Lacking Support, China’s Autistic Adults Search for Love


GUANGDONG, South China — Zhuojun first became curious about sex at age 21. Her school — an institution for young people with special needs in the southern city of Guangzhou — had arranged a sex education class for the students, and the lesson left her with all kinds of questions.

Soon after, she saw two classmates kissing in the stairwell. She asked her teacher what they were doing. The teacher said they were “falling in love.” Zhuojun wanted to know whether there was a designated age for that, and the teacher replied, “20.”

“Ever since, she’s been telling people that she’s ready to fall in love,” says Zhuojun’s mother, Guo Fengmei, who requested her daughter’s full name not be used for privacy reasons.

Zhuojun is one of many young Chinese with autism spectrum disorder trying to navigate the world of romance — a challenge made all the more daunting by the lack of support services available for autistic adults in China.

There are more than 10 million people living with autism in China, with 200,000 new diagnoses every year, according to a 2017 report. Around 8 million of them are adolescents and adults.

Though adults with autism often have difficulties communicating with others, the majority share the same desire to socialize and form intimate relationships as neurotypical peers. Many, however, struggle to find long-term companionship. International studies suggest over 85% of adults with autism are single.

In China, life for people with autism can be even more complicated, due to the nation’s comparatively smaller social safety net. While multiple programs exist to support children with autism — especially in areas such as inclusive education — services for adults are often lacking, experts tell Sixth Tone.

“The services (for autistic people) in adolescence, adulthood, and retirement age are far from enough in China,” says Chen Jingjie, a director at Inclusion China Parents Network, a Beijing-based nongovernmental organization that works for people with intellectual and developmental disorders.

Families are largely left to care for adults with autism by themselves, and they are often reluctant to support their autistic relatives’ love lives — fearing the extra burden of care a romantic relationship might bring.

Lu Ying, vice president of Yang Ai, a Guangzhou-based nonprofit for families of special needs children, estimates that more than 80% of the organization’s 2,000 registered parents wouldn’t even consider allowing their children to get married. In the rare cases when people with autism do tie the knot in China, the match tends to be arranged by a wealthy family — and almost always pairs the autistic adult with a neurotypical person, she adds.

“Most of these parents are rich,” says Lu. “They think their children feel lonely, or they’ve shown a strong sexual desire and really need a partner.”

Yet young people with autism studying together at institutions such as the Guangzhou Children’s Palace — a popular hub for extracurricular activities — are often attracted to one another. When this happens, most parents’ instinct is to discourage a relationship, according to Lu.

“When they spend so much time together, they’ll develop feelings for each other,” says Lu. “But then parents force them to separate or only let them play together for a few hours during the daytime. Marriage is absolutely out of the question.”

Chen — a financial manager from Guangzhou whose 22-year-old son, Xianzai, has a moderate form of autism — tells Sixth Tone she is completely opposed to her son dating another person with autism.

“It’s already so tiring taking care of one autistic child — how am I supposed to take care of a couple?” says Chen, who has no relation to Chen Jingjie and declined to give both her and her son’s full names for privacy reasons.

Xianzai has shown an interest in marriage and childbirth since he attended an etiquette class at Guangzhou Children’s Palace when he was 17. His mother, however, worries about him possibly passing on his autism to future children. There is no conclusive proof that autism has a genetic cause, but researchers have found patterns toward the disorder in certain families.

“If getting married would cause more trouble, why do it?” says Chen.

Guo, the mother of Zhuojun, is one of the minority of parents who wants her child to start a family. She hopes Zhuojun can have a child to take care of her after the 59-year-old is gone, though she worries a partner might abuse or take advantage of her daughter.

“I asked her if she wanted to give birth abroad via artificial insemination, but she refused right away,” says Guo. “So, I stopped asking and will try again later, otherwise she’ll be mad.”

When asked whether she wants to get married and have children, Zhuojun — who is now 26 — says “no” without hesitation. She has, however, become infatuated with one of the teachers at Guangzhou Children’s Palace, where she has attended special education classes since 2014.

