China’s Newest Cram School Craze: Sex Ed Camps


SHANDONG, East China — “What are the differences between men’s and women’s bodies?” asks Jiang Lingling. The 11 young children huddled around her look thoughtful for a moment. “Girls’ chests are bigger than boys’,” says one boy. “But Captain America’s chest is also big,” counters another.

At the back of the room, the children’s parents start to giggle. But Jiang isn’t fazed. She’s used to this kind of reaction. “This is a desensitization process,” she tells Sixth Tone.

The 38-year-old is one of a small group of specialists bringing a new, franker style of sex education to families across China who are tired of the conservative approach taken by most Chinese schools.

Though the State Council, China’s Cabinet, made sexual and reproductive health education compulsory in all schools in 2011, the subject remains poorly taught. Lessons still often focus on preaching abstinence rather than providing practical information about contraception, and this has left shocking numbers of young adults clueless about how to stop unwanted pregnancies.

Many parents are turning to extracurricular cram schools to give their kids a more thorough grounding in the facts of life, and this is opening the door for lecturers like Jiang who advocate a radically different approach. Last year, the national government began issuing certifications to sex education lecturers, and it has already issued more than 330 licenses.

Jiang is in Qingdao, eastern Shandong province’s coastal city of 9 million people, to teach a three-day course in empowerment sex education — a curriculum developed by the renowned Chinese sexologist Fang Gang in 2013. The approach is based on Fang’s belief that teaching children as much as possible about their bodies from a young age — the younger, the better — not only benefits their physical safety, but also their mental health.

“It empowers children to know, understand, judge, choose, and learn to be responsible,” Fang tells Sixth Tone.

The event, held at a local hotel in early August, is Qingdao’s first-ever empowerment sex ed camp. Until this year, Fang only organized courses in relatively liberal metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, but now he’s starting to spread the gospel across the country. He expects to hold camps in 20 different provinces and regions in 2019.

The Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou summer camps sold out in just a few days, but sales in Qingdao have been slower. Eleven children aged between 7 and 11 have arrived with their parents — just over half the maximum 20 spots. Jiang says demand is sure to pick up in the future.

“People from provinces like Shandong are still relatively conservative,” says Jiang. “But the parents who attend are open-minded and understand the importance of such education for young children.”

Sex education lecturers Wang Yi (left) and Jiang Lingling (right) show children male and female organs on dolls during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Sex education lecturers Wang Yi (left) and Jiang Lingling (right) show children male and female organs on dolls during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying

One of those parents is Wang Yanhua, who has spent more than 5,000 yuan ($700) on accommodation, food, and the booking fee to travel over 300 kilometers from her hometown Weihai and make sure her 9-year-old son Luoyuan could attend. She says it was worth it.

“It’s not cheap for anyone,” says Wang. “But the real problem is, even if you have money, it’s so rare to find good sex education opportunities like this.”

The 43-year-old tried to convince her friends to also bring their kids, but they told her they did not consider sex education that important. This is especially true of parents with young boys, according to Wang. “Some parents of sons think that boys don’t lose anything if they get a girl pregnant, or that sexual assault doesn’t happen to boys,” she says.

For many of the parents, the camp is a learning opportunity for them as well as their children. Several confess being unsure of how to respond to sex-related questions, though they dislike the traditional Chinese dodge of telling their children that they were found in a dustbin.

Luoyuan first asked where he came from at 5 years old. Wang told him: “Mom has a seed, Dad has a seed, and the two seeds grow together in Mom’s belly.” But now he is growing evermore curious and confused. “So, I told him there’s a summer camp in Qingdao where you can learn all about it,” says Wang.

Jiang starts the first day of activities by playing a set of cartoons showing how a couple falls in love and gives birth to a baby. When the pictures of male and female sexual organs appear on the screen, the children begin to laugh. But Jiang insists they treat them matter-of-factly.

“This is called a penis, not a wee-wee,” she tells the children, none of whom have ever heard the word before. “This is a vagina.” Jiang does not use any nicknames or pronouns. “The idea we want to convey is that every organ is equal and noble,” she says.

