Why China’s Elderly ‘Huddle to Stay Warm’


HUBEI, Central China — Shen Exiang was feeding his six dogs with some minced pork and rice at home when his former colleague Deng Chao rode over on his motorcycle. It was a chilly February afternoon, but the snow was melting around the village, and Deng wanted to know if Shen and his wife would go hiking with him.

It’s a relaxed pace of life for the 60-somethings, who’ve recently swapped life in Wuhan, a city of nearly 11 million, for a new kind of retirement in the countryside. They “huddle to stay warm,” as the phenomenon has been dubbed. Unable to rely on their only children or state care facilities, they depend on each other for social support.

The concept of “huddling retirement” has aroused interest among middle-aged people ready to retire soon — China’s retirement age varies between 50 and 60 depending on one’s occupation. A couple in the eastern city of Hangzhou made headlines earlier this year when they invited five other retired couples, who shared a fondness for playing mahjong, to live in their three-story suburban home. They charged at most just 1,500 yuan per month for room and board, and cleaning services.

When Shen, 64, was getting ready to retire in 2012, he spent a year searching for the perfect place to start the new chapter of his life. One day, while hiking with friends, he came upon the area around Hanzi Mountain, about 100 kilometers east of downtown Wuhan. When passing through Hanzishan Village on their way down the mountain, he learned that the majority of the hamlet’s 800 residents worked and lived in the city, leaving their houses empty most of the year.

Shen retired after a 43-year career as an engineer at Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation, one of the largest state-owned enterprises in central China. He loves nature — hiking, hunting, camping, fishing, and looking after pigeons and dogs. “I can’t do any of these in the city,” Shen tells Sixth Tone. With his energetic demeanor, he organizes a range of activities and has a lot of friends who, like him, wish to stay active in retirement. “Our apartments in the city are just not big enough,” Shen says.

On the top of a hill overlooking a reservoir, Shen and his wife Yan Shifeng, 61, found their own retirement home. The single-story brick building had been abandoned for 10 years — the surrounding land was overrun with weeds and the fish in the nearly dried-up pond had long since died. The owners agreed to rent the 200-square-meter house and the land around it for 1,000 yuan ($160) a year for a decade. “It seemed incredibly cheap,” Yan says. “But we’ve spent over 100,000 yuan on renovating the house and cleaning up its surroundings.”

A view of Hanzishan Village on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth ToneA view of Hanzishan Village on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

As an engineer who used to be in charge of large-scale experimental energy projects, Shen considers the village’s “huddling community” his retirement project. Shen spent nearly two months converting the dilapidated house into what he and his wife now affectionately refer to as their “mountain villa.” Most of the work went into repairing the ceiling and installing a new bathroom and kitchen.

After local media reported on Shen and Yan’s hilltop abode, more than a thousand people have come to visit, many of whom were thinking about moving to the countryside themselves. Shen invited them to stay in one of his six spare bedrooms to experience rural life for a few weeks before making their decision. Since the couple moved to the village in 2013, more than 30 retirees from Wuhan have followed suit.

Traditionally, Chinese live with and depend on their children to take care of them later in life. However, most people who are currently entering retirement started their families in the 1980s, when China’s strict family planning policies only permitted one child. Many of today’s pensioners have realized that it is unrealistic to rely on just one child, who might be also raising children of their own. Official numbers reflects this, too. In 2016, over half of seniors nationwide were so-called empty nesters — seniors who live apart from their children. The proportion exceeded 70 percent in cities.

As a result, China’s youngest pensioners are more open-minded about their retirement plans— from spending big on high-end apartments in luxury senior housing to “destination retirement,” where seniors move around to different locations each season. Luo, the sociologist, sees “huddling retirement” as a response to inadequacies in state-provided elderly care. “China’s old-age welfare system was mainly built to fullfill material and service needs, but very little attention is paid to elderly people’s spiritual and social needs,” Luo says. “Huddling retirement satisfies precisely these requirements.”

Shen Exiang poses for a photo on the Hanzi Mountain on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth ToneShen Exiang poses for a photo on the Hanzi Mountain on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

For Shen, life in the countryside is certainly fullfilling. He wakes up around 6 every morning, eats breakfast, and exercises. Donning his favorite camouflage outfit, he then feeds the chickens, ducks, dogs, and sheep. For lunch and dinner, the couple and the other “huddling buddies” take turns to cook, and eat together in each other’s house.

Deng, 62, moved to the village four years ago. He raises hundreds of chickens in his yard and sells them at the market every weekend. “The high prices, traffic congestion, and poor air quality in the city are not suitable for retirement,” he says. “The natural environment here is a great attraction to me,” Deng adds.

Shen admits that he wouldn’t have moved to the countryside if it wasn’t for his sister, who is taking care of their mother in the city. His son, who is unmarried and loves to travel, also fully supports his parents’ move. “Many of my friends envy my carefree life in the country; however, they can barely step out of the urban center as they have to take care of their grandchildren in Wuhan,” says Shen.

Huddling retirement is still rare in Luo’s eyes, and she doesn’t think it’s a realistic alternative for most people. “These retirees are the ‘young seniors’ who are in good shape,” she says. “When they are ill and their health condition won’t allow them to live in the countryside for very long, they will have to move back to the city.” Though the government has promised improvements in rural health care, the best hospitals are still in the city.

But while Shen is concerned about health, he hopes he will never have to leave. “I think that when I’m old and need professional medical care, there will be good nursing facilities in the countryside, so that I could keep living here instead of moving back to the city,” he says, as he sips his favorite green tea.

A view of a newly renovated cottage bought by a couple, who are both doctors, in Hanzishan Village, on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth ToneA view of a newly renovated cottage bought by a couple, who are both doctors, in Hanzishan Village, on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

But if that doesn’t happen, Shen has another plan.

A five-minute walk down the hill from his home stands a house that’s currently being renovated. Its walls are now stark white, but the most eye-catching feature is the wood-paneled walls and terrace on the second floor reserved just for pigeons. Shen says that a couple bought the house recently and is planning to move in later in the year, when they retire. “They are both doctors,” he says. “I think it’s a really good thing for us to have them here.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Advertisements

The Maybe-Magic Well Water of Twins Town


SICHUAN, Southwest China — When Xiao Renchun was four months pregnant in 2011, her belly had already grown much larger than expected. Even for a resident of Guxian Town, which has a high birth rate for twins, her stomach looked enormous. She visited a county clinic for an ultrasound, which showed she was pregnant with triplets. Thinking this couldn’t possibly be true, she visited a hospital in a city nearby to make sure. There, another scan showed that she wasn’t expecting three, but four babies.

“It was bittersweet,” Teng Demei, the children’s grandmother, tells Sixth Tone. “We were all excited about the quadruplets but were afraid they wouldn’t all survive the pregnancy.” Luckily, all four children were born healthy — further validating the legend of Guxian.

“Many people believe it’s the water in the well,” says Zheng Zhilin, an official in Guxian’s Xiaomenlu Village, the quadruplets’ hometown. Until 2016, when Xiaomenlu residents received access to running water, the village’s main water supply came from a single well. “People from the surrounding villages would come and drink our water if they wanted to have twins,” Zheng chuckles. Currently, the village of 1,400 residents has 13 pairs of twins, a trio of triplets, and one set of quadruplets.

