Opinion: Asian-American women pay price for lurid rumors about actress Zhang Ziyi
Zhang Ziyi starred in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
June 2nd, 2012
02:10 PM ET

Opinion: Asian-American women pay price for lurid rumors about actress Zhang Ziyi

Editor's Note: Jeff Yang writes the column Tao Jones for the Wall Street Journal Online. He is a regular contributor to WNYC radio, blogging for "The Brian Lehrer Show," and appears weekly on "The Takeaway." He previously wrote the Asian Pop column for the San Francisco Chronicle and was founder and publisher of A magazine. He tweets @originalspin.

by Jeff Yang, Special to CNN

This week, the blogosphere churned with a lurid rumor that highlighted the ugly misogyny that often colors popular culture’s treatment of Asian women.

Top Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi, best known in the U.S. for her breakout role in Ang Lee’s martial arts epic "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," was rumored to be under investigation by the Chinese government for providing disgraced Politburo member Bo Xilai and other high-ranking Communist Party officials with sexual favors in exchange for cash.

Lots of cash: The anonymous sources behind the reports claimed that the price they each paid for her company was $1.5 million a night.

The rumors, which spread across Asia before leaping the Pacific into U.S. gossip farms like Perez Hilton, Oh No They Didn’t and the Superficial on Thursday, were instantly and hotly denied by Zhang, who at a news conference called them “complete libel and defamation from beginning to end” and declared that she had met with her lawyers to bring harsh reprisals on Boxun.com, the U.S.-based Chinese-language site where the anonymous claims had originated.

“No matter what it takes, I will be taking legal action and pursuing this matter till the end,” she said.

Even if she’s successful in her lawsuit, as she’s likely to be, a stain has been placed on her reputation that can’t easily be erased. A scan of American sites that picked up the story shows a corrosive and disgusting array of hateful reactions: limericks rhyming Zhang’s last name with slang terms for genitalia, references to cinematic Asian streetwalkers (from Suzie Wong to Full Metal Jacket’s infamous “me love you long time” girl) and repeated snark about Zhang “selling her mizuage” – a reference to her star turn in 2005’s blockbuster adaptation of the book "Memoirs of a Geisha."

In it, Zhang plays Chiyo, a young girl who’s been pressed into service as a maiko, an apprentice learning the geisha’s arts, which include flirtation, conversation and performance. “We create another secret world, a place only of beauty,” says Mameha, the house’s senior geisha.

But the mizuage ritual, the film’s most memorable scene, has no pretentions to being cultured or polite. The ceremony, which marks a maiko’s ascension to full geisha, is the auction of Chiyo’s virginity to a wealthy patron. When Chiyo’s price is finally revealed, Mameha declares that she has “made history: No mizuage has ever been sold for more, not even mine!”

It’s likely that the unknown individual who posted the attacks on Zhang was inspired by the film, which earned nearly $160 million around the world. But the speed with which the rumor propagated across the Internet, first in Asia and then the U.S., makes it clear that the ugliest aspect of the incident wasn’t the original accusations, it’s the ease with which people accepted them as truth.

Zhang noted that she usually didn’t publicly address “gossip and rumors,” given that invented celebrity scandals are a notorious staple of the Chinese-language press, but in this case, she felt moved to respond because “this incident is damaging not only to me but to others as well. I’ve seen online comments saying that ‘this is the way it is in the film business.’ (So) this has not only hurt me personally, it has also blackened the film industry.”

And not just the film industry. Many comment threads have gone from suggesting that all Asian entertainers are available for a price to maintaining, tacitly or overtly, that all Asian women are open to such “transactions” – given the right offer of expensive gifts, luxury brands … or citizenship.

UC-Berkeley professor Elaine Kim’s documentary “Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded” details the frictionless path by which pop fantasy transitions into real-world perception, with troubling real-world consequences. And, as the documentary points out, the same slippage that conflates media fictions with flesh-and-blood people also imposes imagery emerging out of the “exotic East” on Asian women in the West.

