About Yiying Fan

Chinese traveler with a western mindset interested in cultural difference.

The New Breed of Handlers Preening China’s Prize


HUBEI, Central China — With her bushy beard, expressive eyes, and wavy coat, Feifei enters the ring and walks a lap. Set up outside a shopping mall in downtown Wuhan, the show makes some shoppers stop in their tracks to snap photos of Feifei. “What’s going on here?” one asks. “It’s a dog beauty pageant,” a middle-aged woman responds, carrying a toy poodle in her arms.

Feifei’s handler leads her to the judges’ table, where the dog strikes a pose as a judge, flown in from Latvia, checks Feifei’s teeth and makes sure her bones are properly proportioned. Spread out in the mall area, other dog handlers — themselves looking their best in sharp suits and dresses — are busy with last-minute preparations. A corgi visibly enjoys getting its butt brushed, and a Doberman pinscher is sprayed with water to cool down.

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Schnauzer Feifei waits for more grooming at Wang Xu’s new training kennel before a dog show in Wuhan, Hubei province, May 24, 2018. Fan Yiying

These 200-or-so purebred pups are the pampered pioneers of China’s growing love for dogs. As the number of pets — now estimated at around 100 million — is ever on the rise, more and more people are willing to pay a small fortune to own a standout dog. Shows like the one in Wuhan attract owners eager to have champion dogs, and kennels who want to show off their breeding prowess. Audiences are slowly catching on

Feifei is a 2-year-old miniature schnauzer whose coat shades from gray to white. “She must feel like a supermodel on the stage,” says Wang Xu, Feifei’s handler and owner. At China’s dog shows, dogs compete at the breed level in the morning. After that round, each Best of Breed winner advances on to the group stage, wherein the dogs are separated into sporting, hound, and other categories. The winners of that round then compete for Best in Show. Feifei has won the top award four times.

Dog shows have a long history in the West. The first English dog show took place in Newcastle in 1859, and every year, thousands of dogs fill New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the annual, multi-day Westminster Dog Show. In China, however, the events are a new phenomenon. The Wuhan show is one of about 80 shows organized around the country by China Kennel Union (CKU) — a nonprofit established in 2006 that’s the only recognized Chinese member of the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), the World Canine Organization. Whereas the Westminster Dog Show is nationally televised and has a large, paying live audience, CKU’s shows are free, and likely wouldn’t attract any viewers were they not organized in downtown shopping areas, says Wang. But the number of shows is growing.

Much like the shows, being a dog handler is a relatively new occupation in China. Fewer than 100 handlers are full-timers like Wang. “Presenting dogs in a show is just a part-time job or a hobby for most dog handlers in China,” the 33-year-old says. In Wenlin, the village in suburban Wuhan where Wang lives and trains his and his clients’ canines, people think he walks dogs for a living. “They don’t understand that dogs can be showed or should be groomed,” Wang says with a shrug.

To prepare the dogs for top performances, handlers give them daily exercise, obedience training, and continuous grooming. It can be physically demanding work, and requires passion and patience. “The dogs I train come in all sorts of different personalities and tempers, so dog handlers need to be able to communicate with dogs on a spiritual level,” says Lu Bing, who became a dog handler in 2015 after learning from Wang.

But dog handlers are well-compensated, mostly from the fees they charge owners for taking care of their pets, which can be more than 10,000 yuan ($1,450) a month. Depending on how many dogs they manage, the best handlers in the industry can earn over a million yuan a year. Wang has six dogs of his own, all schnauzers, and handles up to 14 dogs from clients — a self-imposed limit to make sure they all get enough care and attention.

Growing up in the Hubei countryside, Wang’s family had mutts, though back then he had no concept of dog breeds. In 2012, Wang was getting tired of working as an engineer in a state-owned company. He decided to learn from his sister, who is a schnauzer breeder, and later to become a handler. “I feel happier and less stressed when I am with dogs than humans,” he says, adding that, purebred or not, “emotionally speaking, I love them all.” In 2015, he became the first A-level dog handler in Hubei province — the top level as certified by CKU.

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Wang Xu’s dog handling team at their new training kennel in Wuhan, Hubei province, May 25, 2018. Fan Yiying 

 

For every breed there are particular techniques to achieve the best look. For schnauzers like Feifei, it’s all about the back hair, which is tangled and thick in its natural state. About three months before she is to compete, Wang will pull out most of the hairs on her back — which he says is slightly painful but bearable for the dog — so new hairs will grow and form a neat, needle-like coat come showtime.

Dogs are judged on their posture, appearance, expression, and pace. Whenever Wang gets a new dog, he’ll first conduct a series of inspections — such as the dog’s bone structure, waist circumference, and ear and eye spacing — to check whether the dog meets its breed’s standards, which are determined through the FCI. The dog’s character is also crucial. “If a dog is too stubborn and refuses to change after a period of training, it can’t compete,” says Wang.

Wang competes in about 30 shows a year, and has so far won over 200 Best in Show awards. There’s no prize money. Instead, he’s been rewarded with trophies, dog food, promotional items in every shape and form, and even the latest iPhone. “It’s not about the money,” he tells Sixth Tone. “I just want to present the dogs’ best sides and enjoy the show.”

But winning can be profitable. Wang Lin — not related to or a client of Wang Xu — is the manager of a kennel in Wuhan that’s registered with CKU. The kennel has over 200 dogs of about 10 breeds for sale. A few years back, they hired professional dog handlers to compete in shows. “After earning a couple of Best in Show honors, it’s definitely boosted our visibility and raised the dogs’ prices,” she says. Business has improved so much that the kennel didn’t have the time to partake in any shows this year.