“She fell in love with Mr. Cui, the painting teacher, at first sight,” says Guo. “She didn’t even know what painting was, but she insisted that she sign up because she thought Mr. Cui was so handsome.”

Every Tuesday and Friday afternoon, Zhuojun immerses herself in the painting classes. When she’s home, she spends most of her time painting dogs — her favorite animal. She will often paint until her parents order her to go to bed. “She wants to get better to impress Mr. Cui,” says Guo.

Mr. Cui often makes time for Zhuojun outside of class. He takes her shopping and to the mall — accompanied by Guo and his girlfriend.

“We tell her that Mr. Cui has a girlfriend, and that’s why she can’t have him,” says Guo. “She can see him as her brother and best friend, but she can’t be his girlfriend.”

Zhuojun, however, struggles to understand the situation, and she often tells others that she’s Mr. Cui’s “first girlfriend.” When she has dinner with Mr. Cui and his partner, she deliberately sits in between the couple.

Several parents of adult children with autism tell Sixth Tone they feel uncertain how to handle their offspring’s romantic lives. Zhuojun has learned to turn down the advances of men she doesn’t find attractive, says Guo. But when she likes someone, she often throws herself at them, hugging them and asking to connect on messaging app WeChat.

“I stop her when I see it and constantly remind her that it’s dangerous, and she must tell me or her dad who she’s met,” says Guo.

A 2015 study conducted in the United States found that the most common concerns among adults with autism were courtship difficulties and sensory dysregulation during sex. But research on the sexual experiences of those with autism is scarce, even more so in China.

A few parents at Yang Ai have organized a program to help their children learn about dating by practicing with volunteers. The pairs go out for dinner and to the movies together. Guo, however, is against the initiative.

“The volunteers know it’s fake, but the autistic children think it’s real,” says Guo. “Once they really fall for it, it’s hard to get them out, and it’s devastating for them. There’s a boy in our circle who’s now always saying he had a girlfriend but she dumped him.”

Since graduating from vocational school three years ago, Xianzai has been working at a coffee chain outlet in Guangzhou, cleaning tables and mopping the floor. He is often attracted to female customers and colleagues. When he sees someone he likes, he will look straight at them, touch their hair or shoulders, or try to kiss them, according to Chen.

His mother has received complaints about her son’s inappropriate behavior on several occasions — especially during Xianzai’s first few weeks at the café — and she worries about the consequences if he continues such actions.

“Although his mind is like a child, he’s big and tall and doesn’t look like he’s autistic sometimes,” says Chen.

To solve the problem, Chen turned to a local sex education nonprofit named the Nurturing Relationship Education Support Center for advice. She was inspired to ask Xianzai’s manager to write up three fake official warning letters.

“He cares about this job a lot and is afraid of being fired, so he calmed down after that,” says Chen. She keeps in close contact with staff at the café to check on her son’s behavior.

Xianzai has asked out almost all his female co-workers, but Chen doesn’t think he is capable of maintaining a long-term relationship. She also believes he doesn’t really want to get married.

“He can read, but it’s difficult for him to read between the lines,” says Chen. “And he doesn’t know how to say beautiful words to make girls happy.”

Guo is still undecided about whether to seek a match for Zhuojun. Several people have made inquiries. In December, a relative wanted to set up Zhuojun with a 23-year-old autistic man who lives in Hong Kong, but she declined.

“His family owns a big business, but I can’t take the risk of Zhuojun having an autistic child,” says Guo.

According to Guo, one of her friends recently secured a neurotypical wife for her 30-year-old autistic son after agreeing to pay the young woman 10,000 yuan ($1,450) per month and buy the couple a large house.

“She does housework and listens to him,” says Guo. “He doesn’t know how to have sex, so his father is teaching him how to do it, hoping they’ll have a healthy grandchild soon.”

Chen, for her part, simply hopes that Xianzai can do well at work and live a happy life. She worries about what might happen if her son endures a breakup, which she believes might cause him anxiety, depression, and other emotional disorders.

