Fighting China’s Shame and Ignorance on Postpartum Incontinence


SHANGHAI — When Chen Lijun explains the damage giving birth can do to the body, the young women in her audience gasp. Unsatisfying sex, prolapsed organs, and an inability to hold in your pee aren’t exactly the sorts of things their mothers told them about.

But, to her audience’s obvious relief, there are solutions, says Chen, a health instructor who specializes in the pelvic floor — the web of muscles that support the bladder, bowels, and uterus in women. Even though pelvic floor problems are common among mothers worldwide, millions of Chinese women remain unaware of them.

The Chinese Medical Association said in 2011 that 18.9% of adult Chinese women experience stress urinary incontinence (SUI), a leakage of urine that occurs when the abdomen is placed under strain, even by simple actions like coughing, sneezing, or laughing. But China Women’s News, a newspaper affiliated with the state-backed All-China Women’s Federation, puts the figure at nearly 50% with just one-tenth of those affected seeking treatment. In absolute terms, this would mean roughly between 93 million and 246 million Chinese women have untreated SUI.

Although postpartum incontinence is common, many new mothers are afraid or embarrassed to talk about their urinary incontinence. The event where Chen is a speaker — called “Pelvic Floor Awakening” and hosted on May 11, one day before this year’s Mother’s Day — aims to raise awareness. It is jointly organized by Yummy, an online platform for Chinese women to discuss sex, and British intimacy brand Durex. More importantly, says Yummy founder Zhao Jing, the message is “to let women know that they are not alone in this battle.”

Growing up, few Chinese women who are now in their 20s and 30s were ever told by their mothers what it is like to give birth, and how to deal with the physical and mental toll it can take. “But the younger generation is paying more attention to their feelings and needs,” says Zhao. She decided to organize the event after noticing an increase in Yummy users sharing their awkward experiences leaking urine while laughing, coughing, or running during pregnancy or afterward.

Attendants watch a video about postpartum mothers at the event, “Pelvic Floor Awakening,” held in Shanghai, May 11, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Attendants watch a video about postpartum mothers at the event, “Pelvic Floor Awakening,” held in Shanghai, May 11, 2019. Fan Yiying

Huang Jianxuan, one of the 30 or so attendants, has had occasional incontinence since she gave birth to her son three years ago. She wasn’t sure what caused it. “I thought it was normal, as other mothers I asked were going through the same thing,” she tells Sixth Tone.

“It’s common but definitely not normal,” responds Chen, explaining that pregnancy stretches the pelvic floor muscles, which sometimes don’t return to their original positions after childbirth and can leave the bladder and other organs unsupported, potentially leading to SUI. Regular exercise, therapy, or surgery can repair the damage. The pelvic floor is a niche medical field in China, neglected by both women and medical experts, Chen says.

In some Western countries, health insurers require new mothers to undergo postpartum pelvic floor rehabilitation. In China, though, it’s mostly just top hospitals that offer such programs. When, six weeks after giving birth, Huang visited a Shanghai hospital for a postnatal examination, doctors didn’t mention checking her pelvic floor. “But even if they had, I wouldn’t have gone for it, because I was too busy taking care of my baby,” says the 29-year-old.

As China’s medical resources are stretched and doctors are preoccupied with more acute conditions, Chen believes social organizations should lead the drive for better pelvic floor care. That conviction led her to leave the state-owned hospital she had worked at for over 20 years and establish her own practice offering female pelvic floor health services in 2016.

At the event, Chen confesses to the audience that after giving birth to her second child while she was in her 30s, she went through an unspeakable period of time when her underwear was constantly wet. “I looked energetic and cheerful, but deep down inside, I was so afraid of running or jumping,” Chen says. “But then I recovered, and I wanted to help more women.”

So far, Chen’s taken on over 300 cases in her Beijing clinic, and she regularly posts on social media to raise awareness. At the same time, she believes public figures may have a greater influence.

