Packaged Suffering? Ping Fu Tells America her “Cultural Revolution” Story
By Liu Jun, Liu Kuan, Zhou Youqiang, Kou Ling, Zhang Mei
Translated By Mollie Gossage
2013 October 24
Edited by Brent Landon
In her autobiography, Ping Fu describes a story of suffering interwoven with inspiration—she tells of being raped by Red Guards, witnessing her teacher drawn and quartered by four horses, and being deported for writing a thesis on infanticide—finally in America she became a well-known entrepreneur and member of Obama’s think tank.
The development of Ping Fu’s commercial success and her “inspirational story of suffering” seem interrelated. The molding of her image as “an indomitable business leader” and the development of her narrative skills are closely related.
“Reflecting on the Cultural Revolution is essential, but one mustn't take others’ suffering on themselves; that is deceiving to the good and honest American people,” said one of Ping Fu’s earliest opponents, Cindy Hao. [no source]
Ping Fu acknowledges some of her memories’ inaccuracy, even attributing the reasons to “emotional memories,” “cultural differences,” and “errors of the co-author.”
Even after going through over four months of intense questioning, Chinese-American Ping Fu still seems unwilling to give in. In late Sept. 2013, the Chinese edition of her autobiography, “Bend, Not Break,” was published in Taiwan.
This book’s English version is the source of Ping Fu’s earlier controversy. In her book, this 55-year-old Chief Strategy Officer for a world-famous 3D printer manufacturer tells a tale of suffering interwoven with inspiration: during the “Cultural Revolution” she was raped by Red Guards; when attending university she was deported for writing a thesis on infanticide; once in America she started out washing dishes; finally she became a vanguard of the 3D printing industry and Obama’s “think tank.”
“Amended parts are all very subtle; my life story was not modified.” In the preface, Ping Fu affirms that her own story is accurate, and believes that negative commentary from the outside world is slander. [unable to source quote]
This story, which moves from suffering to glory, meanwhile has triggered a long and tedious dispute—insiders denounced her for telling lies, and Ping Fu’s alma mater Suzhou University issued three consecutive statements condemning this former alumna’s use of false stories to hurt teachers and classmates. In its most recent statement, Suzhou University said they will appeal in a court of law if Ping Fu does not apologize.
Opponents in China launched an unceasing “cyber manhunt,” revealing new “evidence of fabrication.” They protested to the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services, requesting that they cancel Ping Fu’s citizenship, and are planning to publish books on Ping Fu’s unsavory background. But from the perspective of her supporters, Ping Fu is “the idol of all immigrants,” all of the “extreme and ruthless slander she is confronting” is yet another instance of "the denunciations that were so routine, and so awful, during the Cultural Revolution.”
Fu Ping emigrated in 1984, and as she becomes active, a halo surrounds this business leader. Her “American legend” is strengthened by her molded Chinese narrative to a large extent—the trials and tribulations of an idealistic saint. But those in China who know the real situation believe Ping Fu’s autobiography violates honesty, loyalty, a sense of honor, as well as traditional Eastern values.
“Bad Girl” of the Cultural Revolution
If in the autumn of 1978 you happened to pass through Jiangsu Teacher’s College (now Suzhou University), you would find this sort of scene: a 20-year-old girl in the Chinese department named Ping Fu, walking around in a dress and high-heels. She seems a rarity among the blue and khaki-covered campus.
That was the second year after university entrance examinations resumed. Dresses and high-heels were symbols of the avant-garde, but also status symbols. She was one of the few in her class to come from a large city like Nanjing. Her father was also a professor of Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
“She was very aloof, she never really talked to me,” recalled Cha Erming, her college roommate in those days and an educationally-reformed youth returned to the city.
In that period when city intellectuals were sent to do agricultural labor, Ping Fu instead enjoyed a pampered youth at her aunt’s Western-style house in Shanghai. This maternal aunt’s husband was a very great and important accountant of the Shanghai Bund. Her parents also loved her dearly. In 1972 she arrived at Guanghuamen High School for study, joined the Youth League, was class president, and would go to work in the fields on occasion. While others clasped Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book” in their hands every day, she was allowed to read Western novels.
At age eight the “Cultural Revolution” broke out. Her aunt’s home was impacted; her parents were also very quickly sent away to a labor camp in the outskirts of Nanjing. According to Ping Fu, this was probably the hardest time of her entire life. Her cousin Yu Zhifang recalls, Ping Fu was so young and still she had to look after her younger sister. Because she couldn't clean mold from the rice, it was always green when she cooked it.
