Plus-Size Models Challenge China’s Narrow Beauty Standards


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

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

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

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

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

Chinese people think of beauty as slenderness.

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

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

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 “It used to be that the middle-aged were the main customers for plus-size clothes, but now they have been replaced by young women who can afford trendy clothing and love dressing up,” Huang tells Sixth Tone.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

China’s LGBT Youth Face Lots of Bullying, Little Acceptance


From his first day at school, Sun Bin, now 21, was bullied for being feminine, a “sissy.”

“I’m used to being called a faggot or a pervert,” said Sun, who is now a junior at a university in central China’s Henan province.

There’s one instance from primary school that Sun will never forget. A dozen or so female classmates one day picked him up, carried him to the girls’ bathroom, and threw him inside. “I was scared and crying in the bathroom for hours,” Sun told Sixth Tone. “I felt hopeless and humiliated.”

Most LGBT — lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender — students aren’t sure of their own gender identity or sexual orientation until they are in high school. Their classmates, on the other hand, are much quicker to draw conclusions, labeling anyone who deviates from the norm as “gay.”

“We got bullied because we are different, and being different is not appreciated,” said Sun.

School bullying in general is a widely discussed topic in China, and it even came up during the recently concluded “two sessions” — annual meetings of China’s top legislative and advisory bodies. Policy advisor Shang Shaohua noted that gender equality and gender diversity in particular should be included in teacher training as a preventive measure.

Though Shang’s initiative was widely applauded in LGBT circles, many feel that more should be done to raise awareness. “As a group, students of sexual minorities remain neglected by the public,” said Liu Zhaohui, a project officer at Tongyu, a Beijing-based lesbian advocacy group. “When they are bullied at school, they often have nobody to turn to for help.”

Sun’s experiences don’t stand alone. Chinese media reported last year that a female student was drugged with an aphrodisiac by three male students in Huangshan City, eastern China’s Anhui province because they wanted to see a lesbian “making a fool of herself.” The case was deemed a prank by the teachers and the police, and the boys got off with a warning.

Tongyu in 2016 surveyed 3,452 LGBTI (“I” for “intersex”) students about their school environment. Of the respondents — whose average age was 20 — more than two-fifths said bullying and violence against sexual minority students happened in their schools. Of the victims, over half were verbally bullied by homophobic remarks and were told to “pay attention to” their behavior and self-expression. Fourteen percent of victims were sexually harassed by their classmates or teachers.

“In some severe cases, victims were expelled from school or forced to transfer,” Liu at Tongyu told Sixth Tone on Monday, adding that such recourses violate the students’ right to an education.

Sun had hardly any friends at school, regardless of how hard he tried to get in everyone’s good books. “I always played as the monster in video games,” Sun said, referring to the characters that would usually end up getting beaten by the game’s hero, played by someone else. “Only in this way would they play with me,” he added.

Sun tried to report the bullying to his teachers. “They don’t really care how [bullying] can hurt a student mentally,” he said. “They just want to make sure you study hard and have good grades.” When he went to his parents for help, they thought what was happening to him was just normal children’s behavior. “They blamed me for not looking and acting like a ‘normal’ boy,” recalled Sun, who added that he was used to the people around him stereotyping men as tough and masculine.

After a long period of depression, Sun attempted suicide — and more than once. Though he got better, the mental strain impacted his studies and his score on the gaokao, China’s rigorous college entrance examination.

At primary, middle, and high schools, most bullying revolves around the gender expression of sexual minority pupils. But at Chinese universities, by which time students are more open and confident, most discrimination focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity. The survey conducted by Tongyu also showed that only 27 percent of respondents reported that their university campus is friendly or relatively friendly to sexual minority students.

Yang Zongxian, 20, told Sixth Tone that the majority of students at his university in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province are LGBT-friendly. “Although they sometimes ask questions that make me feel uncomfortable, I don’t feel as if they mean me any harm, and are merely doing so out of curiosity,” he said.

Yang started a “rainbow association” at the university, but it hasn’t been encouraged or recognized by the school yet. “We are like an underground student group that has to be careful every time we hold an event,” Yang said.

Li, who identifies as bisexual, was not a victim of school bullying. “Sissy boys are easily bullied at school; tomboys, however, are usually fine,” said the freshman at a university in Yangzhou, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province.

Li witnessed one of her “sissy” classmates being physically and mentally bullied by his peers in high school. “They hit him with badminton rackets and threw his school bag out the window,” Li recalled.

“I wanted to help him, but I was afraid of being isolated by my classmates if I did so,” confessed Li, who only gave her surname to protect her privacy. She said her university is “not LGBT-friendly at all.” “Many heterosexual students feel disgusted and offended that our association organizes activities so often,” she said.

Another student surnamed Wang, a junior at the same university in Yangzhou, confirmed to Sixth Tone that many people on campus describe LGBT students as “disgusting” and “unpresentable.”

Wang, who identifies as lesbian, recalled that a gay senior student was refused a faculty position after school leaders found out about his sexual orientation. “Many of us are afraid of coming out, as this would adversely affect our career prospects in the future,” Wang said with a sigh.

For Sun, things eventually got slightly better at university. While the verbal violence continued, the physical bullying stopped. “But I’ve become strong and confident after connecting with so many LGBT friends,” Sun said.

Over the years, Sun said he has realized that he was bullied because he was weak and didn’t stand up for himself. “If you want others to respect you,” he said, “you have to respect yourself first.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Caring for China’s Smog Dogs


SICHUAN, Southwest China — When Li Xiaolu adopted two puppies last summer, she worried about how to train them, where to buy them the right food, and whether the two would get along. What she didn’t worry about was how badly they would be affected by smog.

Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, is often described as the home not only of giant pandas, but also of some of the happiest people in China: Chengdu residents are known for their relaxed and slow-paced lifestyle. But recently, a decline in air quality has had the city’s 14 million people feeling worried and anxious.

The smog this winter was so heavy that at one point, the runway of Chengdu’s international airport had to be closed. “I saw the haze in the air, and it felt like the sky was falling down,” the 22-year-old Li recalled, describing the view from her window on a return flight from the southern city of Guangzhou.

When her dogs started to cough last November, Li didn’t associate it with the air pollution right away. “At first, I thought Bu Yao had food stuck in her throat, as she’s so tiny, so I held her upright and shook her,” says Li, who moved to Chengdu in 2010 to study nursing.

In December, when other dog owners in the neighborhood began talking about both them and their dogs coughing a lot, they started to suspect that it was due to the air pollution. Li started to worry about the health of her Bernese mountain dog, Bu Dong, and her toy poodle, Bu Yao — whose names translate to “don’t know” and “don’t want,” respectively. She says she named them after her life philosophy of being content with what she has and not desiring too much.

Throughout early March, official figures put Chengdu’s air quality index (AQI) at around 110, or “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” including the very old, very young, and immunocompromised. “But dogs, especially big ones, need to be walked so they can release some of their energy,” Li says.

When she takes her dogs for a walk, Li makes Bu Dong wear a muzzle and a snout mask. Masks made for humans don’t fit the 34-kilogram dog, so she puts wet tissues inside the muzzle and covers it with a piece of cloth on the outside. “Bu Dong doesn’t like it, but it’s for her own good,” Li says.

Li Xiaolu holds her two dogs, Bu Dong and Bu Yao, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 5, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Li Xiaolu holds her two dogs, Bu Dong and Bu Yao, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 5, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Bu Yao, however, has to make do without one, as the toy poodle isn’t even big enough to climb onto the sofa yet, and is far too small for smog masks. When the tiny poodle coughs, Li puts holds her in her lap and pats her back. “They mean the world to me,” Li says of her canine companions.

This winter, the unusually heavy smog has kept Chengdu’s veterinary clinics busy. Huang Li, a vet with over a decade of experience, tells Sixth Tone that since the new hospital she works at opened last November, she has treated coughing dogs every day. “I had never seen this at the clinics I worked at in previous years,” she says.

Although there are no official figures or research on how China’s pets are affected by air pollution, several vets told Sixth Tone that the health implications are similar to those in humans.

“Since dogs and human beings share a similar physical structure, smog that harms humans also damages the lungs of dogs,” says Huang. Several vets in Chengdu also confirmed an increase in coughing and sneezing in dogs, which coincided with periods of heavy air pollution this winter.

Huang explains that larger particles that are obstructed and filtered by the human nose can have adverse effects on dogs, as their nasal hairs are too short and sparse to protect them from dust and larger particles. Furthermore, dogs breathe at a faster rate than humans, and because they are closer to the ground, they’re more susceptible to breathing in particles that can be absorbed by their lungs to cause coughing and sneezing, and then enter their bloodstream to cause a variety of conditions, from retinal disease to fevers. In some cases, air pollution can even cause life-threatening diseases like lung cancer.

Air pollution has a greater impact on puppies, older dogs, and dogs with weaker immune systems — “in much the same way that children and the elderly are more vulnerable to air pollution,” Huang says.

Huang feels that there’s little she can do to comfort pet owners. In severe cases, she prescribes antitussive drugs to relieve coughing. Generally, though, she just advises them to avoid long walks.

Following the dog doctor’s orders, Li now walks Bu Yao and Bu Dong for very short periods of time — about 15 minutes in the morning, and then again during lunch. In the evenings, when the AQI is usually higher, she rarely takes them outdoors. “When you see the data climb to over 300, you don’t want to go out anyway,” she says.

While many dog owners are using face masks to protect themselves from air pollution, similar masks for dogs currently don’t exist. “The market may not be large, but someone has to take the risk eventually,” says Mary Peng, CEO and founder of Beijing-based International Center for Veterinary Services, an animal hospital and pet care facility.

Peng says she’s been looking for dog masks for years but has only come across homemade products from particularly concerned pet owners. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Peng, who owns four cats and one dog herself.

Peng believes that a tight-fitting, well-designed mask could protect dogs from smog, but also that do-it-yourself versions like the one Li uses might not be as effective as optimistic pet owners hope. “I still encourage them to try it though,” Peng says. “They’re just showing how much they love and care for their dogs. At least they’re doing their best and feel good about it.”

Last year, Peng approached Cambridge Mask, a U.K.-based pollution mask manufacturer, and asked whether they would be interested in producing masks for dogs. “I planted this idea in their head, and now it’s sprouting,” she says.

Cambridge Mask CEO and founder Christopher Dobbing told Sixth Tone that his company has already started working on the new line of masks specifically for dogs.

According to estimates, more than 1 million pets — the majority of them dogs — live in Chengdu, and Li is not the only one who is worried about their health.

Fang Ling hugs Jian Jian at her dog hotel in rural Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 4, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Fang Ling hugs Jian Jian at her dog hotel in rural Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 4, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

The only truly viable option appears to be escaping the bad air — something entrepreneur Fang Ling is trying to turn into a business, in the form of a pet hotel in the mountains outside Chengdu, where the air is fresh and clean.

Last year, Fang bought an apartment in the city center with the needs of her young Labrador in mind. She chose one with a big balcony, which would allow her dog, Jian Jian, to enjoy sunshine and fresh air. In the winter, however, air pollution levels were so bad that Fang and Jian Jian spent all their time indoors, never far from their air purifiers.