“If he’s lucky enough to find a ‘normal’ girl who can accept him, I’ll do my best to help them spiritually and financially,” says Chen. “But as long as he has something he enjoys doing and I have enough money to support him, I don’t think being single is a bad thing.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

China’s Newest Cram School Craze: Sex Ed Camps


SHANDONG, East China — “What are the differences between men’s and women’s bodies?” asks Jiang Lingling. The 11 young children huddled around her look thoughtful for a moment. “Girls’ chests are bigger than boys’,” says one boy. “But Captain America’s chest is also big,” counters another.

At the back of the room, the children’s parents start to giggle. But Jiang isn’t fazed. She’s used to this kind of reaction. “This is a desensitization process,” she tells Sixth Tone.

The 38-year-old is one of a small group of specialists bringing a new, franker style of sex education to families across China who are tired of the conservative approach taken by most Chinese schools.

Though the State Council, China’s Cabinet, made sexual and reproductive health education compulsory in all schools in 2011, the subject remains poorly taught. Lessons still often focus on preaching abstinence rather than providing practical information about contraception, and this has left shocking numbers of young adults clueless about how to stop unwanted pregnancies.

Many parents are turning to extracurricular cram schools to give their kids a more thorough grounding in the facts of life, and this is opening the door for lecturers like Jiang who advocate a radically different approach. Last year, the national government began issuing certifications to sex education lecturers, and it has already issued more than 330 licenses.

Jiang is in Qingdao, eastern Shandong province’s coastal city of 9 million people, to teach a three-day course in empowerment sex education — a curriculum developed by the renowned Chinese sexologist Fang Gang in 2013. The approach is based on Fang’s belief that teaching children as much as possible about their bodies from a young age — the younger, the better — not only benefits their physical safety, but also their mental health.

“It empowers children to know, understand, judge, choose, and learn to be responsible,” Fang tells Sixth Tone.

The event, held at a local hotel in early August, is Qingdao’s first-ever empowerment sex ed camp. Until this year, Fang only organized courses in relatively liberal metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, but now he’s starting to spread the gospel across the country. He expects to hold camps in 20 different provinces and regions in 2019.

The Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou summer camps sold out in just a few days, but sales in Qingdao have been slower. Eleven children aged between 7 and 11 have arrived with their parents — just over half the maximum 20 spots. Jiang says demand is sure to pick up in the future.

“People from provinces like Shandong are still relatively conservative,” says Jiang. “But the parents who attend are open-minded and understand the importance of such education for young children.”

Sex education lecturers Wang Yi (left) and Jiang Lingling (right) show children male and female organs on dolls during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Sex education lecturers Wang Yi (left) and Jiang Lingling (right) show children male and female organs on dolls during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying

One of those parents is Wang Yanhua, who has spent more than 5,000 yuan ($700) on accommodation, food, and the booking fee to travel over 300 kilometers from her hometown Weihai and make sure her 9-year-old son Luoyuan could attend. She says it was worth it.

“It’s not cheap for anyone,” says Wang. “But the real problem is, even if you have money, it’s so rare to find good sex education opportunities like this.”

The 43-year-old tried to convince her friends to also bring their kids, but they told her they did not consider sex education that important. This is especially true of parents with young boys, according to Wang. “Some parents of sons think that boys don’t lose anything if they get a girl pregnant, or that sexual assault doesn’t happen to boys,” she says.

For many of the parents, the camp is a learning opportunity for them as well as their children. Several confess being unsure of how to respond to sex-related questions, though they dislike the traditional Chinese dodge of telling their children that they were found in a dustbin.

Luoyuan first asked where he came from at 5 years old. Wang told him: “Mom has a seed, Dad has a seed, and the two seeds grow together in Mom’s belly.” But now he is growing evermore curious and confused. “So, I told him there’s a summer camp in Qingdao where you can learn all about it,” says Wang.

Jiang starts the first day of activities by playing a set of cartoons showing how a couple falls in love and gives birth to a baby. When the pictures of male and female sexual organs appear on the screen, the children begin to laugh. But Jiang insists they treat them matter-of-factly.