The well of Xiaomenlu Village in Guxian Town, Sichuan province, Jan. 9, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone The well of Xiaomenlu Village in Guxian Town, Sichuan province, Jan. 9, 2018.

There is no official data on twin births in China. However, Zheng says that the local government previously calculated the rate of twin births for Xiaomenlu and five nearby villages. Of the 240 children born between 2006 and 2010, 14 were twins — accounting for nearly 6 percent of the new births. Naturally, only around one out of every 100 newborns is a twin, Wu Xin, a doctor at Shanghai’s Obstetrics & Gynecology Hospital of Fudan University, tells Sixth Tone.

The frequency of twin births in China has risen significantly since the implementation of the two-child policy in January 2016. Older mothers taking the opportunity to have another child often resort to assisted reproductive technology. Currently, 20 to 30 percent of women who conceive through treatments like in-vitro fertilization become pregnant with two or more children. But the mothers in Guxian Town say that they all got pregnant naturally.

Another popular theory for the region’s numerous twin births is the local DNA. There has been no research into Guxian genomes, but scientific research into twins shows that this line of thinking could hold more water than the well theory. Most twins in Guxian are believed to be fraternal — where two eggs are fertilized by two separate sperm cells, as opposed to identical twins, where one egg is fertilized by one sperm and then split into two. A 2016 study of mothers in Iceland identified two genetic variations that together increased the likelihood of a woman giving birth to fraternal twins by 29 percent.

The ancestors of some Guxian families moved here in the early 1900s from Yongzhou, an area in central China’s Hunan province — as is evidenced by the unique Guxian dialect, a mixture of Sichuanese and the dialect spoken in Yongzhou. Guxian locals say that before these migrants arrived, twins weren’t nearly as common, and so the migrants must have brought the genes to the area when they came.

Nevertheless, the well remains alluring. Sometimes people travel a long way to visit, and the government of Guxian Town, which oversees Xiaomenlu, hopes to turn this into a steady stream of tourism money. In their vision, villagers will open guesthouses for out-of-towners coming to see the well. The name for the main attraction hasn’t been decided yet, but Zheng says he likes “Water of the Many Children.”

A view inside the quadruplets’ house in Xiaomenlu Village, Sichuan province, Jan. 10, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone A view inside the quadruplets’ house in Xiaomenlu Village, Sichuan province, Jan. 10, 2018. Fan Yiying

Guxian made national headlines when Xiao gave birth to her quadruplets — two boys followed by two girls. She delivered her children in the West China Hospital in Chengdu, touted as southwestern China’s best medical institute. Chinese parents often choose a nickname for their children’s early years that is known and used only within the family. In the case of Xiao’s children, these are Chengcheng, Dudu, Huahua, and Xixi — after Chengdu Huaxi, the hospital’s name in Chinese.

As Chinese people have an affinity for “double happiness and blessing,” having twins has been seen as enviable — especially during the decades of the one-child policy, when having twins was a legal way to circumvent family planning restrictions. However, for many families, the financial pressures of raising more than one child are high, especially when they are the same age, and even more so when there are four of them.

The quadruplets’ family decided their old house was too small, so they knocked it down and built a three-story dwelling. When the children were born in October 2011, the family had only finished building the first floor. While Xiao was “sitting the month” — a Chinese tradition that dictates mothers to stay at home for a month after childbirth — construction was going on all around her. The new house cost the family about 200,000 yuan ($31,000), almost their entire savings.

Luckily, media attention inspired a local dairy company to provide the family with free milk powder for one year, worth more than 100,000 yuan. “Without [the company’s] help, they might not have been able to survive,” says their 58-year-old grandmother, Teng. The quads’ parents left home when the babies turned 1 year old, and now work in the coastal province of Zhejiang. They manage to send home around 3,000 yuan every month. Teng and her husband hardly make any money, spending their time on subsistence farming and taking care of the children.

The eldest child, Chengcheng, is the naughtiest among the four. “He always starts fights, but I know how to deal with him,” says Teng, adding that she plays the “bad cop,” as Grandpa is too soft and gentle. The younger boy, Dudu, is stubborn but clever. Huahua, the elder girl, is quiet, and the youngest girl, Xixi, is outgoing and talkative.

Now 6 years old, the quadruplets started preschool last September. The grandparents bought a three-wheeled tuk tuk to bring the children to and from school — it proved too difficult to keep an eye on four rambunctious children walking next to traffic.

Eight sets of twins who attend Guxian Secondary School pose for a photo in front of the school’s gate in Sichuan province, Jan. 9, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone Eight sets of twins who attend Guxian Secondary School pose for a photo in front of the school’s gate in Sichuan province, Jan. 9, 2018. Fan Yiying

To help the family out financially, the local government pays for the kids’ tuition, which is 650 yuan per child per semester. “Although China has not yet drafted a national policy to help families with multiple births, there is no doubt that there are financial difficulties in raising four kids,” says Yu Yang, deputy Party secretary of Guxian Town. Additionally, the family receives a 495-yuan monthly subsidy from the town’s government.

Long Xiaomei, also a Xiaomenlu mom, gave birth to twin girls in 2004, Mengting and Yuting. Because of the financial challenges of taking care of two newborns at once, “Concerns outweighed joy,” Long, 34, admits. Back then, the couple earned less than 600 yuan a month. She and her husband left Xiaomenlu to make money in the city when the girls were just 7 months old.

To Long’s shock, she got pregnant again three years later. And again, it was twins. Her husband urged her to get an abortion, afraid the family wouldn’t be able to provide for two more children — and she did. Then, in 2014, when Long and her husband were working in Shanghai, Long unexpectedly found out that she was expecting once more. Fearing it would be twins, she went to get an ultrasound. “The first question I asked the doctor was how many babies this time,” Long tells Sixth Tone. She decided to keep the baby after confirming “it was just one.”

Long’s youngest daughter, Fengting, was born in February 2015. By then, the Chinese government had amended its one-child policy to allow couples to have two children if either parent is an only child, but a third child still meant Long and her husband were fined 12,000 yuan. They started out raising Fengting in Shanghai, but mother and daughter moved back to Xiaomenlu earlier this month. “The twins are 14 and they need their mother during their adolescent years,” Long says.

Long Xiaomei and her daughters pose for a photo in Guxian Town, Sichuan province, Jan. 10, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth ToneLong Xiaomei and her daughters pose for a photo in Guxian Town, Sichuan province, Jan. 10, 2018. Fan Yiying

Mengting, Yuting, Fengting, and their mother now live in Guxian, where the twins attend middle school. Long rents a room from distant relatives for 1,000 yuan per year. It has two beds, a table, and a couple of chairs. They share the kitchen and bathroom with the neighbors. During the weekends, all of them return to the village to help with farm work and take care of their grandparents.

