The Angelina Jolie of China on Fame and Power

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Photo: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

In China, actress Yao Chen is more famous than Kim Kardashian. On Weibo, China's Twitter, Chen has over 78 million followers (compare that to Kardashian's 35.5 million on Twitter). But rather than posting jokes or selfies, Chen uses her social media status to raise China's social consciousness. Time, which named her one of its 100 Most Influential People in 2014, reported that when she shared a video supporting the fight against pneumoconiosis, the cause's fund-raising increased by a factor of 80. Much like Angelina Jolie, to whom she is often compared, she is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' goodwill ambassador in China. She's also featured in this year's female-achievement-themed Pirelli calendar. Over the summer, the Cut spoke to Chen, who is modest and cautious in her answers, about not looking like a movie star, why she thinks she is so influential, and why she runs her own social media account. 

Often in the Pirelli calendar, the subjects embody a character. Did you embody one in today’s shoot to go with the theme?
The character was me. At first, in wardrobe, they gave me a blue-jean jacket and a Champagne gown. The blue jean looked great, but for my age now, I'd rather not choose that. The gown looked beautiful, too, but when I put it on it made me look more like a movie star. But then we tried a white transparent blouse, and I felt that I had found my role. It's soft but looks sexy and relaxed, and reflects more about the beauty of a woman. But it’s also a shirt, so it reflects strength.

Why didn’t you want to look like a movie star in the pictures?
The theme of the shoot was a woman who reflects strength. I think that strength comes from the inner heart and doesn’t have to do with your outside appearance, or age, or popularity, or fame.

How do you think this year’s theme affected the outcome of the pictures?
When I arrived this morning, they showed me the photos that [Annie Leibovitz] shot, which were put on a wall. Each woman reflected her own personality and character, and when you put all the photos together, it will accumulate a certain kind of strength. I saw them and I wanted to become one of them.

There have been a lot of articles in the news recently about feminism in China, including a recent one in the New York Times talking about a feminist awakening. Do you think there is one going on?
As a country, China has a 5,000-year history. In traditional Chinese society, men took the main role. As a female in China, I should say that, objectively, Chinese feminist activities are not like those in the United States or Europe. People have been talking about it because of the recent events. But right now in Chinese society, men and women have been playing roles that exert a similar amount of strength. For example, in the film industry, the male-female ratio is about equal.

In my own experience as an actress, I think women are getting more and more rights, and women are making greater contribution to society. For example, this movie I’m shooting is about a company started by a woman. Previously, you would have almost never seen this. It would have been impossible. Our director came from Korea, and when he came to shoot, he said [that] in South Korea, the same thing could almost never happen. Objectively speaking, women in China in this century have been given more status than before.

You have a large amount of Weibo followers. Do you do it all yourself?
Of course, I do it all myself! [Laughs.]

Well, in the U.S., some celebrities have people help them.
No, I couldn’t do that! First of all, I'm very picky. Even with interviews that come out about me, I’m sometimes not very satisfied with the words they choose to describe me. But Weibo is very private. I cannot let someone else invade my space.

What are you picky or careful about with Weibo?
It's been five years since the existence of Weibo began. The people who have joined Weibo have changed slowly but gradually. For example, in the beginning, many of the people who opened up Weibo accounts were those [who] were older, or of the more intellectual class. At that time, Weibo users were not so varied or diverse. If I wanted to say something about my personal opinions, I could express myself more freely. There were more mature people who were more inclusive and likely to listen to other people.

Now more and more young people have joined Weibo. For example, I read a statistical report that said a lot of them were young people age 13 or 14 years old. I can’t force these teenagers to accept or understand my opinion; there’s an age gap. They’re growing and we’re growing, and becoming more mature. Compared to before, I’m much more cautious now about what I say. Right now with Weibo, the things that I write are more for myself. Sometimes, if you write one character or one word wrong, people will ignore the intent of the message, and it can cause unnecessary misunderstandings.

I’ll still express myself, but I know more about the limit of what I can write. As a public figure, I don't wish to express or pass on wrong messages. I don't want to act too emotionally or too impulsively, because what you write can be read as a public expression of opinion or lead the public. In a few days, you could see another side [of the event], so it’s better to be initially more objective and fair.

What do you think makes your messages so influential?
I think even the founder of Weibo did not imagine the influence social media would have. When I first registered an account with Weibo, my motive was very simple. I thought it might just be a new way to write short messages and instant happenings. But now I’ve written over 7,000 messages on it. Each article is a record of my thought in the past five years. Put together, it reflects the growth of Yao Chen.

Weibo is actually a reality show. Everyone is entitled to express themselves on this platform. If someone every day tries to put push their own agenda and force others to change their opinion, then the outcome will not be very effective and people will resent it. As I said before, I hope that I can continue to improve and be better. That’s the best way to really influence other people.

This interview has been condensed and edited.