Chen Lijun, a health instructor, gives a speech about pelvic-floor care at the event, “Pelvic Floor Awakening,” held in Shanghai, May 11, 2019. Courtesy of Zhao Jing

Chen Lijun, a health instructor, gives a speech about pelvic-floor care at the event, “Pelvic Floor Awakening,” held in Shanghai, May 11, 2019. Courtesy of Zhao Jing

When celebrating her third Mother’s Day on May 12, Ella Chen Chia-hwa, member of the legendary Taiwanese girl group S.H.E, shared her experiences with pelvic floor muscle disorder after giving birth. “My pad would get completely soaked, and then my pants were wet,” Chen Chia-hwa wrote on Facebook. Recently, she finally opted for surgery, she added. Her post was shared on Chinese social app Weibo, where thousands of users left comments with their own experiences.

When working in the hospital, Chen Lijun says she noticed that new mothers only sought medical advice when facing serious problems like Chen Chia-hwa’s. However, since 2016, she has witnessed a change. Many of her clients have yet to become mothers, or even have sex. “The younger generation has the sense to protect their pelvic floor before giving birth,” she says. Compared with older generations, who bear their symptoms in silence, Chen Lijun finds it “stunning” to see Chinese millennials so eager to figure out why their mothers have urinary incontinence, and why their elder sisters no longer have sex after childbirth.

Many in the audience at the event are unmarried and childless, too. Yao Weili joined Yummy two years ago. The state-owned enterprise employee pays attention to her body. She works out regularly and is familiar with Kegel — a pelvic floor-strengthening exercise that Chen explains at the event. Though Yao, 39, is single and has no immediate plans for motherhood, she decided to attend the event to get more firsthand information. “When I was little, I heard my grandma complaining about her leaking urine to my mother and aunts,” she tells Sixth Tone. But when she wanted to know more, they just stopped the conversation or shut the door.

Most of Yao’s friends are married and have at least one child. They often talk about how labor has damaged their bodies and how frustrated they are with their sex lives. “If sex is a meal, then the pelvic floor is like the ingredients,” Chen says. A damaged pelvic floor can decrease sensation in the vagina, making sex less satisfying and orgasm more difficult to achieve. Chen says about 70% of her clients and patients have low sexual desire, sexual arousal disorder, or a lack of orgasm, yet only 3% would see a doctor for such issues. “This is even worse after women have children,” she says.

Postpartum sex lives are a recent focus for Yummy, too. Early this year, it released an online “training camp” to help new mothers recover from childbirth. “We decided to step into this area after witnessing the huge demand,” Zhao says. “We want women to know that they can get back to enjoying sex after following these exercises.”

Zhao Jing, founder of Yummy, gives a speech at the event, “Pelvic Floor Awakening,” held in Shanghai, May 11, 2019. Courtesy of Zhao Jing

Zhao Jing, founder of Yummy, gives a speech at the event, “Pelvic Floor Awakening,” held in Shanghai, May 11, 2019. Courtesy of Zhao Jing

Launched in 2015, Yummy now has over 2 million users in China. In 2018, Zhao was honored to have made the BBC’s list of “100 inspiring and influential women from around the world.” But she was even more thrilled when China Daily, the state-controlled English-language news outlet, shared the news on social media: “I felt the authorities had approved of me and my work and that women pleasing themselves and exploring sex wouldn’t need to be kept under the table anymore.”

As China now encourages couples to have more than one child, Chen says it’s high time to make women aware of how to take care of their pelvic floor. “It’s very likely women will wet themselves more often when they are older if they don’t exercise their pelvic floor muscles after each birth,” she says.

Huang, the mother of a 3-year-old, is thinking about having a second child in a few years. But first, she is determined to go see a doctor and regain control of her bladder. “I always told myself that it would all pass, but it didn’t,” she says after the event. “I’ve realized that whether a mother or not, women should put themselves first and take care of their bodies, rather than just building their lives around the kids.”