Yuting and Mengting — one looks like their father and the other looks like the mother — enjoy wearing the same outfit, down to matching gloves. “We often have the same grades and say the same things at the same time,” says Yuting. However, being twins can be frustrating, especially when you don’t want to stand out. “Everyone knows [everything] about us and we are a bit [embarrassed] because our grades are not good enough,” she adds. To Long’s disappointment, the teenagers don’t seem to be too happy about being around their mother every day. “I’ve never been there for them,” she says. “They still see me as a stranger.”

Long still thinks about the twins she aborted a decade ago. “The doctor later told me they were boys,” she recalls, sobbing. “I sometimes see them in my dreams.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Teaching Sex Ed to China’s Special Needs Students


GUANGDONG, South China — Early Sunday morning, eight teenagers sit in a row looking at pictures of male and female bodies on the whiteboard and trying their best to answer the teacher’s question: Which parts of our bodies are private?

“Wee-wee,” Ming Hang, a 12-year-old boy with autism, quickly replies, half giggling. “Remember, let’s call it a penis,” the teacher corrects him amid laughter from his classmates, all of whom have intellectual disabilities.

Hang and his fellow students take this sex education class every Sunday at No. 2 Children’s Palace, an activity center in Guangzhou. The free course was launched by the Nurturing Relationship Education Support Center (NRC), a Guangzhou-based nonprofit organization that specializes in sex education for youth.

Since the sexual rights of the general population are still not sufficient or fully respected, children with mental disorders are given even less attention.

Su Yanwen, 30, is the special education teacher at the NRC. Since 2010, she has worked with students aged 9 to 22 who have mental disabilities, most often autism spectrum disorder or Down syndrome. Usually, other children need about 10 minutes to master the key points of a sex ed class, “but these kids need more than three hours to understand and remember these things,” Su tells Sixth Tone. In classes for special needs students, the teachers also employ more interactive methods, such as having the children draw on the outline of a body to learn the concept of private parts.

Almost every student in the class has a teaching assistant beside them to remind them to stay focused, help them with questions, or correct their behavior — students sometimes scream or walk away for no apparent reason. Parents are asked to wait outside. “Most of the parents can’t help but intervene too much,” Su says. They are invited to join the last 10 minutes of each lesson, when the volunteer teacher explains what their children learned that day.

Su Yanwen (middle) helps a student understand physical changes that come with puberty during a sex education class at No. 2 Children’s Palace, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Nov. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Su Yanwen (middle) helps a student understand physical changes that come with puberty during a sex education class at No. 2 Children’s Palace, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Nov. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying

Based on the students’ ages and how well they interact with others, the yearlong course is divided into Class A and Class B. In the former, children learn about the body, how to express affection for others, and how to distinguish public from private. Meanwhile, Class B focuses on the physical changes and sexual urges that accompany puberty. But most importantly, Su emphasizes, “They must know they are in charge of their own bodies.” Students are taught to say no when others touch their private parts; for most children with mental disabilities, recognizing that someone is about to touch a private area is still too difficult, Su says.

There are an estimated 30 million people with mental disabilities in China, more than 10 million of whom have autism. They are more likely to become victims of sexual violence for a variety of reasons, including a lack of awareness of what constitutes abuse, according to Su. Their parents often focus on teaching them to be well-behaved and agreeable to the people around them, which can backfire if they fail to identify a dangerous situation. What’s more, perpetrators have a lower chance of being caught, because their victims might not be able to articulate what happened. Most offenders are relatives or acquaintances.

Media reported in November on an abuse case in the southern city of Nanning, in which a girl with a mental disability had been sexually abused by her 50-year-old neighbor for half a year before her mother found out. She had never received sex education and didn’t realize that what the man did to her was “filthy,” according to the report.

Aside from helping the children learn to protect themselves, the sex education course also aims to teach them appropriate public behavior. After taking the class a few times, 15-year-old Chang Chang, who has autism, has realized that masturbation is “shy” and shouldn’t be done in public. “He now locks the door and covers himself with a blanket,” says his mother.

In many cases, parents come to Su for help after their adolescent kids encounter physical or emotional problems that parents can’t handle or feel too embarrassed to address. Ever since Zi Ping reached puberty, the 17-year-old boy with Down syndrome has refused to be accompanied by female social workers at his boarding school. But he’s gradually making progress since joining the Sunday classes. Tang Feifei, his mother, always asks for a copy of the class materials and reviews them with her son whenever she can. “I’m relieved to see that he’s now okay with a female teaching assistant sitting next to him,” she says.

Tang is an exception to the rule: Most parents find it difficult to talk about sex with their children. “After all, they haven’t received professional education or training, and they are worried they might give children misleading information,” Su says, adding that the most common ways parents explain the differences between male and female bodies include showing pictures or taking showers with their children.

Many Chinese hold conservative views about sex, and plenty of parents consider sex ed unnecessary or unsuitable for children, even as advocates say the country’s sex education is inadequate. In March, parents in the eastern city of Hangzhou complained about sex ed textbooks that taught their second-grade children about sex organs, sexual orientation, and gender equality.

They must know they are in charge of their own bodies.

“Since the sexual rights of the general population are still not sufficient or fully respected, children with mental disorders are given even less attention,” Su says. Established in 2010, the NRC is still the only charity organization in China that provides sex education to children with mental disabilities, according to Su.

In 2009, several special education schools and institutions from Guangzhou invited Glenn S. Quint — an expert on sexuality and disability from the U.S. — to develop sex education courses for children with intellectual disabilities. Su attended the training in 2009 when she was a junior at university. It was the first time she realized that sex is something that can be discussed openly.

Over the past few years, dozens of students at Guangzhou universities who are majoring in special education have volunteered to teach Sunday sex ed lessons through the NRC. The first time he taught a whole class, Lin Huan realized how much repetition was necessary before his pupils understood the material. “I only taught half of what I’d prepared,” says the university sophomore. Lin, who joined the program in September, confesses to Sixth Tone that he is worried he might not have explained the concepts clearly enough to students. After all, he says, “I’m in the process of learning about sex myself.”

A boy with autism circles private parts on a worksheet during a sex education class at No. 2 Children’s Palace, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Nov. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A boy with autism circles private parts on a worksheet during a sex education class at No. 2 Children’s Palace, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Nov. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying

Parents play an important role in sex education, regardless of whether their children have disabilities. “We only see the kids for an hour a week,” says Su, “but their parents are with them every second.” Before children begin the NRC course, Su and her team first run workshops for the parents.

When asked what kind of sex organs they know, parents blushed, Su says. “Some of them really do have a hard time saying ‘penis’ or ‘vagina’ out loud,” she explains. Some of the parents didn’t know how to write the Chinese characters for sex organs and other body parts. “I was astonished,” Su recalls.

Su’s own parents never taught her about sex. She says she learned about menstruation in fifth grade when a sanitary pad brand held a promotional activity at her school. The girls were given a small box of pads as a gift, she recalls, adding, “I was told not to let the boys see it.” Even today, Su’s parents think it’s shameful for their daughter to teach sex education.