After entering college, Ping Fu was not only avant-garde in appearance; her thinking was also very bold. Once at a celebration she performed a skit, reading the lines “opening arms wide to embrace you,” and simultaneously performing the action. The audience all laughed together. But classmate Liu Buchun remembers how everyone discussed this for quite a while in private, feeling that she lacked a girl’s proper reservation.
At that time when China had just begun to open, the Chinese people had opportunities for fresh contact with the outside world. But by a very distantly related uncle, Ping Fu had access to a huge number of Western movies. During college, she was most fanatical about those works brimming with rebellion, inspiration, and the tint of romanticism, such as “The Sound of Music,” ”Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,” “Jane Eyre,” and “Zorro.”
Western culture quickly seeped in to make Ping Fu conspicuously brilliant in her own culture. In 1978, at the midpoint of her first semester, Ping Fu and her classmates established an underground literature group, Red Maple, which focused chiefly on “trauma literature.” The love stories she wrote were often used by teachers as examples to be read aloud before the class.
Red Maple's excitement upon breaking free from the binds of the Cultural Revolution quickly quieted; it remained in operation for one year and then disbanded. The overwhelming majority of people chose to continue laboring in their studies—in 1978 the college enrollment rate fell short of 7%; every little mistake would influence the future placements.
For a time, Ping Fu considered compliance with this fate, often waking up early to recite English words, but she “very soon realized she could not see the future.” She rejected entrance into the Communist Party, though she had obtained many good applications for it; and later, because she mischievously slipped laxatives into a classmate’s rice noodles, all other students in the department began to exclude her completely.
Probably from the beginning of her third year in college, Ping Fu began to skip class frequently—even failing to return to her dormitory at night—her most frequent reason was illness, but many times her head teacher, Ni Junqiang, saw that the signature on the medical leave form was Ping Fu’s own. And one time she said that she had been kidnapped. Ping Fu’s repeated lies brought Mr. Ni to the end of his patience, and he decided to report her to the school.
In October 1981, the first semester of her senior year, Jiangsu Teacher’s College carried out an administrative demerit punishment against Ping Fu. This meant that she had to return to Nanjing, and that she might also be assigned to a teaching position in a remote village.
Ping Fu’s mother tearfully sought out a good friend of her brother-in-law, a talented man with the alias Chen Bin. Mr. Chen’s suggestion was to go abroad, but first Ping Fu needed to drop out of school. “If you wait until placements are assigned, and then go abroad, they may say you are not obeying national orders—that’s treason,” advised Chen Bin.
On Mar. 16, 1982, three months before graduation, Ping Fu applied for withdrawal from school, and the reason was a surprise to everyone: she claimed failure in love caused her a psychological setback. The hospital certificate was created by a friend of her good friend with the alias Qin Long. But unaware of the real circumstances, Ni Junqiang felt guilty for a long while afterwards; he felt that he had cut short a young person’s future prospects.
"Is There no Boat to the Shore of Freedom?"
In the spring of 1984, Ping Fu attended English classes at the University of New Mexico, obtaining a U.S. visa with the help of Chen Bin, and paying for the first year of tuition with money lent by an American friend of Mr. Chen’s.
Just as China’s reform and opening was beginning, a tide of Chinese went abroad; “go to America” became the slogan for a generation. Just like those poor exchange students in those early years, Ping Fu had no choice but to do illegal work to maintain her livelihood. Ping Fu later recalled, some watched others’ children receiving only one U.S. dollar for eight hours of work.
“Is there no boat to the shore of freedom?” Ping Fu once remembered the anguish of her initial time in America in this way.
Living in a foreign country, Ping Fu’s self-esteem was both strong and flexible. She once had an argument with an American who slandered Chinese, but in order to quickly break through the language barrier, she lived with Americans in the first week. Very quickly, she transferred from the literature department to the more promising computer science department, afterwards transferring to the more famous University of California.
“She is someone who really understands how to manage herself,” Chen Bin said. But this wasn't enough—she still needed to get a green card. In September 1986, Ping Fu and an American named Richard Lynn Ewald registered for marriage in Las Vegas.
But rummaging through all of Ping Fu’s written recollections and interviews, this three-year period of marriage is never brought up. In 1989, Ping Fu divorced; at the same time she also obtained a U.S. green card.
“I’m not willing to accept all the boredom, dullness, tastelessness and helplessness of life,” Ping Fu once told herself, “I don’t want to live to survive; I want to live out a glorious, rich existence.”
In late 1980, she was accepted to the nationally third-ranked department of computer science at University of Illinois in Champaign. Here, she fell in love with a married man, a professor of the computer science department named Herbert Edelsbrunner. After experiencing many years of painful complications, they finally applied for marriage in 1991.