Some clients are enthusiasts with deep pockets. “Owning a champion dog is a way for the wealthy to show off,” says 24-year-old Lu, Wang Xu’s former protégé. “Once their precious dog has a breakout performance onstage, they can brag to others: See, even my dog is awesome!”

Tan Liang, a thin and soft-spoken 50-something who works in finance, has wanted to show his dogs since he bought a purebred German shepherd back in the late 1980s for over 2,000 yuan — then a whole year’s income. Since then, he’s grown his pack. “I know I bought good dogs, and I want other people to admire them and have professionals judge them,” he says. “It’s all about gaining face, you know.”

 

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Lu Bing, right, and Wang Xu with border collie Yuanyuan outside their new training kennel in Wuhan, Hubei province, May 24, 2018. Fan Yiying

 

Tan bought a black-and-white border collie he named Yuanyuan — meaning destiny in Chinese — at a certified CKU kennel for 10,000 yuan in 2017, and has entrusted her to Wang Xu. “I can imagine that handling my own dogs would be one of the most enjoyable things in the world,” Tan tells Sixth Tone. “But presenting a dog to show its best qualities is an art, and I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to do such a good job.” Last year, Wang Xu handled another of Tan’s dogs to Best in Show awards at all the competitions in which he participated. “This is rare in the history of Chinese dog shows,” Tan says with pride.

On the day of the Wuhan competition, Wang Xu gets up at 5 a.m. He bathes the dogs, and then packs his equipment — from grooming tables and cooling mats to brushes and blow dryers. Then he puts his four show dogs — Feifei, a French bulldog named Cool, and border collies Weiwei and Yuanyuan — into his van and hits the road.

Arriving at the venue an hour before it begins, Wang Xu has no time to waste. He finds an empty spot, and one by one gives the dogs their last go-over. “I’m trimming her legs into the shape of a baseball bat,” Wang Xu says while working on Feifei. “They’re slightly thinner on the top and slightly thicker on the bottom.”

After a little while, Tan spots his border collie, Yuanyuan, entering the ring. He is thrilled and nervous, and eventually takes a step back so as not to distract her. “It’s her first show,” he whispers. “I don’t want her to see me and get too excited.” He takes his camera to capture every moment.

In the end, Feifei is judged Best in Group but falls short of the top award. Yuanyuan wins Best of Winner, a prize which is four levels lower than Best in Show. But Tan is happy. After the show he goes backstage, and strokes Yuanyuan. He hasn’t seen his furry friend for weeks. “You did great today,” he says softly. “Let’s keep it up.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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The Tiger Art Village That Won’t Change its Stripes


HENAN, Central China — The sweltering July heat, the passing trucks, and the loitering pigs cannot distract the dozen painting students from the task at hand. The villagers, young and old, are sitting around a table in their teacher’s studio, putting the finishing touches on their tigers’ whiskers and fur with the utmost concentration.

The village of Wanggongzhuang’s love for the big cat is announced to every visitor by a giant boulder situated next to the corn fields and the road into town. Engraved into it, giant red characters spell out “Formidable Tiger Village.”

The hamlet has several ties to the animal. Most people here, even those that are not directly related, are surnamed Wang — a character that means “king.” Tigers are considered the king of all animals, and — with some imagination — the stripes on their foreheads resemble the character wang (王). In Mandarin, “tiger” sounds similar to “good fortune,” and so the animal represents a king’s bravery and power.

In one Henan village, more than half of the residents are involved in creating and selling tiger-themed paintings. By Liu Jingwen and Han Xinyu/Sixth Tone

But the strongest connection is painting. Most people in Wanggongzhuang make their livings from tiger art: Among its 1,366 villagers, over 600 paint tigers, and at least another 200 are engaged in related businesses.

Wang Jianmin, 52, is considered the industry’s pioneer, the artist who first realized that tiger paintings could mean big business. His spacious, stark-white art studio is covered wall-to-wall by paintings, from tiger portraits with almost photorealistic detail, to giant mountain-and-river landscapes with hundreds of animals skulking around the scenes. Wang has his own distinct style for the animals’ fur — flowing and elegant, but with thick layers of paint.

Painting techniques, Wang says, are passed down and improved upon from generation to generation. When he was little, he learned the craft from his father and grandfather, who would paint tigers because the animal is part of the Chinese zodiac. “But they had never seen a real tiger,” he says. “The tigers they painted were not as vivid as mine, because I’ve had the chance to see real tigers in the zoo.”

Different compositions carry different meanings. Tigers painted going uphill imply continuous progress, such as getting rich; tigers painted moving downhill are believed to help ward off evil spirits and ensure the safety of the people living in the house; tiger portraits represent leadership, which make them popular among soldiers, entrepreneurs, and government officials.

Wang has kind eyes and a mild dispostition, which is reflected in his style of painting. He doesn’t see the tiger as a fierce animal. Instead, in his art, tigers are confident, carefree, somewhat gentle, and presented in calm, natural settings — surrounded by reeds and a lotus pond, for example. “We are peasant painters who combine tigers with rural elements,” says Wang.

In his early twenties, Wang and three other villagers, who were somewhat accomplished painters, were no longer satisfied with selling their work in the nearby town. They expanded their horizons to urban painting markets, where they realized there was an untapped market for their wares. “We noticed that most of the paintings in the markets were portraits and landscapes, and that we were the only ones selling tiger paintings,” he recalls. Few artists seemed interested in painting tigers, which demands a high level of technical ability and patience due to the intricate fur and other fine details.

