Yingying Zhang’s murder still resonates with UI campus


Photo courtesy of Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Mother of Yingying Zhang, Lifeng Ye, wails in grief as her son Zhengyang Zhang and Dr. Kim Tee consoles her during Ronggao Zhang’s statement to the media outside the U.S. Courthouse in Peoria on June 24, 2019. After five years since Zhang’s murder it still continues to bring awareness to the need for better campus safety and views of Asian Americans today.

By JP Legarte and Aditya Sayal

Five years ago in April 2017, Yingying Zhang arrived at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an international student and a visiting scholar to pursue her doctorate. After her education, she planned on marrying her fiancé and eventually returning to China to become a teacher.

However, in June 2017, Zhang was raped and murdered by Brendt Christensen when he lured her to his car by posing as an undercover cop and taking her back to her apartment.

In a previous article published by The Daily Illini on June 29, 2017, friends, students and community members organized a walk and concert for Zhang to show her family how much love and concern there was for Zhang and how the campus community came together. 

Two years after her passing, there was a vigil and fund to honor her and assist international students and their families. In a previous article published by the Daily Illini on August 19, 2019, her family described that they set up Yingying’s Fund because they wanted to honor Zhang’s willingness to always help others and to give back to the campus community and those that have helped them. 

The hope is that, in the future, international students and their families can receive financial support during times of crisis and not feel as helpless as Zhang’s family did when they first arrived in the United States. 

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Five years later, Zhang is still remembered in other ways, her death now fitting into the greater conversation of the need for better campus safety and society’s views of Asian Americans today.

“The scariest thing or the thing that stood out to me the most was the fact that she was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Samantha Boyle, graduate student studying library science and former writer for The Daily Illini who covered Zhang’s story.

Boyle discussed how events like the violence against Zhang still occur today and wondered what tangible steps could be taken to tackle the issue. While the actual crime was the focus of various news stories, Boyle did emphasize the importance of remembering that Zhang and other victims of similar violence were human beings who had families.

The importance of humanizing Zhang led Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, video journalist and documentary filmmaker, to create a documentary titled “Finding Yingying” that explores who Zhang was as an individual and the journey of Zhang’s family as they sought justice for her murder.

“To me, it was really important to highlight who Yingying was,” Shi said. “The mainstream crime story narrative is really investigation-heavy and also focused on the perpetrator, but sometimes we forget about people left behind (in) those tragedies, so that’s why I wanted to tell a story on Yingying and her family.”

As she talked with Zhang’s family and other individuals that knew Zhang, Shi discovered that Zhang embodied many different roles and positive characteristics and was very connected to those around her.

“Just based on how her friends, her colleagues and her parents and family members described her, I feel like she was a very talented, promising young scientist,” Shi said. “She was also a very good friend, and she was good at many things other than studying (and) research. She was a singer in a band when she was in college. She always smiled, and she always brought happiness to everyone around her.”

Boyle described how not a negative thing could really be said about Zhang, citing how motivated Zhang was for school and how Zhang wrote down many optimistic quotes in the journal she had.

Shi referenced that one of the most challenging parts of creating the documentary was the fact that the documentary would tell a sad story. In addition, others had to be convinced that Zhang’s story was an important one worth telling, and once the process of creating the documentary started, Shi also had to consider how much of the actual crime to include.

While a key goal of the documentary was to provide a holistic picture of who Yingying was and how much her life impacted others, Shi wanted to spark a conversation focused on international students, dispelling stereotypes that surround them and increasing support and safety for them as they get acquainted with the United States.

“I’m just hoping that the universities can really think about how they can better support international students, their life in the U.S. and also specifically think about campus safety,” Shi said. “I think that’s another thing we thought about in terms of what kind of impact we want to create after the film was released.”

Shi discussed the stereotypes surrounding not only international students but also Asian and Asian American women.

“I feel like, in mainstream culture, again people still have a sort of stereotype of Asian women,” Shi said. “Even in mainstream media, when we see an Asian woman, we don’t really see that person as someone who has power.”

After the documentary was released, Shi even had conversations with other filmmakers that focused on the representations of Asians and Asian-Americans in media. Shi further explained that Asian and Asian American women are often seen in more supportive, passive roles.

Shi even emphasized how Zhang broke away from stereotypes surrounding Asian and Asian American women, highlighting the inaccuracy that accompanies these stereotypes.

“She was such a powerful woman,” Shi said. “It’s exactly the opposite to the stereotype that a lot of people had about Asian women, so I think that’s why we really wanted to highlight her (and) introduce her to the audience.”

According to Shi, the timing of the documentary’s release was also appropriate and important since the cultural and political climate of the nation during the release involved much hate and discrimination against Asian-American populations.

“I think we released the film in a perfect time because we released the film in 2020, and that was the time during a very strong anti-Asian sentiment and also COVID-19,” Shi said. “I think we just really need a film to really show who we are … It’s really helpful to create a kind of neutral understanding and to reduce misunderstanding of Asian women.”

When reflecting on how Zhang and other victims of similar types of violence can continue to be remembered and honored, Shi discussed how news coverage focused on minorities and people of color needs to improve through better accuracy in reporting their names and through restructuring the way the narratives are told.

According to Shi, the restructuring happens when more personal stories are told, highlighting how individuals would not know much about who Yingying was as an individual if they didn’t’ hear her or her family’s personal stories.

Shi added that sometimes the personal stories involve learning from tragedy and, ultimately, remembering that these personal stories help remind others that these victims had lives of their own.

“Doing news coverage, telling the story again after almost five years — it’s still something good,” Shi said. “We are (remembering) her and honoring her life.”


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