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The Resolve and Regret of Chinese Women Who Reject Motherhood


BEIJING — Before marrying in 2014, Wu Qing made it clear to her husband that having a child was out of the question. “He said it was OK, but later I realized he wanted to change my mind after we got married,” she tells Sixth Tone.

Wu, 33, is determined to stick to her decision, but her in-laws have pressured her husband for a grandchild and told Wu she should start a “normal family life.” It’s become an unresolvable conflict in their marriage, she says: “I’m waiting for the right moment. As soon as my mother-in-law tries to intimidate us into getting a divorce because I refuse to have a baby, I will divorce my husband right away.”

As early as her teens, Wu decided against having children. Her own mother wasn’t a good parent and wanted a son, not a daughter. Her attitude affected Wu. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why did she give birth to me if she doesn’t love me?’” she says. Wu doesn’t think she’d be a good mother herself, and therefore doesn’t think it would be right to become one.

And besides, Wu loves her current lifestyle — she has traveled the world, including both poles — and doesn’t plan on changing it for anyone. “I think we should try to perfect and enjoy ourselves,” she says. “I really can’t see how a child could make me happier or complete my life.”

Couples who choose not to have children are often referred to as DINKs — meaning “double income, no kids.” In China, their unconventional lifestyle frequently garners disapproval, the same way unmarried women of a certain age are derided as “leftover.”

The Chinese government, which relaxed its family planning policies in 2015 and has encouraged citizens to have more children, does not keep official statistics on how many Chinese couples choose to remain childless. But in its annual Family Development Report, the national health authority noted that the number of DINK families was “increasing rapidly” and that they were “emerging in large numbers” in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Huang Shuyue, a certified marriage counselor based in the southern province of Guangdong, says that in the past, only couples with fertility problems were childless. But in recent years, she says, a growing number of millennials have chosen the DINK life for various reasons — from the desire to focus on their careers to wanting to avoid the cost and stress of raising a child.

“My clients in their 30s and 40s are enjoying their DINK lifestyles,” Huang says. But she warns that when people get older, they often regret not having had children to depend on. The decision also invites social scrutiny. “Being DINK in China will inevitably mean facing pressure from your family and society, as the importance of having children is so deeply rooted in Chinese culture,” says Huang. She advises her clients to have children, calling parenthood “an indispensable life experience” and arguing that it doesn’t have to preclude work and other life goals.

But Wu, who is originally from eastern China’s Anhui province and moved to Beijing for a job in the publishing industry in 2008, fears a child would be a stumbling block for her career. Few companies in China provide nursing facilities, and Wu says her breast-feeding colleagues have no other option but to use cramped bathroom stalls. Mothers in her company fear losing their jobs, she says, and some have voluntarily switched to less demanding positions so they have time to take care of their children. “They complain to me nonstop, and I just feel sorry for them,” Wu says.

People who have children seem to lose themselves entirely, Wu laments. Every time she meets up with friends, all that the mothers in the group talk about is baby products and the color of their children’s poo. Without any common interests, Wu says, her friendships are fraying.

In another corner of the city, 53-year-old Beijinger An Ke tells Sixth Tone that she felt the same as Wu when she was younger. Now, her friends praise her decision to remain child-free because she doesn’t have to look after any grandchildren, but An regrets not becoming a mother. “Whenever I meet young women who are hesitant to have children, I persuade them to do so, as there’s nothing in the world that is truly yours besides your own children,” An says. “Being a good mother should not be secondary to having a successful career.”

Unlike for the younger generation of DINKs, An’s parents and in-laws didn’t pressure her to have children. An and her husband each have five siblings, all of whom have kids. Their parents, who are now in their 80s, struggled to raise children during some of China’s most turbulent times. “It didn’t really matter to them whether we added another child to the family,” says An.

An got married in the late 1980s, when people in China first began to consider that having children could be a choice. Back then, the DINK lifestyle was seen as an import from the modern Western world that An says she worshipped. However, as the years went by, she has gravitated back to more traditional Chinese views. “The independent and free spirit of Western culture that I admired comes at the price of distant relationships with your family,” An says. “It’s great when you’re young, but when you grow older, you naturally desire to be surrounded by your children and grandchildren.”

