Why China’s Elderly ‘Huddle to Stay Warm’


HUBEI, Central China — Shen Exiang was feeding his six dogs with some minced pork and rice at home when his former colleague Deng Chao rode over on his motorcycle. It was a chilly February afternoon, but the snow was melting around the village, and Deng wanted to know if Shen and his wife would go hiking with him.

It’s a relaxed pace of life for the 60-somethings, who’ve recently swapped life in Wuhan, a city of nearly 11 million, for a new kind of retirement in the countryside. They “huddle to stay warm,” as the phenomenon has been dubbed. Unable to rely on their only children or state care facilities, they depend on each other for social support.

The concept of “huddling retirement” has aroused interest among middle-aged people ready to retire soon — China’s retirement age varies between 50 and 60 depending on one’s occupation. A couple in the eastern city of Hangzhou made headlines earlier this year when they invited five other retired couples, who shared a fondness for playing mahjong, to live in their three-story suburban home. They charged at most just 1,500 yuan per month for room and board, and cleaning services.

When Shen, 64, was getting ready to retire in 2012, he spent a year searching for the perfect place to start the new chapter of his life. One day, while hiking with friends, he came upon the area around Hanzi Mountain, about 100 kilometers east of downtown Wuhan. When passing through Hanzishan Village on their way down the mountain, he learned that the majority of the hamlet’s 800 residents worked and lived in the city, leaving their houses empty most of the year.

Shen retired after a 43-year career as an engineer at Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation, one of the largest state-owned enterprises in central China. He loves nature — hiking, hunting, camping, fishing, and looking after pigeons and dogs. “I can’t do any of these in the city,” Shen tells Sixth Tone. With his energetic demeanor, he organizes a range of activities and has a lot of friends who, like him, wish to stay active in retirement. “Our apartments in the city are just not big enough,” Shen says.

On the top of a hill overlooking a reservoir, Shen and his wife Yan Shifeng, 61, found their own retirement home. The single-story brick building had been abandoned for 10 years — the surrounding land was overrun with weeds and the fish in the nearly dried-up pond had long since died. The owners agreed to rent the 200-square-meter house and the land around it for 1,000 yuan ($160) a year for a decade. “It seemed incredibly cheap,” Yan says. “But we’ve spent over 100,000 yuan on renovating the house and cleaning up its surroundings.”

A view of Hanzishan Village on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth ToneA view of Hanzishan Village on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

As an engineer who used to be in charge of large-scale experimental energy projects, Shen considers the village’s “huddling community” his retirement project. Shen spent nearly two months converting the dilapidated house into what he and his wife now affectionately refer to as their “mountain villa.” Most of the work went into repairing the ceiling and installing a new bathroom and kitchen.

After local media reported on Shen and Yan’s hilltop abode, more than a thousand people have come to visit, many of whom were thinking about moving to the countryside themselves. Shen invited them to stay in one of his six spare bedrooms to experience rural life for a few weeks before making their decision. Since the couple moved to the village in 2013, more than 30 retirees from Wuhan have followed suit.

Traditionally, Chinese live with and depend on their children to take care of them later in life. However, most people who are currently entering retirement started their families in the 1980s, when China’s strict family planning policies only permitted one child. Many of today’s pensioners have realized that it is unrealistic to rely on just one child, who might be also raising children of their own. Official numbers reflects this, too. In 2016, over half of seniors nationwide were so-called empty nesters — seniors who live apart from their children. The proportion exceeded 70 percent in cities.

As a result, China’s youngest pensioners are more open-minded about their retirement plans— from spending big on high-end apartments in luxury senior housing to “destination retirement,” where seniors move around to different locations each season. Luo, the sociologist, sees “huddling retirement” as a response to inadequacies in state-provided elderly care. “China’s old-age welfare system was mainly built to fullfill material and service needs, but very little attention is paid to elderly people’s spiritual and social needs,” Luo says. “Huddling retirement satisfies precisely these requirements.”

Shen Exiang poses for a photo on the Hanzi Mountain on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth ToneShen Exiang poses for a photo on the Hanzi Mountain on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

For Shen, life in the countryside is certainly fullfilling. He wakes up around 6 every morning, eats breakfast, and exercises. Donning his favorite camouflage outfit, he then feeds the chickens, ducks, dogs, and sheep. For lunch and dinner, the couple and the other “huddling buddies” take turns to cook, and eat together in each other’s house.

