China Has a Problem With Bad Sex Advice. Can a New Exam Fix It?

Guo Yun finally found the courage to step into a sex shop last year to buy a dildo for her birthday. Before long, however, she retreated back to the streets of downtown Shanghai, confused and disappointed.

“It was one of the most elegant sex shops I’ve seen in the city, and I thought they’d have professional sales assistants as well,” says Guo. “But instead, they just kept promoting the most expensive products.”

The final straw came when the 26-year-old asked why the deluxe versions would suit her needs, and the staff replied: “With dildos, the bigger, the better.” “I’m no expert, but instinct told me that’s not right,” says Guo.

Guo’s experience reflects those of countless others in China who are throwing off decades of sexual conservatism and becoming more experimental in the bedroom, but are often receiving poor advice from vendors with little understanding of the products and services they’re selling.

Demand for sex toys has skyrocketed in recent years, with tech giants including Alibaba promising door-to-door dildo delivery at 30 minutes’ notice. China’s online market for sex products is predicted to exceed 60 billion yuan ($8.5 billion) by 2020, up 250% compared with 2017, according to consulting firm iiMedia.

But the boom is taking place in a society where sexual knowledgetends to be low. Sex education at most Chinese schools is extremely basic, and parents and teachers often oppose moves to provide students with more practical advice. Sexual content in the media and online, meanwhile, is strictly controlled.

The result has often been widespread confusion. Industry insiders tell Sixth Tone companies are regularly misleading customers, from beauty firms making fanciful claims about the benefits of their vaginal oils, to staff at “delay spray” producers not realizing their intercourse-prolonging products are different from anti-impotence drugs like Viagra.

Now, the government is stepping in. This past November, the China Health Care Association — a national-level industry organization backed by the Ministry of Health — launched a standardized training program for a newly identified profession: sex health counselor.

The new program defines sex health counselors as any professionals involved in aiding consumers with their sex lives, including intimate masseurs, sex coaches, and sex shop owners, as well as staff inside China’s vast family-planning regime. Its ultimate goal is to provide every “counselor” in the country — around 12 million people — with a thorough grounding in the birds and the bees.


Sex toys are displayed at a sex shop in Shanghai, March 28, 2018. Fan Yiying

According to its organizers, the training scheme will bring order to the rapidly growing sex products market, as well as support the Chinese government’s wider push to boost the nation’s reproductive health.

“The next 10 years will be an important period for the development of China’s sexual and reproductive health industry,” says Zhao Jing, deputy secretary-general of reproductive health at the China Health Care Association. “Training professional specialists is urgent and essential.”

The program enrolled its first batch of around 200 students — a mix of reproductive health care workers, sex product vendors, and beauticians specializing in vaginal treatments — in late 2019.

Over 30 online classes, the participants received lectures on sexual values and minorities, pleasure skills, sexual disorders, and sexual and reproductive health, among other topics. In late December, they sat a test. Three-quarters passed.

Recruitment of a second batch of students kicked off Feb. 19, and Zhao says the association also plans to launch a more advanced course in June. The higher-level training will focus more on sexual techniques and will be targeted at beauticians.

“At present, there are many nonstandard practices in the domestic beauty industry, so we hope to invite experts to provide technical guidance … to better regulate the market,” says Zhao. “Over 35% of the junior certificate holders have already asked us how they can get the intermediate one.”

Yang Fan was among the first people to sign up for the entry-level course, which is currently voluntary. He has run a sex shop in the northwestern city of Xi’an since 2015, but he often feels out-of-his-depth when customers ask him how they can spice things up at home.

“I wish to provide them with more professional advice — especially women, because women here are still embarrassed to discuss sexual problems,” says Yang. “But the more professional I am, the more open they’ll be.”

According to Yang, the training program has inspired him to hold sharing sessions at his shop to promote his business and teach people what he’s learned. He hopes this strategy will win out over the aggressive tactics used by most of his competitors, who often pressure new visitors into buying pricey, multifunction dildos unsuited to their needs.

“They’re new to this, and they use high-end products and freak out,” says Yang. “Bad advice like this prevents people from coming back for more.”

He Miao, a worker at a Xi’an-based delay spray manufacturer, has also found the course beneficial. In the past, she received a lot of complaints from customers claiming the firm’s products didn’t work, but now she’s learned how to help people make better use of them, she says.

“Before, I thought only sprays could help men last longer, but now I can share with my customers that a combination of products and techniques works better,” says He. “It’s just like if you were sick — buying medicine by yourself and taking it under a doctor’s guidance will produce different results.”

