Fragments of Cai Yang’s Life

An angry young man gets swept up in protests against Japan

The man suspected of smashing the skull of fifty-one-year-old Li Jianli, the owner of a Japanese automobile, has been arrested by police in Xi’an; he is twenty-one-year-old plasterer Cai Yang.

Cai Yang came to Xi’an from his hometown of Nanyang [seven hours away by train], plastered walls for two years, and was excited to be earning 200 yuan [$34] a day. He enjoyed watching anti-Japanese shows, played shooting games online, dreamed of going to university, and expressed his longing for love on QQ [one of China’s most popular online social networking platforms].

Southern Weekend file photo
A video screenshot of Cai Yang vandalizing a car.

Cai Yang once pissed on his project manager’s Audi, and “felt great.” He wanted to do more—to prove “I am important”—but lacked both the material and mental means. A clamoring protest gave him the “opportunity” to do precisely this.

Cai Yang’s foreman led plainclothes police to his residence at 11 PM on October 2, 2012. Cai Yang had already been taken away by the police by the time his mother, fifty-seven-year-old Yang Shuilan, rushed back home from the wheat fields. In his rush, Cai Yang took with him only a red Xifeng liquor bag, stuffed with a sweater, a pair of pants, and a set of underwear.

For ten or more days, Yang Shuilan had known her son had committed a crime. His photograph had appeared on China Central Television as the man on the screen with a husky frame, the one who had smashed a car and then used a bicycle lock to bludgeon Xi’an resident Li Jianli—that was Cai Yang, her son.

Cai Yang fled and for five days hid in a little room in his single-story home, built in 1987 on the outskirts of Nanyang—the room he had lived in since he was born in 1991 and where he had spent his childhood and adolescence.

In this room, just ten meters square, there was a table, a double bed with no mattress, and a pile of grain in the corner. Even in daylight, it took a while for visitors to make out the objects in the room in its weak incandescent light.

“This room is relatively good. It was his older brother’s wedding chamber. Each time Cai Yang came home he would stay here. After he left, I moved in,” Yang Shuilan said.

In the fall of 2004, after finishing the fifth grade, Cai Yang and his village buddies dropped out of school and returned home. After that, he began to distance himself gradually from his room and this family.

First, he followed his eldest brother onto a nearby construction crew. In 2009, Cai Yang went to Xi’an with his uncle, Wang Chao, where he learned to plaster houses—a rural youth’s first experience of the big city.

Aside from infrequent phone conservations and QQ chats with his second older sister, Cai Yufeng, Cai Yang rarely communicated with his family. Occasionally he returned home, but only during Chinese New Year and on other national holidays. His return on the night of September 28, 2012, was somewhat sudden.

“My profile photo has been posted online,” he told his mother. “I’m scared.”

Yang Shuilan listened, mystified and puzzled. She knew only that her son had “gotten in a fight with someone” at the anti-Japanese protest in Xi’an, but she did not know exactly what had happened. Cai Yang used his phone to check the news online, now and then muttering to himself:

“I am patriotic. Boycott Japanese products.”

He constantly told Yang Shuilan: “Online, half the people support me and half are against me.”

Then, one day, while watching television at a neighbor’s house, Yang Shuilan finally learned that it was Cai Yang who had split open Li Jianli’s skull. Li was in critical condition. On television, [China Central Television host] Bai Yansong urged her son to turn himself in.

Yang Shuilan’s entire body went limp.

The incident had created a stir—one that went all the way to Beijing.

“300-Million-Mouse Shooter Dream”

Working as a plasterer in Xi’an in 2009, eighteen-year-old Cai Yang twice fell from the scaffolding.

At the time, plasterers in Nanyang earned only 120 yuan [$19] a day. The same work in Xi’an could bring in an additional 60 yuan [$9.50]. Yang Shuilan therefore agreed to allow Cai Yang to go with his uncle Wang Chao to Xi’an to work.

“He was stupid. One got the feeling that there was nothing in his brain. Previously, he was working at a construction site in Nanyang for two or three years, yet he learned nothing,” uncle Wang Chao said.

Plastering walls was definitely not easy. They usually worked without safety equipment, instead using only a simple rope for protection while hanging outside buildings. “Just like Spiderman, very dangerous,” sister Cai Yufeng said.

Once, while chatting on QQ, Cai Yang told a friend working as an auto mechanic in Nanyang, Zhang Jiong, that he fell from the scaffolding twice, “nearly getting a concussion.” Zhang didn’t know if Cai Yang was joking.

Uncle Wang Chao noticed that Cai Yang was unhappy at work. He didn’t socialize with his fellow workers and seldom spoke. He only enjoyed getting off work and going online. Uncle Wang reprimanded him, but he wouldn’t listen.

In an internet bar, Cai Yang played an Internet game called “Cross Fire” constantly. An intense first-person shooter game, its motto is “300-Million-Mouse Shooter Dream.” Its interface pulsates with the phrase “Brothers! To war!”