“This is called a penis, not a wee-wee,” she tells the children, none of whom have ever heard the word before. “This is a vagina.” Jiang does not use any nicknames or pronouns. “The idea we want to convey is that every organ is equal and noble,” she says.

Within 15 minutes, the children are able to say the names of the body parts naturally, without laughter or awkwardness. This is easiest with young children, Jiang says. “That is why we emphasize the importance of early sex education,” she adds.

A girl in the sex education summer camp experiments with “blood” on a pad in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A girl in the sex education summer camp experiments with “blood” on a pad in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying

After the knowing your body course, parents are most keen for their children to experience the lesson on preventing sexual assault. The number of reported cases of sexual assault against children has risen in China, from 2,962 recorded cases in 2017 to 3,567 last year. While much of this increase can be attributed to growing awareness of child protection issues and timelier reporting of cases, parents are still concerned.

Jiang asks the children to draw small figures on a piece of paper, then mark up the body with colored pencils — green for where it’s OK for others to touch, red for where they don’t want to be touched, and yellow for where they’re not sure. Then, she invites them to show their cards. They accurately use the words “breasts,” “buttocks,” and “penis” — which they have just learned — to describe their drawings. “If the child can accurately use these terms, it could greatly help a police investigation,” says Jiang.

But as the first day comes to a close, some parents express concern that their children will be mocked by their peers for using formal terms like “penis” rather than “wee-wee.” “You need to know that what your children have learned today is the most accurate and scientific knowledge, and you — the parents — should be proud of that,” Jiang tells them. “If they are teased because of that, then that is due to others’ ignorance.”
The parents are also forced to grapple with their own views during the second day of classes, which focuses on sexuality and gender issues.

After learning about the effects of gender stereotypes, Wang feels guilty about making her son play with toy cars and water pistols rather than buying him the Barbie doll he has always wanted.

“I was so worried that he might be gay or transgender,” says Wang. “But now I understand that hobbies and good traits have nothing to do with gender or sexuality.” During the break between classes, Wang apologizes to Luoyuan, who looks surprised. “It’s OK, Mom,” he says quickly, before rushing back to his seat.

The lecture about gender stereotypes also makes an impression on 10-year-old Yaya. Her father Wang Tong — no relation to Wang Yanhua — often says that her grandparents describe her as a tomboy when she misbehaves. “Dad, I thought I was doing something wrong, but now I know boys and girls are equal,” Yaya whispers to Wang Tong, the only father attending the event.

As a pediatrician, Wang Tong, 38, understands the importance of sex education. “It’s easier to cure physical diseases; mental illnesses are difficult to cure, as they’re largely impacted by the family and a lack of sex education,” he tells Sixth Tone after the entire camp is done. He says he can do a better job of teaching Yaya about physiology and reproduction but believes it’s better to have professional experts teach her about these psychosocial issues.

Yaya has not received any sex education at school, according to Wang Tong. “Many parents can’t accept it, and schools don’t want to get in trouble,” he says. In 2017, when a school in the eastern city of Hangzhou tried to introduce a more detailed sex education curriculum, it faced backlash from some parents arguing that second grade was too young to learn about intercourse, gender equality, and sexual orientation.

Sex education lecturer Wang Yi shows children how to use a tampon on a doll during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Sex education lecturer Wang Yi shows children how to use a tampon on a doll during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying

On the last day of the summer camp, Wang Yi — who runs the event alongside Jiang and has no relation to Wang Yanhua or Wang Tong — shows all the children how to use cups, sanitary pads, and tampons on a doll. She then hands out disposable underwear and pads for the children to practice on their own.

“For girls, having their first period is something we should celebrate,” says Wang Yi. “For boys, the earlier they know about how pads work, the better they’ll learn to respect women. It’s an education in responsible intimacy.”

