About Yiying Fan

Chinese traveler with a western mindset interested in cultural difference.

Silent for So Long, Elderly Gays Livestream at Full Volume


HUNAN, Central China — Hu Pingsheng never knew there was a name for his feelings until a younger man explained it to him: He was gay. Despite a desire to live his true self, however, he has kept that revelation from his family. But a few months ago, he finally found a place to be who he wants to be, and he’s even found some small-time fame in the process.

On a rainy afternoon in Chenzhou, the relatively small city some 400 kilometers north of Hong Kong where Hu has a sixth-floor apartment, the 68-year-old dons his favorite navy blue suit and sits down in front of his camera. He’s about to livestream on Blued, China’s largest social networking app for gay men and the one place where the twice-divorced Hu feels like he can be himself. “When I was young, I didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t have the chance to get to know men I adore,” he says. “I feel like I’m now making up for my loss.”

A Blued spokesperson says the app’s livestreaming feature, available since 2016, has seen “hundreds of thousands” of users turn their cameras on themselves. Though the majority of them are young, Blued has noticed a rise in livestreamers aged over 50 since the second half of 2018. Hu attributes this to the closeted lives that gay men of his generation lead. “We have a limited circle of friends, and most of us haven’t come out to our families,” says Hu. “Without livestreaming, my life is boring and stressful.”

Hu fills his hourslong livestreams mostly by singing. He kicks off today’s show with his greatest hit, “Qinghai-Tibet Plateau,” one of the best-known tracks in China. Though Hu cannot quite master the high notes at the end of the song without his voice cracking, it still wins him a few dozen likes. He then performs “Over the Golden Hill of Beijing,” which became a household song in the early 1970s. “Chairman Mao is like the bright golden sun,” he sings, gently swaying with the rhythm.

Inside Hu Pingsheng’s home in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Inside Hu Pingsheng’s home in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying

Hu, who calls himself “Tasty Mango” on Blued, has learned to sing some 200 songs and has hundreds more downloaded to his phone that he wants to add to his repertoire. Red classics about Chairman Mao and Communist Party history are his favorites, he says. On a good day, he’ll have over 1,000 viewers — but he averages a couple hundred. He greets each of them as they join the stream.

As on other Chinese platforms, viewers on Blued can buy virtual gifts for livestreamers, which they can then exchange back into money. So far, Hu has earned more than 10,000 so-called beans, which amounts to 1,000 yuan ($150). But Hu’s not in it for the money. The retired accountant has a monthly pension of over 3,000 yuan, which he says can ensure him a comfortable life in Chenzhou.

Compared with more developed coastal cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, where people are more open about and tolerant toward sexual minorities, public gay life in inland cities such as Chenzhou is almost nonexistent. “I realized many people here still don’t know what ‘gay’ means,” says Liang Junjie, a swimming coach who hails from Guangzhou but has been living in Chenzhou for a few years. He is a fan of Hu and has sent him virtual gifts. “I think he’s handsome, and I’m happy that he can do things he really enjoys,” says the 26-year-old.

Liang has known he was gay since middle school. A few years ago, he came out to his parents — which he says is something people his age would consider doing, but is rare for older generations. Hu, for his part, didn’t know he was gay until 2000, a year before homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in China. A young man approached him at a park in Chenzhou and took him to a gay bar. There, someone told him he was gay. “I always knew I admired men, but it had never occurred to me that there is a word to define my sexuality,” he says.

Born and raised in the countryside, Hu always longed for an urban lifestyle. He moved to the local county seat in his late teens and in 1984 married his first wife after they’d been introduced by a matchmaker. A few years later, fed up with her short temper, he filed for divorce and moved to Chenzhou, where he married his second wife. This union also ended with a separation, on account of “personality clashes.” He’s not sure whether his sexuality played any role in the divorces.

Hu has two daughters — one with each of his ex-wives. He hasn’t come out to either of them and doesn’t plan to, uncertain of whether they will accept it. Hu’s family also doesn’t know about his antics on Blued, but he doesn’t worry about what might happen if his relatives saw him on the platform. “I’m not doing anything nasty or wrong,” he says. “I’m just doing what I love: singing.”

Hu Pingsheng’s livestreaming equipment in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Hu Pingsheng’s livestreaming equipment in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying

While it’s just a passion project for Hu, others hope the nascent popularity of elderly livestreamers will become a source of income. Wang Liyun, originally from the northeastern province of Jilin, stepped into the senior gay livestreaming business after hearing about its profit-generating potential from friends. China’s livestreaming market is already huge and still growing: According to a 2018 National Copyright Administration report, the market was worth nearly 40 billion yuan in 2017, fueled by virtual gift-giving. Popular streamers can earn a living wage, if not significantly more.