Within 15 minutes, the children are able to say the names of the body parts naturally, without laughter or awkwardness. This is easiest with young children, Jiang says. “That is why we emphasize the importance of early sex education,” she adds.

A girl in the sex education summer camp experiments with “blood” on a pad in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A girl in the sex education summer camp experiments with “blood” on a pad in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying

After the knowing your body course, parents are most keen for their children to experience the lesson on preventing sexual assault. The number of reported cases of sexual assault against children has risen in China, from 2,962 recorded cases in 2017 to 3,567 last year. While much of this increase can be attributed to growing awareness of child protection issues and timelier reporting of cases, parents are still concerned.

Jiang asks the children to draw small figures on a piece of paper, then mark up the body with colored pencils — green for where it’s OK for others to touch, red for where they don’t want to be touched, and yellow for where they’re not sure. Then, she invites them to show their cards. They accurately use the words “breasts,” “buttocks,” and “penis” — which they have just learned — to describe their drawings. “If the child can accurately use these terms, it could greatly help a police investigation,” says Jiang.

But as the first day comes to a close, some parents express concern that their children will be mocked by their peers for using formal terms like “penis” rather than “wee-wee.” “You need to know that what your children have learned today is the most accurate and scientific knowledge, and you — the parents — should be proud of that,” Jiang tells them. “If they are teased because of that, then that is due to others’ ignorance.”
The parents are also forced to grapple with their own views during the second day of classes, which focuses on sexuality and gender issues.

After learning about the effects of gender stereotypes, Wang feels guilty about making her son play with toy cars and water pistols rather than buying him the Barbie doll he has always wanted.

“I was so worried that he might be gay or transgender,” says Wang. “But now I understand that hobbies and good traits have nothing to do with gender or sexuality.” During the break between classes, Wang apologizes to Luoyuan, who looks surprised. “It’s OK, Mom,” he says quickly, before rushing back to his seat.

The lecture about gender stereotypes also makes an impression on 10-year-old Yaya. Her father Wang Tong — no relation to Wang Yanhua — often says that her grandparents describe her as a tomboy when she misbehaves. “Dad, I thought I was doing something wrong, but now I know boys and girls are equal,” Yaya whispers to Wang Tong, the only father attending the event.

As a pediatrician, Wang Tong, 38, understands the importance of sex education. “It’s easier to cure physical diseases; mental illnesses are difficult to cure, as they’re largely impacted by the family and a lack of sex education,” he tells Sixth Tone after the entire camp is done. He says he can do a better job of teaching Yaya about physiology and reproduction but believes it’s better to have professional experts teach her about these psychosocial issues.

Yaya has not received any sex education at school, according to Wang Tong. “Many parents can’t accept it, and schools don’t want to get in trouble,” he says. In 2017, when a school in the eastern city of Hangzhou tried to introduce a more detailed sex education curriculum, it faced backlash from some parents arguing that second grade was too young to learn about intercourse, gender equality, and sexual orientation.

Sex education lecturer Wang Yi shows children how to use a tampon on a doll during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Sex education lecturer Wang Yi shows children how to use a tampon on a doll during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying

On the last day of the summer camp, Wang Yi — who runs the event alongside Jiang and has no relation to Wang Yanhua or Wang Tong — shows all the children how to use cups, sanitary pads, and tampons on a doll. She then hands out disposable underwear and pads for the children to practice on their own.

“For girls, having their first period is something we should celebrate,” says Wang Yi. “For boys, the earlier they know about how pads work, the better they’ll learn to respect women. It’s an education in responsible intimacy.”

Since 2008, Chinese law has stated that fifth and sixth graders should learn about menstruation and wet dreams, but the children in Qingdao have received no education about this. They fall over each other to ask questions. “What color is sperm?” “Do we need a pad for the sperm?” “Would a tampon grow as big as a penis that might hurt the vagina?”

The parents look at each other, slack-jawed. Wang Yi suggests that fathers and mothers share their experiences with their children. “I always avoided answering when Luoyuan asked me about pads,” Wang Yanhua says. “But now I feel more comfortable talking about it with him.”