Working at a local tax bureau in Beijing, An maintains a fairly busy schedule. She’s fond of taking trips abroad with her husband or on her own, and she spends her free time learning calligraphy and Chinese painting at a small studio in one of Beijing’s historic hutong neighborhoods. She’ll retire in two years and hopes that by the time she needs care, government nursing homes in the city will have improved. Currently, many elderly still rely on their children, as China’s elderly care facilities lag behind its rapidly aging population.

Wu, the publisher, doesn’t think a child should be her safety net in old age. Like many of their generation, she and her brother live far from their hometown. “Our parents have ended up living alone now, and I really don’t think that would be a problem for me when I’m retired,” she says. Wu likes the idea of “huddling to stay warm,” a popular form of retirement these days where elderly people move in with their peers.

There’s also her brother’s family of four — he has a 6-year-old daughter and a son who just turned 1 — who live in the same neighborhood as Wu. She adores her niece. “I see myself in her,” Wu says. After her brother was born, the little girl sensed that her parents had shifted their attention to the new baby. “I spend extra time with her and buy her many new clothes — I just want her to know that she’s still loved by me,” Wu says. “If there’s any maternal love in me, I’ve given it to my brother’s children, and I think they will give me a hand when I need it.”

In the meantime, people won’t stop hassling Wu about her decision to remain childless. Visiting her in-laws in rural Hebei province, close to Beijing, is particularly stressful. “In addition to his parents, all of the relatives and even neighbors ask us why we still haven’t had a baby,” she says, rolling her eyes. Most of the time she just pretends she doesn’t understand their local accent.

Forty-year-old Xiao Ma faces the same pressure. She and her husband, 42, tied the knot in 2009 and agreed to not become parents, mostly because she didn’t want the stress of making sure her child got the best of everything: clothes, food, education. When she told her parents two years later, they asked what the point of getting married was if the couple didn’t want children. “They don’t care about why we don’t want to have a child — they just demand that we have one,” Xiao says.

To convince the couple to give them a grandchild, Xiao’s in-laws moved from their native Shanxi province, in northern China, to live with Xiao and her husband in Shanghai for around half a year. It was a time of constant nagging and unbearable pressure. Even though her husband has a younger brother who is married with two children, his parents still believe that every son is responsible for continuing the ancestral line. “The air felt like ice when they were here, and I sometimes avoided being at home,” Xiao recalls.

Last year, Xiao almost changed her mind. After her mother broke her leg, Xiao had to lift her onto an X-ray table at the hospital. “In that moment, I asked myself, ‘Would I feel hopeless and alone if such a thing happened to me, and I had no child to lift me?’” But then she realized it would only be a burden for the child. “This is the reason why Chinese insist on having children, but I don’t think it’s fair,” she says.

Twenty-three-year-old Jodie Qu from central China’s Hubei province is moving to Hong Kong in August to earn a master’s degree. She’s resolved to never have children. “Kids annoy me every time I see them at family get-togethers,” she admits. “I can’t imagine having a child of my own who will bother me every single day.”

Qu wants to marry someone who shares her views. Her current boyfriend, who’s also 23, is on the same page. But when she shared her thoughts with her parents, they didn’t take her seriously. “They think I am too young and too naive,” Qu says. “They believe I will naturally change my mind and want [a kid] when I see friends my own age start getting married and having children.”

Despite her confidence in her decision, the expectations of older generations give her pause. “I don’t need a child to be my spiritual support, but my parents and in-laws do,” she says. “I think I might just give birth to a child for their sake.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

The Shanghai Sex Shop Selling More Than Just Toys


SHANGHAI — With thousands of sex shops sprinkled throughout the city, another store opening its doors isn’t usually cause for queues. But on Pepper Love Store’s first day, word spread quickly via social media. Soon, a line snaked through the former French Concession, putting a smile on the face of Mao Yongyi, one of the shop’s six owners. “We probably became the hottest sex shop in China,” he says.