Deng, 62, moved to the village four years ago. He raises hundreds of chickens in his yard and sells them at the market every weekend. “The high prices, traffic congestion, and poor air quality in the city are not suitable for retirement,” he says. “The natural environment here is a great attraction to me,” Deng adds.

Shen admits that he wouldn’t have moved to the countryside if it wasn’t for his sister, who is taking care of their mother in the city. His son, who is unmarried and loves to travel, also fully supports his parents’ move. “Many of my friends envy my carefree life in the country; however, they can barely step out of the urban center as they have to take care of their grandchildren in Wuhan,” says Shen.

Huddling retirement is still rare in Luo’s eyes, and she doesn’t think it’s a realistic alternative for most people. “These retirees are the ‘young seniors’ who are in good shape,” she says. “When they are ill and their health condition won’t allow them to live in the countryside for very long, they will have to move back to the city.” Though the government has promised improvements in rural health care, the best hospitals are still in the city.

But while Shen is concerned about health, he hopes he will never have to leave. “I think that when I’m old and need professional medical care, there will be good nursing facilities in the countryside, so that I could keep living here instead of moving back to the city,” he says, as he sips his favorite green tea.

A view of a newly renovated cottage bought by a couple, who are both doctors, in Hanzishan Village, on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth ToneA view of a newly renovated cottage bought by a couple, who are both doctors, in Hanzishan Village, on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

But if that doesn’t happen, Shen has another plan.

A five-minute walk down the hill from his home stands a house that’s currently being renovated. Its walls are now stark white, but the most eye-catching feature is the wood-paneled walls and terrace on the second floor reserved just for pigeons. Shen says that a couple bought the house recently and is planning to move in later in the year, when they retire. “They are both doctors,” he says. “I think it’s a really good thing for us to have them here.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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The Maybe-Magic Well Water of Twins Town


SICHUAN, Southwest China — When Xiao Renchun was four months pregnant in 2011, her belly had already grown much larger than expected. Even for a resident of Guxian Town, which has a high birth rate for twins, her stomach looked enormous. She visited a county clinic for an ultrasound, which showed she was pregnant with triplets. Thinking this couldn’t possibly be true, she visited a hospital in a city nearby to make sure. There, another scan showed that she wasn’t expecting three, but four babies.

“It was bittersweet,” Teng Demei, the children’s grandmother, tells Sixth Tone. “We were all excited about the quadruplets but were afraid they wouldn’t all survive the pregnancy.” Luckily, all four children were born healthy — further validating the legend of Guxian.

“Many people believe it’s the water in the well,” says Zheng Zhilin, an official in Guxian’s Xiaomenlu Village, the quadruplets’ hometown. Until 2016, when Xiaomenlu residents received access to running water, the village’s main water supply came from a single well. “People from the surrounding villages would come and drink our water if they wanted to have twins,” Zheng chuckles. Currently, the village of 1,400 residents has 13 pairs of twins, a trio of triplets, and one set of quadruplets.

The well of Xiaomenlu Village in Guxian Town, Sichuan province, Jan. 9, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone The well of Xiaomenlu Village in Guxian Town, Sichuan province, Jan. 9, 2018.

There is no official data on twin births in China. However, Zheng says that the local government previously calculated the rate of twin births for Xiaomenlu and five nearby villages. Of the 240 children born between 2006 and 2010, 14 were twins — accounting for nearly 6 percent of the new births. Naturally, only around one out of every 100 newborns is a twin, Wu Xin, a doctor at Shanghai’s Obstetrics & Gynecology Hospital of Fudan University, tells Sixth Tone.

The frequency of twin births in China has risen significantly since the implementation of the two-child policy in January 2016. Older mothers taking the opportunity to have another child often resort to assisted reproductive technology. Currently, 20 to 30 percent of women who conceive through treatments like in-vitro fertilization become pregnant with two or more children. But the mothers in Guxian Town say that they all got pregnant naturally.

