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Sister Phoenix, part two

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2017-01-23 07:24

Sister Phoenix, part two
[Cai Meng/China Daily]

I never thought my column would have a sequel.

Shortly after I finished last week's X-Ray column, titled The (r)evolution of an internet celebrity, it became instantly outdated. The twists have come on so inexorably that it may even turn into a serial melodrama.

In short, what I touted as Luo Yufeng's growing maturity and sophistication could all be a ploy.

Since I did not foresee this change in course, I feel I have the crushing burden to file a follow-up piece, which, as I'm now wiser, will be left open-ended.

The weekend of Jan 14-15 started with a proclamation from Luo that she would donate to charity all proceeds from her latest article titled "I want your blessings and encouragement".

She said her articles would usually get a few hundred yuan in reader reward, which she felt she deserved. But the new one got a total of 200,000 yuan ($29,000), thus making her uneasy.

So, she decided to close the reader reward function and give the money to a project helping children in an impoverished area. That way, she would not be misunderstood as exploiting the public for their sympathy.

Before her move generated the expected wave of cheers, iFeng, the website that contracted her as a columnist a year and half ago, revealed that its contract with "Luo's team" had ended in mid-2016.

So, she has a "team"-she's not just a lonely new immigrant toiling in a New York beauty salon.

Soon, rumors started to spread that Luo's articles were written by a member of this team. Miu Wen, an iFeng editor who was fired around the same time as Luo and iFeng secretly ended their partnership, was suspected to be the real writer.

By Jan 16, Luo had not come out to address the crisis. Her public account, which may or may not be managed by her, had shut down. It looks like her fall from grace took only a few days while her rise lasted several years.

Her critics have resurfaced en masse, arguing that Sister Phoenix, her online handle, has not changed. She is still her old "shameless" self.

The insight and maturity revealed in her full-length articles were the product of Miu or some other ghostwriter who assumes her identity and splits the revenue with her.

It is also pointed out that Luo has done many things considered to be offensive to the Chinese sensibility. She has criticized China's human-rights record while giving press interviews in the United States, and she has participated in at least one demonstration against China.

Worse than that, according to those who dug out tidbits that wait to be verified, her purpose in doing all that was to get a US green card because, they claimed, she had applied for political asylum.

It is amazing how quickly public opinion can take a swerve in this age of instant communication. A public persona can be manufactured and touched up like a doll.

A few select details can create or destroy such a persona, and the real person (s) behind it, with one stroke. It is not just the ephemeral nature of fame-the proverbial 15 minutes-but the ruthlessness with which the game is played.

Well, it is more like a fire than a game that she has been playing with, assuming she has been its mastermind all along.

One analysis goes that Luo is undisciplined and unscrupulous in her determination to claw her way out of poverty.

She found her fame, or rather notoriety, by uttering outrageous remarks, most about what kind of men she would accept as a date. There is no reason she would change into a totally different person. People from the bottom of society tend to be tainted with such weaknesses, says the argument.

This, and her writing.

Some say there was a palpable change in tone from her early writings, which focused on her personal experience, and her later ones that deal with cultural and social issues and quote from authoritative sources. How would she find such background material as her English proficiency is very limited and her love of writing is equally limited, as she herself once admitted.

Luo is sometimes compared to Guo Jingming, a writer who was once charged and found guilty for plagiarism and yet has gained enormous commercial success. The public simply loves a rags-to-riches story even though the road out of obscurity is littered with dirty deeds.

In Luo's case, the riches are still elusive though she is reportedly no longer clipping nails for a living.

To continue the Jane Eyre analogy from my previous piece, a social climber in today's environment would probably kill to marry the rich man with the big castle. What if he were nominally married? That would not cause any squirm for the unscrupulous.

In our age of cynicism, Jane Eyre's self-respect is like an antique object in a museum.

Since we do not have the whole story about Luo and her writing, I'll refrain from judging her.

Is she a go-getter with a heartwarming story and too little patience? Or, is she a liar and cheat who would do anything to get attention? I have no answer. For all I know, she could be many things at once. Where is an investigative journalist when we need one?

Of the army of commentators with a view, Wang Lu is the one worth quoting-one of the few not hiding behind a mask of anonymity.

Wang used to be an editor at iFeng and he edited some of the early writings filed by Luo. He says it was unlikely she had a ghost writer back then because she could not afford one and she wrote about what she encountered in the US. He did only minimal editing on them, he says.

But her later articles, which he says he did not edit, could have come from a ghostwriter who spoke to her on WeChat and built around her observations. Wang says he could not determine whether such writings should be counted as Luo's if his conjecture turns out correct.

I admit I have swung from contempt to empathy to doubt. I believe the phoenix-like rise-no pun intended-is possible if one is set to it. But such a story is truly a cliche. Whatever the outcome, I feel Luo would make a colorful character in a novel.


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