In the game, Cai Yang’s “army rank” was corporal. He had killed a total of 4,824 enemies, and been killed 7,997 times.

None of his other relatives or friends had a clear understanding of Cai Yang during this time. His home was far away from Nanyang, and he had only his uncle by his side. On QQ, he recorded his elliptical thoughts.

“…want to go to school,” he wrote.

Nearly half a year later on QQ, he raised the topic again:

“I want to leave home and become a monk, but even a monk must be a university student first.”

Even though he’d been logging QQ and microblog posts for three and four years respectively, he had very few respondents. It was as if most of the time he were speaking to himself. He even changed his QQ name to “Amusing Myself.” His dating status remained “Single.”

After less than a year in Xi’an, Cai Yang left his uncle for another construction team.

“When I was most in need of people, he went off to work for somebody else. I complained and he got so angry that he refused to communicate with me,” Wang Chao said.

Though working only seventeen miles apart, the uncle and nephew would now only see each other during holidays back home.

“Continue Fighting for Today’s Two Hundred Yuan”

After pissing on his foreman’s Audi, he wrote on QQ: “feeling great.”

In 2011, Cai Yang’s career began to brighten. As the end of August approached, he told friends, “I can make 10,000 yuan [$1,600].” Zhang Jiong was extremely envious of Cai’s 200-yuan daily wage, which was far higher than his income as a auto mechanic in Nanyang, their hometown.

In rare high spirits, Cai Yang changed his QQ status: “Continue fighting for today’s two hundred yuan!” he wrote.

When Cai Yang went home for a temporary plastering job, Zhang felt he was the most optimistic of their peers. The two of them frequently ate and sang together. “He was outspoken and forthright and spent money extravagantly,” Zhang said.

To this day, another friend in Xi’an, Xu Shunguo, has a hard time believing that Cai Yang joined the riots. In Xu’s view, Cai was still a child: “He was always happy and giddy. He never got into an argument with anyone.”

When he wasn’t in a Xi’an Internet café, Cai frequently went to Xu’s house to go online. “He loved to crack jokes. If you hit him, he wouldn’t hit back. If you scolded him, he wouldn’t say anything back. He was often other people’s punching bag.”

But back at home in Nanyang, Cai Yang fought constantly with his father, Cai Zuolin. An elderly neighbor frequently saw the two of them busy arguing.

The father held a grudge against his son for selling the family’s electric bike in secret and taking the money to spend on himself.

During the summer harvest of 2012, Cai Yang and his father helped a neighboring Nanyang family build a house. Before returning to Xi’an, Cai Yang stole over 2,000 yuan of his father’s wages.

Cai Yang seldom sent money home from his jobs in the city. The family’s most valuable possession was an old television set, now broken. To watch TV nowadays, the Cai family must visit their neighbors. Father Cai Zuolin, now sixty-two, still works as a bricklayer at a Nanyang construction site to earn extra money.

Cai Yang always was always a headache for his mother. What disappointed Yang Shuilan most was her son’s intense fighting with his father. Cai Yang would often suddenly strike Cai Zuolin, “knocking his father down with a single stroke,” she said.

Neighbors saw two sides of Cai Yang. Sometimes he greeted them courteously; other times he would suddenly knock guests down “in a fit.”

Even his second older sister, Cai Yufeng, with whom Cai Yang was quite close, was unsure of where he lived in Xi’an, who his workmates were, who his good friends were—or whether or not he had a girlfriend. He seemed to be cutting ties to his family gradually, leaving traces of himself only online.

Love seemed to be his greatest worry, taking up the most space on his microblog and on QQ.

“Now nothing is important to me. Only love is important!” Cai wrote on QQ in January 2011.

“I’m worried to death! What should I do? Who can help me?”

“So worried I’m about to collapse.”

“Argh ... confused!!!!!”

“In two weeks I’ll be twenty years old ... sigh ... will I be the same next year as I am now? Really want to find a wife to live with. Don’t want to go on being a slacker. God, grant me a wife! Amen ...”

Though yearning for love, Cai set Zhang Yuanzhe’s song “I Don’t Deserve to Be Your Boyfriend” as the background music on his QQ account.

Sometimes he was filled with anger. On QQ, he cursed the 100-yuan [$16] fee to download a game to his new smartphone.

On his QQ home page, Cai posted his phone numbers four times in a row for his friends to see. The numbers expired or changed hands.

Before being taken into custody, Cai made his last microblog post on September 30. Using the new smartphone he’d purchased a few months earlier—perhaps the best phone he’d ever had, an Android touchscreen—Cai asked rhetorically:

“Miserable post-90 generation—do we feel fortunate?”

“This is patriotic behavior. I despise you.”

In the summer of 2004, a woman called Zhang Ruitai married into the Cai family. She often saw Cai Yang playing games with the village children, brandishing a wooden stick, yelling “down with little Japan.”

He was obsessed with war films, repeatedly watching reruns of Snow Leopard, an anti-Japanese TV series from 2010.