“He looked sad,” Fang says of Jian Jian. Late last year, the 35-year-old took a drastic step: She sold her apartment, moved 30 kilometers east of the city center, and opened a dog hotel where owners can drop their dogs off while they are away on holiday. Key to choosing the right location, she says, was finding a place where the air quality was fairly good.

As a former marketing director, Fang is adept at promoting her hotel on social media, and although she only opened it in January, more than 50 dogs have already stayed with her. Most of them come from the city.

“We chose this place from many other options in the city because of its relatively good air quality on the mountainside,” says Wang Peipei, who brought her 1-year-old Labrador, Abu, to spend a week at Fang’s pet villa in late January. “Abu really enjoys playing outdoors here because we only let him out a few minutes a day when the pollution is bad in the city.”

Business is going well, and Fang is currently expanding the facilities and adding a pool where her canine guests can swim.

Fang Ling plays with dogs staying at her dog hotel in rural Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 4, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Fang Ling plays with dogs staying at her dog hotel in rural Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 4, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Fang says that her friends and family laughed at her when she told them about her plan to move for the sake of her dog’s health. But life up on the mountain, surrounded by fresh air, has put her at ease with her choice of lifestyle. “They would understand if they had dogs,” she says of those who criticized her. “I see Jian Jian as my family, and I hope he can live a longer and healthier life.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

The New Old: China’s Grey Nomads Want More From Retirement


While many retirees in China are busy taking care of their grandchildren instead of pursuing life’s pleasures, a group of old friends from Qingdao, in China’s eastern Shandong province, are enjoying hot springs and organic meals in the city of Yangzhou, nearly 600 kilometers from their hometown.

The group are part of a new, wealthier generation of seniors in China who are choosing to grow old in style. Traditionally, elders lived with their extended families, and these days many rural elders are left behind to raise grandchildren while their adult offspring labor in distant cities as migrant workers. But increasing affluence in some circles and changing family structures in China have given birth to a new phenomenon: “destination retirement.”

This new retirement model, in which seniors move around to different locations each season, is a growing trend among those who have the money and time. Domestic tourism in China often takes the form of hurried and regimented group sightseeing tours, but destination retirement offers seniors longer sojourns — usually 10 days to a month — to get to know new places, keep active and healthy, and broaden their horizons.

People of our age have experienced the most turbulent times in China. Now we just want to enjoy the rest of our lives.

The industry has only really taken off in the last couple of years, particularly in regions with attractive climates and cultures, such as warm, diverse Yunnan province in China’s southwest or the tropical island of Hainan in the south. The eastern province of Jiangsu is catching up, and in May 2015 a government-supported organization,China Sojourn, was established to design and develop destination retirement routes.

China Sojourn’s chief, Qin Kaizhong, tells Sixth Tone that these days, seniors want more from retirement. “Elders who are in good health aren’t satisfied with retiring at home,” Qin says. “They are looking for new lifestyles and adventures in different cities, based on their schedules and preferences.”

Yangzhou, a city in Jiangsu that’s home to 4.6 million residents, has become one of the hottest destinations for seniors, especially those from northern regions who are drawn to the city’s delicate cuisine, exquisite gardens, and slow pace of life.

The group from Shandong comprise four couples who have known one another since the late 1970s, when they began working together at a state-owned company in Qingdao. Now retired and aged between 58 and 62, they decided to visit the Tianle Lake Resort in the west of Yangzhou on Sept. 15 after seeing friends share pictures of the getaway destination on social media.

A view of Tianle Lake Resort in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, Sept. 22, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A view of Tianle Lake Resort in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, Sept. 22, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

 

Yang Lin, 58, is the youngest among the eight former colleagues. She drove six hours to Yangzhou with her disabled husband and their 11-year-old dog, eager to experience the city’s laid-back lifestyle.

People in Yangzhou know how to enjoy life to its fullest, starting the day drinking tea at a teahouse, and ending it by relaxing in a public bathhouse. The locals sum up their customs with a pithy saying: “In the morning, skin envelops water; in the evening, water envelops skin.” At the resort, the group sinks into natural hot springs even more luxurious than the public baths.

“People of our age have experienced the most turbulent times in China,” Yang tells Sixth Tone before getting ready for the hot spring. “Now we just want to enjoy the rest of our lives.”

Tianle Lake Resort opened in February 2015 with services targeted at seniors. The scenic 200-hectare resort offers guests and residents water town scenery, lake views, organic farms, and entertainment, and it will soon open its own on-site hospital.

The elderly pay much more attention to their health than young people do, and they are willing to invest in it.

Chen Yujin, the resort’s marketing director, tells Sixth Tone that most of their customers are “young retirees” aged 60 to 70, who are in good shape and have relatively high pensions. At present, China’s official retirement age is 60 for men; for women, it’s 55 for civil servants and state employees but 50 for others, though these baselines are likely to be raised.

Chen says most senior guests choose the resort for its organic catering and natural hot springs. “The elderly pay much more attention to their health than young people do,” says Chen, “and they are willing to invest in it.”

It took Chen and her team five years to set up the resort and its farm, largely because they needed three years to rid the soil of contaminants so their produce could be certified organic. “We lost 2 million yuan ($300,000) per year while we were preparing for the organic farm,” Chen says.

Due to the financial risks, few other operators have entered the destination retirement industry on such a large scale, but Chen is glad they made the investment. Now the resort runs a restaurant on the lake that specializes in hot pot using organic produce grown on the property. Food safety is a big issue in China, and Chen believes that by offering high-quality, healthy food, they’ll draw seniors through word-of-mouth without having to invest much in advertising.