Since 2008, Chinese law has stated that fifth and sixth graders should learn about menstruation and wet dreams, but the children in Qingdao have received no education about this. They fall over each other to ask questions. “What color is sperm?” “Do we need a pad for the sperm?” “Would a tampon grow as big as a penis that might hurt the vagina?”

The parents look at each other, slack-jawed. Wang Yi suggests that fathers and mothers share their experiences with their children. “I always avoided answering when Luoyuan asked me about pads,” Wang Yanhua says. “But now I feel more comfortable talking about it with him.”

When asked how his family has been influenced by the summer camp, Wang Tong says it’s hard to say how much Yaya could learn in just three days, but he is sure she has learned some valuable principles. “It’s more important for the parents to accept these principles and apply them in daily life,” he says. “The lecturers only plant seeds; whether they grow depends on us.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone. 

Pensioners and Preschoolers Mix it Up in Chinese Nursery


GUIZHOU, Southwest China — It’s late afternoon, and, indifferent to the slight drizzle, children are chasing each other around the playground. A few floors above, a group of retirees is sitting on chairs or leaning against the railing, looking down. “It’s my favorite time of the day,” 85-year-old Liu Guirong says. “Watching them play is very invigorating and satisfying.”

Liu lives in Xiyanghong, a combined retirement home and kindergarten in provincial capital Guiyang. Here, 3- to 6-year-old preschoolers and people aged 73 and up spend parts of the day together. This way, according to the home’s philosophy, the young learn from the old, and the old stay young.

Worldwide discussion about intergenerational centers started when one opened in 1970s in Tokyo. In the decades since, they have spread across Japan, Europe, and North America. But unsupportive governments and hesitant parents have made the idea less popular in China. Despite a growing glut of lonely elderly, Xiyanghong is just one of two such centers in the country.

Xiyanghong — the name means “sunset glow” — wasn’t an instant success, either. Established in 1996, it was Guizhou’s first privately owned nursing home. A few years ago, founder Xue Mei was looking for a way to give Xiyanghong a homier atmosphere and met Deng Sha, who worked in early education. The pair decided to collaborate, and they turned the care home’s ground floor into classrooms for about 50 kindergarteners, with all three floors available for around 80 elderly residents. Two to three people share each room, which comes with a bathroom, balcony, and mountain view.

Founder Xue Mei poses for a photo in the garden of Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Founder Xue Mei poses for a photo in the garden of Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying

But when the kindergarten opened in 2014, only one pupil joined. “Parents thought putting their kids with the ‘dying’ elderly would be hard to imagine,” Deng, 32, says. There was also some behavior that needed correcting. Retirees sometimes failed to set a good example and would, for example, thoughtlessly discard bones on the floor during lunch. Rambunctious children had a habit of running full speed into their frail neighbors.

Another stumbling block was staff. “Nursing-home workers felt they were already exhausted from taking care of the elderly, while kindergarten teachers had a hard time getting used to the stubbornness of the older residents,” says 69-year-old Xue.

But initial feedback was positive, and word-of-mouth recommendations attracted more and more parents. Now there is a waitlist for new kindergarteners, and staff are more on board. The one group that never needed much convincing was Xiyanghong’s elderly residents. “I saw their eyes shine when watching the kids from upstairs,” says Xue. “Before that, they were just muddling and waiting to die.”

Xue says the presence of children improves seniors’ physical and mental health, reducing loneliness and depression. “For children, interaction with older people supports their learning and boosts their social development,” she says. It also teaches them the traditional Chinese virtue of respecting the elderly. “When kids see with their own eyes that older residents grab plates with trembling hands despite being much taller and bigger than them, they can see the fragility of life; they will take pity on the elderly and establish a sense of caring,” explains head of kindergarten Deng. “Everyone is more responsible for one another.”

Such anecdotes are in line with international experiences. Judith Ish-Horowicz, co-founder and principal of Apples and Honey Nightingale CIC, the U.K.’s first intergenerational nursery, says it hasn’t encountered many problems since its launch in 2017. “The initial difficulty is to get people to understand that we are not going to leave the children in the care of the residents,” she tells Sixth Tone. The mixing of generations has proven beneficial, according to the company’s own evaluations. The elderly, especially those with dementia, enjoy the mental stimulation. Children have improved their language ability faster than before, and, Ish-Horowicz says, they enjoy the patience of people who aren’t in a rush.