For others, the course’s main attraction is the chance to gain an officially recognized qualification. Zhang Bimin, 28, is a sex coach who teaches women how to pleasure themselves via online tutorials on social media app WeChat. She says it’s important the government recognizes her profession.

“After the relevant department issued the certificates to us, I felt more confident in my work,” says Zhang, who’s based in the southern megacity of Shenzhen.

Cheng Jingjing, a Shanghai-based stay-at-home mom, took the online classes while also studying to become a certified psychological counselor, listening to the lectures while cooking or at the beauty salon. She feels the certificate will help her build a career advising clients on sexual health online.

“I figured people are more comfortable talking about sex online,” says Cheng. “And having a certificate will make me look more professional and trustworthy.”

The course helped Cheng on a personal level, too. She says the LGBT and BDSM classes were particularly eye-opening. “I also learned a lot about men’s confusion and anxiety about sex, which has improved my relationship with my husband,” she adds.

Cheng hopes to use the knowledge she’s gained to help her friends and relatives, many of whom stopped having sex after they had children. Yet this is proving to be an uphill battle.

“They complain about their husbands and shout at their children … mainly due to their unsatisfying sex lives,” says Cheng. “But unfortunately, every time I start a conversation (about this), they just avoid talking about it.”

For Yang, the main obstacle to sharing his newfound knowledge with the public is, ironically, the government. After posting videos about sex culture and products on a few popular online platforms, his accounts were blocked — a fact he blames on the authorities’ strict rules against so-called vulgar content.

“Due to a lack of publicity, many people don’t know these toys can play a role in improving their sex lives, making their marriages more harmonious,” says Yang. “We’re posting positive content online and should have been supported by the government.”

Like most of the certificate holders who spoke with Sixth Tone, however, Yang believes the training program should eventually be made mandatory. This is the only way, they feel, that the public will come to accept sex health counseling as a profession.

“It’s the same as psychology,” says He, the delay spray worker. “At first, people were opposed to it, feeling that those who see a therapist are neurotic. But then they saw psychologists were licensed and the industry seemed regulated, and they understood it’s normal to have psychological problems and seek professional help.

“One day, people will feel the same about sex health counseling,” He adds.

This article was published on Sixth Tone. 

How ‘The Penis Monologues’ Challenges China’s Toxic Masculinity

ZHEJIANG, East China — On a theater stage in the city of Hangzhou, a male character reflects on the time he date-raped a woman. “I finally broke through her defense and forcefully penetrated her. Controlling her, I felt the happiness of a conqueror. The insertion of my penis seems to have stamped a seal on her body, a label marking my sovereignty.”

The unflinching scene is part of a monologue in “The Penis Monologues,” a play that pitches itself as a counterpart to the well-known feminist play “The Vagina Monologues.” Written by Fang Gang, a renowned Chinese sexologist, “The Penis Monologues” examines aspects of what Fang calls “dominant male temperament” — a phrase that shares certain similarities with the English phrase “toxic masculinity.”

Based on real case studies collected during Fang’s research on gender while at Beijing Forestry University, the play’s 12 episodes are all performed by 10 amateur male actors. Before coming to Hangzhou in May, performances took place in Beijing and Shenzhen. However, Fang’s also had to overcome his fair share of obstacles in China, where frank conversations about sex and gender are still taboo. A performance in the southern city of Guangzhou was abruptly canceled for unknown reasons, while the show’s Chinese name deliberately avoids using the word “penis.”

Despite its limited run, “The Penis Monologues” is a remarkably candid examination of sex and relationships in a deeply patriarchal country. In 2017, a wide-ranging online survey of college students found that it was not uncommon for respondents aged between 18 and 22 — most of whom were female — to experience sexual harassment on campus, but that less than 4% would report it to the school authorities or police. And although dozens of women spoke upabout sexual harassment issues in the country last year, the impact has not been as strong as in Western societies, where soul-searching is taking place among certain groups of men.

Fang hopes “The Penis Monologues” will prompt more heterosexual Chinese men to reexamine the ways they approach and treat women. “I want to reflect on and criticize the violence of men against women, and promote gender equality from a male perspective,” Fang tells Sixth Tone. “Unilateral efforts from women are far from enough; men must act, too.”

That raison d’être resonates with Tao Xiaotao, a social worker specializing in sex education who is also the play’s Hangzhou producer. The mother of two young boys hopes that news of the performances will spread on social media and get more straight men thinking about their interactions with women. “Drama is a more acceptable form of expression (than directly calling for change), as it’s easier for people to relate to characters in a play, which then prompts them to reflect,” she says.

But the play’s subject matter hasn’t made it easy for Tao to find willing actors. Most men she approached declined after reading monologue titles like “Penis Size,” “Domestic Abuser,” and “Erectile Dysfunction.” “They are afraid of being mocked or judged by the public,” she tells Sixth Tone.