Another popular theory for the region’s numerous twin births is the local DNA. There has been no research into Guxian genomes, but scientific research into twins shows that this line of thinking could hold more water than the well theory. Most twins in Guxian are believed to be fraternal — where two eggs are fertilized by two separate sperm cells, as opposed to identical twins, where one egg is fertilized by one sperm and then split into two. A 2016 study of mothers in Iceland identified two genetic variations that together increased the likelihood of a woman giving birth to fraternal twins by 29 percent.

The ancestors of some Guxian families moved here in the early 1900s from Yongzhou, an area in central China’s Hunan province — as is evidenced by the unique Guxian dialect, a mixture of Sichuanese and the dialect spoken in Yongzhou. Guxian locals say that before these migrants arrived, twins weren’t nearly as common, and so the migrants must have brought the genes to the area when they came.

Nevertheless, the well remains alluring. Sometimes people travel a long way to visit, and the government of Guxian Town, which oversees Xiaomenlu, hopes to turn this into a steady stream of tourism money. In their vision, villagers will open guesthouses for out-of-towners coming to see the well. The name for the main attraction hasn’t been decided yet, but Zheng says he likes “Water of the Many Children.”

A view inside the quadruplets’ house in Xiaomenlu Village, Sichuan province, Jan. 10, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone A view inside the quadruplets’ house in Xiaomenlu Village, Sichuan province, Jan. 10, 2018. Fan Yiying

Guxian made national headlines when Xiao gave birth to her quadruplets — two boys followed by two girls. She delivered her children in the West China Hospital in Chengdu, touted as southwestern China’s best medical institute. Chinese parents often choose a nickname for their children’s early years that is known and used only within the family. In the case of Xiao’s children, these are Chengcheng, Dudu, Huahua, and Xixi — after Chengdu Huaxi, the hospital’s name in Chinese.

As Chinese people have an affinity for “double happiness and blessing,” having twins has been seen as enviable — especially during the decades of the one-child policy, when having twins was a legal way to circumvent family planning restrictions. However, for many families, the financial pressures of raising more than one child are high, especially when they are the same age, and even more so when there are four of them.

The quadruplets’ family decided their old house was too small, so they knocked it down and built a three-story dwelling. When the children were born in October 2011, the family had only finished building the first floor. While Xiao was “sitting the month” — a Chinese tradition that dictates mothers to stay at home for a month after childbirth — construction was going on all around her. The new house cost the family about 200,000 yuan ($31,000), almost their entire savings.

Luckily, media attention inspired a local dairy company to provide the family with free milk powder for one year, worth more than 100,000 yuan. “Without [the company’s] help, they might not have been able to survive,” says their 58-year-old grandmother, Teng. The quads’ parents left home when the babies turned 1 year old, and now work in the coastal province of Zhejiang. They manage to send home around 3,000 yuan every month. Teng and her husband hardly make any money, spending their time on subsistence farming and taking care of the children.

The eldest child, Chengcheng, is the naughtiest among the four. “He always starts fights, but I know how to deal with him,” says Teng, adding that she plays the “bad cop,” as Grandpa is too soft and gentle. The younger boy, Dudu, is stubborn but clever. Huahua, the elder girl, is quiet, and the youngest girl, Xixi, is outgoing and talkative.

Now 6 years old, the quadruplets started preschool last September. The grandparents bought a three-wheeled tuk tuk to bring the children to and from school — it proved too difficult to keep an eye on four rambunctious children walking next to traffic.

Eight sets of twins who attend Guxian Secondary School pose for a photo in front of the school’s gate in Sichuan province, Jan. 9, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone Eight sets of twins who attend Guxian Secondary School pose for a photo in front of the school’s gate in Sichuan province, Jan. 9, 2018. Fan Yiying

To help the family out financially, the local government pays for the kids’ tuition, which is 650 yuan per child per semester. “Although China has not yet drafted a national policy to help families with multiple births, there is no doubt that there are financial difficulties in raising four kids,” says Yu Yang, deputy Party secretary of Guxian Town. Additionally, the family receives a 495-yuan monthly subsidy from the town’s government.

Long Xiaomei, also a Xiaomenlu mom, gave birth to twin girls in 2004, Mengting and Yuting. Because of the financial challenges of taking care of two newborns at once, “Concerns outweighed joy,” Long, 34, admits. Back then, the couple earned less than 600 yuan a month. She and her husband left Xiaomenlu to make money in the city when the girls were just 7 months old.

