Is this the Most Powerful Woman in China?Posted: August 24, 2014
“She has the ability to change the course of people’s lives with a click of her mouse.”
Interview with Actress Yao Chen
The Telegraph‘s Sarah Keenlyside: “Is it like having a superpower?” I ask the actress Yao Chen as she raises her coffee cup to her lips. She breaks into a broad smile as her translator explains my meaning. “I’m getting more mature,” she says, avoiding the question. “These days I am much more careful and cautious.”
China’s Answer to Angelina Jolie
“Stories abound of children’s operations that were paid for by donations from her Weibo followers.”
One could add the word “modest” to that list, because Yao, self-effacing as she is, has more followers on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) than the population of Britain. That’s 71 million, in case you were wondering. And when five per cent of the population of one of the world’s most powerful (not to mention politically sensitive) countries is hanging on your every word, you have a lot of influence, no matter how cautious you are.
“When I was younger a family member shared the gospel with me. And over the course of that summer I read the Bible and it just answered all of the questions I had about life, so very soon after I was baptised.”
In fact, so great is that influence, she has the ability to change the course of people’s lives with a click of her mouse. Stories abound of children’s operations that were paid for by donations from her Weibo followers, of old ladies who put their entire savings into causes she supports – even of a condemned man who was suddenly hailed as a hero because of her impassioned online defence of his character (he was a friend of her father’s).
How did a nice middle-class actress conquer Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, and turn herself into one of the most influential figures in the world?
A still from Color Me Love (2010)
So how did a 34-year-old from a small coastal city in south-east China rise from obscurity to become one of Time magazine’s 100 most powerful people on the planet? (Forbes ranked her 83rd among the world’s most influential women.) And, more to the point, why have we never heard of her?
“Of, course if the right script came along I would love to do a Hollywood film,” she says when we meet in a bustling café on the east side of Beijing. She’s also a fan of British cinema, and becomes giggly at the mention of Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor she admires. “For now, though, I would just be happy if my current body of work in China got some recognition overseas.”
After studying at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, she scored a role in a martial-arts sitcom, My Own Swordsman. What followed was a mixture of romantic comedies and action films, with Yao often cast as the girl next door. One of her most popular – Color Me Love (2010) – sees her play the lead in a Devil Wears Prada-ish tale of a girl moving to the big city to work for a hard-boiled magazine editor.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else fitting the role so perfectly, not least because she cuts such an accessible figure both on screen and off. Evidently comfortable in her own skin, she arrives for our interview completely make-up free, her hair drawn back into a simple ponytail, wearing a white T-shirt tucked into a black leather skirt, and brogues.
Yao doesn’t have a “look-at-me” beauty – nor is she classically beautiful by Chinese standards – but her appeal is obvious. The first things you notice are her striking, Cara Delevingne- esque eyebrows, which arch above enormous, almond-shaped eyes.
The next thing you notice is her heart-shaped face, tapering to her wide mouth.
Her beauty might best be described as extraterrestrial. “She’s certainly not your cookie-cutter leading lady,” says Alexi Tan, who directed her in Color Me Love. “I think people like her so much because she’s always herself. She doesn’t put on a persona.”
A glance at a typical Chinese internet message board would seem to prove his point…(read more)
- Who are China’s weibo super stars? (bbc.co.uk)
- Silicon Alley Insider: 7 Reasons Why The West Is Obsessed With Sina Weibo (businessinsider.com)
- A Plea to Shun the Ivory Trade From Yao Ming (sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Yao Chen interview: meet China’s answer to Angelina Jolie (telegraph.co.uk)
- Is Social Media Really Media? A Discussion of China’s Weibo Reporting (techinasia.com)
- Solzhenitsyn, Yao Chen, and Chinese Reform (newyorker.com)