Huastory: A Blog that Makes Stories about Ancient Women Relatable Today

By Joel Teh

June 2022 FEATURE
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Artwork by Yeong- “Why (Tang) Courtesans Need To Be Featured in More C-dramas”.
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THE ADVOCACY for gender equality is a movement supported by many. Artists too, through various art forms, have been in the thick of the movement to highlight the societal, cultural and political differences that women have experienced throughout history.

I had the privilege of talking to Xuelin Yeong, the founder of Huastory (画说文史 in Chinese), a blog that posts articles and illustrations with feminist themes based on Chinese history and literature. “I’m thankful for my husband, Yeap, for inspiring my blog title as he reminded me of my objective to tie ancient Chinese history with modern society to make it more relatable to readers.”

Before the conception of the blog, Yeong worked as an R&D engineer at a tech company for several years after graduating from the University of Cambridge with a degree in Natural Sciences, inviting comments from peers about being a mono-talented techie. That is far from the truth—Yeong clearly has a knack for art and literature.

Outside of engineering work, Xuelin Yeong is an art enthusiast.

Yeong has been interested in feminism and climate change since young; she even had a made-up story about a rubber duck princess who saves a village from severe floods. She also picked up drawing in kindergarten. Her first art piece detailing three marbles received positive feedback from her parents and teachers, which motivated her to expand her art-making into more difficult subject matters.

As she grew older, Yeong began to use art as a form of education; through her artwork published on Huastory, many who used to find ancient Chinese history boring now enjoy the articles and digital illustrations about it on her blog. “I was astonished by how many historical buildings with interesting perspectives there are here when I moved back after graduation; and that also became one of the factors that inspired my content for Huastory today,” she says.

Read also: Crafting Voices: An Interview with BFM’s Lee Chwi Lynn and Sharmilla Ganesan

The Untold Stories in Ancient Chinese History

Supportive parenting plays a significant role in a child’s personal development and their worldviews. Yeong’s parents nurtured her interest in art by buying her colour pencils and other equipment for her art classes. Raised in a fairly liberal family, Yeong grew up with the confidence that she, as a woman, can just as easily succeed in the same things that men do.

There remains a lingering notion among more traditional Chinese families that women’s only role is to procreate for the continuity of the family bloodline. This stems from the social norm in ancient China that men would earn a living for the family while women took care of the household.

Inspired by the cultural exchanges and many discussions that Yeong had with her peers in university, she started Huastory to showcase women, both iconic and ordinary, in ancient China. By telling women’s stories, she sought to underline the similarities between the ancients and modern people, and how they often share the same emotions, motivations and desires. It also makes history more relatable.

Perhaps what draws readers in the most is the fact that Yeong’s articles and illustrations tell stories that are usually neglected or overlooked in mainstream discussions of ancient Chinese history. The article What Ming-Qing Women Have In Common With Today’s Content Creators comically expresses the common challenges that women writers of the Ming-Qing era and content creators nowadays face, which include struggling to get exposure, monetising their content and finding time and resources to write despite obstacles. Of course, that said, ancient Chinese women did face significantly more hurdles in their creative attempts. “Men were allowed to travel around for exposure but most women were confined at home unless they possessed their own income and had more say in a family. Otherwise, they could only daydream for stories,” she states.

Artwork by Yeong- “Women’s Day Special: What Ming-Qing Women Writers Have in Common with Today’s Content Creators”

Given that, Yeong’s narrative that even back in the Ming-Qing era, husbands of aspiring women writers would finance the publication of their wives’ work was astonishing to me. I could hardly believe that women back then could be given the privilege to write, much less get their work published.

Another article in Huastory that is worth mentioning is Why (Tang) Courtesans Need To Be Featured In More C-dramas. According to Yeong, television productions would shun away from giving courtesan characters the limelight because of their less than PG-13 disposition. The article criticises the tendency for C-dramas to focus only on royal intrigues and political scheming when there were more interesting stories to cover about ordinary people outside the palace. “I always find myself wondering why these dramas would rather repeat the women killing women trope to the point of staleness, over telling stories about courtesans who contributed a lot to the development of Chinese literature,” she shrugged.

In fact, due to the nature of their work, courtesans were given more freedom to travel and mingle, which provided them with ideas for content. As women who have rare access to the public sphere, some of them also composed effective pieces of writing that would influence public policies, which in those days were solely drafted by men. After successfully publishing their works, many donated the money they earned to charity.

In How Mulan’s Image Evolved Throughout Chinese History, Yeong emphasises an often passed over value in the story. A Tang-dynasty Chinese woman who gained fame and recognition for her filial piety to her father, Mulan is no stranger to Chinese and non-Chinese communities. In her blog article, Yeong decided to play up Mulan’s loyalty to her sovereign and her country instead. She explains, “There are many stories of women protecting their family and country. I am proud that Chinese legends and folklore give credit to them.”

When asked if she thinks women like Mulan who defied ancient social and gender norms were feminists, Yeong cautions us against using the label willy-nilly. “Many women warriors were celebrated for their bravery but that does not cross the parallel between history and modern life.”

Yeong possesses a knack for relating ancient Chinese history with modern society.

Unity Through Women’s History

Huastory present many stories from ancient China that are strangely relevant today. For her future plans, Yeong hopes to widen the scope of topics. For instance, Vesak day stories usually centre around religious tradition instead of the Dunhuang art which is heavily featured during the festival; she finds the pigments that were used and women patrons who funded the artworks immensely interesting.

Other than that, Yeong is also working on an article on Carol on the Minor Fairy of the Fate, a poem by Qu Yuan about a deity who carries a baby and a sword to resemble motherly love. She believes that this poem would challenge the modern-day stereotype that ancient women were not allowed outside of the house.

Yeong will be collaborating with a group of women authors to publish a book that focuses on underrated women figures in history who had not gotten the attention they deserved. Though uncertain about the release date of the book, Yeong said that she is excited to explore more about the Hanfu, which influenced the world of fashion and beauty since ancient times.

“Women’s history has a unique way of bringing me and my audience, who are mostly women, into a solid league that shares solidarity for women empowerment. I wish to keep that unity going for the long run to construct a fail-safe women's community,” Yeong expressed with a ray of hope in her shining eyes.


For those interested in checking out her artworks and articles, follow Huastory on Facebook (@Huastory) and its official website at https://huastory.com/.

Joel Teh

is a creative writer, singer and activist. He is fascinated by memes, books, folklore music and food.


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