Wang’s approach was to start a group — a common format in which several singers live together and alternate behind the microphone. A “boss,” like Wang, organizes the group and provides accommodation and food. Participants get a cut from the gifts they earn. According to Wang’s own observations, there are over 200 groups of men over 45 on Blued. Their fans are of all ages. “A successful group can attract over 8,000 fans and receive as much as 60,000 beans per day,” Wang, 55, tells Sixth Tone.

With that goal in mind, Wang started looking for candidates all over the country to join his group in his home in Dongguan, a city in the southern province of Guangdong. Wang, who identifies as gay, only wants to hire gay men — he scoffs at groups on Blued that hire straight, amateur singers pretending to be queer — who are between 40 and 60 years old, decent-looking, and good at singing and interacting with fans.

Since he started in March, over a dozen men have livestreamed with Wang’s group, but turnover is high, especially when gift-giving disappoints. “When they realize they are incapable of getting beans, they just leave after a few days,” Wang sighs. He has invested over 30,000 yuan into his venture with returns, so far, of about 10,000 yuan. “When I start to make a profit, I’ll buy fancy lights and LED wallpaper to decorate the studio,” he says.

Last November, Hu joined a similar group. He took the train to Zhuzhou, a city about 300 kilometers north of Chenzhou, and sang with a group called Magic Dragons, consisting of four men — all gay and about the same age. For eight hours a day they sang from a living room-turned-studio, adorned with a color-changing crystal ceiling light and background wallpaper featuring the Great Wall. “It was more gorgeous and magnificent than any karaoke rooms that I’ve been to,” he recalls.

Before Hu would start his shifts, an announcer would hype up the audience and introduce him: “Now let’s welcome Uncle Hu from Chenzhou, Hunan. He’s 68 years old, 165 centimeters tall, and weighs 60 kilograms. Look: He’s slim, light-skinned, and handsome! Show your love with flowers, grass, or whatever (digital gifts)!” Hu says he felt embarrassed at first, but later started playing along, asking for more beans. He enjoyed singing with others and was paid 1,600 yuan for half a month’s work.

But most of all, Hu feels relieved finally knowing who he is, as do many gay men his age, he says. He’s got trips planned to the eastern cities of Nantong and Shanghai, as well as southern Shenzhen, to join livestream groups there. “If there’s a platform where I can do what I love,” he says, “I don’t want to waste another minute regretting not doing things that make me happy.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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World Dog Show Features Chinese Breeds, Aims to Turn Hearts


SHANGHAI — In some parts of China, dogs have the unenviable reputation of being mean and unclean. They might spend much of their lives watching front doors, waiting for their humans to come home, all the while at risk of being dognapped, sold, butchered, and eaten.

So when Liang Xiaojun saw a Chinese dog about to come onstage at the 2019 World Dog Show, she was stunned. “I never expected to see a dog from rural China competing alongside those other, more expensive breeds,” the 26-year-old dog lover told Sixth Tone on Tuesday, the first day of this year’s four-day event in Shanghai.

Sanctioned by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), also known as the World Canine Organization, the World Dog Show is one of the most important international dog shows in the world, held in a different FCI member country each year since 1971. This year is China’s first chance to play host, and it’s only the second time the event has been held in Asia. Often called the “Canine Olympics,” the World Dog Show’s evaluation categories include agility, obedience, conformation, handler, and grooming, among others.

China’s pet industry has grown tremendously in recent years. In 2018, the value of the country’s dog industry alone exceeded 106 billion yuan ($15.7 billion). Moreover, Chinese consumers have increasingly shown they are willing to pamper their pets, spending big bucks on everything from pet hotels to pet funerals.

However, frequent headlines of animal abuse and dog eating in some parts of the country have damaged China’s reputation for protecting animal welfare. When Shanghai in 2015 won the bid to host the World Dog Show, a petition was circulated online to stop China from hosting the event. The FCI then released a statement, calling the show an “excellent opportunity” to raise awareness among the Chinese population that “the dog, our beloved friend, is a member of our families, a living entity and most of all, Man’s Best Friend.”

A woman looks at a Chuandong hound — an ancient Chinese breed that’s little-known on the international stage — during the World Dog Show in Shanghai, April 30, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A woman looks at a Chuandong hound — an ancient Chinese breed that’s little-known on the international stage — during the World Dog Show in Shanghai, April 30, 2019. Fan Yiying

This year’s event — which has adopted the slogan “Respect life, love world” — will see more than 2,100 dogs of 171 breeds from over 40 countries compete, and the number of visitors from home and abroad is expected to exceed 50,000, according to Xie Dianqi, secretary-general of the China Kennel Union (CKU), the only recognized FCI member from China.

