Controversial Chinese activist receives the Simone de Beauvoir prize for Women’s freedom

18. Jan 2011

On January 11th, in Paris, the Simone de Beauvoir prize for Women’s freedom 2010 was awarded to two Chinese women, GUO Jianmei 郭健梅, a lawyer in Beijing and Prof. AI Xiaoming 艾晓明 from Sun Zhongshan University (Canton). The Simone de Beauvoir Prize is an international human rights prize for women’s freedom, awarded since 2008 to individuals or groups fighting for gender equality and opposing breaches of human rights. It is named after the French author and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, known for her 1949 women’s rights treatise The Second Sex (see

GUO Jianmei is one of the founders of the Women’s Legal Research and Service Centre of the Law School of Peking University ( It was China’s first non-profit-making, non-governmental organization specializing in women’s legal aid. Since then, the centre has become an influential non-governmental organization safeguarding the rights and interests of women.

AI Xiaoming is a professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Sun Yat-sen University, and head of the Sex/Gender Education Forum established in 2003. She is a feminist academic, a human rights activist, and director of several documentary films. Films she has directed include Care and Love (2007), the story of a villager who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion during childbirth and her attempts to seek legal redress against the hospital; The Epic of Central Plains (2006) on villagers in Henan Province who contracted AIDS while seeking to alleviate their poverty by selling their blood, and Tai Shi Village (2006) on the events surrounding a village’s attempts to remove their appointed local officials. Our Children (2009) is a documentary about the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that focuses on the experiences of parents whose children were killed when their schools collapsed.

As Prof. AI was not allowed to renew her passport, she sent a text that was read at the award ceremony (see a translation below).

Mayflower Falling Down on the Snow-covered Land

Speech of Gratitude

[Mrs AI Xiaoming, together with Mrs GUO Jianmei, is the recipient of the 2010 Simone de Beauvoir Prize presented on Monday 11th January, while she was away from Paris.]

One evening at the end of December, I received a phone call from the French embassy telling me that I was awarded the Simone de Beauvoir Prize. The two recipients of the award this year are both Chinese: Mrs GUO Jianmei, a lawyer in Beijing, and I myself.

When I received that call, I was in the waiting room of a railway station. As a cold front was coming from the north, the trains had been delayed. I was standing among a crowd of passengers loaded with luggage. As I did not wear enough for warmth, I could not help shivering. How could I believe in such good news?

Then I sent a message to my family and friends. I also informed the relevant parties of the university where I teach. I received warmest congratulations, much laughter, and yet a lot of questions. I had to explain whom Simone de Beauvoir was, and that her fight for women’s rights was not restricted to Europe. Even today, a century after her birth, the fight for women’s rights will not stop.

It is a miracle to be awarded such an important prize. Talking about this makes me feel slightly awkward. During the previous years, I did not have a clear understanding of where I really was. Because of filming, my friends who are lawyers and I had to face not only the violence of the triad, but also the hostility of the state police and their special unit. There was even a rumour that something horrible would be done in due course. (At this point, I cannot stop thinking of a scene in a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – a clan chief, with a knife in his hand, butchered, marinated and cooked someone troublesome into a famous Sichuan dish of fish with pickles; the dish, flavoured with coriander, was served at an official banquet.)

From this viewpoint, I find the prize particularly valuable. In the midst of cold winter days, there is a mayflower falling from the sky. It brings me immense esteem, blessings from close friends, attention from the faraway land, the brilliant ideals of Simone de Beauvoir….  My family, my friends and I realise that in spite of the clan chief’s paranoia, of the prevailing fear, indifference and isolation, there are much more love, care and support around us. People who are concerned about us share our desire for freedom – the fish that swims freely – and our love of human dignity, a feeling as broad and deep as the ocean.

In autumn 2008, I came to France to take part in the Shadows Festival of Chinese Independent Cinema. As I was walking with a friend on the streets of Paris, he took me to a café. We ordered a glass of rum. On the covered terrace of the café decorated with potted plants and flowers, there were two young ladies from the Middle East; they kindly asked us to take pictures for them. It was one of those delightful places you can find at the street corners as you wander along in Paris. My friend told me that it was Les Deux Magots, the café where Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre used to come to talk and write.

The ceremony of the award is taking place at Les Deux Magots. Unfortunately, the police refused to renew my passport. This is why I am unable to be with you today. I fought with all my strength, all for nothing, until I was forced to give up any hope of being with you.

At this very moment, in our marvellous country, so many astonishing events are taking place. A writer was committed for trial, on a charge of authoring six articles and he was sentenced to prison for 4,021 days although it took only 1,001 nights for Sheherazade to get her freedom back from the despot. Somewhere else in China, a female entrepreneur, whose house was burgled, died by setting herself on fire in order to protect her family from hooligans recruited by the property developers. On New Year’s Day, my filming assistant in Sichuan was taken away by the police. I was so looking forward to writing this thank-you speech in a quiet moment; but I was constantly interrupted by such bad news. In the midst of all the unexpected events and crises everywhere in the world, I do feel how insignificant I am.

Please let me express how grateful I am to all the members of the selection committee of this prize, particularly to its president, Professor Julia Kristeva. The prize promotes “the freedom of women” and is named after Simone de Beauvoir, a thinker who tirelessly fought for the liberation of women and of all human beings.

Today, you are awarding this prize to a Chinese woman, an ordinary academic who just very recently started to devote herself to make independent documentary films. With great humility, I accept this mayflower coming from the sky.

The lyrics of an old Chinese song from the time of the Sino-Japanese war go this way: “In May, flowers bloom over the field and cover the blood of the patriots”. This is what the mayflower coming from the capital city of liberty tells us: freedom and liberation are possible.

I thank Simone de Beauvoir.

I thank the spiritual flower she is sending me.

While China is covered with snow in this new century, a flower has come to brighten our prickly path.

January 5th 2010

Copyright AI Xiaoming (translated by G. Guiheux & R. Leung)

Gilles GUIHEUX is professor at the department of Oriental Languages and Civilisations, Paris Diderot University. His latest publication, a volume jointly edited with Khun-Eng Kua, is Social Movements in China and Hong Kong. The Expansion of Protest Space, Amsterdam University Press, 2009.
Professor Ai Xiaoming was a keynote speaker at the Second Sino-Nordic Women and gender Studies Conference held in Malmö, Sweden in 2005 under the theme ‘Gender and Human Rights’. A selection of papers from the conference will be published in the book Gender Equality, Citizenship & Human Rights edited by Pauline Stoltz, Marina Svensson, Cindy Sun and Qi Wang and will be published by Routledge April 2010. The book includes an interview with Professor Ai Xiaoming by Cecilia Milwertz.