When asked how his family has been influenced by the summer camp, Wang Tong says it’s hard to say how much Yaya could learn in just three days, but he is sure she has learned some valuable principles. “It’s more important for the parents to accept these principles and apply them in daily life,” he says. “The lecturers only plant seeds; whether they grow depends on us.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone. 

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Royal Canin Wants Shanghai To Be China’s Most Pet-Friendly City


SHANGHAI — French pet food company Royal Canin will partner with the Shanghai Municipal Public Security Bureau, as well as local pet industry associations, veterinary clinics, and social organizations, to provide a comprehensive solution to the city’s rescue programs for stray cats and dogs, Cai Xiaodong, the general manager of Royal Canin China, said at a press conference Wednesday during the five-day Pet Fair Asia.

Under the new initiative, Royal Canin will cooperate with the public security bureau to capture and provide shelter for homeless animals, as well as send them to 14 pet hospitals for vaccination and desexing, and to local nongovernmental organizations to be put up for adoption.

Moreover, Royal Canin aims to promote more harmonious human-pet relationships in Shanghai, its China headquarters, by 2025. “We want to make Shanghai a pet-friendly city as a national benchmark,” said Cai. “Our new vision is that dogs will be able to go to public places like parks and offices without a hitch.”

To achieve this goal, Royal Canin and its partners will host lectures and summer and winter camps to share expert guidance on pet rescue and adoption with children and young people, to lay a foundation for broader public education in the long term.

Royal Canin’s booth at Pet Fair Asia in Shanghai, Aug. 22, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Royal Canin’s booth at Pet Fair Asia in Shanghai, Aug. 22, 2019. Fan Yiying

There are around 100 million pet dogs and cats in China, according to a white paperon the country’s pet industry published last week. But the problems of abandonment and unchecked reproduction have led to growing populations of strays, which in turn have put pressure on the social environment. “Although Chinese people are now more willing to participate in animal rescue, the knowledge and norms for doing so, and for immunization and sterilization, remain backward,” Niu Guangbin, a veterinarian at the Shanghai animal disease control and prevention center, told Sixth Tone.

Every neighborhood in Shanghai has stray cats, Niu said. “This is partially because people are constantly feeding them out of love,” he explained. But this doesn’t solve the problem of homeless animals. “The best way is to rescue them for sterilization,” he said, “and then release them or put them up for adoption so that they can live with dignity.”

Shanghai’s public security bureau accepts nearly 12,000 stray animals each year, which are dispatched to social organizations and around 1,000 veterinarians in the city for treatment and adoption, according to Yang Qiqing, director of the Shanghai Pet Trade Association. “Animals and humans should have the same rights,” he told Sixth Tone. “To care about the health of animals is to care about our own health.”

To make Shanghai a better place for pets, Kai Ling, brand marketing director for Ta Shanghai — a pet adoption platform that incorporates a Chinese character meaning “he,” “she,” or “it” into its name — says it’s crucial to correct a few common misconceptions. In cooperation with select celebrities, Ta Shanghai organizes around 10 pet adoption events each month, mainly at shopping malls throughout the city. But oftentimes Chinese parents — especially mothers — will veto potential adoptions out of concern for their children’s safety. “We always educate the parents, explaining that animals are not as scary as they might think,” Kai told Sixth Tone. “I draw from my own experience to tell other mothers how much my son has benefited from growing up with three disabled cats in the family.”

Meanwhile, another adoption organization, Beijing Pet Adoption Day, has helped nearly 10,000 rescued dogs and cats find new homes in 24 Chinese cities over the past eight years. Since 2017, it has crowdfunded 10 million yuan ($1.4 million) toward food for over 20,000 strays. Beijing Pet Adoption Day is also building the country’s first stray animal educational center in Beijing, scheduled to open in October.

“When we had just launched the adoption platform on social media, we often received private messages asking whether it was a place to adopt children,” Yang Yang, Beijing Pet Adoption Day’s founder, told Sixth Tone. “Chinese people once considered strays dirty, unhealthy, and unsuitable for families — but now, many have gradually embraced the notion that adopting rather than buying pets is a life attitude, and a meaningful one at that.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

China’s First Commercially Cloned Cat Unveiled in Beijing


A Chinese biotech company aiming to cash in on people’s desires to duplicate their beloved pets has successfully cloned the nation’s first house cat, according to an announcement delivered at a press conference Monday afternoon.