But the potential impact of her classes motivates Su to continue teaching. Once, the mother of a girl with Down syndrome told Su that she was on the subway with her daughter one day, when the girl suddenly asked to switch seats because the man next to her had touched a private area. “This was the most rewarding moment of my work,” Su says.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Jiangsu Drafts Law for Fairer Parenting, More Paternity Leave


In a national first, the eastern province of Jiangsu has drafted a law for “joint parenting leave” for fathers to promote equal employment and collaborative child-rearing, local media reported Wednesday.

Fathers in China already have seven to 30 days of paid paternity leave, depending on local regulations, though this is termed “birth companion leave.” In June, the provincial law office of Jiangsu — which currently provides 15 days of paternity leave — published a consultation paper that proposed at least 15 days of additional joint parenting leave for fathers.

But the draft submitted to the legislature on Tuesday watered down the proposal from a mandatory minimum of 15 days to a recommendation of at least five days. The provision was reduced, an official told the local news outlet, because of concerns about increased costs to employers.

If the draft passes, Jiangsu will be the first in the country to institute such measures, but other provinces may soon follow suit. Shandong province, also in eastern China, is exploring similar legislation, and the state-endorsed All-China Women’s Federation has repeatedly called for joint parenting leave to encourage more active parenting from fathers.

“In China, women take on a lot more responsibilities, while men fail to do their jobs when it comes to bringing up a child,” said Xia Xuemin, a researcher at Zhejiang University’s Public Policy Research Institute. Xia believes joint parenting leave is crucial for pushing Chinese men to do their fair share, especially as the government continues to promote the two-child policy. “Five days seems too short,” he added.

The two-child policy came into effect nationwide in January 2016. However, many women, especially working mothers, say it is too hard to have two children, given inadequate public child care services and the uneven division of child-rearing labor between husband and wife. In addition, though employees are legally entitled to maternity leave, many women are still scared that having children could ruin their careers.

While Jiangsu’s proposed policy has earned the approval of many users on microblog platform Weibo, some wonder whether it will be implemented effectively. “If it’s just ‘an encouragement,’ few companies will actually make it happen,” commented one user.

Strapped for Grave Sites, Shenyang Promotes Green Burials


Families who chose “green burials” for their loved ones in the northeastern city of Shenyang will receive subsidies of up to 1,000 yuan ($150), a local newspaper reported Monday. According to a regulation issued earlier the same day by the Shenyang Civil Affairs Bureau, the local government will subsidize eco-friendly burials that don’t further tighten the squeeze on land.

Officials at the Shenyang Civil Affairs Bureau told the paper that each family can apply for subsidies of 1,500 yuan, of which 500 yuan will go to the cemetery providing the service and up to 1,000 will go toward the family’s costs.

Eligible burials include cremated ashes that are scattered or buried under trees, flowerbeds, or lawns. The regulation stipulates detailed criteria: For tree burials, for instance, the ashes must be placed in a biodegradable container and buried without a monument on the surface. Flowerbed and lawn burials must be covered with plants suited to the northern climate.

During the Tomb-Sweeping Festival in early April each year, tens of millions of Chinese people travel to visit the tombs of their ancestors and dearly departed. In most of the country, funeral customs have traditionally involved burial with the body intact, though Mao Zedong himself promoted cremation in the 1950s. But as Chinese cities become ever more crowded, governments are increasingly advocating for cremation and green burials in order to conserve land and protect the environment.

In 2016, nine government departments jointly issued guidelines promoting green burials to “lighten the burden of the masses, ensure basic burial needs, and benefit future generations.” More recently, policymakers have also instituted a wide range of funeral reforms intended to curb ostentatious and superstitious practices — in some places, even going so far as to ban traditional folk instruments, a move many cultural critics have denounced.

Reforms implemented for ecological and urban planning purposes are less controversial. In addition to Shenyang, several other cities and provinces are currently promoting green burials and funerals. Since March, the Beijing municipal government has offered free “natural burials” — worth an estimated 4,000 yuan — in which the deceased’s ashes are “returned to nature” via a compostable container.

In coastal Shanghai, families receive a 1,000 yuan subsidy if they select a sea burial, in which the deceased’s ashes are scattered at sea. Data from the Shanghai funeral service center showed that by the end of 2016, a total of 37,056 sea burials had taken place since 1991, when the city introduced the practice, and that the number of sea burials had increased from about 100 each year in the 1990s to over 3,300 in 2016.

“The concept of burial is about to change,” said 65-year-old Shanghai native Chen Qian. He told Sixth Tone that he would like a green burial himself when his time comes. “It’s environmentally friendly and could reduce the hassle for my children,” he said.

Wrestling School Gives ‘Left-Behind Children’ a Fighting Chance


JIANGXI, East China — Sixth-grader Lin Hongyu is shy until he gets onto the wrestling mat. There, he becomes a different person: effusive, competitive, and devoted to his dream of becoming a champion.

“I’m not worried about how hard wrestling is,” the 12-year-old tells Sixth Tone between cartwheels. “All I know is that wrestling makes me happy.”

Wrestling is not particularly popular among either spectators or athletes in China. Yet the sport has won many hearts in Matian, a village of around 10,000 people in western Jiangxi province, because of a rural elementary school that has specialized in wrestling since 2006.

“All the students at the school can do some basic wrestling moves,” says Zhu Zhihui, the principal of Matian Central Primary School. The school has integrated wrestling into morning fitness drills and physical education lessons for its 600-plus students in first through sixth grades. Some students, like Hongyu, dream of pursuing wrestling professionally, but Zhu says that’s not the point.

I’m not worried about how hard wrestling is. All I know is that wrestling makes me happy.

“Our goal is not to raise each child to become a professional; instead, we aim to cultivate healthy students who are strong in body and mind through wrestling training,” Zhu explains.

More than 70 percent of the students at Matian Central Primary School are “left-behind children” whose parents have migrated to find better-paying jobs in distant cities. Hongyu, who lives with his grandma, is one of them.

Hongyu joined his school’s wrestling club four years ago and was quickly selected for the school team after excelling in five fitness tests — sprinting, long-distance running, pull-ups, sit-ups, and the standing jump — that the school uses to evaluate prospective wrestlers under national sports bureau standards. Now, he is one of around 30 students on the team who train from 3:30 to 6 p.m. every school day and almost every day during the summer break. They are registered with the provincial sports bureau and take part in the municipal and provincial games each year.

When Hongyu told his grandmother, Liu Qingyun, that he’d taken up wrestling, she had no idea what the sport was. Later, she saw the boy and his cousin practicing together in a field in front of the house. “I support him wrestling as long as it’s free of charge,” she sighs, as the pair live on government welfare. In August, Hongyu came in second in the annual citywide games. He walked home with a silver medal around his neck but didn’t show it off to his grandma.

IMG_6743

Lin Hongyu walks through a rice field in Matian Village, Luxi County, Jiangxi province, Sept. 6, 2017. Fan Yiying

Left-behind children and elders are the subject of ample media coverage and public concern in China, as the country’s mass migration to urban areas has disrupted traditional family relationships and social structures. Many fear that rural children who grow up without their parents will face psychological issues and developmental difficulties. School principal Zhu hopes that wrestling will help his students become confident, humble, and self-disciplined.