Some 20 years ago, Wang first hit it big when a 6-foot (1.8-meter) tiger painting — China’s art world uses imperial measurements — sold for a price of 100 yuan ($15 today) at one of the urban markets. Since the village’s farmers made less than 30 yuan per month at the time, the sale created quite a stir. Suddenly, relatives and neighbors came looking for him and his three companions — now respectfully called the village’s “Four Great Tiger Kings” — to learn their craft.

Hundreds of villagers are now painters, though the majority of work is still created by the four “kings” and their 20 or so best students. The others merely copy their work to meet market demand. Last year, the village collectively sold around 90,000 tiger paintings, with a revenue of nearly 100 million yuan, according to local government figures. Prices range from a few hundred yuan to nearly 1 million yuan apiece. Most paintings are 6 feet long, but some can be huge, with hundreds of tigers in one frame. Forty percent of the works are exported to Japan, Bangladesh, South Korea, and other countries where tigers are also worshiped.

The village is a collection of neatly arranged two-floor houses and art studios. Walking around, it’s common to see a husband and wife, or a parent and child, painting together at home. Though many villages around China stand nearly empty as people have moved to cities in search for better-paid work, villagers in Wanggongzhuang have stayed home to paint. Many locals now own multiple properties and drive luxury cars.

Wang Jianfeng, 35, started painting at age 13. In 2000, after years of practicing with Wang Jianmin, he finally sold a tiger painting for 80 yuan. Nowadays, his paintings sell for 10,000 yuan on average. His atelier is filled with piles of artwork that are destined for buyers all over the country.

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Wang Jianfeng counts the delivery forms in Wanggongzhuang Village, Minquan County, Henan province, July 11, 2018.

Compared with painters of his teacher’s generation, Wang Jianfeng says painters his age prefer different styles. Instead of tigers that look relatively gentle and are painted in soft, muted tones, Wang Jianfeng enjoys using bright colors to paint tigers who have their teeth bared and claws brandished.

Wang Jianfeng is also one of the first villagers to use livestreaming to sell his works. His wife broadcasts him painting and manages the accounts, which have a combined follower count of nearly half a million. According to local government figures, about one-third of all paintings are now sold through the internet. In a good month, Wang Jianfeng can make over 1 million yuan in online sales.

According to Wang Jianjin, who became the village’s first agent around the time when Wang Jianmin made his landmark 100-yuan sale, the growth of online sales hasn’t affected offline business. “The works sold online are mostly mid-to-low-end paintings,” he explains. Buyers of more expensive pieces usually prefer to see them with their own eyes. The village’s 70 or so agents travel around the country promoting and selling the local artwork, and — just as importantly — staying on top of the latest trends to make sure Wanggongzhuang doesn’t fall behind in the market.

People who discovered that they lack artistic dispositions have found ways to join in the windfall. Wang Ximei tells Sixth Tone she dreamed of a lucrative painting career, but failed to master the brush. She then changed plans, and went to Beijing to learn how to frame and mount paintings. In 2004, she opened the village’s first mounting shop and saw orders rise steadily ever since. “I have to work over 12 hours a day to meet demand,” she says, not taking her hands off a mounting machine.

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Wang Ximei works on the mounting machine in Wanggongzhuang Village, Minquan County, Henan province, July 11, 2018.

Though the tiger art trade has given Wang Ximei a relatively comfortable life, she doesn’t want her 2-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter to get involved in it. “I stepped into this industry because I had no other options to make money,” she says. “But they now have access to study at university, and will have many more opportunities in the future.”

Because everyone caught up in this feline art world has no time to tend to their fields, villagers who still farm have been able to rent large plots of fallow land, and thereby increase their incomes, too. However, differences remain. “The income gap between painters and farmers like me is incalculable,” exclaims 60-year-old Wang Peifeng, who grows corn and peanuts. When pressed for a figure, he says that artists earn about ten times as much as farmers do.

To help the farmers with their incomes, in July, the local government started renovating farm houses so that they can receive lodgers — improving the look of the village in the process. Some land will be set aside for urban tourists to pick their own fruits and vegetables. “We hope it can attract more visitors to our village who aren’t here for professional reasons,” Wang Peifeng says.

The government is also working to promote the village by encouraging art classes — something it’s been doing since 2006. But just improving skills won’t take the village to the next level, says An Desheng, the government official in charge of promoting the village’s cultural industry. “Most villagers paint tigers just to make a living,” he tells Sixth Tone. “We need more villagers who truly love painting tigers.”

Luckily, a new generation seems poised to take tiger painting to new, unexplored places. Wang Jingheng, 23, is one of a few villagers who have attended an art academy. “Our elder generation didn’t master the basics of painting,” Wang says, sitting in his father’s studio. “If all of us young villagers just stay home and learn from our fathers, we will have a limited outlook, and it will be hard to keep pace with the market.”

It doesn’t concern Wang Jingheng that his paintings are not yet priced as high as his father’s. He’s convinced creativity and innovation will bring him success. “Tigers with flying wings in bold colors are probably shocking to the senior village painters, but for us, it’s where the future stands.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Telling Ambiguous, Ambitious Gay Stories


BEIJING — It’s the evening before filming starts, but director Lu Zhan and her main actor, Yang Zhenguo, can’t agree on what the script is really trying to say. Is “Summer” a gay movie?

“It’s a love story that just happens to be between two young men,” Lu says, sitting on one of the beds in Yang’s hotel room.

“Summer,” a short film project by students at Communication University of China in Beijing, tells the story of two young men working in a noodle shop who develop feelings for each other. To Yang, the script seems straightforward: Both characters are unequivocally gay.

