The Kou Yanding I Know

By Zhai Minglei, published: February 4, 2015 (Chinese original was published in October, 2014.)

Get a glimpse of one of the quietest but most admirable NGO activists in China who has been held incommunicado since October 10th, 2014. – The Editor  


Kou Yanding (寇延丁)

Kou Yanding (寇延丁)

At this very moment, I am in Shanghai, jotting down some memories of mine. In China, some people are often silently disappeared for what their conscience has led them to do, and this is more terrifying than death. In the last two days, two of my good friends, Guo Yushan (郭玉闪) and Kou Yanding (寇延丁), were detained. When something like this happens to your own friends, you feel the sort of anger and helplessness that is difficult to convey unless experienced first-hand. Perhaps China will see a new writing style that commemorates and advocates for disappeared friends with a conscience. In such dark times, writing makes no difference, but it can add some warmth to our souls that are chilled through. Fewer people know about Kou, so I’ll talk about her first.

It all started with a goof-up. I got a letter one day from someone who wanted to meet me, saying that they would like to understand my inner journey, given that I had done a few things in the NGO sphere. The letter was signed, “Taishan Kou Yanding,” and the language was concise and direct. I thought it was by a foreigner, a man who must have given himself this Chinese name to show his appreciation of the movie “Tarzan.” When I picked up the phone, a woman’s voice spoke. I chuckled for a long time to myself. [Translator’s note: Taishan’ can be both a famous mountain range in Northern China or “Tarzan.”]

We agreed to meet at Zeng Jinyan’s (曾金燕) office in Beijing. I got there early. Walking by a lawn, I noticed a woman sitting on a bench, not because of her looks, but rather the calmness about her. She sat there with such serenity that the world seems to settle down around her. My instincts told me that was Kou, but I just smiled and went upstairs.

She came in on time, and indeed it was the woman I had seen. Our interview went quite smoothly. I felt a natural trust toward her, and did not hold back any of my pain, apprehension, and frustration. Afterwards, she wrote the article Zhai Minglei: The Child Who Spoke the Truth. I sensed true empathy in her.

That title has it right; I am a curious child inside, and just had to ask her why she called herself “Taishan Kou Yanding.” The answer was quite straightforward. Kou grew up in Tai’an, in the shadows of the Tai Mountain. She owns a cottage in the mountains, and would go and hole up there in wintertime. Then she told me about her days there: the wisteria-flower pancakes, the hikers passing by, the fresh milk from the farm, the flowers in the yard of her cottage, and how time flowed by. She then warmly invited me and my wife to spend some time there. Her eyes sparkled, white skeins lurked in her hair, and she was sensitive and a bit shy. She may have been a freelancer, but was in fact closer to a hermit who stands apart from the world’s toil and strife.

During the interview, I told her my favorite story, and she wrote it down. A scorpion wants to get to the other side of a stream, and asks the frog to take it, promising not to sting. Midstream, the scorpion stings the frog anyway. The sinking frog weeps and asks, “Why did you sting me? Don’t you know we will now both die?” The scorpion, also crying, replies: “I know I should not have, but I could not help it, because it is my nature.” Yanding wrote in her article:

“There is bound to be some people like this, whose yearning for freedom surpasses their expectations of safety, who will strike out onto a path of their own after much confusion, exploration, and uncertainty.”

Now, it would seem that this is a prophecy both about me and about herself.

At the time, the civil society work I was doing inevitably came with some risk.

Yanding wrote about a question, intended for my wife, that she had in the end given up asking:

The first time I met Zhai Minglei was in the afternoon; he had to catch the evening train back to Shanghai. I saw him off at the boarding gate of the Beijing station. It was a direct overnight train. However, early next morning I got a call looking for him. He did not get home on time, and his wife Cao Xia, worried that something had happened, hunted for him high and low. Turned out Zhai was just stuck in traffic, and his phone battery died; it was a false alarm.

I eventually met this beautiful woman with a sweet voice, and saw the magazine they co-edited. It featured an article she wrote titled, “My Beloved Died;” it is a record of a dream where her beloved leaves her, and it is a dream of wrenching pain. After I finished reading it, I put the magazine back, and only spoke of the views of my hometown around Tai Mountain, rather than the topic I had planned on, where she and I would talk about both the fear and the courage of what they were doing.”

This is the kind of woman Yanding is: Full of empathy.

Because of our similarities, we became friends on our first meeting.

"As long as you tread, there will be path." - Kou Yanding of Taishan

“As long as you tread, there will be path.” – Kou Yanding of Taishan

Later on, some colleagues and I started a magazine, Civil Society (《民间》). I was the chief editor. We had two and a half reporters, one of whom was Yanding. She wrote a lot of good pieces for the magazine, including the protest of Shenzhen residents against a tunnel project. “Act to Change Lives” was our core tenet, and became the title of one of the books Yanding eventually wrote. During those three unforgettable years, Yanding did what everyone else did, staying in farmhouses, spending the night in a sleeping bag, and interviewing bona fide citizens (as opposed to imperial subjects.)

The government forced Civil Society to close its doors. I continued to speak up through the Internet as a citizen reporter. Before the shutdown, Yanding had been running around Sichuan Province, doing relief work for children survivors of the Wenchuan earthquake in the Qingchuan area. Her kind do not waver. Anxious from the work, she would sometimes pour out her thoughts to everyone she runs into; she was full of those children.

I asked her why she picked Qingchuan (青川). She said it was because most of the media coverage was on Wenchuan (汶川) and Beichuan (北川); Qingchuan, devastated to the same degree, was overlooked and received the fewest resources, and needed help from NGO workers the most.

