Hooligan Sparrow

Country of Origin: ,
Running Time: 81 min
Women's rights activist, Ye Hiayan (AKA Hooligan Sparrow), holds a sign which reads, "All China Women's Federation is a Farce. China's Women's Rights are Dead."

Women’s rights activist, Ye Hiayan (AKA Hooligan Sparrow), holds a sign which reads, “All China Women’s Federation is a Farce. China’s Women’s Rights are Dead.” Source:


CW: sexual abuse

In Hooligan Sparrow, Chinese-American filmmaker Nanfu Wang documents the experiences of contemporary women’s rights activists in China, namely Ye Haiyan (aka Hooligan Sparrow). After the Chinese government refused to investigate a case of six elementary school girls who were sexually abused by their principal, Hooligan Sparrow and her fellow activists decide to protest in the streets of Hainan Province, calling attention to China’s legal loopholes that allow rapists to claim child victims should be charged with underage prostitution instead of being held accountable for their crimes. Once the women speak out, they are labeled enemies of the state and are met with intense government surveillance and intimidation. Despite multiple altercations with undercover government agents (in which some of her cameras were destroyed), Wang is able to smuggle the film’s guerilla-style footage, shot with concealed body cameras and secret-camera glasses, back to the United States.

One key element of Hooligan Sparrow is Wang’s presence throughout the film. From the very beginning, she situates herself as the filmmaker, explains who she is, and why she traveled back to China after completing film school in the United States. Multiple times in the film, the audience sees Wang’s reflection in mirrors and windows with her camera in hand, or hears her voice in audio recordings; the audience is always aware that Wang is behind the camera. Given Wang’s presence, the film is also able to capture the relationship between the filmmaker and the film’s key characters, adding another layer of depth to the work.

Bibliographic items: – An interview conducted by journalists Zeng Jinyan and Tan Jia with Nanfu Wang about the editing process and the filmmaker’s perspectives on China.

The Politics of Looking: A Critical Exploration of Hooligan Sparrow

An interview and critical analysis conducted by journalist Rebecca Anderson with Nanfu Wang, which puts Hooligan Sparrow in conversation with the work of French philosopher Jacques Ranciere. Ranciere writes that images produced and circulated by society’s dominant culture shape the public’s perception of what is normal and possible, which helps to explain why authoritarian governments put so much effort into censoring images and other forms of media. Those who wish to disrupt the status quo, therefore, might employ images to inspire political change. Anderson argues that Wang might be considered one such example, given that she weaponizes film to document China’s human rights atrocities and create counternarratives to those of the Chinese government.

— by Allison Naganuma

Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China (Yue-Qing Yang 1999)

Country of Origin: ,
Running Time: 59 min

Format: Color, VHS/DVD

Nu Shu, which translates literally to women’s writing, is a unique language that was developed surreptitiously in Jianyong county in Hunan province. This secret language of Jianyong’s local women has attracted much attention, as its creation can be seen as an incredible act of defiance and rebellion against the patriarchal nature of feudal China. As Yue-Qing Yang investigates the phenomenon in Hunan, she obtains access to first-hand testimony of the effects of female oppression and subordination condoned by society, along with evidence of the outlet that Nu Shu, a language exclusive to women, provided for Jianyong’s mother’s and daughters.

Within Yue-Qing Yang’s interviews with the local women, we are shown gripping images of bound feet and stories of domestic abuse which become reminders of women’s lower class status and even more so, their physical subjugation. The women of Jianyong speak candidly of their frustrations with the nature of marriage and wifehood within their society. Thus, the documentary depicts the women’s resounding response to the binding of their freedom. The film details the development of Nu Shu, demonstrating how the women used the domestic mediums which were available to them and transformed the arts of simple sewing and craft into a written language. Nu Shu was unrecognizable to men and because it was viewed as a bastardized version of Chinese, it was allowed to slip by unnoticed. Thus, empowered by its low status, Nu Shu enabled the creation of a community of “sworn sisters” and refuge among the women. Nu Shu also became a gift that would be bestowed from one generation of woman to another. Thus, the film traces the history of Nu Shu and its passage among women, as well as the ways in which Nu Shu and the “sworn sisters” became an essential source of freedom, a means for finding support, as well as an alleviating medium for a community of the oppressed women of Jianyong.

Though many Nu Shu documents were shown to have been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and the lineage of this heirloom has very much diminished, the study and understanding of the characters from what primary documents do still exist is research that is ongoing. However, the last proficient user of Nu Shu in Jianyong, Yang Huanyi, died on September 20th, 2004.

Further reading:

Overview of Nu Shu:


Comparison of Nu Shu and Chinese characters :

More on Nu Shu

McLaren, Anne E. 1996. “Women’s Voices and Textuality: Chastity and Abduction in Chinese NüShu Writing,” Modern China 22.4: 382-416.

Silber, Cathy L. 1994. “From Daughter to Daughter-in-law in the Women’s Script of Southern Hunan.” Engendering China: Women, Culture and the State: 47-68.