“That’s only in your eyes,” Lu responds. In her mind, Yang’s character, Dongzi, is straight, and Ah Zhen, his maybe-love interest, is bisexual. A long silence follows while Lu and Yang mull over the script.

The film’s producer and scriptwriter, 22-year-old Yang Zhiyuan, says he meant to sow confusion. “Some people might think it’s a strong friendship between two straight boys, while others might believe they are gay and fall for each other,” says Yang Zhiyuan — no relation to Yang Zhenguo. He wants to “leave some room for the audience to think and imagine.”

The trailer for the film ‘Summer.’ Courtesy of Yang Zhiyuan

Yang Zhiyuan’s crew, some of whom are his friends who are volunteering as actors and makeup artists to keep the budget small, have gathered in the Beijing suburb of Tongzhou for four days of shooting. It’s a small production for a short film that might not have much of a viewership outside of campus. But the story’s themes mean that the movie is a statement of sorts.

According to Yang Zhiyuan, the creative environment on campus is free, and teachers and students enjoy mutual respect. But when officials visit the school — which has a reputation for its movie, art, and broadcasting programs — projects with queer themes are not presented or mentioned. When Yang Zhiyuan, a digital media and art major, brought up the idea of an LGBT-themed story for a short film assignment, his teachers allowed it but were reluctant. “They are afraid that they can’t give us proper guidance,” he explains. “They don’t have any experience in this area.”

It’s not just Yang Zhiyuan’s teachers who are cautious with LGBT content. In April, gay romance blockbuster “Call Me By Your Name” was pulled from its scheduled screening at the Beijing International Film Festival. A month later, the European Broadcasting Union terminated its partnership with China’s Mango TV after the station cut and blurred out gay-themed content from its broadcast of the Eurovision singing contest. Industry guidelines for TV shows and online content say to avoid depicting homosexuality.

On the other hand, China’s LGBT community has become more visible and vocal. In April, microblogging site Weibo deleted accounts and posts with “comics and graphic short videos of homosexuality.” But after an outcry from its users — both LGBT individuals and allies — Weibo canceled the purge. In the same month, authorities approved “Looking for Rohmer” for nationwide release — the first gay-themed film to achieve this.

Actors rehearse a dancing scene on the set of ‘Summer’ in Beijing, May 13, 2018. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth ToneActors rehearse a dancing scene on the set of ‘Summer’ in Beijing, May 13, 2018. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

On the first day of the “Summer” shoot, one of the scheduled scenes is the story’s climax. It takes place on a roof near the noodle shop owned by Ah Zhen’s father, where 18-year-old Ah Zhen has started working after finishing vocational school. Dongzi, a 21-year-old university student who works in the shop for the summer, suddenly hugs Ah Zhen from behind through a bedsheet that has been hung up to dry. The two end up dancing on the rooftop, tenderly and awkwardly.

Cai Rongchen, a Beijing Dance Academy sophomore who plays Ah Zhen, thinks “Summer” is about youthful innocence and discovery. “Both characters are in the process of searching for their identities,” he tells Sixth Tone.

At the start of the 15-minute film, Ah Zhen narrates: “I always thought each summer was the same, days spent between a boy and a girl. But that summer, everything was a little … different.” Initially, Ah Zhen is attracted to a local girl, and Dongzi — who sees himself as a relationship expert — gives Ah Zhen advice on how to woo her. But sparks soon seem to fly in a different direction.

To Cai, Ah Zhen isn’t sure about his sexual orientation until he meets Dongzi — an experience to which Cai can relate. When he was younger, he, too, was interested in girls. But two years ago, after befriending a gay man, Cai became involved in the LGBT community in his hometown in eastern China’s Shandong province and gradually realized that he was gay, too. “I did have some feelings toward boys at school before, but I didn’t know what it was,” he says.

One of Cai’s favorite films is “Brokeback Mountain,” which he watched before he became aware of his attraction to men — and before he knew that the movie was about gay love. “What they have is beautiful, as I’ve always believed love has nothing to do with gender,” he says.

In that movie, the main characters keep their relationship a secret, afraid of the inevitable disapproval. “Summer” doesn’t deal with such themes — to the disappointment of one crew member. “She holds the idea that all gay films should contain discrimination from society, family standing in the way, self-denial, and lack of self-awareness, but I really don’t think it’s necessary,” writer-producer Yang Zhiyuan says.

Yang Zhiyuan poses for a photo in Beijing, May 12, 2018. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth ToneYang Zhiyuan poses for a photo in Beijing, May 12, 2018. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

Students at Communication University of China, one of the country’s best art universities, tell Sixth Tone that the percentage of LGBT students enrolled there seems higher than at other schools, though there are no numbers to verify this. Homophobia persists at schools around China, but at the university, most LGBT students have come out without any discrimination from their peers or faculty, students say. “I chose this school partially because the LGBT students are treated equally on campus,” says Yang Zhiyuan, who identifies as gay.

All of Yang Zhiyuan’s movies depict gay themes. His first short film, a comedy, was drawn from personal experience: It centers on a gay man who is looking for a place to relax while waiting for his next train, and who then steps into a bathhouse that offers massages. The female masseuse gives him plenty of sexually tinted hints that service options extend beyond what is advertised, but the man, oblivious, fails to pick up on them. The masseuse eventually gives up, assuming he has erectile dysfunction.

Yang Zhiyuan’s second short film is a love story between a student and an office worker. They live together, but their relationship struggles as they keep their love a secret outside the house. The office worker is not out at work and never introduces the student as his boyfriend.