To Long’s shock, she got pregnant again three years later. And again, it was twins. Her husband urged her to get an abortion, afraid the family wouldn’t be able to provide for two more children — and she did. Then, in 2014, when Long and her husband were working in Shanghai, Long unexpectedly found out that she was expecting once more. Fearing it would be twins, she went to get an ultrasound. “The first question I asked the doctor was how many babies this time,” Long tells Sixth Tone. She decided to keep the baby after confirming “it was just one.”

Long’s youngest daughter, Fengting, was born in February 2015. By then, the Chinese government had amended its one-child policy to allow couples to have two children if either parent is an only child, but a third child still meant Long and her husband were fined 12,000 yuan. They started out raising Fengting in Shanghai, but mother and daughter moved back to Xiaomenlu earlier this month. “The twins are 14 and they need their mother during their adolescent years,” Long says.

Long Xiaomei and her daughters pose for a photo in Guxian Town, Sichuan province, Jan. 10, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth ToneLong Xiaomei and her daughters pose for a photo in Guxian Town, Sichuan province, Jan. 10, 2018. Fan Yiying

Mengting, Yuting, Fengting, and their mother now live in Guxian, where the twins attend middle school. Long rents a room from distant relatives for 1,000 yuan per year. It has two beds, a table, and a couple of chairs. They share the kitchen and bathroom with the neighbors. During the weekends, all of them return to the village to help with farm work and take care of their grandparents.

Yuting and Mengting — one looks like their father and the other looks like the mother — enjoy wearing the same outfit, down to matching gloves. “We often have the same grades and say the same things at the same time,” says Yuting. However, being twins can be frustrating, especially when you don’t want to stand out. “Everyone knows [everything] about us and we are a bit [embarrassed] because our grades are not good enough,” she adds. To Long’s disappointment, the teenagers don’t seem to be too happy about being around their mother every day. “I’ve never been there for them,” she says. “They still see me as a stranger.”

Long still thinks about the twins she aborted a decade ago. “The doctor later told me they were boys,” she recalls, sobbing. “I sometimes see them in my dreams.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Jiangsu Drafts Law for Fairer Parenting, More Paternity Leave


In a national first, the eastern province of Jiangsu has drafted a law for “joint parenting leave” for fathers to promote equal employment and collaborative child-rearing, local media reported Wednesday.

Fathers in China already have seven to 30 days of paid paternity leave, depending on local regulations, though this is termed “birth companion leave.” In June, the provincial law office of Jiangsu — which currently provides 15 days of paternity leave — published a consultation paper that proposed at least 15 days of additional joint parenting leave for fathers.

But the draft submitted to the legislature on Tuesday watered down the proposal from a mandatory minimum of 15 days to a recommendation of at least five days. The provision was reduced, an official told the local news outlet, because of concerns about increased costs to employers.

If the draft passes, Jiangsu will be the first in the country to institute such measures, but other provinces may soon follow suit. Shandong province, also in eastern China, is exploring similar legislation, and the state-endorsed All-China Women’s Federation has repeatedly called for joint parenting leave to encourage more active parenting from fathers.

“In China, women take on a lot more responsibilities, while men fail to do their jobs when it comes to bringing up a child,” said Xia Xuemin, a researcher at Zhejiang University’s Public Policy Research Institute. Xia believes joint parenting leave is crucial for pushing Chinese men to do their fair share, especially as the government continues to promote the two-child policy. “Five days seems too short,” he added.

The two-child policy came into effect nationwide in January 2016. However, many women, especially working mothers, say it is too hard to have two children, given inadequate public child care services and the uneven division of child-rearing labor between husband and wife. In addition, though employees are legally entitled to maternity leave, many women are still scared that having children could ruin their careers.

While Jiangsu’s proposed policy has earned the approval of many users on microblog platform Weibo, some wonder whether it will be implemented effectively. “If it’s just ‘an encouragement,’ few companies will actually make it happen,” commented one user.

Strapped for Grave Sites, Shenyang Promotes Green Burials


Families who chose “green burials” for their loved ones in the northeastern city of Shenyang will receive subsidies of up to 1,000 yuan ($150), a local newspaper reported Monday. According to a regulation issued earlier the same day by the Shenyang Civil Affairs Bureau, the local government will subsidize eco-friendly burials that don’t further tighten the squeeze on land.