“It’s a way to plant character traits that will influence them throughout their lives,” says the 40-year-old headmaster.

[Wrestling is] a way to plant character traits that will influence them throughout their lives.

When Zhu transferred to Matian Central Primary School in 2006, it was a typical rural Chinese school with run-down infrastructure and facilities, insufficient faculty, and an outmoded curriculum. Himself a former wrestler, the new principal sought ways to revitalize the school and thought wrestling could create opportunities — but other teachers opposed the idea.

“They argued that as a school, our chief role is to teach core subjects,” Zhu says, referring to Chinese, math, and English. But he insisted that youth wrestling wouldn’t affect the students’ grades, and that it would even boost the students’ confidence and strength of mind.

Teachers gradually changed their attitudes as the school began to receive more government resources as a reward for their growing number of wrestling medals from all levels of competition. More and more families have been drawn to Matian Central Primary School’s success: In the last decade, the student body has nearly doubled.

Yet prioritizing wrestling over academics is still something of a dilemma for students who have a shot at a career in the sport. When members of the wrestling team graduate, they must decide whether they will go to a regular middle school or a professional sports school. This year, five students continued on to municipal or provincial sports schools to focus on wrestling training. It’s a difficult decision, especially if they’re doing well academically. Most parents would still prefer to see their children continue their studies and hopefully make it to university.

But wrestling can be a life-changing opportunity for children from poor families who aren’t academically gifted. Coach Zeng Hanjin says he’s a living example: Now 29, Zeng never excelled in school. He took up the sport when he was just 11. Coming from a poor family, his parents looked to wrestling as a way out — but they also saw that success came with painful costs for their little boy. “My mom cried when she saw me being brutally thrown to the mat repeatedly,” Zeng recalls. But she didn’t stop him from training, and he eventually made it onto the national team.

IMG_6663

Coach Zeng Hanjin instructs two students during wrestling practice at Matian Central Primary School in Luxi County, Jiangxi province, Sept. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying

“If I didn’t wrestle, I’d probably have ended up being a farmer at home or a migrant worker in a faraway city,” Zeng says. Though he had to stop competing before the 2008 Beijing Olympics due to injuries — the sport has left him with back pain, cauliflower ear, and broken fingers — he still sees wrestling as his lifelong career. “This is the spirit of sportsmanship,” he says.

If I didn’t wrestle, I’d probably have ended up being a farmer at home or a migrant worker in a faraway city.

Girls, too, are increasingly getting in on the action: After the 2016 Indian movie “Dangal” — which tells the true story of two sisters from rural India who became world-class wrestlers under their father’s tutelage — emerged as a breakout hit at the Chinese box office, more villagers started to see wrestling as an option for girls.

“Before watching the movie, I thought wrestling was just boys fighting with each other,” says Lai Xuehui, whose 11-year-old daughter, Wu Yujie, took up the sport in March. The sixth-grader signed up for wrestling after watching her classmates train after school. “I think they’re awesome, and their moves are amazing,” Yujie tells Sixth Tone while sitting on the mat before practice.

Yujie is one of just a few girls on the school team. Zhu says his next goal is to recruit more female wrestlers. “It’s easier for the girls to attain wins, as the competition isn’t as fierce,” he says. “But they also need more attention physically and mentally.”

When the school first started offering the sport in 2006, the young wrestlers practiced in an outdoor sandpit. A few years later, a shed was set up with a secondhand wrestling mat provided by a sports school. “The temperature in the shed was over 50 degrees [Celsius] in the summer,” says coach Zeng.

IMG_6695

Students play on the grounds of Matian Central Primary School in Luxi County, Jiangxi province, Sept. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying

After Matian Central Primary School provided more than 100 graduates to professional sports schools and won more than 200 medals in provincial and national competitions, the local government paid for a brand-new wrestling arena at the school in 2016.

Zeng, who has never won an international medal himself, dreams of seeing his students become world champions — the Chinese flag fluttering in the wind and the notes of the national anthem echoing in the air. “I know it’s extremely difficult,” he admits. “But if we work hard together generation after generation, I believe this dream will eventually come true.”

Dial D for Divorce: Court Uses WeChat in Moroccan-Chinese Breakup


A judge in east China resolved a Moroccan-Chinese couple’s long-running divorce case with the help of a video call through messaging app WeChat.

The ingenuity ended 20 months of cross-border litigation, the Intermediate People’s Court of Nanjing, in Jiangsu province, said on its WeChat public account Tuesday. The district court responsible for the piece of technological wizardry granted the divorce on Sept. 18.

The couple reportedly met when the Moroccan woman was studying in China. They registered their marriage and made plans to open a traditional Chinese medicine clinic in Morocco. However, after the woman moved back to her home country in 2015, she cut all communication with her Chinese husband.

The husband filed for divorce in January 2016. A trial date was set for Sept. 12, 2017, but by July this year the court still had not received confirmation from the woman as to whether she would attend. Instead of setting a new hearing date and repeating the complicated process of sending a court summons internationally, Judge Chen Wenjun opted for WeChat, a first for the court.

During the hearing, Chen compared the woman on screen with her photo on the marriage certificate and also verified her other personal information. A camera was set up in the courtroom to record the video call.

Protocol for divorce cases in China recommends that both parties appear in court so judges can question them. But, Chen was quoted as saying, “this can be achieved by WeChat video as well.” He added that using WeChat made it easier to persuade the woman to take part in the trial. One precondition for using WeChat was that the case wasn’t complicated, the article said, adding that the couple did not have any joint property.

A court in Zhangjiajie, in central China’s Hubei province, took a similar approach in May, when Chinese-Malaysian couple were also granted divorce via WeChat. Local media reported that the case “made it convenient for the parties involved, improved the efficiency of the trial, and embodied the judiciary’s concern for humanity.”

The Wedding Planner Reviving Naxi Traditions in Lijiang


YUNNAN, Southwest China — As the wedding party steps out into Lijiang’s old town square, curious tourists flock to the group, dazzled by their traditional Naxi attire. Many question whether the pomp and ceremony is a performance.

In fact, the Saturday afternoon spectacle is the real wedding of groom He Libao, 29, and bride Duan Jing, 21, both members of the Naxi, one of China’s 56 official ethnic groups. The Naxi population numbers around 300,000; most live in Lijiang, while the rest reside throughout Yunnan province and in neighboring Sichuan province and Tibet Autonomous Region.

IMG_5769

He Libao and bride Duan Jing are surrounded by tourists in Lijiang during their wedding ceremony.  Aug. 5, 2017. Yiying Fan

Though traditional wedding ceremonies are still common in remote villages, the custom has faded in the city of Lijiang since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), when cultural influences from the Han ethnic majority began to overwhelm the area. But now, a local wedding planning company called Xihe is reviving interest in the tradition — partly at the behest of tourists.

“Tradition is like a siege,” Wang Dejiong, a Naxi folk culture researcher, tells Sixth Tone. “People outside want to get in, while people inside want to get out.”