“We want to take this opportunity to promote animal welfare in China, and at the same time let the world know that Chinese people love dogs and respect lives,” Xie said at a press conference Tuesday. He added that hosting the event would give China the chance to promote its native dogs on the global stage: This will be the first time in World Dog Show history that Chinese breeds will compete.

In 2016, CKU established a club to protect and breed native dog species. So far, six purebreds have been identified and bred for three generations each. According to the FCI’s requirement, each breed must be bred for five generations and be at least 1,000 in number before it can be registered as a new breed and participate in international competitions. “With new DNA technology, we expect to register the first native Chinese dog breed with the FCI by 2022,” Wang Ting, the director of CKU’s native breed conservation club, told Sixth Tone.

To achieve this goal, CKU is cooperating with local breeders and native-dog enthusiasts like Li Kunlin. Li bought four purebred Chuandong hounds — originally from the border between the southwestern Sichuan province and Chongqing municipality — to display at the World Dog Show. The ancient, little-known breed had soon caught visitors’ attention.

The history of the Chuandong hound can be traced back 2,000 years, Li told Sixth Tone, and today, locals in the mountainous eastern part of Sichuan use the dogs to hunt. “They’re intelligent and fearless, with an outstanding sense of smell — they aren’t inferior to any of the expensive foreign breeds,” he said.

When asked how much a Chuandong hound might cost, Li said they aren’t for sale. In the past few years, he’s bred around 20 Chuandong hounds through three generations from his home in Chongqing. “These dogs aren’t valued by the villagers, and this leads to cross-breeding and all kinds of (genetic) diseases,” Li said. “The number (of purebreds) is dropping rapidly, and if we don’t protect them now, they will die out before we know it.”

In 2017, a Tang gou — a Chinese breed also known as the “meat dog” — won best in show at a competition organized by CKU. “In that moment, it was no longer just another meat dog that’s so often abandoned or rejected in China,” Wang said. “Whatever their breed, Chinese or foreign, all dogs should be respected and loved.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

My Makeover With China’s Blind Beautician


BEIJING — Sitting on the couch in Xiao Jia’s apartment, I learned how difficult it is to apply makeup to a face you cannot see.

Xiao, 27, gradually lost her eyesight during her teens. Determined to avoid the life in society’s shadows that most of her blind compatriots have, she channeled her love of painting into studies on becoming a makeup artist. It was a tough skill to grasp, but one so worthwhile to master, she has made it her mission to share it.

With a podcast, an account on social media app WeChat, and a small but lively community of followers, Xiao has inspired visually impaired women around the country to take pride in their appearance, even if they themselves cannot see it. “Everyone has the right to make themselves look pretty — even people like us who can’t see,” she tells me. “We are not putting on makeup to please others. We are just doing it to make ourselves happy.”

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Xiao Jia uses an eyelash curler at her home in Beijing, Dec. 27, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

I visit Xiao in her apartment in the southwestern outskirts of Beijing on a frigid winter day. She wears a long, gray cardigan and greets me with a big smile. She then shows me her black-and-pink multilayered makeup box, filled with her daily products. With the help of friends, she has labeled everything with special tape and braille — without which a full set of cosmetics would be daunting, says Xiao. “Many cosmetics come in nearly identical bottles or packages for different skin types and functions.”

After removing my own makeup, I ask her to apply it again. As we sit next to each other on her living room couch, she touches my face to determine its shape and suggests I get bangs. After feeling my cheeks, nose, and forehead, she finds bottles of toner and lotion that work well with my skin, and gently pats them onto my face and neck.

“Though many people think it’s unnecessary for blind people to apply makeup, since it’s tough and we wouldn’t even ‘see’ the outcome, I consider the whole process a way for me to enjoy the moment, and give myself a well-deserved break from daily struggles,” Xiao tells me while applying sunscreen, the second step. When not in a rush, she can spend two hours doing her makeup, but she can also get it done in five minutes, she says.

Xiao then selects foundation that matches how I described my skin tone to her and dabs tiny dots across my face. “We need to blend more on areas like the nose and the corners of the lips,” she tells me. For the visually impaired, Xiao says, applying foundation is like mopping the floor. “Since we can’t see where the dirt is, all we can do is to mop a few more times back and forth.”