“Asian women as prostitutes – the oversexualization of our image – we have to live with that history,” DeAnza College Asian-American studies professor Christine Chai says in the film, which goes on to point out that virtually every Asian-American woman, regardless of how independent, educated, successful and strong she might be, has at one point or another found herself uncomfortably boxed into a stereotype by those whose primary exposure to “Asian” culture comes from cinematic blockbusters and pulp bestsellers.

The price can go far beyond discomfort. DePaul law professor Sumi K. Cho has linked the Asian-woman-as-prostitute stereotype to what she calls "racialized sexual harassment," professional exploitation rooted in the expectation that Asian women are culturally amenable to sexual advances.

And it is not just in the context of the workplace.  Other studies have connected these stereotypes to increased threats of abuse at home and in intimate settings.

The Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence reports that, depending on ethnic community, 41 to 60 percent of Asian American women report having experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner at some point during their lifetime: a much higher prevalence rate than for whites (21.3%), African Americans (26.3%) or Hispanics (21.2%).

Responding to a barrage of questions at her news conference in Haiko, China, where she was named China’s media ambassador at the 12th China Film Media Awards, Zhang showed the decidedly un-geisha-like fire and defiance she’s demonstrated in most of her other screen roles. “(I) know I’m not alone in this fight,” she said. “I won’t let this type of thing affect my passion for my work. … I often have to deal with these things that could derail me, but I am as persevering as ever.”

A decidedly un-geisha-like statement – and one with which many Asian-American women might empathize.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Yang.

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Filed under: Asian in America • Pop culture • What we think • Women
soundoff (68 Responses)
  1. Tony

    For that much money I image nearly every American would do the same. Don't be jealous because no on wants to pay you that kind of money.

    June 20, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Haldan

    Who CARES? She's an ACTRESS!

    We put way to much importance on this job.

    She gets in front of a camera and speaks the lines she memorized. She does not write those lines. She is not the 'hidden tiger'. She is not running for political office. She does not make policy or contribute to the laws of our country. She has not worked for world peace. She is not trying to cure cancer. She is an actress. Nothing more important or noteworthy then that.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
  3. HS

    Her fiance is like this Jewish millionaire or something...She has all the money she needs.

    June 19, 2012 at 10:45 am | Report abuse |
  4. mikeychan78

    I'm not saying that she did it or that she is a bad person but 1.5 million dollars is allot of money...and I know allot of people that wouldn't turn that down be them Asian. black, white, or Hispanic...money effects everyone...unfortunately in this society we choose to live in that would go a long way...

    June 19, 2012 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
  5. Carlston

    One woman has a rumor and it affects all asians?

    Wow egotistical much?

    June 18, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Report abuse |
  6. chelsea

    craigg – you speak as if you were the "fly on the wall" at the Crouching Tiger proverbial "casting couch" with Zhang and attended public media events with the actress where she invited physical groping by the attendees. amazing claims on your part! i have reported your abuse to " SOUNDOFF" so there is a record of your defamatory comments and to China film industry contacts so that you can prove the merits of your comments in a legal setting.

    June 17, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
  7. craigg

    Generally agree with you about negative stereotyping of Asians, but Zhang Ziyi is probably the worst possible example of the virtues of Asian women. She is well known to be a tramp, from her casting in Crouching Tiger through to allowing herself to be groped in public.

    June 15, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Kyne

    Reminds me of the article about cyber vigilantes in China and how they have the power destroy lives.

    June 15, 2012 at 4:55 am | Report abuse |
  9. NightMist

    It is a shame that it can take a miserable individual to say this abt any woman and everyone believes it and flies away with assinine & ignorant comments. I wonder how you would feel if this was your Grandmother, mother or sister that this was being said abt. It is a shame that in this day and age, a woman cannot be successful in her career and still hear old, ignorant comments that she must of slept her way to the top.. Get a life ppl and stop the ugliness.

    June 14, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • my grandmother is dead

      leave the dead alone

      June 16, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • annied

      It's like the American legal system. A woman can say a man raped her and he's trashed regardless of evidence or if she's a known liar and a tramp. That's how it is all over. People are not smart and do not investigate.