The films are careful not to be too explicit — neither have kissing scenes, for example. Nevertheless, when Yang Zhiyuan attempted to upload his films to Tencent Video, they were rejected for “breaking with regulations.” Such experiences have made Yang Zhiyuan determined to produce as many gay-themed films as possible during his time in university, as he is afraid there won’t be many chances to do so after graduation. “I predict that in the next five to 10 years, China won’t allow commercial gay films on the market,” he says. “I cherish the freedom to express myself at the university.”

In “Summer,” neither of the protagonists explicitly expresses his feelings. In the final scene — at the end of summer — Ah Zhen rushes to the bus station to catch Dongzi before he leaves. But Ah Zhen arrives too late. He returns to the rooftop, thinking back to when they danced together, and recalls Dongzi saying: “Having feelings for someone is the most beautiful emotion in the world. If you choose to give up this feeling, there’s nothing to chase in life.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Left-Field Careers for Farmers’ Kids


YUNNAN, Southwest China — Zhi Zhengjiao, 17, grew up among rolling green hills full of corn stalks and tea shrubs. But despite this natural vista, other outlooks remain dull. For children like Zhengjiao, there are two typical career paths: becoming a migrant worker in the city or staying home to farm.

Zhengjiao, who has waist-length hair and bangs that nearly cover her eyes, is creative and fond of drawing. She never considered it a skill that could earn her money until two years ago, when she listened to a designer share her career experience at school, Nanjian No. 2 Middle School. Now, Zhengjiao is set on becoming a fashion designer.

Nanjian Yi Autonomous County is a three-hour drive along a rugged mountain road from Dali, the nearest city. Whereas urban parents push their children to outperform their peers, here, as well as elsewhere in China’s underdeveloped rural heartland, many see education as useless — partly for economic reasons, partly for lack of imagination. There are few role models for academic success. Zhengjiao’s mother, a farmer, only ever attended elementary school.

The career events at Nanjian No. 2 are organized by an NGO, Tumeng, to inspire students to continue their studies beyond middle school, the end of China’s compulsory education period. Children are supposed to stay in school until ninth grade, when most children are around 15 years old. But in rural areas such as Nanjian, many children start school late and drop out early. Most of the roughly 1,400 students at the school come from villages in the surrounding countryside, and more than 90 percent are Yi — an ethnic minority of about 8 million people.

Students take notes during a career-sharing event at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth ToneStudents take notes during a career-sharing event at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying

“Students here have no idea what life is like outside of the mountains, and they think that if they can’t get into high school or college, they can always just go back to the mountain and grow tea,” says Chen Fei, a volunteer teacher at the school. Zhengjiao tells Sixth Tone that before taking part in Tumeng’s event, the only occupations she had heard of besides being a farmer or factory worker were teacher, doctor, and scientist.

Zhengjiao, now in her last grade of middle school, has signed up for art classes — which she hopes will allow her to further her education. Her mother supports this ambition. “With my grades, it’s not easy to get admitted to a high school, but after studying painting for two years, I can get bonus points as an art candidate,” Zhengjiao says animatedly. “Once I go to high school, I’m closer to my dream school: China Academy of Art.”

Tumeng was founded by Yang Xueqin, who realized the need to motivate rural students after she volunteered as a middle school geography teacher in rural Yunnan. Although it was rewarding for the Chongqing native to see her students improve, she says she felt powerless to prevent children from dropping out. When she finished her two-year stint, her class was twice as small as when she started. “They don’t know why they should study, because they lack the motivation to learn,” Yang says.

The solution was giving the children role models. “Through online videos, professionals can share their own career paths and workplace experiences with children in remote areas,” Yang explains. Beijing-based Tumeng is as aspirational as its name, which is made up of the characters for “journey” and “dream.” Since 2015, it has reached more than 60,000 pupils from all over China. Hundreds of volunteer professionals have talked about how they became archaeologists, e-sports players, programmers, illustrators, or interior designers.

Students attend a career-sharing presentation given by an investment banker at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth ToneStudents attend a career-sharing presentation given by an investment banker at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying

Tumeng initially spread through volunteer teachers. Yang Fuqiong (no relation to Yang Xueqin) teaches Chinese at Muping Middle School in Yibin, in southwestern Sichuan province. She found Tumeng when she was desperate for a way to stir up the students’ passion for studying. “They think they have no future,” she says. “But they are so smart and full of potential.” The career planning courses have noticeably changed the students, she says: They do their homework instead of playing on their phones. “They’ve realized that being a migrant worker isn’t their only option after graduation.”

In the beginning, it proved hard to convince school principals, who saw career classes as a distraction, Yang Xueqin says. Lou Shengzhang, the principal of Nanjian No. 2, was an exception. He tells Sixth Tone that while only a few of his students have good enough grades to enroll in high school, he sees value in expanding everyone’s horizons. Even university-educated locals often choose to become civil servants purely because it’s the only high-level occupation they know. “They don’t know much about [the types of skills] society needs, and what their own strengths are,” he says.

Luo, who attended university, says that his students’ parents, mostly farmers, were initially skeptical. They thought the people sharing their stories were exceptions, and that their careers were unattainable for their own children. But Luo persisted, and parental opposition dwindled after he showed videos of Tumeng events that included a top-level wrestler from rural Yunnan and a boy from a farming family who had become a successful investor in Shanghai.