Most Naxi people follow the Dongba faith, which teaches that humans and nature are brothers. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, at important events such as weddings, the Naxi would invite a dongba — or shaman — to perform chants. Highly respected as accomplished scholars of Naxi culture, dongba pass down their duties within families from generation to generation.

Xihe organizes around two weddings every week, including the recent Saturday ceremony, which kicks off at the Yulong Bridge, where young couples would court in the old days. Groups of Naxi boys and girls sing in praise of the bride and groom. The newlyweds then release fish into the river to show their respect for nature.

After the fish are released, the bride is carried through the center of the old town in a fringed bridal chair — followed by a wedding party of close to 50 people — to a traditional Naxi house with three wings enclosing a courtyard.

In the courtyard, a dongba presides over the “soul-binding” ceremony — the most important part of the wedding. The dongba ties the couple’s hands together and announces that they can never again be separated. Afterward, dozens of young and old dance hand in hand, wishing the newlyweds happiness and prosperity.

I was so used to my own culture — all I wanted was to escape from it.

The ceremony does not include vows, as Naxi people are shy about expressing love verbally. “We believe actions speak louder than words,” the groom explains.

“Our souls are bound together,” the bride says after the ceremony. “If I ever got a divorce, I’d feel like I lost my soul.”

The ceremony venue is also the headquarters of wedding company Xihe, founded by Naxi woman He Yumiao — who is not related to He Libao. The company’s name means “joyful crane” in the Naxi language; Naxi people worship cranes and consider the sacred birds to be a symbol of a blessed marriage, as cranes are faithful to their mates. Once one dies, it is said that the other will starve itself and die for love.

Since its establishment in 2008, Xihe has arranged traditional Naxi wedding ceremonies for more than 1,000 couples in Lijiang. Wedding packages start at 6,999 yuan (around $1,050), and the ceremony lasts about one and a half hours.

IMG_5906

He Yumiao stands outside her company Xihe in Lijiang, Yunan.  Aug. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying 

He Yumiao, now 38, was born and raised in a Naxi household with three generations living under one roof. “I was so used to my own culture — all I wanted was to escape from it,” she tells Sixth Tone.

After graduating from high school, He Yumiao moved from Lijiang to Kunming, Yunnan’s provincial capital, in 1997 and worked at the city’s Naxi minority village tourist site as a performer. It was there that she wore traditional Naxi attire for the first time. Every day, she answered questions from tourists hailing from all over the world who were interested in the Naxi way of life. “It was overwhelming to see that they cared about my culture, which I took for granted every day,” she says.

A couple years later, He Yumiao moved back home to Lijiang and became a tour guide in the old town. In 2006, she met a Singaporean couple who had come to the city on their honeymoon. They were enamored with the local culture and asked whether she could arrange a traditional Naxi wedding for them. At the time, she knew didn’t know much about the ceremony — nor were there many examples in the city that she could follow — but she was determined to try. With the help of elderly locals, she organized a Naxi wedding in just a few days at Lijiang’s Black Dragon Pond Park.

It was then that He Yumiao decided to devote herself to preserving the Naxi wedding tradition. “I finally found where my heart belongs,” she says. “Folk customs are critical to an ethnic group, and a wedding celebration is of the utmost importance because it reflects the values of the [Naxi] culture.”

Tradition is like a siege. People outside want to get in, while people inside want to get out.

Naxi couple Li Jixing, 35, and He Dong, 38, stumbled upon the Singaporean couple’s wedding ceremony while they were strolling in the park, discussing their own wedding plans. Though they had heard elders speak of traditional ceremonies, it was the first time they had witnessed one for themselves. “I had never seen such a happy and glorious wedding in all my life,” Li tells Sixth Tone. The couple watched the entire ceremony and asked He Yumiao to arrange a similar one for them. “We always wanted a traditional wedding, but we couldn’t find a wedding company that offered such a service,” He Dong, Li’s husband, says.

The couple held their wedding ceremony in 2007 in their courtyard at home. Because He Yumiao’s business hadn’t officially launched yet, the ceremony was simple and brief. “But at least we had a ceremony,” He Dong says; otherwise, they would simply have had a banquet with family and friends like most couples of their generation.

After He Yumiao launched Xihe, she didn’t book her first wedding until six months later, when a transnational couple from Scotland and central China’s Hubei province asked her to arrange a wedding ceremony in Lijiang that brought together Naxi and Western customs. Photos of the ceremony posted online brought her many new customers.

But for the first five years of running her business, He Yumiao was frustrated that most of her clients were tourists, while many Naxi people paid little attention to their own traditions. “Locals would rather pay thousands of yuan to have a Western wedding at a church,” she says.

She credits tourists for helping to turn the tide. “The tourists have made Naxi weddings trendy and fashionable, which piqued locals’ interests,” she says. Now, half of her clients are locals, as more and more Naxi young people have begun to take pride in their traditions.

Yet the romance of the Dongba ceremony continues to draw many outsiders. Yang Cailing and her husband are both Han but have lived in Lijiang for the last decade. Though they had a Western wedding in 2012, Yang always felt something was missing. She decided she wanted a second wedding after finding out that the Naxi language had no word for divorce.

“At first, [my husband] was against the idea because he thought it would be like a performance for tourists in the old town of Lijiang,” Yang laughs. Meanwhile, she hoped the ceremony would spice up married life, which had begun to feel dull after a few years. The 31-year-old persuaded her husband to have a Dongba ceremony in January, and one month later, she found out she was pregnant with their second child.

IMG_5899.JPG

Yang Cailing and her husband hold a traditional Naxi Wedding in January 2017. Courtesy of Yang Cailin

He Yumiao started her company mainly out of curiosity, but she has since developed a deep sense of cultural responsibility. “We are probably the last generation of Naxi people to be raised in our local culture,” she says. “If I didn’t do something to save our wedding ceremony traditions, who would?”

But cultural researcher Wang still has doubts about the tradition’s prospects. “Naxi minorities are sinicized and tend to worship anything foreign,” he says. “It’s hard to revive the tradition, but at least [He Yumiao] is doing something.”

Plus-Size Models Challenge China’s Narrow Beauty Standards


GUANGDONG, South China — As soon as the sky clears one rainy summer day in Guangzhou, plus-size modeling hopeful Wang Jialin hurries out for a test photo shoot. Passersby stare as she poses on the busy street.

“I’m used to it,” the 20-year-old mumbles. At 165 centimeters tall and weighing 94 kilograms, she stands out in Chinese crowds. The long black floral dress she wears is size 5XL, while most stores only carry small, medium, and large.

Wang had never considered becoming a model until her mother, who works in the clothing export industry, came across a plus-size modeling agent and suggested that her daughter give it a try.

“Chinese people think of beauty as slenderness,” Wang tells Sixth Tone. At school, she was bullied for her size. She doesn’t remember anyone ever telling her she was pretty until she met modeling agent Huang Fei.

Fat-shaming is rife in China, whether in everyday interactions or popular media. While many countries have beauty standards that favor the slim, the pressure to be thin is particularly intense in China, where it is common for family members, acquaintances, and even strangers to comment on one’s weight.