      June 18, 2012 at 11:39 am | Report abuse |
  10. Bob

    I wouldn't pay that kind of money to sleep with her even if I was a multimillionaire, and I have a hard time believing many other people would. Maybe for Melanie Laurent...

    June 14, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mas360

      LOL...you don't have to worry about that, Bob. You can keep that a nice dream with your minimum wage job.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  11. marc

    Question should be what race is it that's really making up all the racial stereotypes.....one guess.

    June 14, 2012 at 10:42 am | Report abuse |
  12. i think yes

    $1.5m and worth every penny!

    June 13, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tony

      I disagree

      June 20, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Steve

    $1.5 million for one night? That would be hard for anybody to turn down. I'm just sayin....

    June 10, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • FiveLIters

      In this economy,I'm sure there are a lot of people who would do much more for much less!

      June 13, 2012 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Rog

      That was a rude remark and probably indicates a poor self esteem....just sayin'

      June 13, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Report abuse |
      • mikeychan78

        dont act so high and mighty..im sure if someone offered you 1.5 million dollars and nobody would find out you would be more then willing

        June 19, 2012 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
  14. ultracreep

    I am very fond of Zhang Ziyi as an actress. I don't believe these allegations are in the least bit true. However, if they were, she is a grown woman interacting with other adults and is free to sell whatever service she wishes to provide. It shouldn't really be anyone else's business.

    June 9, 2012 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
  15. holdem

    she brought new meaning to the words "green destiny"

    June 7, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • chimster

      Thanks, genius, for proving the point of the article.

      June 10, 2012 at 10:43 am | Report abuse |
  16. Jorge

    This is exotic, juicy news??? Not. Happens here every day in Hollywood and other necks of the woods, it's called the casting couch. *YAAAWN*

    June 6, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
  17. sicnarf

    what you people forgot is that she does live in CHINA and even though she might not need the money, it is still the communist goverment who'll kill you even if you look at them wrong. I'm not surprise if it did happen or that this was cause by the communist goverment for her participating some anti-communist thing.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:45 am | Report abuse |
    • LucyINTexas

      You do not have big picture of China. Chinese do not get killed by expressing different opinions normally. True, the news media is filtered and social network is "policed" but not as bad as portrait in western media. Go to China to see yourself. I go there every year and I love the people and culture there. Food is so much better than Chinese restaurants in US. Chinese people are very hospital and are very safe to visit.

      June 12, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Just Sayin

      If they were that powerful, then they wouldn't need to pay her any money, let alone 1.5 mil. They woul just ordered her to do it. I don't think it happened either way.

      June 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
  18. hehe

    glad there is op-ed because cnn news reported the story like breaking news...

    June 6, 2012 at 3:07 am | Report abuse |
  19. Architect

    Hmm... Its obviously not true. I mean shes probably the richest Asian girl in the world. Pffft. I mean.... Whatever. IF the lie came from a female. I'd say shes just jealous coz she probably sold her body for a cup of starbucks coffee whereas Zhang Zi Yi gets a 1.5M date! IF the lie came from a man, I guess hes the biggest LOOSER in the world! But, personally, its sounds unbelievable. And people who believe these BS are erm.... well not much difference from people who believe Hawaii is not America? LOL.

    June 6, 2012 at 2:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Critic

      Lol? Shouldnt you be posting comments on teen magazine articles or something?

      June 10, 2012 at 4:42 am | Report abuse |
  20. Tina J.

    Stop acting as if it's western culture that has done this terrible disservice to Asian women. Their own men have subjugated them as well throughout history. Ever heard of harems or foot binding just to name a few?

    June 5, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • just another mom

      "Harem" is from arabic. It is middle eastern in descent, not far eastern.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • rr

      And what about corsets? And modern plastic surgery? it's not an asian vs the rest thing it's really an issue of male subjugation of women. Course it is now 2012 and the world has changed for the better. Ergo...your point?