Situated in a prewar residential building, Pepper Love Store somewhat resembles a house with every room richly decorated. At the top of a staircase lined with sensual photos, one doorway leads to a bathroom boasting an artful display of dildos, vibrators, and cock rings in all shapes and sizes above the tub.

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Pepper Love Store, March 28, Shanghai. Fan Yiying

For customers who don’t know how to choose among the many products, Mao and his colleagues are on hand to give advice. They don’t want to be the kind of sex shop where the staff “gives you a look as if you’re doing something dirty,” Mao says. “We aim to help couples have a better sex life.”

The third floor is full of sexy lingerie and BDSM products, from whips to nipple clamps. Though sadomasochism is a subculture within a subculture, says Mao, around 20 percent of customers purchase SM-related toys. “We also give them tips on protecting each other,” Mao says.

The shop is set up to ensure privacy. Visitors must make a reservation, as only six pairs are allowed in every hour; all time slots have been booked in the two months since it opened. “Many people ask me, ‘Are your customers really willing to speak to you about their sex lives?’” Mao says. “As long as you’re in a professional environment and speak to them professionally, people are certainly willing to talk.”

Compared with the puritanical days of the 1980s, when selling or producing sex-related products was against the law, Chinese society has become a lot more open-minded: Sales of sex toys are increasing, people frankly discuss anything from their one-night stands to BSDM experiences on specialized social media apps, and e-commerce platforms offer half-hour delivery services for condoms. According to Guangzhou-based research firm iiMedia Research Group, China’s online market for sex toys was worth nearly 18.9 billion yuan ($3 billion) in 2017 and will exceed 60 billion yuan by 2020.

But according to Pepper Love Store designer Zhuang Xiaokai, society still has a ways to go. Upon entering the shop, customers are greeted with crimson walls and an abundance of flowers. “I use a lot of flowers to imply sex,” says Zhuang. She hopes the creatively decorated store will inspire people to spice up their sex lives and can convey to Chinese women — who Zhuang says are sexually repressed by traditional views of chastity — that pleasure is good.

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Pepper Love Store, March 28, Shanghai. Fan Yiying

Sixth Tone visited Pepper Love Store and spoke with Mao Yongyi and Zhuang Xiaokai, both in their late 30s, about the shop, their views on sex, and how Chinese men are failing their female partners. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sixth Tone: Yongyi, you previously ran another sex shop and now have about a decade of experience in the industry. Based on your observations, what, generally, do people get wrong about sex?

Mao Yongyi: In my opinion, sex is a way for couples to build trust and enhance understanding with each other. However, sex is often neglected or treated as a job by many Chinese couples. They don’t communicate or discuss it. Many men don’t know how to please their partners; on the other hand, it’s not uncommon for Chinese women to not know how to enjoy sex. Having sex with their boyfriends or husbands is viewed as an obligation. As long as the men are finished or happy, women think it’s good enough.

Sixth Tone: Many customers now prefer to buy adult toys online for privacy reasons. Why did you decide to open a brick-and-mortar shop?

Mao Yongyi: There are hundreds of thousands of adult toys in the world — how could you know which one suits you best without consulting professional shop assistants and playing around with it? When you shop online, you can’t see its size, you can’t feel its texture, and you don’t know whether it’s hard enough for you or the vibrational frequency is right for you. Most customers who have just started to explore sex toys don’t really know how to select the products that fit their needs, or how to use and play with them in multiple ways. Our job is to understand their needs and help them find the most suitable products.

Sixth Tone: Who are your main customers?

Mao Yongyi: Ninety-five percent of our customers are women who have a relatively high salary and good taste. They come by with either their partners or female friends. Most of our female customers can’t find satisfaction during sex because most Chinese men don’t know how to make love. Chinese men learn how to have sex from porn and intend to apply this to their partners. The majority of them have the inexplicable arrogance of thinking they are the best man in the world that their woman could possibly have. They don’t know much about the female body, nor are they willing to please their partners.