Chinese people think of beauty as slenderness.

Last year, the viral “A4 waist” challenge saw swarms of Chinese girls post photos on microblog platform Weibo to prove that their waistlines were narrower than a vertical sheet of A4 paper. Shortly after, another Weibo beauty challenge launched in which female users posted photos showing off legs skinny enough to be covered by their smartphones.

Yet the nation is gaining weight as nutrition and living standards improve and lifestyles change. In a 2015 report, China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission stated that more than 30 percent of the adult population is overweight — defined as having a body mass index of 24 to 27.9 — up from 22.8 percent in 2002.

Clothing sizes in China are not standardized across the fashion industry, but “plus size” typically begins at the equivalent of a U.S. size 10 or U.K. size 14. “It used to be that the middle-aged were the main customers for plus-size clothes, but now they have been replaced by young women who can afford trendy clothing and love dressing up,” Huang tells Sixth Tone.

Plus-size model He Jiahui poses at a lingerie shoot for her own Taobao shop in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth TonePlus-size model He Jiahui poses at a lingerie shoot for her own Taobao shop in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

 

In China, plus-size modeling is a relatively new business that only surfaced around 2010. Now, the city of Guangzhou has become the center of the plus-size modeling industry due to the southern coastal region’s flourishing garment export sector and its status as a hub for online women’s fashion retailers. Plus-size models can make over 10,000 yuan ($1,470) per month, twice the average monthly salary in the city, according to state news agency Xinhua.

Huang is one of the plus-size modeling industry’s pioneering agents. She sees plus-size modeling not only as a business opportunity with real growth potential, but also as a way to change popular perceptions around fatness, beauty, and health. Since she started her agency in 2012, she has signed more than 20 female Chinese plus-size models, all weighing between 70 and 100 kilograms, but she says she sees demand for many more. Her clients are primarily retailers on Taobao, China’s biggest e-commerce website, who want to showcase their fashion on a range of body types.

“We have a great shortage of models, but it’s so hard to find qualified ones,” Huang says. Every day, she receives photos from more than 100 eager young girls with dreams of glamour and stardom, but few make the cut. “I can select maybe one good candidate every couple of days,” she says.

Strict beauty standards apply, even in the plus-size modeling world. Huang looks for pretty girls who are at least 1.65 meters tall; are under 25 years old; and have a relatively slender waist, a long neck, and — most importantly — a small, photogenic face. “These requirements rule out most big girls who want to be models,” she says.

Plus-size modeling agent Huang Fei (left) takes sample photos of model hopeful Wang Jialin in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth TonePlus-size modeling agent Huang Fei (left) takes sample photos of model hopeful Wang Jialin in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Huang herself is plus size, weighing 80 kilograms. The 34-year-old Guangzhou native studied sculpture at university, which she says gave her confidence in her aesthetic judgment.

“I can tell immediately that you’ll be a popular model,” she tells Wang. But though she encourages Wang to take pride in her appearance, she also asks Wang to lose 15 kilograms in two months so she will have a more defined hourglass figure.

Huang used to model herself, in addition to running her own clothing shops and restaurants. She got her start in 2010 when a friend asked her to pose for his plus-size online boutique. Back then, she says, the nascent industry was so desperate that she was chosen despite her height. She quickly saw an opportunity to build a business by recruiting girls who were taller, prettier, and younger than herself.

I have this sense of crisis; I feel like I need to constantly improve so I’m not eliminated by this industry.

Her business partner in the neighboring city of Dongguan, 32-year-old Cai Wenwen, had a similar experience. Cai began modeling part time in 2011, thrilled that she could make 300 yuan a day when her salary as a secretary was only 2,000 yuan a month. “I enjoyed applying makeup, posing, and being pretty in front of the camera,” she recalls. “I was proud to be a model because it satisfied my vanity.”

As Cai grew older and the industry matured, she decided to step aside and become an agent. She’s also in charge of a live-streaming channel for a plus-size Taobao shop. “Customers trust us if they see girls their size trying on the clothes in front of the camera and answering all kinds of questions live,” Cai says. One store for which she used to model herself boosted its sales from a few pieces a month to several hundred a day after Cai replaced a slimmer model.

Wang says that as brick-and-mortar shops don’t carry her size, she relies on Taobao, which boasts hundreds of retailers that sell plus-size clothes. But she only buys from those that use plus-size models, which she says make up a small minority.

Another model, 22-year-old Wang Lanxi, says she is anxious about the future of her career. “Youth is prized in modeling,” she tells Sixth Tone. “I have this sense of crisis; I feel like I need to constantly improve so I’m not eliminated by this industry.”

Plus-size modeling agent Huang Fei (right) measures model He Jiahui during a live stream for a Taobao store in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone Plus-size modeling agent Huang Fei (right) measures model He Jiahui during a live stream for a Taobao store in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Every week, Wang Lanxi presents a two-hour live stream for a Taobao store with another model, He Jiahui, also 22. The duo try out a dozen new items in front of some 10,000 viewers, explaining which styles pair best.

Before this week’s broadcast, He spent nearly eight hours at a lingerie shoot for her own Taobao shop that hasn’t officially opened yet. After failing to find any decent plus-size lingerie in Chinese stores, she decided to order 122 sets from a manufacturer in eastern China and start her own shop. She plans to launch by Qixi Festival — known as Chinese Valentine’s Day — which falls at the end of August this year.

“I believe it’ll be a hit,” she says. “I just want people to know that big girls can be sexy as well.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Manchu, Once China’s Official Language, Could Lose Its Voice


HEILONGJIANG, Northeast China — Tao Qinglan can still speak her mother tongue, Manchu, but everything else has changed since she was born 72 years ago in Sanjiazi Village.

She now lives with her Manchu daughter and Han son-in-law in a modern brick house, and they speak Mandarin at home. None of the houses in the village have preserved the traditional Manchu feature of a kang stove-bed surrounding three sides of the room, and almost all their traditional clothes and books were wiped out during the Cultural Revolution.

“The clothes we wear, the house we live in, and the language we speak are now no different from those of the Han people,” Tao sighs.

At the Two Sessions political meetings earlier this year, policy advisors proposed multimedia and educational strategies to protect ethnic minority languages, which they say are disappearing at an alarming rate. Manchu is one of 15 languages with fewer than 1,000 speakers.

The Manchu people are China’s third-largest ethnic group, ruling over the entire country from 1644, when they established the Qing Dynasty, until 1911, when China became a republic. Their language, which has its own script, was the official language of government in China for nearly 300 years. But despite its high-status history compared to other ethnic minority languages, Manchu, too, is facing acute decline. Many young Manchu people see learning the language as an impractical and unprofitable hobby.

Many Manchus began to learn Chinese in the mid-1800s while their people were in power, because of the necessity of communicating with the country’s Han majority. Now, after decades of education administered in Chinese script and Mandarin speech since the government pushed language unification in the 1950s, only a small number of the country’s 10 million Manchus still speak and write their native language. In 2009, the United Nations declared Manchu a critically endangered language.