Xiao studied painting for six years before being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition in which the light-sensitive tissue in the eye breaks down. It left her without vision after just two years. Her dream of studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, one of the nation’s best art institutions, was forever unattainable. “At that moment, I thought blind people were doomed to miserable lives,” she says. Like so many of China’s more than 12 million visually impaired people, she became a massage therapist.

In her early 20s, Xiao’s father bought her a computer, and the internet opened up another world for her. She wrote and emailed essays to Beijing-based Youren Magazine, a publication run by a nongovernmental organization for people with disabilities. Its editor-in-chief liked her works and encouraged her to pursue her dreams. Shortly after, Xiao quit her job in her hometown — a small county in eastern Jiangxi province — moved to Beijing, and got a new job as a stenographer. Later, she worked for a charity, organizing projects for women with disabilities. In late 2014, Xiao attended an event where, for the first time, someone put makeup on her before she went onstage. “The makeup artist said I looked pretty, like a superstar,” she recalls.

Xiao has never seen her own makeup. All her experience comes from her teacher Ji Chunli’s feedback over the years. The two met at a beauty event in 2015 after Xiao found a makeup tutorial video featuring a blind British girl, which gave her determination to master the skill. She bought cosmetics that were advertised as “so easy to use, you can do it with your eyes closed,” and started trying. “The hardest part for me is not whether I can be good at it; instead, it’s if I have the courage to make the first move,” she says.

Ji had no experience teaching the visually impaired, but was touched by Xiao’s resolve. Every week for a year, Xiao took a one-hour bus ride to attend classes at Ji’s beauty studio. Ji applied makeup to half a face, let Xiao touch and compare the different sensations, and asked her to complete the other half. Ji’s never thought of Xiao’s impairment as a problem. “Her painting experience helps her match colors, and years of massaging has familiarized her with facial structures,” she tells me.

When Xiao first experimented with cosmetics, she loved using eyeshadow pens, especially for dark colors, to draw a thick line on her eyelids. “In my mind, makeup needed to be bold and exaggerated,” she laughs. Back then, she had no idea how to use mascara or eyeliner and often ended up with watery eyes. “I remember people telling me my eyelashes were so clumpy, they looked like fly legs,” she says. Another time, a friendly stranger on the street told her that her face was full of uneven white spots. “But I was still happy,” she says. “I felt beautiful.”

A picture of Xiao Jia at her home in Beijing, Dec. 27, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A picture of Xiao Jia at her home in Beijing, Dec. 27, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Once she had mastered makeup, Xiao wanted to share her skills with her community. “There’s a large number of blind people who want to make themselves look beautiful by applying makeup, but don’t know how to do so or can’t find a professional to teach them,” says Wang Jiaojiao, 31, one of Xiao’s students. “Makeup allows us to change traditional impressions of the visually impaired by changing our own images,” she adds.

The two met one day last summer when Wang walked into the downtown Beijing beauty salon where Xiao works. Many young women with visual impairments have done so over the past few years, having learned about Xiao through media coverage or her own social media presence. They are all examples of the power of learning how to do makeup, Xiao says. “Many of them felt nervous and anxious when I asked them to take off their sunglasses, but after a few times, they started to grow confident and no long resisted showing off their eyes.”

Xiao launched her public account “A Visually Impaired Girl Talks Beauty” on WeChat in January 2017. Even though she doesn’t have many followers, just around 500, she says the community is very active. Xiao also uploads her series of beauty lessons to the popular audio media platform Ximalaya FM, calling them “the skin care and cosmetics skills you can learn with your eyes closed.” Every month, with the help of co-workers, she records a few episodes on topics such as how to discern skin types, the correct order to apply cosmetics, and which kinds of clothing match. She encourages her audiences to reach out to her on WeChat if they have questions and often receives calls or messages after midnight — when most massage therapists finish work. She gave free lectures at first and has since been invited to give paid speeches and workshops on beauty around the country.

Thirty-something An Xin now spends half an hour doing her makeup before heading out to work in a massage parlor in northeastern Liaoning province. After listening to Xiao’s podcasts for over a year, she still hasn’t quite mastered doing her eyes. “It’s so easy to mess up with mascara or eyeliner,” says An, who is blind. But she adds, “for me, the process is more important than the result.”

For many of Xiao’s followers, her uplifting story is more meaningful than learning how to apply makeup. “She has inspired me to discover my own beauty and strong points, to understand that everyone is special in their own way, and to eventually learn to love and accept who I am,” says An.