The cloned cat — named Dasuan, or Garlic in English — is a British shorthair born naturally on July 21, 66 days after a successful embryo transfer. The company behind the procedure, Sinogene, began researching cat cloning last August. According to the Beijing-based biotech firm, the surrogate mother — who is not the same breed as the cloned offspring — is behaving “maternal enough,” and the kitten is in good health.

Garlic’s owner, Huang Yu, says he read about Sinogene in the news late last year. When his 2-year-old cat, the original Garlic, died from a urinary tract infection in January, he brought the animal’s body to a pet hospital in Wenzhou, a city in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. Veterinarians there were able to extract cells from the deceased animal to be sent to Sinogene in Beijing. After months of waiting, Huang finally got to meet the new Garlic on Monday, and became the country’s first owner of a cloned cat.

“I felt guilty for delaying treatment,” Huang told Sixth Tone, referring to the old Garlic’s dire medical situation. “Having him cloned makes up for my regret and gives me another chance to love him.”

Though the number of cats in China’s pet industry and the rate of cat ownership remain less than those of dogs, the “cat economy” has been steadily growing. According to a Chinese pet industry white paper released Thursday, the size of the domestic pet market is expected to reach 202 billion yuan ($28.6 billion) this year, up from 171 billion yuan in 2018. The domestic cat market is projected to reach 78 billion yuan in 2019, up 19.6% year over year — a growth rate that’s outpacing the domestic dog market. While there are still 55 million pet dogs in China compared with 44 million pet cats, ownership of the latter is also growing at a faster rate.

Sinogene cloned its first dog — Longlong, or Dragon — for medical research in May 2017 before offering the service commercially the following year. The company says it hopes to be cloning 500 dogs per year in the near future. “We decided to get into the cat business after witnessing the rising popularity (of cats) among China’s younger generations,” Zhao Jianping, Sinogene’s deputy general manager, told Sixth Tone during an interview last month.

Sinogene charges 380,000 yuan to clone a dog and 250,000 yuan to clone a cat. The company currently cooperates with some 600 domestic veterinary clinics to promote its pet cloning business.

The world’s first cloned cat — dubbed CC for Copy Cat or Carbon Copy — was born at Texas A&M University in December 2001, several years before the world’s first cloned dog, Snuppy, was born in South Korea in 2005. The Texas A&M researchers went through 82 embryos before they were able to get a surrogate mother pregnant with a single kitten. Though CC was a clone, she reportedly grew up with a slightly different look and personality from her genetic mother.

Despite his excitement leading up to Monday’s press event, Huang confessed to Sixth Tone that he was a bit disappointed when he finally saw the new Garlic for the first time. “The basic pattern of his coat is the same, but the distinctive patch of black fur on his chin is gone,” he lamented.

Shanghai resident Feng Tanyu is the proud owner of a 7-year-old purebred ragdoll. “He has a multifaceted personality just like lots of other cats,” Feng, 32, told Sixth Tone. As a cat owner, Feng says he understands the premise behind cloning. “If an owner can’t get over the pain of losing their beloved cat, I think a clone might be a good idea to help them during the grieving process,” he said.

But another cat lover, Zhang Yuan, doesn’t see how a cloned cat could be an adequate substitute. “Dogs and cats are different: Dogs can live happily alongside most humans, while cats are picky and follow their feelings about whether to like people,” the Shanghai native told Sixth Tone. “Having the same appearance but a different personality and temperament will only lead to disappointment and more pain in the long run.”

Regardless of what the future holds for Huang and his new fur baby, he says he can’t wait to take Garlic home in October. “If the technology for cat cloning hadn’t been developed in time,” he said, “I probably would have lost Garlic for good — and then I’d have to live with regret for the rest of my life.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

China’s Copy Paste Pups


SHANGHAI — When her beloved dog Nini turned 10, Zhang Yueyan became concerned. How many years would she have left with her companion?

