Human Flesh Search: Vigilantes of the Chinese Internet

New America Media, News feature, Xujun Eberlein Posted: Apr 30, 2008

Editor's note: In China "human-powered search engines can turn netizens into cyber lynch mobs, and private lives are turned upside down by collective cyber-vigilantism. NAM contributor Xujun Eberlein is the author of "Apologies Forthcoming. Xujun Eberlein's website is

The first time I noticed the term "ren rou sou sou" on a Chinese website, I was taken aback. "Human flesh hunting" is a literal translation, but the term, applied to the Internet, means a search engine that runs on people power "human flesh searching engine."

Chinese netizens have made up their own cyber vocabulary. Some are "Chinesied" translation of words that Americans have turned into verbs meaning internet acts, such as "spam" and "friend." More are their own inventions that can perplex infrequent web users. A popular new expression, for example, is "very pornographic, very violent," used to describe something that is cool and interesting. Similarly, using the words, "human flesh" (instead of, for example, "human powered") to modify "search engine" also reflects a fashion in diction.

But as I researched the origin of "human flesh searching engine" as a cyber term, I discovered, to my dismay that it actually has a literal meaning that's roughly the equivalent of putting people into a 21st century version of the medieval "stockade."

wantedIn December 2007, a 31-year-old Beijing woman named Jiang Yan jumped off the 24th floor balcony of her apartment. A post on her blog before her suicide blamed her death on her husband's extra-marital affair. News of this "death blog" spread on the Chinese Internet and soon, a mass of outraged netizens launched a "human flesh search engine" to track down the guilty parties. Within days, every detail of her husband's personal life was all over the Internet. For months, this man, his alleged mistress and their parents were bombarded with attack messages and even death threats. In March, the husband sued three websites for cyber violence and privacy violation. On April 17, a Beijing court began deliberating the case the first anti-"human flesh search" case to come before the Chinese courts.

"Ren rou sou sou" apparently started out harmlessly enough in 2001, when an interactive entertainment website called enlisted viewers to help track down information about movies, books, songs and other trivia. Those who had clues posted them on a "human flesh search engine" area of and were rewarded with "mop money" an Internet currency only redeemable on if they proved right.

Gradually, the search process itself became a form of online entertainment., for example, reports how a participant cyber-named Judy, a professional by day and an "internet detective" by night figured out the school of a student who had insulted his teacher, located two hawthorn trees in a romance novel, identified the workplace and MSN address of a woman who posted provocative personal photos on a blog. Judy posted her findings anonymously, with the aim of "helping right wrongs and have fun at the same time."

As human flesh search engines have gained in popularity, the appetite for them has grown voracious with marital affairs, sex scandals and violence their preferred targets. These are also the topics most guaranteed to attract the broadest participants and audience.

Netizen detectives have recently exposed a man who had an illicit sexual relationship, a woman who wore high-heel sandals and stepped on a kitten's head, a "foreigner" who slept with many Chinese women, etc. Once the personal information appeared on-line, those implicated were bombarded with curses, threats and even "execution orders." Some were fired from their jobs.

An information expert thinks large-scale human flesh search engines are unique to China, a claim that appears to be true. This is understandable as a consequence of China's ubiquitous manpower and ingrained tradition of "people's war" tracing back to Mao. On the other hand, because China's laws are imperfect, the Internet is seen as a way to seek justice. Unfortunately, like any mass action, things can, and do turn ugly. The painful lessons from the Cultural Revolution might be too remote for the young netizens to take.

A couple of weeks ago, Grace Wang, a Chinese student at Duke University, became the latest target, and human flesh search engines entered the political realm. On the day of the Olympic torch relay in San Francisco, Wang had written "Free Tibet" on a protestor's back. She later defended her action in the Washington Post, saying that "I did this at his request, and only after making him promise that he would talk to the Chinese group." Instantly, some angry Chinese students launched a human flesh search, and found personal information about Wang and her family. Grace Wang says her parents had to go into hiding in China, with no help from the police.