Sue Davidson, director of Bethlehem Intergenerational Center in the state of Michigan says the model is also relatively new to the U.S. The institution had been operating as a child care center for decades until it introduced the program to enrich the lives of the elderly two years ago. “Parents all love this idea,” Davidson tells Sixth Tone. “It helps seniors find a new meaning of life.”

In Bethlehem, the two age groups take part in organized activities together, such as reading books or baking cookies. However, in Xiyanghong, shared activities are mostly spontaneous. Children sing and share birthday cakes with the seniors or bring water to a resident’s room for the nursing assistant to bathe them. Most of the day is spent apart. The senior apartments and kindergarten have their own dining rooms, living areas, and entrances.

Apples and Honey Nightingale CIC mentions in its case study report that it hopes to see 500 intergenerational institutes developed across the U.K. over the next five years. Such a rollout is unlikely in China. “We work twice as hard to take care of two vulnerable groups, but we don’t get as much in return financially,” says Deng. The kindergarten is responsible for its own profits. The government subsidizes a one-time 3,000 yuan ($437) operational fee for each bed in the nursing home, and 300 yuan a year for each elderly resident.

Deng Sha plays on the seesaw with her daughter at Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Deng Sha plays on the seesaw with her daughter at Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/

Elsewhere in China, intergenerational centers have proven unfeasible. When Hu Yanping attempted to experiment with this model over a decade ago, after visiting intergenerational centers in Japan, the lack of support and applicable governmental policies made her reconsider. Now, as the director of Golden Age, a high-end retirement community in the eastern city of Hangzhou, she cooperates with nearby kindergartens to organize activities in which children and elderly residents can interact. Hu says it’s difficult to build a long-term program. “Every activity requires the strict approval from the education bureau, and sometimes the heads of the kindergartens feel that such extracurricular activities have safety risks and more,” she says.

At the end of last year, an intergenerational center in the eastern city of Nanjing closed its nursing home after 16 years. Its head, Chen Qi, tells Sixth Tone that it’s unrealistic to integrate the two vulnerable populations within one institution: “It’s not in line with China’s national conditions and people’s mindsets.” Chen explains that parents proved unwilling to let their children live with the elderly because of concerns about the group’s manners and physical conditions. For many working Chinese parents who leave their children in the care of their aged parents, there are often conflicts in parenting styles. Some objections were also based on deeply held beliefs that people near death bring bad fortune. “As death is still a taboofor Chinese people, they’re against the idea of having the kids and the elderly’s hearse enter and exit through the same gate,” says Chen.

The entrance to the nursing home facility in Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

The entrance to the nursing home facility in Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Deng says seniors passing away hasn’t been a problem in Xiyanghong, where both groups don’t even share the same entrance to the building. The kindergarteners receive death education, in which they learn about the cycle of life, making death less of a shock to them, Deng says. “When they spend time with the elderly on a regular basis, they see the wrinkles and wheelchairs, and they realize people will get tired when they are older.”

Chen Xuanjin — no relation to Chen Qi — visited her grandmother over the past decade when she resided in Xiyanghong. She recalls that, before the kindergarten opened, her grandmother and other residents didn’t speak much. “I felt like they were just lying and dying,” she says. “Their lives had become black and white; however, the children are like colorful strokes, giving them confidence and hope to live again.” Her grandmother, who had a stroke and paralysis, made the effort to walk around to see what the children were doing. That convinced Chen to send her daughter to the kindergarten.

Every Thursday after their cooking lesson, Chen Xuanjin’s daughter brought cakes to her great-grandmother’s room and fed her. “Usually, we don’t have a strong bond with our great-grandparents, but my daughter remembers my grandmother’s bed and her favorite food, which I believe is the inheritance of family emotions,” she says. “Maybe she can’t integrate these feelings now, but the seed has been planted in her heart to teach her to respect and cherish lives.”