Locally, women often become mothers at a young age. Zhengjiao knows several classmates who are already pregnant. When she told her friends and roommates about an event at which a female pilot talked about her career, they were shocked. “They can’t imagine a girl still being single at 30 and becoming a professional pilot,” she says. Chang Ranran, a 17-year-old classmate of Zhengjiao’s, agrees that the events changed her views on what is possible in life. “After middle school, many girls get pregnant, and so we think our whole lives will just be like this,” Ranran says, referring to married life in the countryside.

Students pick up trash after class at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth ToneStudents pick up trash after class at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying

Tumeng has also expanded to cities, but because the NGO’s donors only sponsor rural programs, urban schools must pay to participate. Duan Lili, founder of Shanghai-based Career Sharing — a nonprofit organization that aims to help young people solve career problems — sees a need for career education among urban students. High-schoolers are made to choose a major, but they often don’t know what they want. “I’ve noticed that many university students are at a loss,” Duan says, explaining that many realize they are not interested in continuing in the direction they initially choose. “Their college life just passes in a blur without a particular goal,” she says.

Back in Yunnan, Ranran tells Sixth Tone that her lifelong dream of being a TV host always seemed “too far away.” In 2016, she signed up for a career-sharing event hosted by a TV personality. “I used to think of it as a glorious job that could bring an audience happiness, but then I learned about the persistent effort behind the glitz and glamor,” Ranran says.

Zhi Zhengjiao (left) and Chang Ranran look at works of art created by their classmates at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone Zhi Zhengjiao (left) and Chang Ranran look at works of art created by their classmates at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying

Afterward, Ranran, who wears her hair in a bob to stand out from other Yi girls, made the first step toward what might become a media career by volunteering to be a host for the school’s radio station. Every day during lunch and dinner, her voice booms across campus as she delivers the latest news, plays pop songs, and reads essays written by students. “I’m not entirely sure if I will still want to be a TV host in the future, as there are many more professions out there,” Ranran says. “But at least I’m one step ahead of my peers.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

The Resolve and Regret of Chinese Women Who Reject Motherhood


BEIJING — Before marrying in 2014, Wu Qing made it clear to her husband that having a child was out of the question. “He said it was OK, but later I realized he wanted to change my mind after we got married,” she tells Sixth Tone.

Wu, 33, is determined to stick to her decision, but her in-laws have pressured her husband for a grandchild and told Wu she should start a “normal family life.” It’s become an unresolvable conflict in their marriage, she says: “I’m waiting for the right moment. As soon as my mother-in-law tries to intimidate us into getting a divorce because I refuse to have a baby, I will divorce my husband right away.”

As early as her teens, Wu decided against having children. Her own mother wasn’t a good parent and wanted a son, not a daughter. Her attitude affected Wu. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why did she give birth to me if she doesn’t love me?’” she says. Wu doesn’t think she’d be a good mother herself, and therefore doesn’t think it would be right to become one.

I really can’t see how a child could make me happier or complete my life.

And besides, Wu loves her current lifestyle — she has traveled the world, including both poles — and doesn’t plan on changing it for anyone. “I think we should try to perfect and enjoy ourselves,” she says. “I really can’t see how a child could make me happier or complete my life.”

Couples who choose not to have children are often referred to as DINKs — meaning “double income, no kids.” In China, their unconventional lifestyle frequently garners disapproval, the same way unmarried women of a certain age are derided as “leftover.”

The Chinese government, which relaxed its family planning policies in 2015 and has encouraged citizens to have more children, does not keep official statistics on how many Chinese couples choose to remain childless. But in its annual Family Development Report, the national health authority noted that the number of DINK families was “increasing rapidly” and that they were “emerging in large numbers” in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Huang Shuyue, a certified marriage counselor based in the southern province of Guangdong, says that in the past, only couples with fertility problems were childless. But in recent years, she says, a growing number of millennials have chosen the DINK life for various reasons — from the desire to focus on their careers to wanting to avoid the cost and stress of raising a child.

“My clients in their 30s and 40s are enjoying their DINK lifestyles,” Huang says. But she warns that when people get older, they often regret not having had children to depend on. The decision also invites social scrutiny. “Being DINK in China will inevitably mean facing pressure from your family and society, as the importance of having children is so deeply rooted in Chinese culture,” says Huang. She advises her clients to have children, calling parenthood “an indispensable life experience” and arguing that it doesn’t have to preclude work and other life goals.

But Wu, who is originally from eastern China’s Anhui province and moved to Beijing for a job in the publishing industry in 2008, fears a child would be a stumbling block for her career. Few companies in China provide nursing facilities, and Wu says her breast-feeding colleagues have no other option but to use cramped bathroom stalls. Mothers in her company fear losing their jobs, she says, and some have voluntarily switched to less demanding positions so they have time to take care of their children. “They complain to me nonstop, and I just feel sorry for them,” Wu says.

People who have children seem to lose themselves entirely, Wu laments. Every time she meets up with friends, all that the mothers in the group talk about is baby products and the color of their children’s poo. Without any common interests, Wu says, her friendships are fraying.

Being DINK in China will inevitably mean facing pressure from your family and society, as the importance of having children is so deeply rooted in Chinese culture.

In another corner of the city, 53-year-old Beijinger An Ke tells Sixth Tone that she felt the same as Wu when she was younger. Now, her friends praise her decision to remain child-free because she doesn’t have to look after any grandchildren, but An regrets not becoming a mother. “Whenever I meet young women who are hesitant to have children, I persuade them to do so, as there’s nothing in the world that is truly yours besides your own children,” An says. “Being a good mother should not be secondary to having a successful career.”