Sixth Tone: What are some of the most frequently asked questions from your female customers?

Mao Yongyi: I think Chinese women, especially urban millennials, are more and more open about exploring their bodies and spicing up their sex lives. But they also have common concerns: People often say they’re not sure whether they’ve ever had an orgasm, or they don’t know what to do when their boyfriends do a certain thing they don’t like or think is uncomfortable [in bed].

Sixth Tone: How have views on sex among the younger generation changed in the past decade?

Mao Yongyi: I think people are becoming more open about it, but the younger generation is receiving more mixed messages and misleading information about sex on the internet, and no one has taught them what’s wrong and what’s right. They don’t know how to protect themselves or be responsible to others. For instance, the definition of sexual assault is unclear to most of them. We’ve met a lot of customers who have a difficult time in their sex lives due to sexual assault they experienced in childhood.

As a mother, I feel that sex ed is sorely missing from the education system.

Sixth Tone: When straight couples visit the shop together, how do the men and women react differently?

Mao Yongyi: I wish I could see more supportive men, but unfortunately, I’ve only met a few in the shop. Men are more than happy to come here with their better half. But what annoys me is that they act as if they are very experienced and know all the products well. They then pick up anything they feel is exciting and ask their girlfriend to try it. Every time I witness that, I ask the guy: “Have you ever thought about what your girlfriend would like? Do you know her needs? Do you know what suits her body best?”

Occasionally, we meet girls who know exactly what they want. I remember a girl asking her boyfriend to buy a cock ring so they could try it together. He mocked her and told her to put it down, which really embarrassed her. I then suggested that the guy buy the product because he’s really lucky that his girlfriend knows her own body well and is willing to experience something new with him. He did so, reluctantly.

Sixth Tone: Xiaokai, what’s your favorite part of the shop?

Zhuang Xiaokai: One of my favorites is the window display that looks like a flower-shaped tunnel, symbolizing how people reach their climax. I also like the three deer [engaged in a threesome] that people see as soon as they open the door. [Visiting couples] could be either opposite sex or same sex, which shows our stance on sexual minorities. I’m surprised and happy to see that many customers we’ve served have no problem sharing their sexual orientation. I hope these artistic elements can attract visitors to our shop and eventually help build a healthy and positive attitude toward sex.

Sixth Tone: Pepper Love Store is your first foray into the industry. Why did you decide to join the world of sex shops?

Zhuang Xiaokai: As a mother, I feel that sex ed is sorely missing from the education system. It’s really a problem when most parents still don’t know what to do when their children ask where they come from. I think it’s high time for Chinese people to face up to sex.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

 

Dial D for Divorce: Court Uses WeChat in Moroccan-Chinese Breakup


A judge in east China resolved a Moroccan-Chinese couple’s long-running divorce case with the help of a video call through messaging app WeChat.

The ingenuity ended 20 months of cross-border litigation, the Intermediate People’s Court of Nanjing, in Jiangsu province, said on its WeChat public account Tuesday. The district court responsible for the piece of technological wizardry granted the divorce on Sept. 18.

The couple reportedly met when the Moroccan woman was studying in China. They registered their marriage and made plans to open a traditional Chinese medicine clinic in Morocco. However, after the woman moved back to her home country in 2015, she cut all communication with her Chinese husband.

The husband filed for divorce in January 2016. A trial date was set for Sept. 12, 2017, but by July this year the court still had not received confirmation from the woman as to whether she would attend. Instead of setting a new hearing date and repeating the complicated process of sending a court summons internationally, Judge Chen Wenjun opted for WeChat, a first for the court.

During the hearing, Chen compared the woman on screen with her photo on the marriage certificate and also verified her other personal information. A camera was set up in the courtroom to record the video call.