The news that Hollywood star Barbra Streisand had her pet cloned brought comfort; by the time Nini was on her last leg of life, Zhang could do the same. The only thing holding her back was that the cheapest option, a South Korean company, charged $100,000. But last year, a biotech company in Beijing, Sinogene, entered the market at about half the price. “Ever since, I didn’t fear her death anymore,” Zhang, 32, tells Sixth Tone.

Zhang has become one of just a few dozen Sinogene customers so far. But the company sees great growth potential in China’s market. The country’s dog owners spent 106 billion yuan ($16.5 billion) on their estimated 50 million pets in 2018, a 20.5% year-over-year increase, and have spawned such lavish amenities as pet hotelsand pet funerals. From 20 cloned dogs in 2018 and 20 more orders in the first quarter of 2019, Sinogene hopes to grow to duplicate 500 dogs annually within five years, serving Chinese and foreign customers. The company also clones horses and is developing more “biotherapy” products for pets.

After her beloved dog Nini passed away, Zhang Yueyan spent 380,000 yuan ($54,000) to create a clone. By Zhao Yinyin, Zhu Yuqing, and Cong Yan

Twenty-three years after Dolly the sheep, animal cloning is no longer necessarily cutting-edge technology, however Sinogene’s duplicate dogs are part of China’s fast-developing world of genetic research. In recent years, Chinese researchers have successfully cloned two monkeys, produced healthy mice from two female parents, and cloned a gene-edited dog — the latter also done by Sinogene.

The Chinese government is supportive, with its latest five-year plan calling foraccelerated research into DNA testing and therapy. But lagging regulation has left large ethical blind spots, such as when, late last year, a Chinese researcher caused a storm with his announcement of the first gene-edited human babies. In June, new rules restricted the collection and use of human DNA in China, but cloning dogs and other animals remains unregulated — as it does in other countries — despite considerable moral issues.

But for Sinogene’s customers, love for their pups trumps any concerns. “Nowadays people treat their dog as a family member who is their spiritual sustenance or companionship,” says Zhao Jianping, the company’s deputy general manager. “When they lose their pets, they want their (pets’) lives to continue.”

The first step of cloning a dog is taking a DNA sample of the parent animal. Last August, when Zhang’s 19-year-old Nini fell seriously ill, Sinogene sent vets to collect a tissue sample from the dog’s rear leg. “It was a minor procedure. She didn’t even bleed,” Zhang recalls. Using the sample, Sinogene produced and stored identical cells that, after Nini passed away in October, the company could use for another Nini.

But the rest of the process involves many more dogs than just the old and new Ninis. Sinogene maintains a breeding base on the outskirts of Beijing with some 1,000 beagles — the international lab dog of choice. According to Zhao, Sinogene collects immature egg cells from three to five of these lab dogs, and then combines them with the parent dog’s cells to form embryos. One embryo is then implanted into a surrogate mother, who will successfully get pregnant 50% of the time. In case of failure, this monthslong process is repeated with another surrogate mother. On average, it takes half a year for a cloned puppy to be born, and they are then delivered to their owners after two months.

A technician does a cloning-related experiment at Sinogene’s lab in Beijing, July 2, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A technician does a cloning-related experiment at Sinogene’s lab in Beijing, July 2, 2019. Fan Yiying

During Sixth Tone’s visit to Sinogene in early July, six surrogate beagle mothers and their eight cloned newborns were resting in the nursing room, each mother and their one to three puppies in their own 1-square-meter cubicle with water, food, and toys. Staff keep a close eye on the moms and pups. Twice a day, the mothers get to run around outside. Sixth Tone could not visit the breeding base, but Zhao says conditions there are “as humane as possible” and include two meals and up to three hours of playtime a day.

Zhao defends the use of lab dogs, saying “it’s the beagle’s mission to cooperate with experiments.” He adds: “Surrogacy is a very small trauma to dogs, which is similar to sterilization.” To surrogate, the animal will have a small wound in their abdomen, and then the cloned embryo will be transferred directly to the fallopian tube without any damage to other tissue. The abdominal wound usually recovers within a week. Every dog is used as a surrogate twice, usually between the ages of 2 and 5, and then put up for adoption, Zhao says. Already some 200 beagles have found new homes. A majority of customers choose to adopt the surrogate mother of their cloned puppy.