When Hou Ying first visited Xiyanghong to see if it would be a good place to send her son, she noticed the elderly right away and wondered how the combination would work in practice. But when she saw how much residents enjoyed the children, she was reassured. “My grandfather and I had a very good relationship, but when I went to college, I had very little contact with him, which I regret,” she says, tearing up at the thought of her grandfather, who passed away last year. “I want my son to have the love and care from the elderly while he’s little, which I believe will make him strong and optimistic when he grows up.”

Children draw in a classroom at Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Children draw in a classroom at Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying

Liu, the resident, moved to Guiyang from eastern Shandong province with her husband in 1964 to support railway construction in southwestern China. She’s lived in Xiyanghong since 2012, moving in after her husband passed away. Her only child works in another city and visits her once a year. “Life was somewhat meaningless before these little babies came along,” she tells Sixth Tone. “I was so lonely and waiting to die, until one day I heard the sounds of the children downstairs; all of a sudden, I felt like I had a reason to live again.”

For last month’s Dragon Boat Festival, the children and elderly made zongzi — glutinous rice with different fillings wrapped in bamboo leaves. When Liu recalls showing the children how to fold the leaves, she’s all smiles. “They called me Grandma,” she says. “They made a mess, but who cares?”

Additional reporting: Ai Jiabao.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Parenting Crisis Sends China’s Moms and Dads Back to School


SHANDONG, East China — Huang Wenjuan never thought there was anything wrong with her approach to parenting until her teenage daughter stormed out of their house after a big fight. Huang and her husband searched all over the city that snowy February night, and eventually found her in the stairwell of their apartment building. “She could see us, and said she just wanted us to suffer,” the 40-year-old mother tells Sixth Tone.

The fight was the lowest point of a monthslong conflict that started when Huang demanded her daughter attend afterschool classes. Huang argued that it was what all the other students did, but her daughter said she didn’t need extra lessons to keep up in class. “I knew she was right, but her refusal challenged my authority as a parent, which made me so anxious that I cracked,” Huang recalls.

Raising a child in China comes with its own set of concerns. Parents tend to spoil their child — often their only child — while simultaneously putting them under immense pressure to do well in China’s competitive education system. Another worry is the amount of time children spend with indulgent grandparents, who are sometimes blamed for China’s burgeoning population of “bear kids” — a term for screaming children prone to tantrums. All in all, 95 percent of nearly 7,500 respondents in a 2016 survey said they felt anxious about their parenting.

The government shares these misgivings. To cope with increasing numbers of “overly indulgent and demanding” parents who valued grades more than “morals and abilities,” the Ministry of Education issued a guideline on education reform in 2015. It suggested establishing more services to guide family education — namely, in the form of parenting schools — to help parents cultivate a “rational educational philosophy.” A five-year plan released in 2016 required most kindergartens, primary schools, and middle schools nationwide to organize classes for parents by 2020.

Local governments have heeded the call to educate moms and dads. In June, Beijing began sending regular text messages containing parental-guidance tips to 500,000 of the city’s families with school-age children. The southwestern megacity of Chongqing implemented the country’s first ordinance to promote family education in September of 2016, and last year admonished over 1,300 parents or guardians whose parenting the police deemed inadequate. Last year, Chengdu, Sichuan’s provincial capital, said it would force parents of juvenile delinquents to join parenting classes.

A parent takes notes during a child-rearing class in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A parent takes notes during a child-rearing class in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

While Huang was looking for a solution to improve her relationship with her daughter, a friend told her about a parenting school in her city of Zoucheng. Every Wednesday evening, Huang and dozens of other parents — mostly mothers — show up at a garage-turned-studio to discuss books on parenting, under the guidance of a family-education instructor. People arrive with all sorts of problems, says Zhang Yuanyuan, the school’s organizer. When it had just started in 2016, the free classes only had a few attendees. “But now, the small classroom is jammed with over 30 parents, and some have to stand outside,” Zhang says.

