Chinese Statue to Goddess of Beauty Sparks Debate

JIANHE, China — Yang Asha smiled serenely down at the craggy emerald landscape, her hand outstretched in welcome. She appeared unmoved by the fierce condemnation her presence has ignited in China — she is, after all, made of gleaming stainless steel and bigger than the Statue of Liberty.

To officials in her corner of China, the statue of Yang Asha, a goddess of beauty, serves as a tribute to the rich culture of the local people and, they hope, a big draw for sightseers and their money. To many others in China, she is another white elephant in a country full of expensive monuments, gaudy tourist traps and wasteful vanity projects that draw money away from real problems.

Those critics point to the statue of Guan Yu, a general from antiquity, in the city of Jingzhou, where he also towers higher than the Statue of Liberty and wields an enormous polearm called the Green Dragon Crescent Blade.

“The people who imitated later are doing nothing more than wasting labor and money,” said Zhou Mingqi, a tourism consultant in Shanghai.

In this environment, online critics seized on the Yang Asha statue when a video of it went viral this autumn. But the statue’s defenders argue that it and the region it represents have more to offer than mindless building.

The statue of Yang Asha stands 216 feet when measured from the hem of her gown to the top of her horned headdress. That is 65 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty’s torch, although New York City’s statue stands on a much larger base.

Yang Asha is the mythical ancestress of the Miao people, an ethnic minority in China closely related to the Hmong of Southeast Asia. The Miao make up the majority of the population of Jianhe, the county in Guizhou Province that built the statue.

Her headdress, which incorporates both horns and feathers, is meant to commemorate two Miao groups, and her pale white aspect nods at the Miao’s reputation as skilled silversmiths.

Yang Asha was an extraordinarily beautiful woman who was bullied by dark clouds into marrying the sun, according to local legend. She later deserted the sun in favor of the sun’s brother, the moon, and had to fight to stay with her new suitor, said Luo Yu, a City University of Hong Kong anthropologist who is from Guizhou Province.

Predictably, her story became one of class struggle under Mao, said Ms. Luo, with Yang Asha fleeing a landlord sun for a moon depicted as a heroic laborer or tenant farmer. In today’s telling, the Chinese state media gloss over the marital infidelity and economic inequality, describing her as a beautiful woman who fought for love.

Local officials dispute the idea that their region is impoverished. The Jianhe area declared early this year that it has raised its last few families out of extreme poverty.

The community itself, like many in rural China, no longer appears impoverished. It has been transformed by remittances from residents who migrated to work in furniture factories and construction sites elsewhere.

Liu Kaimu is one of the many Jianhe residents who joined that migration. He worked in Quzhou, a vast furniture-making hub in south-central coastal China that has attracted large numbers of Miao migrant workers, who have a strong woodworking tradition.

Mr. Liu made $750 to $900 a month and received free food and dormitory housing. In 2011, he bought a three-bedroom, 1,300-square-foot apartment for his family in Jianhe for $54,000.

Weeks before the pandemic, Mr. Liu, now 35, had decided he would stay in Jianhe. His son, now a freshman in high school, needs his father home more.

So Mr. Liu started a small business: a whirling children’s ride of bright purple rockets on the large but still unfinished concrete plaza in front of the Yang Asha statue. Mr. Liu said that his take-home income is actually slightly higher than when he was a migrant worker.

Mr. Liu is grateful that the statue has given him an alternative to life as a migrant worker. “What we did was hard toil,” he said. “It’s impossible to do that kind of work again.”

Claire Fu and Coral Yang contributed research.

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