Xie Wenying, 63, decided to try the resort just a few days after hearing about it from a friend in early September. “I had no idea what destination retirement was, but I’ve been looking for such a place in China for a long time,” she says from her rental apartment at the resort.

Xie is a retired dance teacher who opened her own fitness club a decade ago. Living in heavily polluted Changsha, the capital of central Hunan province, Xie says that even clean air seems like a luxury. “It’s even more difficult to find a place in China where organic food is farmed and certified,” she adds.

Guests like Yang and Xie pay 200 yuan per night for their stays at the resort, which includes accommodation and three meals, but not extras like the hot springs or horseback riding. Apartments can also be bought outright. According to marketing director Chen, the resort hasn’t yet made a profit from its retirement services. “But we’ve seen how huge the market is, and we hope to seize it as early as possible,” Chen says.

China is aging rapidly: The latest statistics say that there were 243 million people over age 60 in 2014 — nearly 18 percent of the country’s total population — and forecasts show that there will be 487 million by 2050, when the value of the senior market is estimated to reach 354 trillion yuan.

Since Tianle Lake Resort opened last year, it has hosted more than 400 seniors, with a sharp rise in guests after the resort was featured on national television in March. But while seniors from all over the nation come to experience destination retirement, many locals in Yangzhou are hesitant to embrace the trend, or simply don’t have the means.

Xie Wenying practices archery at Tianle Lake Resort in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, Sept. 23, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Xie Wenying practices archery at Tianle Lake Resort in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, Sept. 23, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

 

The state-owned company that Yang and her former colleagues from Qingdao used to work for is making high profits, so each member of the group enjoys a pension of more than 6,000 yuan a month — double what most of their peers at home receive — and this makes 2,000 yuan for a 10-day resort stay affordable. They’ve already started planning where they’ll go next month. But according to the Yangzhou Human Resources and Social Security Bureau, the average monthly pension for retirees in the city was 2,152 yuan in 2015.

Destination retirement is something that can only happen in my dreams.

For 56-year-old Yangzhou resident Zhou Li, her monthly pension of 1,700 yuan isn’t even enough to cover her family’s daily expenses. The former factory worker retired at 50 but later trained as a foot masseuse to boost the household income. “Destination retirement is something that can only happen in my dreams,” says Zhou, who can now make an extra 1,000 yuan each month from foot massage services.

Her life presents a sharp contrast to seniors’ luxurious experiences at Tianle Lake Resort. The resort will have 6,000 beds and a hospital by the end of 2018 and Chen says the next step is to offer services for seniors who need medical care, while also making them feel at home. “We want to change people’s views of nursing homes as places of desolation and loneliness,” she says.

China’s family planning policies have triggered a shift in seniors’ expectations. Unlike previous generations, those who came of age in the era of the one-child policy aren’t averse to the idea of nursing homes. “It’s too much work for one couple to take care of four elders in the family,” Xie says.

As a fan of leisurely travel and organic food, Xie has visited over 20 countries on her own, and she’s delighted to find a place in China that fulfills her desires.

“I’ll think about purchasing a small apartment in the resort so I can come stay here every summer and avoid the heat in Changsha,” says Xie.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

How I Got Out and Saw the World


During my college years, my biggest goal in life was to see the world. I wanted to backpack Europe, hike all the national parks in the United States, and eat from local food vendors in Southeast Asia. After I graduated in 2009, I managed to land well-paid jobs and began traveling solo in China, before forging amazing and unforgettable experience in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Europe.

In October 2013 I quit my job and traveled full-time for two years. Many of my friends were jealous — pursuing my dreams and traveling the world seemed a desirable lifestyle. However, few of them understood the hardships a Chinese female traveler has to face and how hard I had fought to get where I was. Independence and the spirit of adventure are not qualities that everyone in China appreciates.

I was born and raised in an ordinary Shanghai household. My dad works as a bus driver, and my mom was a drug inspector before her retirement eight years ago. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment where I had to sleep on the couch without my own space or privacy.

My parents always thought that I would be a typical Shanghainese girl: attend college, get a good job, find a boyfriend, get married, and deliver a grandchild before the age of 27 — after which time single women are considered “leftover” in China. Chinese men face similar pressure from their parents, but it is particularly bad for girls.

Since my parents don’t particularly like traveling and didn’t have the money to fund family vacations anyway, I didn’t even get out of Shanghai to see China for the first 20 years of my life.

It wasn’t until university that I suddenly got the itch. I became friends with many international students who shared with me their life experiences and travel stories, and I couldn’t help but wonder how we could be the same age and yet so different. I met my first boyfriend — a Londoner — when I was 20. That’s when I began having lots of arguments with my parents. Most people in their generation married their first boyfriend or girlfriend, often arranged by their elders. It took me almost a year to make them accept the idea that a person doesn’t necessarily have to marry their first partner.

However, although that particular argument was resolved, other fights surfaced. I remember at one point I suggested moving out when I reached my senior year of university. I expected them to be supportive and proud of me for taking charge of my own life.

But this desire to move out confounded them even more than the boyfriend issue. They questioned what my boyfriend had said to me, and expressed their reservations about the toxic ideas my Western friends were poisoning me with. They asked me to stop dating foreigners.

As opposed to parents in the West who expect their children to learn to fly the coop after high school, Chinese parents value community and social cohesion. Many parents in China demand obedience from their children and don’t know how to communicate with them as individuals. It is generally understood that a son or daughter won’t leave home until marriage. It took me a full year to persuade my parents to let me move out — I wanted to be happy, but I also wanted to make them happy. We finally compromised that I would live somewhere nearby them and have dinner together several times a week.

They were nervous when I first moved out in 2009. None of their friends’ kids lived alone and my parents felt constantly judged by their peers. To my relief, after about three months they calmed down and all of us began enjoying our newfound privacy and space.