Edelsbrunner is a well-known scholar in the field of geometry. Under his guidance, the completely unknown Ping Fu accomplished a rudimentary knowledge of 3D technology. Public records reveal that for all of Ping Fu’s particularly successful 3D software and academic papers, Edelsbrunner is the primary author.
Ping Fu later resigned from Bell, finding a job at the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). NCSA is the birthplace for the first-generation web browser Mosaic.
In 1996, they founded the software development company Geomagic, but growth was exceptionally difficult. In the initial phases the two of them had no income, the company was completely dependent upon Edelsbrunner’s work salary, Ping Fu recalled to a Southern Weekend reporter. Later, upon the brink of bankruptcy, when the sum of Ping Fu’s family’s wealth had been put into the project, still Edelsbrunner did not say a word.
"Resilient Business Leader"
1993 was the first time she went home to visit her family. Her close friends and family believed that she was getting along well in America, and they all asked to borrow money from her to start companies. That time marked the height of people leaving former jobs to engage in riskier but more profitable business ventures. Ping Fu refused, causing the resentment of some friends and relatives. Their frustration frustrated Ping Fu greatly.
“I am not the kind of person who likes to do business. After ten years, perhaps they will all become famous entrepreneurs, and I will still be at the salary level, then there probably wouldn't be anyone complaining about me.”
“Drifting Bottle” is a book by Ping Fu, which was published domestically in 1996. Her cousin Zhifang Yu is the editor of this book. She recalls how when Hubei Shaer Publishing Society wanted to publish a set of inspirational stories about Chinese people abroad, she, as chief editor, thought of Ping Fu. Because the book was intended for children, the only requirement was that it used a lot of common, everyday language; it certainly didn't include anything on Ping Fu’s later government censorship.
“Drifting Bottle”: these are words that can perhaps represent Ping Fu’s situation at that time. When writing this book in 1994 she was still struggling to get by, lost and bewildered Ping Fu says. Ping Fu barely kept up any contact with college classmates. Her only connection with Suzhou University was its appearance on her resume.
Whether it was one of her early publications, or grant proposals after starting the company, Ping Fu’s CV has always included this: in March 1982, she received a Bachelor’s degree in literature from Suzhou University. In fact, according to enrollment status certificates later provided by Suzhou University, she did not graduate and did not receive any degree.
As the principal sponsor of the NCSA, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has been the number-one supplier of research funds for Ping Fu. Many of Ping Fu’s requests for funding from the NSF obtained by Southern Weekend reporters show that her beautified portions are more numerous. She said that from 1982 to 1983 she was an instructor at China Southern Airlines, that in China she had published “Two-Minute Children’s Stories,” and that at the NCSA she orchestrated and helped start the Mosaic web browser. NSF finally decided to supply two years of research funding to Ping Fu, the first year giving her 190 thousand dollars.
But knowing her personal recollections well, during the time that she claimed to be an “instructor,” she was actually at home reciting “900 English sentences” in preparation to go abroad, that children’s book was simply a work that Yu Zhifang requested her to translate, and the introduction on the official NCSA website says that Mosaic was invented by Edelsbrunner in 1993—there is not a single word on the contributions of Ping Fu.
At this point Ping Fu’s packaging abilities stopped somewhere at the resume level, waiting until she learned how to package her personal narrative is a post-2005 matter.
2005 was a year of transition for Ping Fu. That girl who at first said she “disliked doing business” achieved enormous success. In this year, Geomagic earned $30 million in revenue, and Ping Fu was described by American magazine “Inc.” as “Entrepreneur of the Year” and also appeared on its cover.
Savvy, a North Carolina Chinese-American consulting company, said that they planned this media operation. They claimed to have “prepared [the Geomagic] team for key media interviews.” Savvy did not deny that they specifically instructed Ping Fu to tell her own story.
In the 10,000-plus-word cover story article in Inc. magazine, Ping Fu is described as an adventurer emerging "from the bleakest totalitarianism.” This bleak experience includes being raped by Red Guards on her college campus, being unable to attend school between ages 7 and 18, seeing a teacher being drawn and quartered by four horses right before her own eyes, and being expelled by her university for writing a thesis on infanticide.
Ping Fu describes this last experience in the greatest detail. The general idea is that she spent two years investigating the phenomenon of infanticide in China; in January 1981, the largest newspaper in Shanghai carried the results of her investigation, and the People’s Daily followed up with a report. This gave rise to international condemnation; the U.N. carried out sanctions against China. Ping Fu was jailed and soon after extradited from China.