Unlike for the younger generation of DINKs, An’s parents and in-laws didn’t pressure her to have children. An and her husband each have five siblings, all of whom have kids. Their parents, who are now in their 80s, struggled to raise children during some of China’s most turbulent times. “It didn’t really matter to them whether we added another child to the family,” says An.

An got married in the late 1980s, when people in China first began to consider that having children could be a choice. Back then, the DINK lifestyle was seen as an import from the modern Western world that An says she worshipped. However, as the years went by, she has gravitated back to more traditional Chinese views. “The independent and free spirit of Western culture that I admired comes at the price of distant relationships with your family,” An says. “It’s great when you’re young, but when you grow older, you naturally desire to be surrounded by your children and grandchildren.”

Working at a local tax bureau in Beijing, An maintains a fairly busy schedule. She’s fond of taking trips abroad with her husband or on her own, and she spends her free time learning calligraphy and Chinese painting at a small studio in one of Beijing’s historic hutong neighborhoods. She’ll retire in two years and hopes that by the time she needs care, government nursing homes in the city will have improved. Currently, many elderly still rely on their children, as China’s elderly care facilities lag behind its rapidly aging population.

Wu, the publisher, doesn’t think a child should be her safety net in old age. Like many of their generation, she and her brother live far from their hometown. “Our parents have ended up living alone now, and I really don’t think that would be a problem for me when I’m retired,” she says. Wu likes the idea of “huddling to stay warm,” a popular form of retirement these days where elderly people move in with their peers.

There’s also her brother’s family of four — he has a 6-year-old daughter and a son who just turned 1 — who live in the same neighborhood as Wu. She adores her niece. “I see myself in her,” Wu says. After her brother was born, the little girl sensed that her parents had shifted their attention to the new baby. “I spend extra time with her and buy her many new clothes — I just want her to know that she’s still loved by me,” Wu says. “If there’s any maternal love in me, I’ve given it to my brother’s children, and I think they will give me a hand when I need it.”

The independent and free spirit of Western culture that I admired comes at the price of distant relationships with your family.

In the meantime, people won’t stop hassling Wu about her decision to remain childless. Visiting her in-laws in rural Hebei province, close to Beijing, is particularly stressful. “In addition to his parents, all of the relatives and even neighbors ask us why we still haven’t had a baby,” she says, rolling her eyes. Most of the time she just pretends she doesn’t understand their local accent.

Forty-year-old Xiao Ma faces the same pressure. She and her husband, 42, tied the knot in 2009 and agreed to not become parents, mostly because she didn’t want the stress of making sure her child got the best of everything: clothes, food, education. When she told her parents two years later, they asked what the point of getting married was if the couple didn’t want children. “They don’t care about why we don’t want to have a child — they just demand that we have one,” Xiao says.

To convince the couple to give them a grandchild, Xiao’s in-laws moved from their native Shanxi province, in northern China, to live with Xiao and her husband in Shanghai for around half a year. It was a time of constant nagging and unbearable pressure. Even though her husband has a younger brother who is married with two children, his parents still believe that every son is responsible for continuing the ancestral line. “The air felt like ice when they were here, and I sometimes avoided being at home,” Xiao recalls.

Last year, Xiao almost changed her mind. After her mother broke her leg, Xiao had to lift her onto an X-ray table at the hospital. “In that moment, I asked myself, ‘Would I feel hopeless and alone if such a thing happened to me, and I had no child to lift me?’” But then she realized it would only be a burden for the child. “This is the reason why Chinese insist on having children, but I don’t think it’s fair,” she says.

Twenty-three-year-old Jodie Qu from central China’s Hubei province is moving to Hong Kong in August to earn a master’s degree. She’s resolved to never have children. “Kids annoy me every time I see them at family get-togethers,” she admits. “I can’t imagine having a child of my own who will bother me every single day.”

Qu wants to marry someone who shares her views. Her current boyfriend, who’s also 23, is on the same page. But when she shared her thoughts with her parents, they didn’t take her seriously. “They think I am too young and too naive,” Qu says. “They believe I will naturally change my mind and want [a kid] when I see friends my own age start getting married and having children.”

Despite her confidence in her decision, the expectations of older generations give her pause. “I don’t need a child to be my spiritual support, but my parents and in-laws do,” she says. “I think I might just give birth to a child for their sake.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

The Shanghai Sex Shop Selling More Than Just Toys


SHANGHAI — With thousands of sex shops sprinkled throughout the city, another store opening its doors isn’t usually cause for queues. But on Pepper Love Store’s first day, word spread quickly via social media. Soon, a line snaked through the former French Concession, putting a smile on the face of Mao Yongyi, one of the shop’s six owners. “We probably became the hottest sex shop in China,” he says.

Situated in a prewar residential building, Pepper Love Store somewhat resembles a house with every room richly decorated. At the top of a staircase lined with sensual photos, one doorway leads to a bathroom boasting an artful display of dildos, vibrators, and cock rings in all shapes and sizes above the tub.

 

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Pepper Love Store, March 28, Shanghai. Fan Yiying 

 

For customers who don’t know how to choose among the many products, Mao and his colleagues are on hand to give advice. They don’t want to be the kind of sex shop where the staff “gives you a look as if you’re doing something dirty,” Mao says. “We aim to help couples have a better sex life.”

The third floor is full of sexy lingerie and BDSM products, from whips to nipple clamps. Though sadomasochism is a subculture within a subculture, says Mao, around 20 percent of customers purchase SM-related toys. “We also give them tips on protecting each other,” Mao says.

The shop is set up to ensure privacy. Visitors must make a reservation, as only six pairs are allowed in every hour; all time slots have been booked in the two months since it opened. “Many people ask me, ‘Are your customers really willing to speak to you about their sex lives?’” Mao says. “As long as you’re in a professional environment and speak to them professionally, people are certainly willing to talk.”