Officials at the Shenyang Civil Affairs Bureau told the paper that each family can apply for subsidies of 1,500 yuan, of which 500 yuan will go to the cemetery providing the service and up to 1,000 will go toward the family’s costs.

Eligible burials include cremated ashes that are scattered or buried under trees, flowerbeds, or lawns. The regulation stipulates detailed criteria: For tree burials, for instance, the ashes must be placed in a biodegradable container and buried without a monument on the surface. Flowerbed and lawn burials must be covered with plants suited to the northern climate.

During the Tomb-Sweeping Festival in early April each year, tens of millions of Chinese people travel to visit the tombs of their ancestors and dearly departed. In most of the country, funeral customs have traditionally involved burial with the body intact, though Mao Zedong himself promoted cremation in the 1950s. But as Chinese cities become ever more crowded, governments are increasingly advocating for cremation and green burials in order to conserve land and protect the environment.

In 2016, nine government departments jointly issued guidelines promoting green burials to “lighten the burden of the masses, ensure basic burial needs, and benefit future generations.” More recently, policymakers have also instituted a wide range of funeral reforms intended to curb ostentatious and superstitious practices — in some places, even going so far as to ban traditional folk instruments, a move many cultural critics have denounced.

Reforms implemented for ecological and urban planning purposes are less controversial. In addition to Shenyang, several other cities and provinces are currently promoting green burials and funerals. Since March, the Beijing municipal government has offered free “natural burials” — worth an estimated 4,000 yuan — in which the deceased’s ashes are “returned to nature” via a compostable container.

In coastal Shanghai, families receive a 1,000 yuan subsidy if they select a sea burial, in which the deceased’s ashes are scattered at sea. Data from the Shanghai funeral service center showed that by the end of 2016, a total of 37,056 sea burials had taken place since 1991, when the city introduced the practice, and that the number of sea burials had increased from about 100 each year in the 1990s to over 3,300 in 2016.

“The concept of burial is about to change,” said 65-year-old Shanghai native Chen Qian. He told Sixth Tone that he would like a green burial himself when his time comes. “It’s environmentally friendly and could reduce the hassle for my children,” he said.

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.”

Plus-Size Models Challenge China’s Narrow Beauty Standards


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

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

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

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

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

Chinese people think of beauty as slenderness.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Dalian’s Patchwork Family of Prisoners’ Children


LIAONING, Northeast China — As the sun rises in the seaside city of Dalian, 46-year-old Ju Chunmei prepares breakfast for 20 children while holding 2-year-old Hai Fan. “Mama, Mama,” the little girl mumbles, pointing out a bag of oranges on the ground.

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Children play on a seesaw at Dalian Children’s Village in Liaoning province, April 17, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

In fact, Ju is not Hai Fan’s mother but a former prisoner who volunteered to look after the young charges living in Dalian Children’s Village after she was released last October. A single mother, Ju entrusted her own son to the village in 2011 when she was sentenced to five years in prison for credit card fraud.

Located on the western end of the city, Dalian Children’s Village is a registered nongovernmental organization that was established in 2003 to provide a home for minors whose parents were in prison. Children of prisoners have mostly been ignored by government welfare bodies, which expects extended families to fill in when parents are incarcerated.

Many of the children in Ju’s care were homeless and hungry before they came to the village, after being rejected by their relatives because of the stigma associated with having a family member in prison. Half of the children also lack household registration, or hukou, usually because they were either born out of wedlock or considered additional to family planning rules, meaning they cannot easily access many public education and health care services. Besides material deprivations, they have endured both the loss of their most loved and trusted guardians and, often, humiliation for their parents’ crimes.

Society discriminates against these children, and what we do here isn’t supported by the government either.

Children of prisoners are also at a higher risk of dropping out of school or breaking the law themselves, a 2006 report from the Ministry of Justice warned. The report found that there were more than 600,000 children belonging to China’s 1.56 million prisoners at the end of 2005, and nearly 95 percent of these children hadn’t received any kind of social aid. Yet no government department is held responsible for the welfare of prisoners’ offspring.

The children cannot be legally adopted either, as the State Council — China’s cabinet — explicitly excluded juveniles whose parents are in prison from its definition of orphans in a notice issued in 2010.