After the Inc. magazine report, the totally unknown Ping Fu instantly gained a great reputation. She began to accept frequent invitations for interviews from mainstream media groups. She also would often insert herself in the company of some very important people. In one interview, Ping Fu said, before she went abroad, the Chinese government initially rejected giving her a passport, and finally a leader in the central government helped her out.
1.5-meter-tall Ping Fu speaks with calculated and unhurried steps, fashioning herself as a “resilient business leader.” She once told Forbes magazine that when she publicized the disgrace of the Red Guards, it helped her get over her stage fright, which in turn helped her learn to promote items to potential investors. One time, she raised 650 thousand dollars this way.
“Spokesperson for the American Dream”
As Ping Fu’s “anti-totalitarian technology upshot” reputation was shaking the U.S., there were still very few people in her ancestral land that had even heard of her. In 2008, Ping Fu and her college classmates had a little reunion in Suzhou. This was the first time she’d gotten together with classmates after a nearly 30-year absence from her alma mater.
As her classmate Wang Jialun remembers, Ping Fu had really looked forward to getting others’ recognition. She said how she was famous in America. Wang Jialun didn't believe her, and when putting her name in the Baidu search engine back home, there were no results.
Ping Fu’s relatives also did not recognize her success. Yu Zhifang remembers, in 2007, Ping Fu’s father was seriously ill and had to return home for treatment. While on his deathbed, “as soon as he mentioned Ping Fu he began to cry, saying that besides money, she had nothing else.”
Her classmates didn't know it, but at that time Ping Fu was recently divorced. “Her husband frequently had affairs, and finally he dumped her.” Yu Zhifang believes that Ping Fu’s subsequent book was done to affirm herself in front of her ex-husband.
Jiangsu Women’s Federation’s “Take It Easy” carried out the earliest domestic media report on Ping Fu. Han Liqing, who interviewed her, told Southern Weekend reporters that Ping Fu had found her through a friend in the Jiangsu Women’s Federation. “Her primary desire was to have others understand her.” Later, Ping Fu gave several lectures at Nanjing University, but she wasn't actually invited, just introduced through an old retired professor.
Even though no one had heard of her in China, overseas her previous “tragic story” had conquered the American media and public. In addition, its commercial success gradually progressed. Ping Fu also felt she had become, in some sense, legendary. Just as she officially appeared in the view of the Chinese people, she had already won the title “Outstanding American by Choice.” Ping Fu, following Elaine Chao, head of the U.S. Department of Labor, is the eighth Chinese American to receive this title.
What many Chinese people don’t know is that before this, Ping Fu had already stepped out of the business world and involved herself with politics. In January 2010, Ping Fu was invited to attend Obama’s State of the Union address in order to boost the morale of Americans deeply entrenched in the mires of unemployment. Ping Fu’s contribution was “helping the U.S. economy by adding jobs.”
This July, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced the establishment of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Ping Fu is one of the 26 advisers. Every year Ping Fu and Obama meet three or four times, Southern Weekend reports being told by Fu.
In America, these kinds of advisers are too numerous to count. A search on the U.S. Department of Commerce official website for committees finds that the several meetings listed were not with Obama at the White House, but all were in the U.S. Department of Commerce headquarters, and the host was U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke.
This commonplace advisory position was rapidly inflated to become a role in “Obama’s think tank” once Ping Fu released “Bend, Not Break”; this was an important selling point promoted during its publication.
While writing this book, out of worries about her English writing abilities, Ping Fu requested the help of famous U.S. biographer MeiMei Fox, who took on the role of being responsible for dictation. Fox recalls to Southern Weekend reporters the reason why she agreed is because she felt that “Ping Fu is a spokesperson for the American Dream.”
In her book, Ping Fu supplements her sufferings with many new details. Her story sounds even more miserable than it did before. For example, at age eight she was snatched by Red Guards, she grew up in a children’s camp, her father was sent to the Russian border to cut trees for a decade, her teacher gave her a pregnancy test with her fingers, and she was the subject of political persecution and kidnapping and more.
In America, she again encountered new “sufferings.” For instance, on her third day in the country she was kidnapped by a Vietnamese American. And when she was washing dishes for an American restaurant, she was harassed by Hollywood superstar Sylvester Stallone.
In late December 2012, “Bend, Not Break” hit the market. It quickly occupied the major U.S. bestsellers lists, and reviewers flocked to Amazon’s official website with a tide of positive comments. “This woman is a symbol for freedom, courage, and the future,” one reader says. “Her story reveals the life of a true hero,” says another.