Xiao Jia’s makeup kit at her home in Beijing, Dec. 27, 2018. Lu Yunwen/Sixth Tone

Xiao Jia’s makeup kit at her home in Beijing, Dec. 27, 2018. Lu Yunwen/Sixth Tone

Back in Beijing, Xiao has finished applying the base and moves her fingertips to the area around my eyes to apply blue eye shadow, matching my navy-blue sweater. She then suggests I draw the eyeliner myself — without a mirror — to experience “blind makeup.” Uncertain, I give it a try. I prop my right elbow on the table, close my eyes, and, under her guidance, draw dot by dot along my eyelashes. “This is so hard,” I blurt out.

After Xiao has determined the shape of my lips, she applies the “flame red” shade and hands me a napkin to wipe my teeth, unsure if there is any wayward lipstick. Similarly, she cleans my lower eyelids and the corners of my eyes after applying products, just to be sure.

Thirty minutes later, I’m filled with anticipation and have my face practically pressed against the mirror to see the result. I don’t see much difference with the makeup I had on before I sat down, but that’s probably the point. And in any case, it’s the process that really matters.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

In Cliffside Village, Hipster Bookshop Spurs Rural Revival


ZHEJIANG, East China — With the twisted mountain road blocked by yesterday’s snow, Zhao Weiren and his friends have no choice but to park their car and climb the last leg of their trip. They’ve come to visit Chenjiapu, a somewhat picturesque but otherwise ordinary village of 100 or so houses with beige plaster and black shingles. Hugging a steep hillside amid forests of bamboo and ancient trees, the village spends much of the year enveloped in fog. Like elsewhere in the Chinese countryside, young people have long moved away, leaving behind a few dozen elderly farmers. But then a bookshop opened.

On any given day, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people now make the journey up to the village to visit Chenjiapu Bookstore. On that particular winter’s day, Zhao and his friends spent 30 minutes trudging through the snow, but eventually made it. “I don’t think we would have come to this village if there wasn’t a bookstore here,” says Zhao, who lives in the 240,000-strong county seat, Songyang, a winding half-hour drive back down in the valley.

Few in Chenjiapu imagined the bookstore would become this popular when the idea was first put forward in 2016. But local party secretary Bao Chaohuo — most villagers are surnamed Bao — believed in it, and went knocking on doors to get everyone on board. It just so happened he was looking for a “long-term and sustainable project” to breathe new life into the village’s slumbering economy. The year before, President Xi Jinping had announced that no person in China should live below the poverty line by 2020, kicking off a campaign that would leave officials around the country scrambling to find effective ways to improve local fortunes.

A mother and son look through autographed books in Chenjiapu Bookstore in Songyang County, Zhejiang province, Dec. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A mother and son look through autographed books in Chenjiapu Bookstore in Songyang County, Zhejiang province, Dec. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

So far, Chenjiapu Bookstore — which specializes in poetry and culture, and sometimes hosts events for readers — has proved a successful formula. Despite its improbable location, books fly off the shelves. Monthly sales in Chenjiapu are equal to those in urban branches, employees say. Li Xia, the store manager, explains that people are more likely to make a purchase after a long and difficult trip. Most visitors would be called hipsters in the West; Li calls them “literary and artistic youth,” and they buy not just books but also items such as notebooks, tote bags, and postcards with village-inspired designs. “With our books and other items for sale, as well as the architecture and the views, customers … find it worthwhile to pay a visit,” she says.

Located in the old cultural center, in which people used to worship their ancestors, the bookstore’s renovated exterior blends in with the village’s 640-year history. Inside is modern and simple, with concrete floors, tastefully exposed wood beams, and a high ceiling. The main entrance leads to a wide corridor with neatly arranged bookshelves opposite huge frameless windows that look out over the valley. There’s an espresso machine and a waffle maker, as well as a viewing platform offering vistas over the valley. It was recently voted China’s most beautiful bookstore.

The shop is a rural offshoot of popular independent bookstore Librairie Avant-Garde, founded in 1996 in the city of Nanjing some 500 kilometers to the north and known for being a mecca for book lovers. In 2014, it started branching out — not just into other cities like its competitors, but into villages, too. The Chenjiapu location, its third rural shop, opened last June.

To help the store minimize costs, the local government charges only a symbolic amount of money in rent, and offers free accommodation to its staff. In March 2017, the central government announced favorable measures to develop tourism for underdeveloped rural areas. With strong sales and official support for their business model, the company has plans to open another 10 rural bookstores across the country over the next five years. “We believe that ancient villages with a sense of history and culture should have a place to express the spirit and soul of the people,” says Yu Xiaodong, operations director of Avant-Garde’s rural project.