Though Dalian Children’s Village receives some donations from individuals, universities, and other charities, funding for most of its daily operating costs comes out of the pocket of its current head, Wang Gangyi. The 61-year-old took over the village in 2007, after its founder died unexpectedly and its second head quit due to the pressure of the position.

“Society discriminates against these children, and what we do here isn’t supported by the government either,” Wang tells Sixth Tone.

Hai Bao chases a dog at Dalian Children’s Village in Liaoning province, April 17, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Hai Bao chases a dog at Dalian Children’s Village in Liaoning province, April 17, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Dalian Children’s Village is now in its third home, spread over 4,000 square meters of land that Wang purchased for over 3 million yuan ($435,000) in 2012. Its 20 juvenile residents range in age from a few months to 17 years old. Wang says that the village is one of nine registered charities around the country that have served about 3,000 children of prisoners to date.

Zhang Hongwei, a law professor at Jinan University in the southern province of Guangdong, has been researching the issues facing children of prisoners for several years. He tells Sixth Tone that his research suggests very few children have both parents in prison. “When we don’t have detailed data, and the number of victims doesn’t seem very large, it’s hard to push the government to enact a law,” Zhang says.
Wang also has a legal background. Until his retirement last year, he worked as a lawyer and as a law professor at Dalian University of Technology. Yet he came into his role in the charity through his career as a cold-water swimmer.

Dubbed “China’s Iceman,” Wang is considered a national hero for his feats in icy waters. Between 2001 and 2006, he set several Guinness World Records for cold-water swimming, including a plunge into the Antarctic Ocean. As a celebrity, he made countless public speeches; one at Dalian Nanguanlin Prison in 2004 changed the course of his life.

After Wang gave a motivational speech to the prisoners, one inmate pleaded for Wang to find his daughter, who had been abandoned by his wife after he went to jail. When Wang located her, the 4-year-old had been living under a bridge for over a year, begging and scrounging for food in trash cans. “She looked so bony and frightening,” Wang recalls.

Volunteers make dumplings with the kids at Dalian Children’s Village in Liaoning province, April 17, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Volunteers make dumplings with the kids at Dalian Children’s Village in Liaoning province, April 17, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Wang gradually became involved with Dalian Children’s Village after sending the girl there in 2004. When he took over the village in 2007, he gave her the name Hai Ou. Wang renames all the children who join the village, giving them the surname Hai, meaning “sea” in Chinese. For one, Dalian is the largest port in northern China, and secondly, Wang wants the kids to grow up broad-minded, with lives as vast and varied as the ocean. Now, even Ju calls her own son by his new name.

“With the same surname, we are like a family,” says 8-year-old Hai Xi, who came to the village last November. Her mother was sentenced to 10 years in prison for kidnapping and trafficking, and her father died in a car accident shortly afterward.

As grateful as she is to Wang, who saved her from being homeless, Hai Xi is glum and shows no interest in playing with the other children. “I miss my mom to death,” she says. She counts down the days until she can visit her mother in Shenyang, around 400 kilometers north of Dalian. “Each day seems like a year,” she mutters.

It’s not easy for ex-cons to start a new life immediately after we get released.

Children come to the village from all over China, so many of their parents are serving sentences far from Dalian. The cost and distance makes visits difficult, but Wang drives the children thousands of miles every year during the summer holidays to spend time with their parents. “Seeing their kids doing well gives prisoners more courage to live and remold themselves,” says Wang. Even those sentenced to death or with no hope of release find motivation in their children.

The village also aims to provide a safe haven for recently released prisoners like Ju. “It’s not easy for ex-cons to start a new life immediately after we get released,” Ju says. Feeling disconnected from the wider society and facing pervasive discrimination, Ju says she feels comfortable in the village because everyone there understands her circumstances.

Wang believes it’s far from sufficient to simply meet the children’s material needs. He hopes to instill self-esteem, self-reliance, and a strong sense of initiative in each of them. After school, the kids are assigned housework or gardening chores in the village’s vegetable patch.

“The kids in the village are more thoughtful and hardworking compared with children who are spoiled by their parents and grandparents at home,” says Ju. But their difficult experiences also lead the village children to act out.