In any case, dog cloning now requires significantly fewer dogs compared with when the technology was first successfully attempted in 2005. Then, South Korean company Sooam Biotech reportedly implanted 1,000 embryos into 123 surrogate dogs to produce the world’s first cloned dog, Snuppy.

In December, Nini’s clone was born, and in February, on Zhang’s birthday, Sinogene’s crew delivered the 2-month-old to her new home in Shanghai. “It was the best birthday ever,” says Zhang, petting her new pal on her lap. She’s decided to also call her Nini. “I only want one dog in my life,” she says. Initially, there were some doubts on whether the new Nini would age to look like the original, but after some months of growth and a haircut, the resemblance is striking, says Zhang. “They even sound the same and have the same twisted joint in their tails.”

At Shanghai Companion Animal Hospital, Dr. Yang Qiqing, who’s a veterinary specialist, tells Sixth Tone that clients have been inquiring about pet cloning since last year. “Some pet owners’ feelings for their pets may be beyond the imagination of non-pet owners and vets,” he says. Yang considers cloning unnatural. “It can only restore the appearance, but it can’t restore the personality, memory, or emotion,” he adds. Sinogene’s Zhao says that clones will look like the parent dog and have the same general health, but that differences in how they are raised may cause their behavior to be different.

Yang says the surrogate dogs used for cloning may suffer some psychological pain. “It can only be compensated by providing more living space for surrogate dogs and increasing dog-walking time,” he suggests. Despite increased attention to animal welfare, China still lacks a law to protect their rights. “When we do have such laws and regulations, I think we should include provisions for cloning pets,” says Yang.

Despite this lack, there is plenty of interest. In March, China’s first cloned police dog, Kunxun, was born in Sinogene’s lab. She is the genetic copy of Huahuangma, a 7-year-old veteran of the Pu’er City police force, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, who earned the nickname Sherlock Holmes because she “helped crack dozens of murder cases,” according to newspaper China Daily. The hope is that cloning such top-rate police dogs will reduce training time and costs. “Cloning is the best way to pass on a good individual’s genes,” says Zhao. “If done in batches, the cost will be relatively low, and the quantity can increase rapidly.”

Hu Bao, a 31-year-old advertising manager in Shanghai, has decided to clone his dog. Tuoba, 3, is a rare mix of poodle and bichon, and Hu is concerned he might not be able to find another one. “She has a perfect size, she’s smart, she’s quiet at home, she doesn’t shed, and she doesn’t smell,” he says.

Hu pays close attention to developments in biotechnology and has read about Sinogene. He’s decided to clone Tuoba in 7 years’ time, when she’s 10. “I look at cloning from a rational perspective,” he says. “I’m aware that the cloned dog won’t be the same, but I know I will want dogs like Tuoba to accompany me for the rest of my life.” He adds: “If I had another dog, I’m not sure if they would be functionally as perfect as Tuoba.”

Hu Bao shakes hands with his pet dog in Shanghai, May 7, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Hu Bao shakes hands with his pet dog in Shanghai, May 7, 2019. Fan Yiying

For now, Hu’s priority is saving up. Sinogene currently charges 380,000 yuan for a cloned dog, but Zhao says the price could come down in the future. “If the market is large enough, and our efficiency is relatively stable, then the price has room for adjustment.”

Back in Zhang’s apartment, three of her neighbors drop in to play with the new Nini. They joke that they have to be gentle and careful since she has cost a fortune. Zhang acknowledges that the new Nini won’t replace the old one, but the cloned puppy is helping her with the grieving process. “Now every time I flash back to the things I did with the old Nini, I carry the new Nini in my arms. I look at her and talk to her as if Nini is still here.”

Additional reporting: Ai Jiabao; editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Pensioners and Preschoolers Mix it Up in Chinese Nursery


GUIZHOU, Southwest China — It’s late afternoon, and, indifferent to the slight drizzle, children are chasing each other around the playground. A few floors above, a group of retirees is sitting on chairs or leaning against the railing, looking down. “It’s my favorite time of the day,” 85-year-old Liu Guirong says. “Watching them play is very invigorating and satisfying.”