She went to every corner of the villages of Qingchuan.

At that time, whenever she saw me she would tell me about the stories from Qingchuan – about its children. Sometimes I did not even have the heart to look at her eyes, because there was really so little I could do.

Two or three years after the earthquake, Wenchuan was gradually forgotten. The nonprofit groups that had made extravagant promises pulled out of the desolate disaster zone, one by one. Yanding still threw herself into Sichuan; she kept at her project for six years, and showed no sign of letting up.

In 2012, I turned toward the cultural arena, while Yanding was still busy on the front line of civil society work. The true heir to the spirit of Civil Society: “Do What Is Impossible with Our Feet on the Ground, and Act to Change Lives,” is not I, the erstwhile chief editor, but Yanding.

She is no longer the shy hermit we knew, but a heroine.

She and Liang Xiaoyan (梁晓燕) went to see the blind lawyer Chen Guangchen, who was then under house arrest, at the risk of being assaulted. She was as calm and sorrowful as always when she told me what she had seen on her visit.

The next time I saw her, she and Yuan Tianpeng (袁天鹏), Gao Tian (高天), and Yang Yunbiao (杨云标) teamed up to give trainings on parliamentary rules, otherwise known as Robert’s Rules of Order, in rural areas. She invited me to join them. She had arrived; no longer did she seem rather unsure of herself, as when she was seeking my advice on how to help disabled artists.

《可操作的民主》(The Operation of Democracy), by Kou Yanding and Yuan Tianpeng

《可操作的民主 – 罗伯特议事规则下乡全记录》(The Operation of Democracy – Bringing Robert’s Rules of Order to the Countryside), by Kou Yanding and Yuan Tianpeng, 2012. Click to enlarge. 

Yuan Tianpeng, a graduate of Alaska University in the United States, loves to drink Coke. Yanding went to quite a bit of trouble getting him to convert American parliamentary procedures into the sort of language farmers can listen to. In the most celebrated true story, Yuan, in a fit of excitement, lifted his right arm high and threw down his left, and shouted to his audience: “This is what procedural justice is all about!” The farmers, as was to be expected, merely stared, and a deflated Yuan lowered his arm.

Yanding, therefore, had to take this procedural justice expert in hand, getting him in touch with the speech and mentality of farmers.

Tianpeng compressed Robert’s Rules into thirteen accessible parts. I took it one step further and turned them into jingles. The participants put the jingles to music on the spot and started singing, and in the end even redubbed them “Rhubarb and Cabbage Rules.” Yunbiao, Gao Tian, Tianpeng and I are all men. Yanding, whose gentleness and delicate attention to details set her apart, was the bridge between us and the communities. She arranged the filming of events, took notes, and sifted through them with a comb. Those who act do so in silence and adapt as needed. We slept on benches, sometimes chilled to a shiver, but the fire in our hearts never went out. Her book, “Operable Democracy,” came out of the notes from those events. It is a good book that slowly wins you over and helps you savor the goodness of democracy.

Yanding is no longer young, and I can call her Older Sister. She has absolutely no interest in fame or fortune; everything derives from the goodness of her nature. Despite everything, there is a number of angelic beings in this world, and Yanding should be counted among them. Unlike many men who like to dwell on court intrigue and power struggles, she only talks about the most concrete details of nonprofit work. Nor does she, like some women, have time for gossip. She is always on the road and in the field.

Because we are such good friends, I never made any effort to remember what she said, or to keep letters from her. Now that she is gone, I find that I don’t have anything to hold on to, maybe because she never held forth to impress others, down to earth and modest as she is. Even when she gave talks she rarely talked about herself, but focused on the people featured in her books. She has no tinge of egotism about her.

Her inner peace often made me aware how beset with sound and fury I was. I don’t remember her ever running after material gain, or thinking any food beneath her. Every time she stayed with us, she came lugging a lone hiking backpack that held no makeup. Where is she now, and who is interrogating her? I cannot imagine how a woman who finds even a raised voice grating can cope with the harsh cross-examinations.

And what kind of accusations are in store for her? Any allegation of crime against her can only be a joke and an insult. “Picking quarrels and making trouble?” She only makes things happen. I have never so much as seen her argue with anybody. Subverting the state? How did this witch hunt single out a defenseless woman like Kou? Unlike the conscientious objector Lin Zhao (林昭), Yanding has never even discussed her political beliefs in public. What other crimes can the authorities have in mind? Bring them on!

All the accusations against her can be rolled into one, and that is her nature: Good, selfless and upright. This is the sort of crime that the scorpion admits to, and so would I, and so would she.



Zhai Minglei (翟明磊)

Zhai Minglei (翟明磊)

Zhai Minglei (翟明磊) is a Chinese journalist and a well-known activist in the Chinese NGO field. He was a reporter for the Southern Weekly for about three years from 2001 – 2003, and the magazine Civil Society (《民间》) he founded in 2005 was shut down in 2007 by the government. His most recently book A Big Incident Happened (《出大事了》, available in bookstores in Hong Kong) examines major public events during 2003-2012 where citizen activists played significant roles in shaping the development as well as the outcome of the events. He lives in Shanghai.  



Friends Gone to Jail – Chinese Activists Kou Yanding and Guo Yushan, by Zeng Jinyan, October 30, 2014

Just Man Guo Yushan, by Xiao Shu, November 9, 2014 (the original was published in the New York Times Chinese website).


(Translated by Louisa Chiang)

Chinese original



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