      June 7, 2012 at 12:18 am | Report abuse |
      • Chen

        Foot binding is not that long ago. My elderly Chinese teacher's Mother's feet were bound. Chinese women can thank two white missionaries for launching the movement that ended, eventually, foot binding.. Death by a thousand cuts was also eradicated by Westerners(not Chinese), that movement took time to succeed and was started by the assistant to the British ambassador(after witnessing the public's embrace of this torture)

        June 12, 2012 at 10:37 am | Report abuse |
    • bd

      Yeah, like white/European women were so free throughout history (not ot mention the women during Biblical times).

      June 10, 2012 at 2:15 am | Report abuse |
    • hahhahhahaha

      But alot of white men prey on asian women. So this just makes matters worst.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  21. drivinganddaydreaming

    Even if the rumors were true, what business is it of anybody but the people who were directly involved. The activities in which consenting adults engage in private are not performed for society's approval. This rule applies regardless of the situation involving an actor and a politician or a couple that meets at a bar. They're consenting adults.

    June 5, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thepacific

      Wholeheartedly agree.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
  22. MannyHM

    Anyone can invent a malicious rumor. This well known Chinese actress should learn that early in life and it shouldn't bother her. She should challenge them – OK, show a videotape proof. She should learn from others that this type of rumor might even be beneficial to her in a perverse way. My advice to her ? Don't let the dirty mind of others shouldn't soil your reputation.

    June 5, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
  23. Erin

    I have Chinese friends (I live in Asia). Years ago, when "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was popular, I asked them what they thought of it. They said they hated the movie because "it was made for Americans." Nice, eh? Sounded like total jealousy, actuall. And they hated Zhang Ziyi, as well, because they considered her a sell-out. So everyone should understand that these kinds of rumors only play into what many Chinese people want to hear, apparently.

    June 5, 2012 at 8:26 am | Report abuse |
    • rr

      I thought crouching tiger was based on a novel written by a taiwanese author.

      June 7, 2012 at 12:14 am | Report abuse |
  24. Howard

    The whole premise of the rumors about Zhang is too bizarre to take seriously... Why would any successful actress sell her body for cash?

    June 4, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Report abuse |

      EEEEHEM, for more $$$?

      June 6, 2012 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
    • rr

      yea it Is totally bizarre. She has more money than most of us could ever earn in three lifetimes why would she need to sleep with some ugly old greasy guy?

      June 7, 2012 at 12:16 am | Report abuse |
      • FiveLIters

        I asked Donald Trump's wife the same question,but she hasn't gotten back to me yet...

        June 13, 2012 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
  25. Jonquil

    Yes, this is a nasty cultural prejudice that's become more obvious as Asian countries have aquired more wealth and power and Western countries feel threatened by it; this idea that Asian women are "for sale" and don't make decisions, about who to love/marry/date/sleep with, as unique individuals.

    One of my friends, an American of chinese descent, was shocked at some of the "jokes" she heard, when she announced her engagement to a Caucasian guy she'd been dating for three years. She's laid back about that sort of thing, but "mail order bride" stood-out to her and was more hurtful than she thought. While happy to hear that people are growing out of poverty in China, she's American. Her family have been here since the 1800s. What does it take to be treated like she's part of this and not an outsider?

    June 4, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      1. Make some babies, 2. Wear american clothes 3. Don't practise religion too publicly (not that I would care) 4. Grow a thicker skin! Only backward racists would make an asian feel uncomfortable. Why bother trying to please such people? Treat them like the clowns they are!

      June 13, 2012 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
  26. SmartMan

    WOW !! This sounds like a man that tried to get to her and she said " NO! " This must be a very angry man who would attempt to drag this lady down , I don't believe this rumor no not at all !! But I'm more likely to believe that she may have "pimp slapped him like a dog ! If she did good for her !

    June 4, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jonquil

      Ha! So, true, SmartMan. It sounds like some very powerful men aren't used to hearing "No" and don't know how to handle rejection.

      June 4, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
  27. Michael

    @Bill. How did Jeff write anything racist? Your comment makes no sense.

    June 4, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
  28. kamarasune

    1.5 million a night? She's a marketing genius if she pulled that off.