I began getting good jobs and I could suddenly afford to travel. First I worked at the Shanghai office of American Public Media for a couple of years as a news researcher, before moving to work as a research specialist at a consulting company. My two former bosses, both American, supported my travel desires and appreciated my sense of adventure.

Western culture is adventurous and exploration-based. It values discovery, invention, and rational thinking. When I stayed with a local family in Australia, the parents often encouraged their young children to be adventurous by taking them hiking in the snow, canoeing in the river, and sliding down sand dunes. I remembered how when I was 24 and told my parents that I wanted to travel to Beijing on my own, my father simply responded,

“Beijing is such a dangerous city for a girl.”

I first told my parents that I wanted to leave and travel the world in 2013 and they weren’t against it. I guess they had become used to my dramas. To help them through my absence, I bought them each a smartphone and taught them how to use the messaging app WeChat. I wanted to share my moments on the road, to show them how happy I am, and how wonderful traveling really is.

After spending the past several years hopping around the world, I’ve noticed the attitudes of those around me beginning to change. My parents and friends actually prize my independence now. They are happy that I have followed my dreams and admire my spirit of adventure. Many of my friends have even confided that they can’t wait to hit the road themselves.


This article was originally published on Sixth Tone.

Letting Go of ‘Fangsheng’


On a sunny morning in late June, 50-year-old Liu Yidan prayed to Buddha as usual at Dabei Temple in Tianjin, a coastal municipality near Beijing. But this time she was pleased to see that there were no bird sellers crowding the alley surrounding the temple.

“Other Buddhists and I spent over a million yuan ($150,000) buying and releasing birds from these sellers from 2008 to 2014,” Liu told Sixth Tone.

Life release, or fangsheng in Chinese, is the traditional Buddhist practice of freeing captive creatures. The participants believe that by releasing the animals, they generate spiritual merits. But though the original intention of the practice was to show compassion to caged creatures, the popularity of the ceremony has fueled a black market that does far more harm than good to wildlife — and many Buddhists are becoming aware of the contradiction.

Liu, along with other environmentalists and animal rights defenders around the country, has been pushing the government to restrict the practice. On July 2, China announced an amendment to the 1989 Wildlife Protection Law that will regulate the practice of fangsheng. The amendment, which will take effect on January 1, 2017, states: “The arbitrary release of wild animals, if causing damage to humans or property or harm to the ecosystem, shall bear legal responsibility.”

Originally from northeastern Jilin province, Liu moved to Tianjin with her husband in 1991 and opened a restaurant. When Liu became a Buddhist and a vegetarian in 2007, she closed the restaurant, and the lives of all the animals killed for her business began to weigh on her conscience.

Liu Yidan holds a hatchling at her home in Tianjin, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Liu Yidan holds a hatchling at her home in Tianjin, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

 

“I felt ashamed and regretful,” said Liu. So she started taking part in fangsheng to make amends. “I wanted to dedicate all merits to the lives I took in the past,” she said.

Liu’s first experience with fangsheng involved two turtles which cost her 30 yuan.

“After I released the turtles into the river, they stretched their necks long and seemed so happy,” Liu recalled.

A year later, another practitioner told Liu that it was much cheaper to buy birds from the bird market in Hongqiao District in Tianjin. Most birds there cost just a few jiao (10 jiao make 1 yuan). Liu went there every morning during the migration season to release birds directly from the market. “Bird sellers counted the number of birds we released, and we paid them on the spot,” she said. On average, Liu and other Buddhists in Tianjin would release a few hundred birds each day, but on some days they would release up to 10,000 birds.

“The bird sellers told me that if I didn’t buy these birds, they would suffocate them in woven bags right in front of me,” said Liu.

In six years of releasing birds, it didn’t occur to Liu to report illegal bird sellers to the police. There was no law to protect the birds then, so police wouldn’t have had grounds to take action anyway.

Yet the new amendment to the Wildlife Protection Law will protect not only species which are rare or near extinction, but also species which have ecological, scientific, and social value, including the sparrows and turtledoves sold in the market.

Liu Yidan handles birdcages found in the wild on the balcony of her apartment in Tianjin, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Liu Yidan handles birdcages found in the wild on the balcony of her apartment in Tianjin, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

 

Liu came to realize the truth in 2014 after a short conversation with one of the bird sellers in the market. She was told that the birds she had bought and released were just the tip of the iceberg: There were at least five bird markets in Tianjin. Truckloads of birds came to the market from poachers all over Tianjin and the neighboring province of Hebei. The daily turnover could reach hundreds of thousands of yuan.

“I was suddenly awakened,” said Liu. She realized the practice of fangsheng just created opportunities for the black market:

“The more birds we buy, the more people will capture them to sell to us.”

Liu then gathered together everyone who took part in fangsheng. “If all the Buddhists can come out and protect the birds instead of releasing them, then these poachers and peddlers won’t be so rampant,” she said.

In the past two years, Liu and her team have searched for and found over 10,000 bird nets and traps in the fields and forests of Tianjin and Hebei. She has reported almost 400 cases to the police, who at first didn’t take any action or even file records, instead telling her to contact the forestry bureau or conservation organizations. When Liu called the police in early 2014 about bird nets she had found, they laughed at her: “They thought it was a joke to arrest bird sellers or poachers because they said they ate birds themselves.”

Liu Yidan finds a bird net near the Tianjin West Railway Station, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Liu Yidan finds a bird net near the Tianjin West Railway Station, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

 

But through continuous patrolling and reporting, Liu and other volunteers drew attention to the illegal bird trade. In September 2014, the state-run national television network CCTV interviewed Liu for their exposé on the rampant trade of migratory birds in Tianjin. One month later, the local government announced a regulation banning hunting from March to May and from September to November. Catching even one bird during the “sanctuary season” is a crime.