Protocol for divorce cases in China recommends that both parties appear in court so judges can question them. But, Chen was quoted as saying, “this can be achieved by WeChat video as well.” He added that using WeChat made it easier to persuade the woman to take part in the trial. One precondition for using WeChat was that the case wasn’t complicated, the article said, adding that the couple did not have any joint property.

A court in Zhangjiajie, in central China’s Hubei province, took a similar approach in May, when Chinese-Malaysian couple were also granted divorce via WeChat. Local media reported that the case “made it convenient for the parties involved, improved the efficiency of the trial, and embodied the judiciary’s concern for humanity.”

The Wedding Planner Reviving Naxi Traditions in Lijiang


YUNNAN, Southwest China — As the wedding party steps out into Lijiang’s old town square, curious tourists flock to the group, dazzled by their traditional Naxi attire. Many question whether the pomp and ceremony is a performance.

In fact, the Saturday afternoon spectacle is the real wedding of groom He Libao, 29, and bride Duan Jing, 21, both members of the Naxi, one of China’s 56 official ethnic groups. The Naxi population numbers around 300,000; most live in Lijiang, while the rest reside throughout Yunnan province and in neighboring Sichuan province and Tibet Autonomous Region.

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He Libao and bride Duan Jing are surrounded by tourists in Lijiang during their wedding ceremony.  Aug. 5, 2017. Yiying Fan

Though traditional wedding ceremonies are still common in remote villages, the custom has faded in the city of Lijiang since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), when cultural influences from the Han ethnic majority began to overwhelm the area. But now, a local wedding planning company called Xihe is reviving interest in the tradition — partly at the behest of tourists.

“Tradition is like a siege,” Wang Dejiong, a Naxi folk culture researcher, tells Sixth Tone. “People outside want to get in, while people inside want to get out.”

Most Naxi people follow the Dongba faith, which teaches that humans and nature are brothers. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, at important events such as weddings, the Naxi would invite a dongba — or shaman — to perform chants. Highly respected as accomplished scholars of Naxi culture, dongba pass down their duties within families from generation to generation.

Xihe organizes around two weddings every week, including the recent Saturday ceremony, which kicks off at the Yulong Bridge, where young couples would court in the old days. Groups of Naxi boys and girls sing in praise of the bride and groom. The newlyweds then release fish into the river to show their respect for nature.

After the fish are released, the bride is carried through the center of the old town in a fringed bridal chair — followed by a wedding party of close to 50 people — to a traditional Naxi house with three wings enclosing a courtyard.

In the courtyard, a dongba presides over the “soul-binding” ceremony — the most important part of the wedding. The dongba ties the couple’s hands together and announces that they can never again be separated. Afterward, dozens of young and old dance hand in hand, wishing the newlyweds happiness and prosperity.

I was so used to my own culture — all I wanted was to escape from it.

The ceremony does not include vows, as Naxi people are shy about expressing love verbally. “We believe actions speak louder than words,” the groom explains.

“Our souls are bound together,” the bride says after the ceremony. “If I ever got a divorce, I’d feel like I lost my soul.”

The ceremony venue is also the headquarters of wedding company Xihe, founded by Naxi woman He Yumiao — who is not related to He Libao. The company’s name means “joyful crane” in the Naxi language; Naxi people worship cranes and consider the sacred birds to be a symbol of a blessed marriage, as cranes are faithful to their mates. Once one dies, it is said that the other will starve itself and die for love.

Since its establishment in 2008, Xihe has arranged traditional Naxi wedding ceremonies for more than 1,000 couples in Lijiang. Wedding packages start at 6,999 yuan (around $1,050), and the ceremony lasts about one and a half hours.

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He Yumiao stands outside her company Xihe in Lijiang, Yunan.  Aug. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying 

He Yumiao, now 38, was born and raised in a Naxi household with three generations living under one roof. “I was so used to my own culture — all I wanted was to escape from it,” she tells Sixth Tone.