Hai Xi sits in the activity room at Dalian Children’s Village in Liaoning province, April 17, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Hai Xi sits in the activity room at Dalian Children’s Village in Liaoning province, April 17, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

“They are stubborn, wayward, irritable, and aggressive,” Ju says. She doesn’t want to replicate the harsh discipline she experienced in prison, but she is careful to set hard limits. “I have to be strict with them to prevent them from following in their parents’ footsteps.”

According to law professor Zhang, most children of prisoners experience discrimination at school, and many feel guilt and shame for their parents’ crimes. “Psychological intervention is crucial,” he says, “but most charity NGOs can’t afford professional staff to help these children with regard to their mental health.”

Psychological intervention is crucial but most charity NGOs can’t afford professional staff to help these children with regard to their mental health.

Though he believes organizations like Dalian Children’s Village benefit their charges, Zhang feels they do not address the underlying problem of legal custody and guardianship.

In recent years, the Ministry of Civil Affairs has begun to take responsibility, establishing rescue centers in some cities for children of prisoners. “But it will take a long time to build support facilities and improve staff capacity nationwide,” Zhang says.

More than 100 children have grown up in Dalian Children’s Village since its inception. Some stay for a couple of years until their parents are released, while others remain until they come of age.

Hai Ou, the then-4-year-old who started Wang on his journey, is now 18. She left the village last year and now works as a waitress in the city, visiting Wang and her de facto siblings whenever she has free time. “He’s like my father,” Hai Ou says of Wang. “I wouldn’t be what I am now without him.”

However, most of the children never return once they leave the village. Wang says many are desperate to escape the label of being a prisoner’s child at the first chance they get. He doesn’t resent their decision. “As long as they are doing well, my job is done,” he says.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Caring for China’s Smog Dogs


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Longevity Pilgrims Go to Guangxi to Learn Secrets of Old Age


Mist drifts among the peaks of Bama County’s verdant mountains in a scene that landscape artists could only dream of. Yet the county, in southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, is known not for its scenery but for its legendary status as the country’s “home of long life.”

Bama County boasts 96 people over the age of 100 among its 300,000 residents, according to local government records. Of the county’s centenarians, sprightly 112-year-old Huang Ma Kun is one of the most famous.

When Huang was born, China was still a dynastic empire, and women in her area had low social standing. They didn’t even possess names of their own until they were married: “Huang Ma” means a woman of the Huang family, and “Kun” was the nickname of her husband. This became her official name after she married at just 14 years of age.

Living through wars, famines, and revolutions has left Huang, who belongs to the Zhuang ethnic minority, with vivid memories of hardship and deprivation. Even now, in these days of relative plenty, she prefers to keep her diet simple and plain, as do most of Bama County’s other elderly inhabitants. Huang doesn’t eat anything sweet and gives non-local foods such as milk or bread a wide berth.

Neighbors offer lunar new year greetings to 112-year-old Huang Ma Kun in Bama County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Jan. 31, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Neighbors offer lunar new year greetings to 112-year-old Huang Ma Kun in Bama County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Jan. 31, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Three days after a family meal to celebrate the lunar new year, attended by five generations of her family, Huang was still eating leftovers of her favorite delicacy, a species of fish that only lives in the nearby river. Locals cite the fish — known as youyu, or “oily fish,” and rich in heart disease-battling omega-3 fatty acids — as one of the reasons for their good health. “We call it ‘underwater ginseng’ because of its great health benefits,” Huang says.

Huang is something of a celebrity, her age a huge draw for the county’s many visitors who seek not only to witness, but also to benefit themselves, from the area’s supposed life-extending properties. In 2016, a record 4.35 million tourists flocked to the county, a 20-fold increase in the figure from a decade ago.

Outside her home, dozens of the longevity pilgrims from near and far line up to offer new year’s greetings to Huang and take photos with her, and Beijingers Zhang Yufeng and her husband, both in their 70s, are next.

As is tradition, the couple give Huang a small hongbao — a red envelope containing money — as a token of their wishes for her continued good health. The fact that they can’t understand Huang when she returns their blessings — like many her age, she cannot speak Mandarin and only knows the local Zhuang language — doesn’t seem to matter.