This also ushered in the peak of Ping Fu’s career. In January 2013, when the world’s leading 3D printer manufacturing company 3D Systems decided to buy Geomagic, Ping Fu was appointed as Chief Strategic Officer in the new company.
The Deepest Fear
The waves of attacks questioning Ping Fu’s veracity were ignited following a post by a Chinese-American named “Lin.” In a long January 2013 post on the website Amazon.com, Lin used his status as a personal witness of the Cultural Revolution to question and refute Ping Fu’s claims that she was raped by Red Guards, unable to attend school, as well as others.
This quickly attracted responses from Chinese netizens both overseas and domestic. Posts on Amazon continuously gathered evidence of Ping Fu’s various “lies”. Phone calls were also made to the publishing company requesting that “Bend, Not Break” be pulled from the shelves and that unwitting customers be compensated for damages.
Cindy-Hao, a Seattle-based freelance journalist, is among Ping Fu’s earliest opponents. She shook out a trail of clues and gave it to Didi, a New York Times reporter stationed in Beijing. “Reflecting on the Cultural Revolution is essential, but one mustn't take others’ suffering as their own experience. That is deceiving to the good and honest American people.”
In February, Ciny Hao and Didi finished a collaborative report on Ping Fu. Hao did a lot of fact-checking. For example, Ping Fu said that she had been kidnapped by a Vietnamese American in Albuquerque. But local police could not find any record of that event.
The outside world is doubtful. It seems that some Americans are unable to change their impression of Ping Fu. “Muckraker” Cindy Hao was quickly dismissed from the New York Times, which instead published an article in support of Ping Fu. Still other American authors wrote articles claiming it was a smear campaign launched by Chinese nationalists.
Ping Fu herself did not acknowledge any error in her thinking, either. In her February Huffington Post blog post entitled “Sad, But Not Broken,” she said that this smear campaign caused her to return emotionally to the mistreatment of her youth once again.
In June 2013, during an interview with Southern Weekend reporters, Ping Fu reiterated, she does not want attention to focus on those details, but on her larger narrative. “Only 5% of the book is bad things about China; 95% of the book is all good things about China.”
Following penetrating and escalating questioning, especially from former classmates, one by one coming forward and criticizing the falseness of her story, Ping Fu’s stance began to shift. She acknowledged that some of her memories were inaccurate, and attributed the reasons to “emotional memory,” “cultural differences,” and “errors of the co-author.”
Ping Fu believes she did not personally see her teacher “drawn and quartered.” “During youth I often heard this kind of story, and this scene frequently appeared in my nightmares,” she explained to British publication The Guardian, “but perhaps it was something I only saw in a movie.”
Additionally, she believes the part about the “finger pregnancy test” is co-author MeiMei Fox’s writing error. And the “rape by Red Guards” she also blamed on MeiMei Fox, who used this to attract readers’ attention. “Earning a Bachelor’s degree from Suzhou University” is actually the result of a Malaysian girl’s carelessness at her company ten years ago. She refused to disclose anything about the infanticide investigations, out of concerns for “protection of informants.”
Finally, Ping Fu’s alma mater could no longer bear her stance on the treatment of these “lies.” In June Suzhou University issued two consecutive statements, publicizing several pieces of evidence proving that much of Ping Fu’s experiences were fabricated. Her classmates and teachers also decided to come forward, to restore the historical truth.
Ping Fu says she feels extremely surprised. “I feel that my alma mater has been misled, this is hurtful to me; I would never say anything disrespectful about my alma mater,” Ping Fu told a Southern Weekend reporter.
In its second statement, Suzhou University requests that the American Library Association cancel its invitation for Ping Fu’s speech, to prevent its poisoning young Americans, but the speech went on as scheduled.
At noon on June 29, 2013, in Chicago, the annual meeting place for the American Library Association, listeners were thinly scattered. Ping Fu emerged from behind a screen, wearing a dress. The Cultural Revolution was still the principal content of her speech: “My father was sent to an agricultural labor camp. Under the management of the Red Guards…”
Three months later, the Chinese edition of “Bend, Not Break” was published in Taiwan. In its preface, Ping Fu wrote: “The minute details of my life story have all become points of mockery…...this is my greatest fear, that I will suffer this humiliation again, seems like an inescapable prophecy.”
作者： 南方周末记者 刘俊 南方周末特约撰稿 刘宽 南方周末实习生 周有强 孔灵 张媚
“她是一个很懂得规划自己的人。”陈斌说。但这样仍是不够的，她还需要获得一张绿卡。1986年9月，傅苹跟一个名叫Richard Lynn Ewald的美国人在拉斯维加斯注册结婚。