“He even loved watching that Unit 731 one,” said his mother, Yang Shuilan. [Unit 731 was the Japanese Army’s covert biological chemical warfare research and development unit. It conducted lethal human experiments in China and elsewhere in Asia during World War II.]

In the village, a “secret” about the Cai family had circulated for many years. In his old age, Cai Yang’s grandfather, Cai Jinde, often tied red cords in his hair, bared his ass, and collected bottles on the street. After hitting his thirties, Cai Yang’s uncle suddenly stopped speaking clearly and would sing in the village all night long. When this uncle’s daughter reached her twenties, she began running naked through the streets and eventually hanged herself in her family’s courtyard.

“When Cai Yang was only two or three years old, he would follow meat peddlers who came to the village and snatch pieces of raw meat from them to eat,” an elderly neighbor told a Southern Weekend reporter, adding that all kinds of strange behavior became noticeable as Cai Yang got older.

When Cai Yang was thirteen or fourteen, a man came to the village looking to buy sheep. Cai bothered him to come to his house to buy his family’s old sheep, referring to his mother because her surname is Yang [a homophone for “sheep”].

Another neighbor said that when she was pregnant in 2010, Cai Yang pushed her down from behind three times: “His brain might not have realized that it was dangerous.”

The night of September 15, when the rally ended, Cai Yang told his friend Xu Shunguo: “Today I attended the protest. My head was injured and bled.” He repeated this to Zhang Jiong on QQ.

Cai did not mention his counterattack with the bicycle lock. In Xu’s memory, Cai Yang was at Xu’s house using the web.

The protest that day made Cai eager to carry on. He excitedly told Zhang on QQ: “There’s a protest tomorrow too!”

Even though he’d yelled “down with little Japan” in his village, Cai’s hatred had been confined to television dramas and to his imagination. Now, things were completely different: many of the cars driving past him were Japanese brands.

The night of the 15th, Cai called his second older sister, Cai Yufeng, at work. She was furious to learn that he had destroyed a car: “Regular people think that you are going to pay compensation for destroying that car. We can’t afford to take on this responsibility!” she said.

Cai Yang spat back: “This is patriotic behavior! I despise you!”

Blood Rushing Out

Cai Yang’s shuttle bus home from work was blocked by the marching crowd. Its enthusiasm was infectious and Cai quickly joined in.

At first, Cai Yang seemed not to understand the harm his frantic attack had caused Li Jianli.

After two or three days, Cai used his cell phone to log on. He discovered his photograph and cell phone number plastered across the Internet by the “human flesh search engine.” [The Chinese phrase “human flesh search engine” describes netizens’ voluntary public online outing of wrongdoers, a practice that often goes viral.]

He sent a text message to his sister Cai Yufeng: “Did you see the photo of the attack?”

Her heart skipped a beat. After work she went online to check. Pictures of her little brother were everywhere.

Cai Yang’s last contact with his friend Zhang Jiong was a little past eight o’clock in the morning on September 18. They video chatted on QQ for several minutes. Cai Yang was still at an Internet bar in Xi’an, Zhang Jiong recalled. Cai showed him his head wound, but the video was dark, so he couldn’t see clearly.

Cai asked Zhang if the protests had broken out in their hometown, then quickly logged off.

There are two explanations for what happened on September 15, the day that Cai Yang joined the protest—one from his mother, Yang Shuilan, and the other from Cai’s friends and his sister Yufeng.

In Yang Shuilan’s version, on the afternoon of the 15th, Cai Yang’s safety basket broke, so he was unable to work. He and his fellow workers were resting at the construction site when they heard the clamor from the protest. Cai Yang then joined the march.

In the version of events recounted by Cai’s friends and his sister Yufeng, Cai Yang was on his way home when his shuttle bus was blocked by the protest. He planned on getting off and walking home but then quickly was infected by the crowd’s patriotic enthusiasm, so he joined in instead.

Currently, none of Cai Yang’s other coworkers have come forward to verify either of these stories.

What we know now is just that Cai Yang, a twenty-one-year-old rural youth, migrant laborer, and plasterer joined the ranks of the marchers.

Han Chongguang, another youth standing in the crowd, helped the owner of the Japanese car escape. Han noticed Cai Yang at the west gate of the Xi’an city wall, standing next to the car by a road divider, yelling, “Pull out the car then flip it!”

The protestors surrounded the Corolla. Cai began smashing it with a bicycle lock.

In his distress, the car’s owner, fifty-one-year-old Xi’an resident Li Jianli, hit Cai Yang on the head with a brick. As blood flowed from his own head, Cai Yang leaped up, viciously swinging the lock—once, twice, three times, four times.

For a moment, the angry crowd stopped abruptly at the pool of blood around Li Jianli’s body. Cai Yang, whose head had been beaten senseless with a brick, used his T-shirt to stop the bleeding. He followed the marchers forward, their slogans shaking the heavens.

Xi Yihao contributed reporting to this story, which was first published in Southern Weekend on October 11, 2012.

Translated by Jeffrey Javed with Ouyang Bin and Jonathan Landreth.