It was the first time that Tianjin had implemented heavy penalties for illegal bird hunting. Though the new regulation did not offer year-round protection, “it was progress from nothing to something,” said Liu. According to China’s 1997 criminal law, violating hunting regulations could result in up to three years’ imprisonment.

The new Wildlife Protection Law extends Tianjin’s protections beyond its borders to the rest of the country, prohibiting hunting and poaching during wildlife migration seasons. But the law is only as effective as its enforcement, which in the past has been lacking. “People didn’t take birds seriously, and nobody reported illegal hunting and selling to the police,” Liu explained.

Since October 2014, Liu has registered over 30 criminal cases. She reported one poacher, 60-year-old Tianjin native Xiao Xiquan, after finding over a hundred bird traps in his melon field in Chenzui Village, in the northwestern part of Tianjin. Xiao was detained for seven days last fall before being released on bail.

While he was detained, Xiao developed a sympathy for the animals he had captured. In a video Liu recorded, Xiao confessed that he lost 15 kilograms during the week he was jailed. “I felt like a bird in a cage,” he said. When Liu visited Xiao’s melon field again in June, she didn’t find any bird traps or nets.

Police officers examine bird nets Liu discovered near the Tianjin West Railway Station, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Police officers examine bird nets Liu discovered near the Tianjin West Railway Station, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

 

Liu said many poachers in Tianjin have given up catching birds, as they’re afraid of being caught by the police.

“Most poachers are farmers who are simple, honest people,” said Liu, “They have been catching and selling birds for generations without any clue that it now breaks the law.”

Liu has also persuaded many of the Buddhists who used to release birds with her to donate money to protecting birds instead. Zhou Meiqiang, another Tianjin Buddhist, followed Liu’s lead. In spring and fall, he drives Liu and other volunteers all over Tianjin to search for bird nets and traps.

“When we had just started, we were finding over a dozen bird traps a day,” Zhou said. Now they can hardly find any,” Zhou said.

In spite of their effort, a few stubborn poachers remain. While patrolling on June 30, Liu spotted a bird net in a field behind the Tianjin West Railway Station. “This is the fourth time we’ve found a net in this location, yet we’ve never managed to catch the poacher,” she said. But police showed up within 10 minutes of Liu’s call and rolled up the bird net while she familiarized them with the new anti-poaching regulations.

In the past two years — and with financial support from Beijing-based wildlife protection NGO Let Birds Fly — Liu and other volunteers in Tianjin have freed at least 100,000 birds from poachers. More significantly, dozens of poachers have decided to stop catching birds after being persuaded by Liu and her team. “These people could easily catch over 300 birds a day during the migration season,” said Liu.

More and more Buddhists are realizing that in the long run, protecting birds from poaching saves more lives than releasing birds from cages. Liu would like to extend her patrol and protection to other areas in the country. But money is a big issue, she told Sixth Tone. “We need more financial support from NGOs and the public.” Liu hopes the new national law will encourage more people to take part in protecting wildlife and to donate to the cause.

Liu Yidan holds an electronic device that plays sounds to attract birds, Tianjin, June 30, 2016. She has found dozens of sound traps set by poachers in the wild. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Liu Yidan holds an electronic device that plays sounds to attract birds, Tianjin, June 30, 2016. She has found dozens of sound traps set by poachers in the wild. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

 

Liu and her team usually patrol from 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. When she is not in the field, she cooks for her kids, does housework, and attends Buddhist ceremonies. Patrolling has taken a toll on Liu’s health: Her knees and legs ache constantly. But she won’t give up. “I hope it will be more and more difficult for me to find bird nets and traps in the field,” she said.

Four days after the revised national law was announced, Liu came across a group releasing wild birds in front of Dabei Temple. She approached them immediately.

“People who release birds will be punished by law,” she told the group. “We have to destroy the profit chain behind fangsheng.”

 


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Three Men Under One Roof


For over 15 years, Tan Zhiliang’s parents refused to let his family spend the country’s most important holiday — Spring Festival, or the Chinese New Year — with them. Old and conservative, Tan’s parents wouldn’t accept their son’s family. Since 2001, Tan, now 46, has been living with his partner, Chen Dezhou, 42, and Chen’s 18-year-old biological son, Jack. But this year, Tan’s parents finally agreed to allow Chen and Jack to celebrate Spring Festival together at their house. Tan thinks the photos of Jack he regularly sends his parents led to their change of heart.

Tan and his family have become minor Internet celebrities in recent years after he set up an account calledsannanyizhai, or “three men under one roof,” on microblogging platform Weibo in 2009 to blog about his family’s day-to-day life. Tan followed this endeavor with a public content account on social network WeChat in 2013, and the family now has over 50,000 followers across both platforms.

The family’s story has brought hope to many same-sex couples in China who also want to have their own families — an arrangement that to this day is still rare. Traditional beliefs about relationships and families dominate in China, and marriage law expressly forbids same-sex marriages, a fact emphasized by the recent case of Sun Wenlin and his partner, who lost their appeal against the rejection of their marriage registration earlier in April in Changsha, Hunan province.

Tan Zhiliang (right) and Chen Dezhou (left) pose at the rooftop garden of their apartment in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, March 16, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Chen and Tan first met in 1997, when Chen was a migrant worker at a garment factory in Shunde, a small city 50 kilometers from Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. One weekend in October of that year, Chen was reading magazines in a local bookstore, when he came across an article about a transgender woman. The woman was despised by her family and cheated on by her boyfriend for not being a “real” woman. It resonated with Chen, who was feeling miserable about his marriage, so he penned a letter to the journalist who wrote the article – Tan Zhiliang.

