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  • Beatrice Tamagno

Raw documentary sheds light on the lives of sex workers in China

Initially released in 2008, Wheat Harvest (麦收 Maishou) by independent director Xu Tong 徐童 powerfully documents the lives of sex workers in Beijing, sparking protest at each of its five screenings, and eventually being banned in the country.

Xu Tong, born in Beijing in 1965, started his career as a documentary filmmaker in his forties after working different jobs and knowing multiple realities within Chinese society.

Wheat Harvest is his first documentary and the first chapter of what is known as Homeless Trilogy (流民三部曲 liumin san bu qu). The trilogy includes the same director’s Fortune Teller (算命 Suanming, 2009) and Shattered (老唐头 Lao Tangtou, 2011), both rated higher than 9/10 on Chinese media review’s platform Douban.

Xu Tong documentary
Official poster for the Homeless Trilogy (provided by Douban 2022/03/01).

A glimpse into the lives of sex workers in Beijing

The 98 minutes long documentary follows the life of Niu Hongmiao (牛洪苗), a 19 years old sex worker who moved from her hometown in Hebei province to the outskirts of Beijing.

In the opening scene, we see Hongmiao at home with her family, taking a stack of money out of her pocket and handing it to her mother. Hongmiao is shown to be a filial daughter, bearing the responsibility of economically supporting her entire family and paying for his father’s medical bills. This scene sets the mood for the whole documentary, showing how sex work is, in fact, work; a means to support oneself and one’s own family.

Minutes later, Hongmiao’s father speaks to the camera and says: “Hongmiao is a girl; if she were a boy, she could have gone out for work. She is bright, but she didn’t get an education.” His words are full of sorrow and highlight the harsh consequences of gender and economic inequalities regarding education and working opportunities.

Xu Tong follows Hongmiao to her workplace in Beijing, a roadside massage room that the girls simply call “brothel” (泡房 paofang). The room is small and decorated with bright pink wallpaper, a space that matches the lively femininity of the three workers. Their genuine and unrestrained conversation about rude customers feels similar to that of any group of young female colleagues discussing wax and wane at work.

Hongmiao and Gege discuss an annoying customer sitting in the 泡房 paofang.

The documentary proceeds to show Hongmiao’s relationship with a couple of customers (嫖客 piaoke), whom appear to be rather amicable and mostly lost in the storm of changes happening in Chinese society. In one scene, one of them disrespects Hongmiao, and we see her bright smile quickly vanish as she states, “If you want to be respected, you have to respect other people; this is the basic rule for those like us who went out to the city for work.”

Such a powerful statement sums up well her attitude toward work and life. The theme of self-respect is also touched upon in another sequence where Hongmiao and her colleagues celebrate her boss’ birthday in a KTV. On this festive occasion, the girls hire some male sex workers (鸭子 yazi) for the night, and Hongmiao says: “They don’t know about our profession, we came here to have fun and we know what happens here is not real.”

By switching from service provider to client, Hongmiao and her colleagues renegotiate sexual power dynamics, and assert themselves as deserving of fun and pleasure, steering away from the stereotype of merely being victims of the system. The desire for sexual companionship from male sex workers appears unrelated to Hongmiao’s emotional needs, as she, in fact, has a boyfriend, Aqiang 阿强, a migrant worker himself. We see them talk sweetly on the phone and share romantic moments while he shows her around his workplace, the same way any other young couple would do.

Hongmiao having fun in the KTV.

The depiction of Hongmiao as a full-fledged person who experiences love, joy, and sorrow is perhaps the most powerful element in Xu Tong’s documentary. Sex workers, especially low-class ones, are shamed in Chinese society, and such stigmatization often leads to their dehumanization.

Through the narration of friendship, family dynamics, hardships at work, romantic and sexual relationships, we get to know Hongmiao as something more than just a sex worker: a young woman, a migrant worker, a filial daughter, a loving girlfriend, and ultimately an individual filled with determination, pragmatism, and youthful energy.

Hongmiao helps her relatives harvest wheat in her hometown.

The controversy: questions of privacy and morality

Wheat Harvest was screened only five times in Mainland China and Taiwan between 2009 and 2011 before being banned, sparking protests at each screening. The controversy revolved around privacy issues, as one of the girls, Gege, claimed she never gave consent to the shooting. In one scene, cut out in a later edition, we even hear her saying, “Don’t shoot me, and if you do, delete it.”

The relationship between filmmaker and subject in documentary film has long been debated and certainly is a sensitive topic. However, prostitution being a statutory crime in China, exposing these women raised questions of how potentially harmful to the girls its distribution might be.1

Others claimed the protest was primarily due to the documentary's content being deemed inappropriate and not conforming to Chinese middle-class sexual morality.2 Some even criticized Xu Tong as a “whoremonger” himself, which speaks volumes of the deeply-rooted stigma around sex workers and their customers in the country.

Although it is undeniable that ethical issues around privacy need to be considered when producing a documentary, Xu Tong’s work is still a pioneer in this field, and regulations at the time were still largely unclear and incomplete.3 Given the hardships independent filmmakers face when documenting marginalized groups in the country, Wheat Harvest remains a precious tool to understand the complexity of life at the bottom of Chinese society.


References / To go further

  1. Qian, Ying. "Just images: ethics and documentary film in China," China Heritage Quarterly no. 29 (march 2012).

  2. Lu, Xinyu. "When feminism encounters New Documentary Movement: an uncompleted academic discussion." Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 19.2 (2018): 294-309.

  3. Lu Xinyu “When feminism”


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