A villager walks down some steps in Chenjiapu Village, Zhejiang province, Jan. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A villager walks down some steps in Chenjiapu Village, Zhejiang province, Jan. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Yet sometimes such tourism projects fail to benefit everyone, says An Ran, a bookstore strategist based in Nanjing. “It’s a tourism development cycle that combines high-end hotels, restaurants, and leisure facilities that mainly serve tourists, not the local villagers,” he argues. Despite its lofty rhetoric, the rural strategy is just a clever new way to make money, An adds. “Nowadays, bookstores are struggling to make money. Avant-Garde’s practice may open up a new model for bookstores to make profits,” he says.

But in Chenjiapu, the local population is enthusiastic. Villagers have opened restaurants, and two boutique hotels are under construction that promise to create dozens of jobs. Already, some young people are returning from their city jobs to grab a share of the tourism windfall. Farmers who used to sell their produce in the county seat once a month now sell their tomatoes, peppers, and watermelons to tourists for much higher prices. “I can’t even work out how many times my income has doubled,” says Xu Fufen, a Chenjiapu resident who opened a family restaurant. Every weekend and during holidays, her dining room with two round tables is filled with hungry visitors from all over the country slurping down homemade noodle soup. Sixty-something Xu admits she is worried that the uninterrupted flow of visitors might make the village noisy and busy. On the other hand, she says, life here was too isolated anyway, and they’re the good kind of tourists: “Those who travel just for a bookstore are well-mannered. They don’t interfere with our lives. Instead, they bring vitality to the village.”

Xu has the bookstore to thank for more than just a better income. Her daughter and son, who both live in Lishui, a nearby city, now come to visit nearly every weekend with their young children — as do many parents in the region. “They told me there was no such place for reading in Lishui,” Xu says. “We used to see them once or twice a year, but because of the bookstore, we now have something to look forward to every week.” Some villagers have found in shop manager Li a helping hand whenever they have issues with their phones — how to send someone a photo, for example — or when they want to sell their produce online.

Yet other villagers just enjoy reading, like Bao Genyu, 64. He comes to the bookstore almost every day and immerses himself in books while sipping his favorite green tea. He’s particularly into books about Songyang County and rural development, which are hard to find elsewhere. (Among its more than 20,000 titles, the bookstore has a “Songyang Cultural Zone” bookcase.) “We want to offer an opportunity for the villagers and the readers from all over the country to get to know Songyang’s historical evolution, its folk culture, and literary creations,” Li explains. The store regularly invites experts to give lectures on health, culture, and other topics, which are well-attended by villagers and visitors alike.

Bao Genyu reads a book in Chenjiapu Bookstore in Songyang County, Zhejiang province, Jan. 1, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Bao Genyu reads a book in Chenjiapu Bookstore in Songyang County, Zhejiang province, Jan. 1, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

During the last National Day holiday week in October, over 10,000 people visited the bookstore each day, Bao Genyu says. “They were lining up from outside the bookstore to the entrance of another village down the hill,” he says. “I’ve never seen that many people in my village.” When Sixth Tone visits the bookstore during the New Year holiday, tourists arrive in an endless stream, despite the weather. Almost all of them either buy, eat, or drink something in the shop, says manager Li. Some just come for a good selfie, but Li says she considers it free advertising.

Li and the other staff member, Liu Yating, open the bookstore at 9 every morning, every day of the year. They work five days a week, and alternately take two days off between Monday and Friday, when visitor numbers are at their lowest — about 200 a day. During weekends, they receive more than 1,000 daily visits, and over the New Year holiday, they are so busy that they don’t even have time for lunch.

Village life has been challenging to Li and Liu. The building they have been provided to live in is the best-preserved house in the village, and they enjoy the fresh air and breathtaking views. But city-life luxuries are far away. There’s no longer nightlife or ordering takeout when they don’t feel like cooking. A trip to the county seat takes too long to make on a whim. When the weather is bad, they have to deal with power cuts and frozen water pipes. “Despite the loneliness, boredom, or stress here, for me, this is both my profession and a passion,” says Li, who was promoted from a position of much less responsibility in Nanjing. “As long as I can endure it, it’s a great opportunity for self-development.”

Zhao and his friends spend hours in the bookstore that afternoon. He calls it a magical place and says he will take his daughter with him next time. As they and other visitors leave, Chenjiapu returns to its quiet self, save for the occasional news broadcast or dog bark. People finish dinner around 5 p.m. and go to bed by 8. It’s New Year’s Eve, and while the whole world is waiting for the clock to strike midnight, Chenjiapu is fast asleep.

Additional reporting: Sun Hening; editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Artist Brings ‘Haha-Then-Aha’ Moments to China’s Gender Debate


SICHUAN, Southwest China — In most Chinese bookstores, there’s a section of bright pink books instructing women on how to be a good housewife or find a man before they hit 30.