Over the next month, Tan and Chen exchanged more letters and phone calls, sharing the details of their lives. It was clear they had a lot in common, so Chen got on the train to Guangzhou at the end of Nov. 1997, to meet Tan for the first time. Chen confided in Tan that he felt no love for his wife. It was the first time Chen had ever told anyone, and he felt a great weight lift from his shoulders. The only route for young men in the small village Chen grew up in was to get married to a woman as soon as they hit their early 20s. This was a course that Chen, under pressure from those around him, also followed. Chen had already told Tan about the marriage before the two met. But there was one detail Tan wasn’t expecting: Chen’s wife was about to give birth.

Ten days later, Chen’s son was born into a home shared by two people who barely saw each other and who weren’t in love. With Tan on his mind, Chen told his wife that he was gay and in love with Tan. Her calm and composed reaction spoke volumes. “There was no love between us,” Chen says. He moved in with Tan in 1998, while Jack went to live with Chen’s parents. But after Jack badly burned his thigh reaching for a bottle of hot water in 2000, Chen worried that his parents were getting too old to look after Jack, and so he decided it would be safer if Jack moved in with him and Tan.

Initially, Tan started the Weibo and WeChat accounts to share stories about the family’s life together. But he soon realized that what he was doing mattered to other gay people in China. The family’s experiences have brought hope to many gay people who want children for themselves. For Tan, the message he wants to communicate is clear:

“Being gay doesn’t mean you can’t have your own family.”

But for most gay couples, having children is complicated. Adoption law in China prohibits applications that violate “social morality,” which includes those submitted by same-sex couples. If a couple is wealthy enough, they can use expensive services in the U.S. that provide surrogacy or in vitro fertilization. In rare cases relatives may let a couple look after their child. Abandoned infants are still a reality in China, and some gay couples might take one home if they happen to see one. But aside from the ethical implications, this is also illegal. The only option for the majority of gay couples in China is to remain childless.

It was 2001 when Tan invited his parents to Guangzhou to see his new apartment. Still in the closet to his parents, he introduced Chen as a friend and Jack as his godson. Naively, Tan thought his parents would be immediately accepting of the arrangement. But Tan’s parents hated the idea of their son raising another person’s child, and urged him to find a woman to marry as soon as possible.

In 2003 Tan’s mother told him to come home and visit a relative. But the order was a ruse, and when Tan arrived home he was confronted by a witch who put a spell on him. Superstitious beliefs are still common in China’s countryside, and Tan’s parents thought he was possessed by a female devil that was preventing him from finding a girlfriend. This was the last straw for Tan, and he told his parents the truth about his sexuality.

“I felt the air in the room freeze,” he says.

Tan and Chen live in Guangzhou, but because Tan is vice president of a state-owned media outlet means he spends most of his time in the city of Kunming, Yunnan province. However, the pair decided to live in an affluent suburb of Guangzhou because they think the city is more open-minded. Tan and Chen say that because their neighbors are well-off, they are more accepting of the family.

“Jack is active with the other kids in the compound and has never been confronted with awkward questions,” says Chen.

Photos of Tan, Chen Dezhou, and Chen’s biological son Jack, from their apartment in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, March 16, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Jack doesn’t think his life has been unusual in any way.

“I just happen to have one more dad,” Jack says.

Chen and Tan have been able to maintain a degree of anonymity in spite of their popularity on social networks, but they have shied away from some public events in order to protect Jack’s privacy. Now 18, Jack realizes that his life and experiences might help others.

“I just want people to know that gay families are as ordinary as other families,” Jack says.

In reality, Jack has two fathers and one mother. Chen’s wife requested a divorce in 2003, and the split was amicable. Soon after, Chen and Tan helped her move to Guangzhou where, according to Chen, she is free to visit whenever she wants. Chen has a child in Jack, and he financially supports his family — the two main demands his parents had of him. Because of this, Chen’s family has been accepting of his relationship.

“My job as a son is done,” Chen says.

Tan’s relationship with his own parents didn’t improve after he came out to them. In the years following, he lied to his parents, saying he had broken up with Chen. He pretended to date a lesbian friend, even going as far as to consider a sham marriage with her. But deep inside, Tan knew he couldn’t go through with it.

In January 2016, Tan posted about the changing relationship with his parents on the sannanyizhai public WeChat account. For the first time ever, he shared a post from that account on his personal WeChat feed, where all of his contacts could read it. Tan was incredibly nervous: He was lifting the lid on his double life and coming clean about his sexual orientation. He even worried that he might lose his job.

But Tan’s post received tens of thousands of views and comments of support, including many from close friends and colleagues. Despite the support of people in wider society, Tan was made to wait by his own parents.

“It took them 15 years to finally accept my family,” says Tan.

The English name “Jack” has been used to protect the true identity of Tan and Chen’s son at their request.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Weibo Netizens Appeals to Cancel Movie Censorship in China


1-British-Censorship-China-Huawei

A draft law to promote China’s movie industry was submitted to the country’s top legislature for the first-round review on October 30th. It aims to regulate the fast-growing market, support domestic filmmakers and boost international cooperation. The administrative approval for programs set to shoot will be simplified, says Cai Fuchao (蔡赴朝), director-general of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television ( SAPPRFT广电总局).

However, the news of the draft law is not well accepted by the netizens on Sina Weibo. A lot of users point out that the strict select and control is the solution to cope with the chaos of film market in China.

User “LK_luck” is surprised by the new law:

“What’s the point of relaxing approval process? The current film market in China is a mess already. What we need is quality rather than quantity. The SAPPRFT should clarify the criterion to promote the healthy development of Chinese movie industry.”