Liu lives in Xiyanghong, a combined retirement home and kindergarten in provincial capital Guiyang. Here, 3- to 6-year-old preschoolers and people aged 73 and up spend parts of the day together. This way, according to the home’s philosophy, the young learn from the old, and the old stay young.

Worldwide discussion about intergenerational centers started when one opened in 1970s in Tokyo. In the decades since, they have spread across Japan, Europe, and North America. But unsupportive governments and hesitant parents have made the idea less popular in China. Despite a growing glut of lonely elderly, Xiyanghong is just one of two such centers in the country.

Xiyanghong — the name means “sunset glow” — wasn’t an instant success, either. Established in 1996, it was Guizhou’s first privately owned nursing home. A few years ago, founder Xue Mei was looking for a way to give Xiyanghong a homier atmosphere and met Deng Sha, who worked in early education. The pair decided to collaborate, and they turned the care home’s ground floor into classrooms for about 50 kindergarteners, with all three floors available for around 80 elderly residents. Two to three people share each room, which comes with a bathroom, balcony, and mountain view.

Founder Xue Mei poses for a photo in the garden of Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Founder Xue Mei poses for a photo in the garden of Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying

But when the kindergarten opened in 2014, only one pupil joined. “Parents thought putting their kids with the ‘dying’ elderly would be hard to imagine,” Deng, 32, says. There was also some behavior that needed correcting. Retirees sometimes failed to set a good example and would, for example, thoughtlessly discard bones on the floor during lunch. Rambunctious children had a habit of running full speed into their frail neighbors.

Another stumbling block was staff. “Nursing-home workers felt they were already exhausted from taking care of the elderly, while kindergarten teachers had a hard time getting used to the stubbornness of the older residents,” says 69-year-old Xue.

But initial feedback was positive, and word-of-mouth recommendations attracted more and more parents. Now there is a waitlist for new kindergarteners, and staff are more on board. The one group that never needed much convincing was Xiyanghong’s elderly residents. “I saw their eyes shine when watching the kids from upstairs,” says Xue. “Before that, they were just muddling and waiting to die.”

Xue says the presence of children improves seniors’ physical and mental health, reducing loneliness and depression. “For children, interaction with older people supports their learning and boosts their social development,” she says. It also teaches them the traditional Chinese virtue of respecting the elderly. “When kids see with their own eyes that older residents grab plates with trembling hands despite being much taller and bigger than them, they can see the fragility of life; they will take pity on the elderly and establish a sense of caring,” explains head of kindergarten Deng. “Everyone is more responsible for one another.”

Such anecdotes are in line with international experiences. Judith Ish-Horowicz, co-founder and principal of Apples and Honey Nightingale CIC, the U.K.’s first intergenerational nursery, says it hasn’t encountered many problems since its launch in 2017. “The initial difficulty is to get people to understand that we are not going to leave the children in the care of the residents,” she tells Sixth Tone. The mixing of generations has proven beneficial, according to the company’s own evaluations. The elderly, especially those with dementia, enjoy the mental stimulation. Children have improved their language ability faster than before, and, Ish-Horowicz says, they enjoy the patience of people who aren’t in a rush.

Sue Davidson, director of Bethlehem Intergenerational Center in the state of Michigan says the model is also relatively new to the U.S. The institution had been operating as a child care center for decades until it introduced the program to enrich the lives of the elderly two years ago. “Parents all love this idea,” Davidson tells Sixth Tone. “It helps seniors find a new meaning of life.”

In Bethlehem, the two age groups take part in organized activities together, such as reading books or baking cookies. However, in Xiyanghong, shared activities are mostly spontaneous. Children sing and share birthday cakes with the seniors or bring water to a resident’s room for the nursing assistant to bathe them. Most of the day is spent apart. The senior apartments and kindergarten have their own dining rooms, living areas, and entrances.

Apples and Honey Nightingale CIC mentions in its case study report that it hopes to see 500 intergenerational institutes developed across the U.K. over the next five years. Such a rollout is unlikely in China. “We work twice as hard to take care of two vulnerable groups, but we don’t get as much in return financially,” says Deng. The kindergarten is responsible for its own profits. The government subsidizes a one-time 3,000 yuan ($437) operational fee for each bed in the nursing home, and 300 yuan a year for each elderly resident.