But at an out-of-the-way underground art space some distance from provincial capital Chengdu’s city center, there are how-to books of a different kind. “Be a Man Who Never Cries,” instructs one. Other titles include: “Men, Don’t Lose Arguments Because You Don’t Know How to Fight” and “‘Bad Boys’ Go Everywhere; Good Boys Go to Heaven.”

It’s a typically tongue-and-cheek part of artist Wu Kangyang’s latest exhibition, held in Chengdu in October. In another area of the industrial-style room with exposed brick walls, there’s a platform where men are encouraged to sit or stand and think about why men rape women, rather than asking women what they can do to keep themselves safe from rapists. There are large white posterboards, mimicking the instructional boards you might find in a “feminine virtues” class, except these have phrases like: “Virginity is a man’s best betrothal gift;” “Do not participate in dinners where women are present; problems could creep up on you;” “Be alert on the bus. Don’t give female hoodlums an opportunity to be indecent;” and “Giving birth to a boy is useless. A married son is like spilled water.”

Since Wu’s first exhibition on heterosexuality went viral in April, he’s become known for his works that first make his audience giggle, and then reflect. It’s a unique approach in China, where many still hold traditional views on gender, and if the issues feature in art at all, artists rarely take a lighthearted tack. Wu’s witty commentary on stereotypes is especially popular online, where it plays into a national gender debate that has repeatedly surfaced in recent years following news about harassment on public transportationmedia misogyny, and misconduct in universities and workplaces. Wu’s even been given promotional support from NetEase, one of China’s biggest tech companies.

A visitor poses next to a white posterboard that reads: “Virginity is a man’s best betrothal gift,” at Wu Kangyang’s exhibition in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A visitor poses next to a white posterboard that reads: “Virginity is a man’s best betrothal gift,” at Wu Kangyang’s exhibition in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Born and raised in the city of Mianyang — about 130 kilometers northeast of Chengdu — Wu, now 29, developed his love of art while accompanying his mother, a retired textile worker, to the factory where she mixed colors. Despite his artistic bent, Wu caved to pressure from his parents to major in English, which they thought would make it easier for him to find work. When his classmates became teachers after graduation, Wu instead started his career in art and now works in a private art gallery. On the side, he makes money arranging holiday installations for shopping malls and follows his less lucrative passion of creating exhibitions on the issues of gender and sexuality.

It’s a subject close to home for Wu, who has known he was gay since middle school. Nevertheless, he’s never told his parents and doesn’t plan to, worried they’d isolate themselves from their friends out of shame. “Maybe they’ve already figured out that I’m gay, and it’s just that no one wants to talk about it,” Wu says. “I would feel relieved if I were to come out of the closet, but the reality might put them into a closet.” His mother and father, he says, are mostly interested in watching TV dramas and political news, respectively. They have little notion of their son’s popularity.

Wu’s latest show was inspired by an argument over China Central Television’s annual back-to-school gala, which featured a performance by a group of so-called little fresh meat entertainers — delicate, handsome, and often feminine young men. Parents criticized the national broadcaster en masse for imparting “non-masculine” and “non-positive and uplifting” values on their children. The discussion reached the highest echelons of Chinese public debate: While state news agency Xinhua said such “sissy pants” represent a “sick culture” that would negatively impact the nation’s children, Party newspaper People’s Daily argued modern society allows a diversity of interpretations of what it means to be a man.

Wu says he didn’t take the debate seriously until he noticed some middle-aged male curators that he admires share articles such as “Sissy Young Boys Lead to a Weak Country” on messaging app WeChat. “I was shocked and angry,” he says, adding that society puts pressure on men with expectations that they have a well-paid job, act tough, and don’t cry. “When ‘sissy pants’ becomes a trend, it challenges mainstream ideas and makes some people uncomfortable and anxious,” he tells Sixth Tone.

Wu decided to satirize women’s bookshelves and feminine virtues course posters because they were eye-catching and simple, making them perfect for getting his message across — and going viral on social media. But it was about more than just popularity: He wanted people to rethink their ideas.

On a chilly weekday during his six-day exhibition, visitors laugh out loud and take selfies with the installations, immediately uploading them to social media. Wu, who wears round, Harry Potter-style glasses and sports floral tattoos on his forearm, isn’t sure they’ve understood his intentions, yet he prefers not to explain his work to the visitors. “Everyone has their own views, and maybe their understanding is deeper than mine,” he says.