After a few sessions, Huang says she realized that parents should respect children instead of imposing their will on them. “I really regret not giving my daughter enough space to display her own personality and be who she really wanted to be,” Huang confesses. “She couldn’t bear us anymore, and finally, at 14, exploded, which I now think is a good thing.”

Liang Xueqin, 44, has been taking the classes for the past nine months. “I come here with a heavy heart, and go home more relaxed,” she tells Sixth Tone after a session in which they discussed “Positive Discipline for Teenagers,” a book by scholars Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott that teaches parents to respect their children as individuals. “Actually, I’m aware of most of the book’s parenting theories, but just need an observer to remind me, to push me.”

Having grown up with three sisters and a father who would beat them for any perceived wrongdoing, Liang wants to raise her 16-year-old son in a healthier way. She dotes on her child, but she also pressures him to excel academically — something her parents never expected of her. “That’s why every time he had a dip in his grades, I’d be very anxious,” She says. “But now I’ve learned to accept his imperfections, his acts of rebellion, and his fluctuating grades.”

Elsewhere in Zoucheng, schools have drawn on the city’s history as the birthplace of ancient Chinese thinker and influential Confucian figure Mencius. His philosophy still heavily influences contemporary Chinese parent-child relationships.

An engraved monument that reads ‘the greatest mother of all,’ in reference to the mother of ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius, stands on the grounds of the Mencius Temple in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

An engraved monument that reads ‘the greatest mother of all,’ in reference to the mother of ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius, stands on the grounds of the Mencius Temple in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying

Zhao Yonghe — the Party secretary of Mencius Research Institute, a governmental organ in Zoucheng that promotes the study of Mencius — established a parenting school in February 2017. Before he became an official, Zhao was a teacher at a rural school. He always wondered why teachers needed years of training, whereas people could become parents without any education. “It’s terrible to think that many parents don’t even realize there are problems in their parenting,” he tells Sixth Tone in his office.

Xu Shuang is one of Mencius Research Institute’s full-time lecturers with over a decade of experience researching how ancient Chinese educated their children. She talks about a set of traditions and rules that were once passed down and improved upon in wealthy, extended families throughout generations. “The family itself is an educational institute,” Xu says. “I think that [this concept] is a great tradition that modern families need to inherit.”

Most Chinese are familiar with the legend of Mencius’ mother, who changed houses three times before finding a location she felt best suited her son’s upbringing needs. The story lives on in the form of an idiom, “Mencius’ Mother Moved Thrice,” used to describe Chinese parents expending limitless resources to provide their children with a good education. Zhao’s school draws on such classics of Chinese philosophy to develop parenting skills. “I think that the study of traditional culture should be used to improve people’s morality,” he says. “Here in Zoucheng, Mencius’ mother is a great example of a qualified parent. There’s no place better-suited for parenting schools than [our city].”

According to Zhao, parents in Zoucheng are proud of the city’s culture and attach great importance to their childen’s education, but they still mainly focus on grades. When asked about his own experience raising kids, Zhao says without hesitation that he has regrets. “I spoiled them and guilt-tripped them,” Zhao says. “I regret treating them like little kids when they were mature enough to make their own decisions, and also pressuring them to do things my way out of love.” Though Zhao says his twin daughters have become happy, well-adjusted young women, he hopes that he can help young parents avoid his mistakes. So far, more than 10,000 people have attended his lectures.

Zhao Yonghe, the Party secretary of Mencius Research Institute, gives a lecture on parenting in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Zhao Yonghe, the Party secretary of Mencius Research Institute, gives a lecture on parenting in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Zhou Li has been to Zhao’s lectures twice. He’s been struggling with how to discipline his 10-year-old son. He figured out what he was doing wrong when Zhao explained that children are “the shadow of their parents.” “Then, I started reading books instead of playing on my phone next to my son while he did his homework, and soon after, I noticed he was becoming much more focused,” says the 38-year-old. “It is possible that I am still not a qualified parent, but I am better than I was before.”


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.