After graduating from high school, He Yumiao moved from Lijiang to Kunming, Yunnan’s provincial capital, in 1997 and worked at the city’s Naxi minority village tourist site as a performer. It was there that she wore traditional Naxi attire for the first time. Every day, she answered questions from tourists hailing from all over the world who were interested in the Naxi way of life. “It was overwhelming to see that they cared about my culture, which I took for granted every day,” she says.

A couple years later, He Yumiao moved back home to Lijiang and became a tour guide in the old town. In 2006, she met a Singaporean couple who had come to the city on their honeymoon. They were enamored with the local culture and asked whether she could arrange a traditional Naxi wedding for them. At the time, she knew didn’t know much about the ceremony — nor were there many examples in the city that she could follow — but she was determined to try. With the help of elderly locals, she organized a Naxi wedding in just a few days at Lijiang’s Black Dragon Pond Park.

It was then that He Yumiao decided to devote herself to preserving the Naxi wedding tradition. “I finally found where my heart belongs,” she says. “Folk customs are critical to an ethnic group, and a wedding celebration is of the utmost importance because it reflects the values of the [Naxi] culture.”

Tradition is like a siege. People outside want to get in, while people inside want to get out.

Naxi couple Li Jixing, 35, and He Dong, 38, stumbled upon the Singaporean couple’s wedding ceremony while they were strolling in the park, discussing their own wedding plans. Though they had heard elders speak of traditional ceremonies, it was the first time they had witnessed one for themselves. “I had never seen such a happy and glorious wedding in all my life,” Li tells Sixth Tone. The couple watched the entire ceremony and asked He Yumiao to arrange a similar one for them. “We always wanted a traditional wedding, but we couldn’t find a wedding company that offered such a service,” He Dong, Li’s husband, says.

The couple held their wedding ceremony in 2007 in their courtyard at home. Because He Yumiao’s business hadn’t officially launched yet, the ceremony was simple and brief. “But at least we had a ceremony,” He Dong says; otherwise, they would simply have had a banquet with family and friends like most couples of their generation.

After He Yumiao launched Xihe, she didn’t book her first wedding until six months later, when a transnational couple from Scotland and central China’s Hubei province asked her to arrange a wedding ceremony in Lijiang that brought together Naxi and Western customs. Photos of the ceremony posted online brought her many new customers.

But for the first five years of running her business, He Yumiao was frustrated that most of her clients were tourists, while many Naxi people paid little attention to their own traditions. “Locals would rather pay thousands of yuan to have a Western wedding at a church,” she says.

She credits tourists for helping to turn the tide. “The tourists have made Naxi weddings trendy and fashionable, which piqued locals’ interests,” she says. Now, half of her clients are locals, as more and more Naxi young people have begun to take pride in their traditions.

Yet the romance of the Dongba ceremony continues to draw many outsiders. Yang Cailing and her husband are both Han but have lived in Lijiang for the last decade. Though they had a Western wedding in 2012, Yang always felt something was missing. She decided she wanted a second wedding after finding out that the Naxi language had no word for divorce.

“At first, [my husband] was against the idea because he thought it would be like a performance for tourists in the old town of Lijiang,” Yang laughs. Meanwhile, she hoped the ceremony would spice up married life, which had begun to feel dull after a few years. The 31-year-old persuaded her husband to have a Dongba ceremony in January, and one month later, she found out she was pregnant with their second child.

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Yang Cailing and her husband hold a traditional Naxi Wedding in January 2017. Courtesy of Yang Cailin

He Yumiao started her company mainly out of curiosity, but she has since developed a deep sense of cultural responsibility. “We are probably the last generation of Naxi people to be raised in our local culture,” she says. “If I didn’t do something to save our wedding ceremony traditions, who would?”

But cultural researcher Wang still has doubts about the tradition’s prospects. “Naxi minorities are sinicized and tend to worship anything foreign,” he says. “It’s hard to revive the tradition, but at least [He Yumiao] is doing something.”