    June 4, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
  29. Bill

    You are the racist dude. If you could not write stories like these you probably would have no job. Unbelievable that crap like this can still be posted in 2012.

    June 4, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mahon

      What on earth was racist about anything he said?

      June 4, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Report abuse |
  30. .frosthoe

    Her behavior is NO reflection of other women.. To think that, is to prove how small and closed minded you are.
    The author needs to stop spouting ignorant inflammatory info and perhaps find his true calling , the local farm reports...I hear farmer browns pig just had a litter, have at it . that's a story worth of his/her writing prowess..

    June 4, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
  31. Rob Rae

    That wasn't my first reaction at all. I think it's like most other posters and people realize: it's Hollywood Rules.

    You need to get over yourself, Jeff. Just because you are uncomfortable with who you are, or extremely oversensitive so that you are listening and looking for every unintended slight - it doesn't mean everyone thinks this way.

    Go get some help.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  32. Johnny Walker

    It is just a matter of terminology and commie-speak. The 1.5M for meeting these men was an 'appearance' fee. Any head-giving or bending over was entirely incidental and voluntary and in no way connected with the receiving or giving of cash. Now, where all these politicians got 1.5M to pay for these 'appearance' fees, is another matter worth of investigation, wouldn't u say?

    June 3, 2012 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
    • raceisamyth

      Yes commie speak. Have you lived in a communist country and expierenced ethnic genocide? North Korea has death camps. China has forced female abortions because they want male soldiers. Mao, pao pot, stalin, lenin, etc etc etc.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:43 am | Report abuse |
      • Sternberg

        I have lived in China, and they do not abort girls "because they want male soldiers". You are a pretender.

        June 4, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
      • Rog

        ....and you Sternberg sound like a communist poster.

        June 13, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Report abuse |
  33. raceisamyth

    Has anyone else notice that the 2nd picture/video released of Mr. Chen is not the same man. Its pretty obvious to me.

    June 2, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Report abuse |
  34. raceisamyth

    Ive noticed a lot of euro men love asian women. And a lot of asian men love euro women. My girlfriend calls herself an American Caublasian (afro, euro and asian in heritage) lol

    June 2, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  35. raceisamyth

    You said under investigation by high ranking communist officals....so i 100% WILL NOT trust a flipping word that comes from their mouths.

    June 2, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
  36. Andrew

    I wouldn't believe any rumor without concrete evidence. I am married to an Asian woman, and I can attest that 99.99% of the rumors and heresay about them are complete fabricated B.S.
    Not only are Asian women among the most beautiful women, they are also faithful and loyal to their husband and family.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Aurelien

      The stereotype is wrong but to be honest that form of praise is undue too. I'm sure your wife is a lovely woman, but the fact is that people are people and that for the most part they are neither aligned to good nor bad. There are Asian women who are graceful and devoted and others who are unpleasant and harbor less savory characteristics. The best way to deal with this issue is to accept people as people and not as offshoots of races.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
      • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

        People are people but cultures are not cultures. I’ve never meet an Asian that referred to someone as their baby momma.

        June 4, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
      • lotusmaster

        Actually it's a well know fact that groups are highly predictable. That being the case entire regions of people can be predicted based on environmental and cultural factors. And so Andrew may very well be on point. From my experience Chinese women are superior "wives" but not necessarily good girlfriends. I however have not met every Asian woman but I have met multiple members of every Asian subculture & personal would only consider marrying a Chinese woman from Guangdong province....but that's just me

        June 4, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
      • PJ

        That depends on what you mean by "superior wives." You might be referring to a stereotype that Asian women are more submissive. Any man who is looking for a submissive woman of any race obviously has some issues with how he feels about himself as a man. Only a man who is secure with himself wouldn't be threatened with an equal partner in the relationship.

        June 16, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • bd

      Saying that Asian women are "faithful and loyal to their husband and family" is just as stereotypical.

      There are Asian women who are like that and others who are not – just like in any group.

      June 10, 2012 at 2:38 am | Report abuse |