Wu Kangyang sits on a platform at his exhibition that encourages men to think about why they rape women, rather than asks women what they can do to keep themselves safe from rapists, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Wu Kangyang sits on a platform at his exhibition that encourages men to think about why they rape women, rather than asks women what they can do to keep themselves safe from rapists, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

But plenty of people seem to get the message. Luo Zhihui, 23, just moved to Chengdu for a master’s degree. He identifies as gay and has read about Wu’s other gender-equality exhibitions on social media. This is his first visit. The art-lover describes himself as sissy, but it’s not a negative word in his mind. It’s just who he is. “I’m slim. I care about my looks, but it doesn’t make me less of a man,” he tells Sixth Tone after visiting the exhibition.

Luo says he’s been to a few other exhibitions calling for gender equality, but they all look too serious. Wu can’t agree more. “Many people think that when discussing social issues, they must use a kind of hateful resentment,” he says. “They must shout slogans and stand in opposition. I think this is a misunderstanding, which creates a greater communication barrier.”

Wu used a similar sense of humor in his April exhibition on heterosexuality. Visitors were presented with a “Chengdu Heterosexuals Map,” which shows the places in the city where straight men tend to hang out. Then, photoshopped news headlines: “Global Outbreak of Heterosexual Demonstrations, Anti-discrimination Fight is Everyone’s Responsibility;” “Celebrities Speak Out in Support of Heterosexual Rights;” “Heterosexual Marriage Has Been Passed, History has Been Changed.” The show was aiming to turn discourse on its head, posing a series of questions: What is heterosexuality? What is the origin of heterosexuality? How can you recognize someone who is heterosexual?

Once again, that exhibition had been inspired by the news. That same month, microblogging site Weibo purged LGBT-related comics and videos amid a crackdown on violent and “lewd” content. A few days later, the site backtracked after a public backlash. Wu, who is unimpressed by the efforts of LGBT groups in Chengdu, believes his art can help raise awareness about LGBT issues.

Sometime before noon during the October exhibition, Huang Xinya walks in. Believing that gender equality is an important issue, she decided to check it out after reading about it on Douban, an app for reviews of books, movies, and art. Huang, 24, says she is one of the many young women who are fans of the “little fresh meat” aesthetic. “I don’t understand why many people say they are sissy,” she says. “And even if they are, what’s the problem?”

With Chinese women becoming more independent and fighting for equality in all aspects of life, Huang says, “we can like any type of men we want, instead of longing for a tough and masculine man to take care of us.” Huang mentions the changing attitudes toward men wearing makeup: “Everyone has the right to make themselves look good, which has nothing to do with gender.” Plus, she adds, “there are more than just two genders, male and female, in the world.”

Joy Lin, the founder of Shanghai-based feminist organization We and Equality, finds many Chinese people still hold stereotypical views on how men and women should dress and behave. She mentions a “feminine virtues” summer camp held in eastern Zhejiang province last August which reportedly taught children that wearing revealing clothes would cause rape. A similar workshop held in northeastern China in 2017 taught married women to swallow their husbands’ insults and eschew divorce at all cost. At the same time, many schools in recent years have introduced masculinity courses that teach boys how to be “true” men.

Visitors at Wu Kangyang’s exhibit are encouraged to put a red sticker on a water bottle if they prefer being straight in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Visitors at Wu Kangyang’s exhibit are encouraged to put a red sticker on a water bottle if they prefer being straight in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Lin praises Wu’s use of irony in challenging mainstream beliefs. “It’s a smart way for spreading ideas and educating the public,” she says. “These ironic phrases first make people laugh, and then think.”

While Wu believes that Chinese society has become more aware and supportive of gender and sexual minorities, LGBT and feminism are still sensitive topics. The downtown mall that was the original venue for his heterosexuality exhibition backed out of hosting it, meaning he held it in a private art space instead. He was recently given a list of words that are unofficially banned by authorities, including “homosexual.” And although Chengdu — his home for over six years — has a reputation for being China’s queer capital, Wu believes this reputation is unfounded. People in Chengdu care about pandas — there’s a breeding center in the city — and will line up for hours to try a newly opened hot pot restaurant, but when it comes to gender equality and the LGBT movement, Chengdu trails behind cities like Shanghai and Beijing, he says.

“I’m trying to make Chengdu a better city by making people think about real issues in my own humorous way,” Wu says. “I hope one day when Chengdu is in the headlines, it’s for more than just cute pandas and tasty hot pot.”

Nevertheless, Wu’s work has already made some people change their minds. After seeing Wu’s success, the downtown mall venue realized they made a mistake. “[They] regretted canceling the exhibition after seeing it was that popular,” Wu says. “I then responded that they’re not very farsighted.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.