When 42-year-old business owner Yu Lei read the play for the first time, he was shocked that it so boldly addressed taboo subjects. But after attending one of Fang’s sex-ed public lectures and seeing members of the audience calmly taking notes, he decided to join the troupe, despite never having acted before.

Tao assigned Yu to the play’s first monologue, “Date Rape,” which tells the story of a male college student forcing his girlfriend to have sex with him in a hotel room. Yu was so nervous about performing that he told his wife he was taking part in a charity event organized by White Ribbon, the advocacy organization launched by Fang in 2013 to end the violence perpetrated by men against women. But he needn’t have worried: His performance wins thunderous applause from the 90 or so people in the audience, though Yu later confesses to Sixth Tone that he slightly regrets doing it. “I’m afraid people might think it was my own story,” he says.

Unlike Yu, Wang Hongqi directly told his wife about the play. On the night of the performance, she sits in the audience alongside their 6-year-old son. Despite the play’s occasionally explicit content, Wang doesn’t worry that sex-related topics might adversely affect his child. “Kids think all this stuff is perfectly normal and natural,” Wang says. “It’s the parents who don’t know how to give them a proper sex education.”

Wang, who used to work for a company that builds subway systems, once accepted the combination of extreme work hours and after-work social gatherings organized by his male bosses. But that culture kept him from spending time with his family, causing his wife to claim she was trapped in a “widow marriage.” So, Wang decided to make a change: In 2015, he quit his job and opened one of only a handful of sex shops in Hangzhou.

But as Wang’s new business flourished, he became more and more concerned about male chauvinism found in sex culture. “Most of my male customers want to buy something that can make them bigger downstairs or last longer in bed, but few of them care about what their female partner wants to experience in her sex life,” says the 41-year-old. “Sexual violence can be more subtle than physical violence, but it’s still something we should discuss and pay attention to.”

Assertions of masculinity come up often in Fang’s play. Several monologues dwell on the so-called masculine temperament, which “requires men to succeed in their careers and be in a dominant position in their relationships with women,” Fang says. The anxiety to assert their manliness brings men not only “welfare and power,” but also stress and pain, he explains.

Two actors portray the story “Gender Queer” during the play “The Penis Monologues” in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, May 18, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Two actors portray the story “Gender Queer” during the play “The Penis Monologues” in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, May 18, 2019. Fan Yiying

That pain is familiar to Ye Chuyang, a queer actor portraying their own experiences in the monologue “Gender Queer.” “I don’t agree with binary gender divisions, because it limits people’s possibilities,” Ye tells Sixth Tone. “Most people think men are supposed to be macho, decisive, and strong. They don’t appreciate feminine or delicate men. Though my parents appreciate the sensitive and gentle side of me, they prefer me to be strong and tough just like other boys.”

Ye thinks the play is a chance to both educate people about sexual diversity and help more men understand the experiences of women. “If men could break the rules and speak out, women would feel encouraged and less lonely in this battle,” he says.

Gu Wei’s story, meanwhile, is probably the most personal. A former domestic abuser, his monologue reflects on how, in the past, he treated his now ex-wife as a possession and didn’t tolerate any challenges to his authority in their marriage. “It’s typical dominant masculinity,” he says.

Gu, who has since reformed his behavior and become an activist and volunteer at White Ribbon, hopes to raise awareness of an issue that many Chinese women suffer in silence. Though a national law to protect victims of domestic violence came into effect in 2016, in reality women who report abuse seldom receive adequate help from the authorities, which sometimes list domestic violence cases as “family conflicts.”

Born in 1999, Luo Bin is the youngest in the crew. Growing up, Luo witnessed how his grandfathers dominated the family and how they snapped at his submissive grandmothers. The young Luo concluded that such behavior was normal. After he got to college, he sided with his male friends when they complained that their girlfriends wouldn’t have sex with them.

Working on the play has convinced Luo that his long-held attitudes toward gender roles are misguided. “It didn’t occur to me that when your girlfriend says no, it means no,” he says. “We hurt girls before we know it. I hope the play can make the public aware of date rape and prevent it from happening.”

The sophomore college student acts as the play’s host, going up to other actors and asking questions like “What’s a real man?” and “What’s your favorite sex position?” The questions sometimes make the spectators visibly uncomfortable, but Luo thinks they’re necessary to foster open conversations about gender equality. “Now I know if we don’t give people the right to choose what they really want, then it’s not equal at all,” he says.

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.”


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.

Telling Ambiguous, Ambitious Gay Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was published on Sixth Tone.