Ironically, the human flesh search engine backfired in Wang's case, and she became a hero in the Western media (see, for example, The BBC invited her to mediate a "conversation" between Chinese and Tibetan students, despite the fact she knows little about Tibet. This is a lesson to the Chinese "angry youth" that their approach, however effective at home, does not work in the West.

Not all Chinese netizens think the human flesh search engine is a good thing. Some are calling for a cessation of cyber violence, others want more complete Internet laws, and some believe it will take time for China's cyberspace to establish rules to govern itself. An article on ( claims, optimistically, that flesh search engines began with entertainment, peaked with hunting sexual scandals, and now will morph again into exposing corruption in government.

That would be a good thing, but there is no proof as yet it is happening.
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User Comments

Frank Eng on May 03, 2008 at 00:57:01 said:

Gosh, and at first blush, I thought this was all about "harvesting" human organs for profit. A bit ghouslish, but no different from our driver's license dispensations in the event of accidents.
However, THIS human flesh development online is, for sure, cautionary.
And here I thought "flame" type protestors were outre.

kawahchan on Apr 30, 2008 at 08:41:09 said:

ATTN. US Senator Burr, Richard (R-NC); US Senator Dole Elizabeth (R-NC)

Since April 9th till recent weeks, incidentally the Duke University's student get a chance to witness a very similar to '60's China's Red Guards provoked Chinese Cultural Revolution on university campus. Duke Chinese Students and Scholars Association (DCSSA) are acting like the '60's Red Guards to stink a Chinese foreign student Grace Wang as a Traitor to her country China and spearhead to Wang as pro-Tibet, wanting to exterminate her family in mainland China. On 17th, the China's government ran national CCTV named Wang is a "Most Ugly Foreign Student" by listing her (unwarranted) guilts. This is just the incident about what the foreign Chinese (DCSSA) execute their Red-Guard style conflict to punish their own Chinese Dissident(s) in America. As the Host of America, how American Federal Government to handle the China's communist government financed DCSSA's Lynching called "dou-chou" to personal threaten Chinese foreign student Grace Wang on Duke University campus. Enforce the United States' federal laws of Homeland Security Act and Patriot Act: The United States Department of Justice will request the university administration to handover a names list of foreign students from China and will send the FBI officers to campuses of Duke University (DCSSA), University of North Carolina (FACSS), and North Carolina State University (CSSFA), the FBI officers will interview each Chinese foreign student of DCSSA's elements, FACSS' elements and CSSFA's elements, the Chinese foreign students will be required the basic background check whether they are a membership of Chinese Communist Party, whether or not the students are the sons or daughters of China's bureaucrats or cadres. All these Duke's DCSSA's member-students' profiles will go to US Immigration and Naturalization Service for reviewing whether or not these Chinese foreign students will get their "FORM I-94" student-visa Extensions, and/or the future eligible to apply "Practical Training" program towards H1-B application, the FBI's background check profile will also being sent to the temp corporation for consideration.

Prematurely, why we don't comment on the lawsuit against CNN in New York Federal Court, because (US) constitutionlly the CNN's lawyer and the Federal Court's Judge ought to know about the person Lydia Leung and the person Li Lan-Li who file lawsuit to against CNN.
1) Are Lydia Leung and Li Lan-Li a naturalized US citizen or a non-citizen US Permanent Resident visa (Green Card) resident.
2) Because this CNN lawsuit and claim are involved to a foreign communist country China is fully diplomatic challenge to the United States. If Lydia Leung and Li Lan-Li are a naturalized US citizen, are they working as a "Foreign Agent" for the communist China representing China's Beijing within 1.3 billion Chinese population to sue an American corporation CNN ? Have Lydia Leung and Li Lan-Li register their "Foreign Agent" status from the US State Department before they instigate the CNN lawsuit ? Because American citizens suing an American corporation (CNN) inside the United States interior for oversea communist China is a very unusual to American Federal Constitution and American Patriotism.
3) If Lydia Leung and Li Lan-Li are just a non-citizen US Permanent Resident visa (Green Card) resident with a People's Republic of China passport; if US National Security feel the CNN lawsuit is too political and contradictive to our US Constitution; the US State Department could terminate their PR (Green Card) status and expel Lydia Leung and Li Lan-Li out of the United States back to their home country China.




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