Compared with the puritanical days of the 1980s, when selling or producing sex-related products was against the law, Chinese society has become a lot more open-minded: Sales of sex toys are increasing, people frankly discuss anything from their one-night stands to BSDM experiences on specialized social media apps, and e-commerce platforms offer half-hour delivery services for condoms. According to Guangzhou-based research firm iiMedia Research Group, China’s online market for sex toys was worth nearly 18.9 billion yuan ($3 billion) in 2017 and will exceed 60 billion yuan by 2020.

But according to Pepper Love Store designer Zhuang Xiaokai, society still has a ways to go. Upon entering the shop, customers are greeted with crimson walls and an abundance of flowers. “I use a lot of flowers to imply sex,” says Zhuang. She hopes the creatively decorated store will inspire people to spice up their sex lives and can convey to Chinese women — who Zhuang says are sexually repressed by traditional views of chastity — that pleasure is good.

 

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Pepper Love Store, March 28, Shanghai. Fan Yiying 

 

Sixth Tone visited Pepper Love Store and spoke with Mao Yongyi and Zhuang Xiaokai, both in their late 30s, about the shop, their views on sex, and how Chinese men are failing their female partners. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sixth Tone: Yongyi, you previously ran another sex shop and now have about a decade of experience in the industry. Based on your observations, what, generally, do people get wrong about sex?

Mao Yongyi: In my opinion, sex is a way for couples to build trust and enhance understanding with each other. However, sex is often neglected or treated as a job by many Chinese couples. They don’t communicate or discuss it. Many men don’t know how to please their partners; on the other hand, it’s not uncommon for Chinese women to not know how to enjoy sex. Having sex with their boyfriends or husbands is viewed as an obligation. As long as the men are finished or happy, women think it’s good enough.

Sixth Tone: Many customers now prefer to buy adult toys online for privacy reasons. Why did you decide to open a brick-and-mortar shop?

Mao Yongyi: There are hundreds of thousands of adult toys in the world — how could you know which one suits you best without consulting professional shop assistants and playing around with it? When you shop online, you can’t see its size, you can’t feel its texture, and you don’t know whether it’s hard enough for you or the vibrational frequency is right for you. Most customers who have just started to explore sex toys don’t really know how to select the products that fit their needs, or how to use and play with them in multiple ways. Our job is to understand their needs and help them find the most suitable products.

Sixth Tone: Who are your main customers?

Mao Yongyi: Ninety-five percent of our customers are women who have a relatively high salary and good taste. They come by with either their partners or female friends. Most of our female customers can’t find satisfaction during sex because most Chinese men don’t know how to make love. Chinese men learn how to have sex from porn and intend to apply this to their partners. The majority of them have the inexplicable arrogance of thinking they are the best man in the world that their woman could possibly have. They don’t know much about the female body, nor are they willing to please their partners.

Sixth Tone: What are some of the most frequently asked questions from your female customers?

Mao Yongyi: I think Chinese women, especially urban millennials, are more and more open about exploring their bodies and spicing up their sex lives. But they also have common concerns: People often say they’re not sure whether they’ve ever had an orgasm, or they don’t know what to do when their boyfriends do a certain thing they don’t like or think is uncomfortable [in bed].

Sixth Tone: How have views on sex among the younger generation changed in the past decade?

Mao Yongyi: I think people are becoming more open about it, but the younger generation is receiving more mixed messages and misleading information about sex on the internet, and no one has taught them what’s wrong and what’s right. They don’t know how to protect themselves or be responsible to others. For instance, the definition of sexual assault is unclear to most of them. We’ve met a lot of customers who have a difficult time in their sex lives due to sexual assault they experienced in childhood.

As a mother, I feel that sex ed is sorely missing from the education system.

Sixth Tone: When straight couples visit the shop together, how do the men and women react differently?

Mao Yongyi: I wish I could see more supportive men, but unfortunately, I’ve only met a few in the shop. Men are more than happy to come here with their better half. But what annoys me is that they act as if they are very experienced and know all the products well. They then pick up anything they feel is exciting and ask their girlfriend to try it. Every time I witness that, I ask the guy: “Have you ever thought about what your girlfriend would like? Do you know her needs? Do you know what suits her body best?”

Occasionally, we meet girls who know exactly what they want. I remember a girl asking her boyfriend to buy a cock ring so they could try it together. He mocked her and told her to put it down, which really embarrassed her. I then suggested that the guy buy the product because he’s really lucky that his girlfriend knows her own body well and is willing to experience something new with him. He did so, reluctantly.

Sixth Tone: Xiaokai, what’s your favorite part of the shop?

Zhuang Xiaokai: One of my favorites is the window display that looks like a flower-shaped tunnel, symbolizing how people reach their climax. I also like the three deer [engaged in a threesome] that people see as soon as they open the door. [Visiting couples] could be either opposite sex or same sex, which shows our stance on sexual minorities. I’m surprised and happy to see that many customers we’ve served have no problem sharing their sexual orientation. I hope these artistic elements can attract visitors to our shop and eventually help build a healthy and positive attitude toward sex.

Sixth Tone: Pepper Love Store is your first foray into the industry. Why did you decide to join the world of sex shops?

Zhuang Xiaokai: As a mother, I feel that sex ed is sorely missing from the education system. It’s really a problem when most parents still don’t know what to do when their children ask where they come from. I think it’s high time for Chinese people to face up to sex.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

 

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.

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.