More importantly, many users are disappointed that the draft law does not contain movie rating, which is more crucial than simplifying the approval process. User “superxixi” says:

“It doesn’t really matter if the approval process will be simplified or not. The key is to cancel censorship and set up film rating so that audiences from difference ages can fully enjoy the movies.”

Another user “Sky E” adds:

“It seems like rating closes a window for certain group of people to watch the movies, but in fact it opens a door to a broader population. This kind of openness is a taboo to ideologically narrow-minded stubborn defenders. As long as xxx (the Communist Party) is in charge, film rating will never realize in China. It is the woe of Chinese movies, artists and audiences.”

Film rating has not been implemented in Mainland China though it has been advised many times by different groups and individuals. The purpose of movie censorship in China is to have all the audiences enjoy the same movie by cutting some scenes.

The proposal of film rating was firstly initiated in 1998 when countless Chinese parents complained about the scene of blood flowing like scream in the movie “Saving Private Ryan”. Then the topic has been discussed for almost 20 years without any progress.

The movie industry in China has grown remarkably from film-making to movie market in the past 20 years. Audiences now have access to many types of movies. However, whether they are domestic or imported movies, most of them are censored. Certain type of movies can hardly be seen in the movie theater, for instance, horror films. Audiences desire to see more types of movies with no censorship, and that’s one of the reasons why piracy is rampant in China.

“Film rating is like a dream that will never come true in China. The original purpose of rating is to give parents the information they need to decide whether a film is appropriate for their family. However, the Chinese government doesn’t want anyone has the access to violence, bloodiness and pornography. Once the film rating is established, the Party cannot censor or ban the movies in the name of protecting the youth,” shares user “Sylvia” on Sina Weibo.

______________________________

Image Source: http://21stcenturywire.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/1-British-Censorship-China-Huawei.jpg

New Hot Job in China: “Mistress Discourager”


sinanews

A new career is recently emerging in China. So-called “third person dissuaders” or “mistress discouragers” specialise in persuading mistresses to step back from their client’s marriage, and make an annual salary of approximately one million yuan (157,500 US$).

Saving a marriage does not come cheap. China’s “third person dissuaders” or “mistress discouragers” sometimes charge as high as 250,000 yuan (±40,000 US$) to persuade ‘the third person’ (小三), or  ‘the other woman’, to step back from their clients’ marriage.

The mysterious occupation initially started in the cities of Shanghai, Chengdu, and Shenzhen, but is now spreading throughout China.

The phenomenon was pushed to the forefront during the Second Chinese Marriage and Family Counseling Services Summit (中国婚姻家庭咨询服务行业高峰论坛) on October 10th, and became a hot topic in Chinese media and on social media platforms.

“80% of failed marriages have to do with a mistress problem.”

According to Shu Xin (舒心), head of the China Association of Marriage and Family (中国婚姻家庭工作联合会), it takes time and money to drill a “third person dissuader”. Training them to become qualified takes at least six months and costs over 300,000 yuan (±47,000 US$) per person.

But the money apparently is worth it, as specialized senior “mistress discouragers” make around one million Chinese yuan per year (around 157,500 US$).

During the Chinese Marriage and Family Summit, it was stated that China’s divorce rate has been on the rise for twelve consecutive years, and in 80% of the cases, the failing of these marriages has to do with a “mistress problem” (小三问题).

At the summit, Shu Xin pleaded for a regulation of the profession and its training, in order to avoid ruining the market.

“This shows that more and more people in China are having affairs.”

Users on Sina Weibo are also actively engaging in this hot topic. So far the topic “third person dissuader” (#小三劝退师#) has accumulated nearly 6,000 comments with more than 15 million views.

A lot of netizens see it as a weird yet promising career with Chinese characteristics (中国特色). “Demand determines supply. We all know that the common cause of Chinese divorces is marital infidelity. The rise of such a profession shows that more and more people are having affairs now,” Weibo user Tangguoyun says.

A user who calls himself PQ agrees: “The emerging of the ‘third person dissuader’ is the result of market demand.” He goes on to emphasize that the profession faces the risk of violating the law and moral codes: “The process of getting rid of a ‘third person’ might involve monitoring and stalking. It could also cause personal safety issues. That is why specific professional norms should be established by the relevant departments.”

“Curing the symptoms, not the disease”

The China Association of Marriage and Family called together the relevant professionals this month to develop guide regulations for ‘mistress discouragers’. The association also opened a nationwide complaint hotline to supervise the service quality.

However, the majority of Weibo users still have doubts on this occupation and consider it to only “cure the symptoms, not the disease”.

User Domi says: “Such actions are just a temporary solution. Those who have affairs are not loyal, and have weak self-discipline. Even though the ‘third person’ might be persuaded to leave the love triangle this time, there will be a ‘forth person’ or even ‘fifth person’ in the future.”

“Couples should do workshops on how to maintain a healthy marriage.”

In most western countries, it is common for couples to go for marriage counselling when they are having relationship problems. But couple’s therapy is not popular in China yet, as most Chinese people do not feel comfortable discussing personal matters in front of a total stranger. Although professional counselling is offered at local Civil Affair Bureau and Divorce Offices, people generally feel ashamed to share such private matters.

Some users on Sina Weibo point out the importance of marriage counselling, and encourage couples with ‘third person’ issues to go into couple’s theory together. “Apart from third party counselling courses, it would be good for couples to do workshops on maintaining a good marriage.” says user ClaraSY. Until then, mistress discouragers can make a good living out of other people’s love affairs..

By Yiying Fan

This article was published on What’s on Weibo.