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. 

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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.

Left-Field Careers for Farmers’ Kids


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article was published on Sixth Tone.