is such a person of sympathetic heart.

Later friends established a magazine “Minjian” (Civil Society). I was the chief editor, and we had two and half journalists. The half was Kou Yanding. She wrote a lot of good articles for Minjian, such as Shenzhen Residents Oppose the Tunnel Project etc. “Action changes existence” (行动改变生存) is the core slogan of Minjian, and later became the title for one of Yanding’s books. In the unforgettable three years, same as us, Yanding lived in the countryside and slept in sleeping bags, and interviewed true citizens.

Minjian was forced to stop publishing. I continued to write on the Internet as citizen journalist. Yanding went to Sichuan and started to help the earthquake children. She is a persistent person. She becomes worried and concerned about the children, sometimes she talks with everyone about it, the children have filled all her heart. I asked her why she chose Qingchuan. She said it was because most media focused on Wenchuan, Beichuan etc, but not Qingchuan which suffered also heavily and got little resource, and it needed more assistance from the civil society.

Her footsteps touched every piece of land in the countryside of Qingchuan.

At that time, she talked about Qingchuan and children of Qingchuan every time when we met. Sometimes I dared not to see her eyes, for there was little that I could really help.

A few years after the earthquake, people started to forget Wenchuan gradually; many civil organizations, abandoned their original promises, started to withdraw from the disaster area. However Yanding was still there, and her project lasted for more than six years.

In 2012, I shifted my work to the cultural sector. Yanding was still busy at the frontline of working for public interest, inheriting the principle of Minjian and doing impossible things steadily. The one who uses “action (to) change existence” is not me, the once chief editor of Minjian, but Yanding.

She is not the shy hermit anymore, but a heroic woman.

She and Liang Xiaoyan visited Chen Guangcheng (the blind Chinese lawyer who exposed the brutal situation relating to China’s one child policy and got himself repressed by the government) when he was under home imprisonment, bearing the risk of being beaten. When she told me her experience, she was calm and melancholy.

When I saw her again, she was together with Yuan Tianpeng, Gao Tian, and Yang Yunbiao, preparing trainings about Robert’s Rules of Order for villagers. She invited me to join them. She became more mature, different from her years ago, looking unsure when asking me about helping artists with disability.

Yuan Tianpeng graduated from Alaska University and likes Coca Cola. Kou Yanding put a lot of effort to help him to make the American rules to be understandable to the villagers. The most famous story about the training is: once when Yuan Tianpeng was so excited in one presentation, he raised up his right hand high, and lowered his left hand down, and exclaimed, “this is due process”. The villagers, with eyes wide open, did not understand anything. Tianpeng had his hands down helplessly. Yanding, then used a lot of time to make this due process expert understand the villagers’ language and their minds. Tianpeng then summarized the Robert’s Rules into 13 rules that could be easily understood by the villagers. I thought it was still not sufficient, and further changed them into a jingle, and the villagers made it a song to sing. At the end, even Robert’s Rules, the name itself was changed to “Turnip (in Chinese Luobo, pronounced similar to Robert) Cabbage (in Chinese Baicai) Rules. Yun Biao, Gao Tian, Yuan Tianpeng, and me are all men, Yan Ding, with her feminine care and tender, doing the communications, arranging video-taping, and recording. She later carefully wrote everything into a book “Practisable Democracy”. It is such a good book that goes into the hearts of readers to feel the sweetness of democracy. The doers are quiet, and the doers are calm in all situations. We slept on the benches, we shivered at night, but we never let the fire in our heart die.

Yanding is older than us, and we all call her Elder Sister Kou. For fame and profit, She did not crave at all, all is out of her nature. There are always those angle-like people living in this world, and Yanding is one of them. Unlike many men who like talking about political insider stories, and discussing politics, Yanding only talks about detailed issues about working for public interest; unlike many girls who like gossiping, she never has time for it. She is always on the road, and in the field.

Being very familiar friends, I have never tried to remember anything that she says, to keep letters that she writes. When she left, I suddenly felt that I did not catch anything. Probably, being simple and modest, she never talked big words. Even in her speech about herself, she only talked about the protagonists in her books. She does not care too much about herself.

Compared to her peaceful heart, I always feel that I am too noisy.

I never remember she craves anything in material or despises anything in food. Each time when she lives in my house, she carried a back-pack, and with no make-up with her. Where is she now, who is interrogating her? Such a lady, even a high voice can make her uneasy. The harsh interrogating questions, I really cannot imagine how she can deal with. What crimes are waiting for her? No matter what, it is only a joke and disgrace. Crime of making trouble? She only acts but never causes trouble. I have never seen her quarreling with anyone. Crime of subverting state power? How can such a metal hat be imposed upon such a gentle woman? Unlike Lin Zhao (a dissident who criticized Mao Zedong during China’s Cultural Revolution), Yanding never expressed her political opinion in public. What else crimes? Show them to us!

There is only one for all her crimes: it is her nature of being kind, selfless, and upright. This crime, the scorpion acknowledges, so do I and so does she.

One Twitter account @ writes (10 December 2014):


Not everyone read “Practisable Democracy”, not everyone saw the smiles of the Qingchuan children disabled in the Wenchuan earthquake when they saw you, not everyone encountered you running like wind on the rough and rugged road extending more than 100 km.  Elder Sister Kou, Where Are You?

Read more about Kou Yanding at China Change (in English), and Baidu Encyclopaedia: (in Chinese).

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