Most of the few remaining people who are fluent in Manchu are clustered in China’s northeast, and particularly Sanjiazi, 90 kilometers northeast of Qiqihar City in the Manchu heartland. Built in 1689, Sanjiazi has remained relatively secluded from the outside world. That explains why the village has preserved a more authentic variety of spoken Manchu while most Manchus scattered through the country have lost their mother tongue.

If I talk with my folks in Manchu when my wife is around, she thinks I’m trying to hide things from her.

Sanjiazi means “three families” in Mandarin, and most villagers are descended from three main families with the surnames Ji, Meng, and Tao. According to official statistics, 65 percent of Sanjiazi’s 1,100 villagers are Manchu. When Tao was little, she spoke with her parents and grandparents entirely in Manchu.

But things changed when Tao went to school in the 1950s. China has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, many with their own languages, as well as dozens of distinct regional languages that are not associated with a single ethnic group. To ease communication across the country, the State Council, China’s cabinet, began to promote Mandarin in 1956, after establishing the Beijing dialect of Mandarin as the national standard for spoken Chinese the previous year.

“After I started school, I would speak Mandarin at home, and then gradually my parents spoke with me in Mandarin as well,” Tao tells Sixth Tone. She became embarrassed to speak Manchu in public, feeling that people looked down on her for it.

Manchu was still the dominant language in Sanjiazi until the 1970s, when many Han people, mainly from Shandong province in China’s east, migrated to the village. The Manchu villagers had to communicate with the Han settlers in Mandarin, and with high rates of intermarriage between the two groups, the Manchu language gradually declined.

Sanjiazi’s village head, 52-year-old Meng Yanjie, says he mostly speaks Mandarin since he married a Han woman in 1984. “If I talk with my folks in Manchu when my wife is around, she thinks I’m trying to hide things from her,” he says. “My son didn’t want to learn Manchu because his mom is Han and talks to him in Mandarin all the time.”

Manchu language experts predicted in 2007 that Manchu would die out within 10 years, but as yet the language can still be heard in the village. “But it goes without saying that it’s dying little by little,” says Meng’s father, 86-year-old Meng Xianxiao. Of his nine adult children, the three eldest can speak Manchu decently, while the younger ones only know a few words.

The elder Meng says he can count on one hand the number of villagers who can speak Manchu as fluently as he does, and he doesn’t even consider his own speech to be authentic. “Those who can really speak authentic Manchu have passed away already,” Meng Xianxiao says.

Meng believes Manchu has not received the same official attention as other ethnic minority languages. “Unless it is a language that the government particularly values and takes seriously — like Tibetan, for instance — it’s really difficult to protect and pass on,” he says.

The central government has made efforts to protect ethnic minority languages in recent years, with an emphasis on the far western regions. The State Council has plans to roll out bilingual education from preschool to high school by 2020 in Xinjiang, Tibet, and the Tibetan areas of southwestern Sichuan province.

But what can I do if they don’t want to learn?

In Sanjiazi, too, the local government has supported Manchu language preservation and education, but the attempts have been less systematic. In 2010, the local government selected 16 seniors with proven ability in the language to help transmit Manchu, and another three in 2012. Each language guardian is paid 2,400 yuan ($350) per year — about one-quarter of their annual income — to meet regularly with the others at the village’s language activity room, speak Manchu, and help interested villagers pick up the language.

Tao and Meng senior are two of the current language guardians. Nine have died since the program began. Tao feels a heavy sense of responsibility to help younger villagers learn the language, especially given that she receives a government stipend. “But what can I do if they don’t want to learn?” she asks.

Sanjiazi has transformed over the past few decades, shifting from dairy farming to rice growing. Targeted investment since 2005 because of its status as the homeland of the Manchu language has made it relatively prosperous compared to its neighbors, such as a nearby village that is mostly home to the Daur ethnic group. Sanjiazi villagers now have internet access and modern appliances — but their priority is still farming.

Even the language guardians, who are all over 60, still meet mostly in the off-season, when the land is less demanding. “It’s true that ethnic integrity should be prized, but our primary job is to farm and work to support our families,” says Tao.

For most younger people from Sanjiazi, life offers two options: farm in the village, or work in the city. Learning Manchu is at best a hobby, at worst a distraction.

However, 40-year-old Shi Junguang is an exception. When he was in fifth grade, his school began to give occasional Manchu lessons, and it was only then that he realized Manchus had their own script, written in fluid cursive forms from top to bottom, and left to right.

“It’s silky and graceful,” Shi says. “When writing in Manchu, it’s like painting a beautiful picture.” He immediately felt an affinity with the language and vowed to be part of passing it on, though other villagers discouraged him, saying it was a waste of his potential as the only high school graduate who remained in the village.

But Shi persisted, farming during the day and learning Manchu from his grandmother in the evenings. Shi’s family is one of few in Sanjiazi where four generations still live under the same roof, and he took the opportunity to record his conversations with his grandmother so he could practice. He also treated other elders to dinner so he could chat with them.

“Language is the key to a nation,” he would tell skeptical villagers. “If I don’t do something, it’ll be gone before we know it.”

In response to the central government’s call to promote ethnic minority cultures, Sanjiazi Manchu Elementary School — the only school in the village — established the country’s first official Manchu course in 2006. Naturally, Shi became the teacher. All pupils have two Manchu language classes each week from first to sixth grade.

But after 10 years of classes, Shi says few of his students can actually speak decent Manchu. “They don’t have a language environment that enables them to practice at home,” Shi says. Some parents are supportive, but others feel their children should focus on core subjects like Chinese, math, and even English.

In Meng Xiaoxian’s eyes, the primary school lessons are in vain, as the students will have to attend middle school outside the village, where Manchu courses are not offered. “They’ll forget it all in time,” Meng says.

Language is the key to a nation. If I don’t do something, it’ll be gone before we know it.

The local government believes they have done all they can. “The future of the Manchu language must rely on the Manchu people themselves,” says Bai Ping, the deputy director of the Fuyu County bureau of ethnic and religious affairs, who is not Manchu himself. “Whether or not Manchu is passed down depends on their self-discipline. As outsiders, we can’t be too strict with them.”

Shi, too, says that Sanjiazi alone can’t save the language, given that there are more than 10 million Manchus in China. “The language can only be preserved when all the Manchus in the country work and study together,” he says.

Lü Ping, a Manchu professor at Changchun Normal University in the northeast province of Jilin, has been researching Manchu for over a decade. She says that with more than 100 academic experts and Manchu majors — most of whom are ethnically Manchu — throughout the country, the language is unlikely to die out completely, which is fortunate, given that millions of historical records from the Qing Dynasty still await translation.

Lü feels it is unrealistic to expect all Manchus to reach a level of fluency in the language. “It is against national policy to revive Manchu [as a first language], as we’re not living in the Qing Dynasty anymore,” Lü says. But she believes consistent Manchu instruction from primary school to university is a viable strategy for ensuring that more people will be equipped to help carry the mantle.

Shi is optimistic about the language’s longevity, as long as students are willing. “The living Manchu elders are like sparks of fire,” he says. “If we have sufficient grass, it will burst into flames.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.