Deng Sha plays on the seesaw with her daughter at Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Deng Sha plays on the seesaw with her daughter at Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/

Elsewhere in China, intergenerational centers have proven unfeasible. When Hu Yanping attempted to experiment with this model over a decade ago, after visiting intergenerational centers in Japan, the lack of support and applicable governmental policies made her reconsider. Now, as the director of Golden Age, a high-end retirement community in the eastern city of Hangzhou, she cooperates with nearby kindergartens to organize activities in which children and elderly residents can interact. Hu says it’s difficult to build a long-term program. “Every activity requires the strict approval from the education bureau, and sometimes the heads of the kindergartens feel that such extracurricular activities have safety risks and more,” she says.

At the end of last year, an intergenerational center in the eastern city of Nanjing closed its nursing home after 16 years. Its head, Chen Qi, tells Sixth Tone that it’s unrealistic to integrate the two vulnerable populations within one institution: “It’s not in line with China’s national conditions and people’s mindsets.” Chen explains that parents proved unwilling to let their children live with the elderly because of concerns about the group’s manners and physical conditions. For many working Chinese parents who leave their children in the care of their aged parents, there are often conflicts in parenting styles. Some objections were also based on deeply held beliefs that people near death bring bad fortune. “As death is still a taboofor Chinese people, they’re against the idea of having the kids and the elderly’s hearse enter and exit through the same gate,” says Chen.

The entrance to the nursing home facility in Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

The entrance to the nursing home facility in Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Deng says seniors passing away hasn’t been a problem in Xiyanghong, where both groups don’t even share the same entrance to the building. The kindergarteners receive death education, in which they learn about the cycle of life, making death less of a shock to them, Deng says. “When they spend time with the elderly on a regular basis, they see the wrinkles and wheelchairs, and they realize people will get tired when they are older.”

Chen Xuanjin — no relation to Chen Qi — visited her grandmother over the past decade when she resided in Xiyanghong. She recalls that, before the kindergarten opened, her grandmother and other residents didn’t speak much. “I felt like they were just lying and dying,” she says. “Their lives had become black and white; however, the children are like colorful strokes, giving them confidence and hope to live again.” Her grandmother, who had a stroke and paralysis, made the effort to walk around to see what the children were doing. That convinced Chen to send her daughter to the kindergarten.

Every Thursday after their cooking lesson, Chen Xuanjin’s daughter brought cakes to her great-grandmother’s room and fed her. “Usually, we don’t have a strong bond with our great-grandparents, but my daughter remembers my grandmother’s bed and her favorite food, which I believe is the inheritance of family emotions,” she says. “Maybe she can’t integrate these feelings now, but the seed has been planted in her heart to teach her to respect and cherish lives.”

When Hou Ying first visited Xiyanghong to see if it would be a good place to send her son, she noticed the elderly right away and wondered how the combination would work in practice. But when she saw how much residents enjoyed the children, she was reassured. “My grandfather and I had a very good relationship, but when I went to college, I had very little contact with him, which I regret,” she says, tearing up at the thought of her grandfather, who passed away last year. “I want my son to have the love and care from the elderly while he’s little, which I believe will make him strong and optimistic when he grows up.”

Children draw in a classroom at Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Children draw in a classroom at Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying

Liu, the resident, moved to Guiyang from eastern Shandong province with her husband in 1964 to support railway construction in southwestern China. She’s lived in Xiyanghong since 2012, moving in after her husband passed away. Her only child works in another city and visits her once a year. “Life was somewhat meaningless before these little babies came along,” she tells Sixth Tone. “I was so lonely and waiting to die, until one day I heard the sounds of the children downstairs; all of a sudden, I felt like I had a reason to live again.”

For last month’s Dragon Boat Festival, the children and elderly made zongzi — glutinous rice with different fillings wrapped in bamboo leaves. When Liu recalls showing the children how to fold the leaves, she’s all smiles. “They called me Grandma,” she says. “They made a mess, but who cares?”

Additional reporting: Ai Jiabao.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.