Zhang Yufeng and her husband pose for a photo in Bama County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Feb. 1, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Zhang Yufeng and her husband pose for a photo in Bama County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Feb. 1, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Zhang and her husband are just two of the millions of tourists who will visit Bama County this year. While many spend just a few nights, the couple, who traveled over 2,500 kilometers to be there for the Chinese New Year, are taking the longevity pilgrimage to the next level. They are renting a small apartment for 1,500 yuan (around $220) per month nearby. “We are thinking of staying here for the long term,” says Zhang, who is retired. “Our children can come to visit us here next new year.”

At 32 centenarians per 100,000 people, the county still lags behind the world leader, Japan, where the proportion is 48 per 100,000. Nevertheless, Bama County boasts a rate of over-100-year-olds that is more than 10 times China’s national average.

That figure is likely boosted by the fact that the region — with its thick forests and steep hills — doesn’t lend itself to farming, meaning that a large proportion of the younger population has left Bama County in search of work elsewhere. Those who do stay to work the land find that a year’s harvest will feed their own families but offers little else.

Meanwhile, scientists have found their own explanation for the “home of long life” in the county’s distinctive natural environment. In the government-funded Bama Longevity Culture Exhibition Hall, a number of scientific theses on display extol the positive health effects of the area’s unnaturally high geomagnetism (though some studies claim that high geomagnetic levels are harmful to the body) and high concentration of negative ions — oxygen atoms with one extra electron — in the air of local caves.

Tourists sit and chat inside Baimo Cave to receive geomagnetic therapy in Bama County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Feb. 1, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Tourists sit and chat inside Baimo Cave to receive geomagnetic therapy in Bama County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Feb. 1, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Along the river near Baimo Cave, Zhang waits in line beside villagers and visitors alike to fill her plastic bottle with spring water. “Locals told me that the spring water here is intensively magnetized by the cave and filtered by the karst rock,” she says. “That enables it to cure some diseases.” The couple have a monthlong pass to Baimo Cave, which they visit with deck chairs to get their daily dose of ionized oxygen.

According to Ye Liuyan, Bama’s deputy county mayor, in addition to the millions of tourists, there are 100,000 or so non-locals who live there semipermanently, renting property on a month-by-month basis. A local tourism industry covering cave entrance fees, eateries, accommodation, transportation, and souvenirs has emerged along with the influx of people, but the local government remains ambivalent about the sector’s growth.

Many of the county’s villages have become flooded with not only those seeking long life but also those seeking cures to serious illnesses. “The natural environment in Bama County does do good to one’s health,” says Ye, “but the effects have been deified by the sick people one after another.”

While the self-perpetuating reputation of the county as a life-giving haven has brought the area relative prosperity — as evidenced by a 12-percent year-on-year increase in income for locals, according to Ye — the government has taken steps to curb the impact that such massive human traffic has begun to produce.

A view of Bapan Village and Panyang River in Bama County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Feb. 1, 2017. A number of high-rises have been built since 2009 to host the growing number of tourists. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A view of Bapan Village and Panyang River in Bama County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Feb. 1, 2017. A number of high-rises have been built since 2009 to host the growing number of tourists. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

In 2012, the government prohibited the construction of high-rise buildings that had begun to spring up in 2009 to house increasing numbers of inhabitants both temporary and permanent. A number of high-end resorts and hotels will be completed outside of the villages by the end of 2017, explains Ye, in an attempt to draw visitors away from the longevity villages themselves. “We aim to relocate elderly visitors to the ‘holiday villages’ planned and built for them,” she says, “so as to reduce the negative influences on locals’ lives.”

But at the same time, plans to increase access to the isolated county thunder on. A highway connecting Bama County and the provincial capital, Nanning — scheduled to open by the end of 2018 — could make things more difficult for a local government seeking both to protect the region’s landscape and villagers and to flaunt its unique, highly monetizable selling point.

For Huang’s grandson Huang Jun, who lives with her, the spike in tourism is unquestionably a good thing. Now 43 years old, Huang Jun chose to return to the village to rent property to visitors, after having worked in the city for many years. In the past, tourism was a far-off concept for villagers who were happy with just three corn-based meals a day. Now, things have changed, Huang Jun explains between steaming mouthfuls of the expensive oily fish: “Life is much better and easier now.”

The star of countless selfies and recipient of many a hongbao, Huang Ma Kun is more than happy to muster a smile for anyone who comes to her door. Bama’s reputation has brought the country to the 112-year-old’s doorstep, and it may yet do the reverse as well. As the latest horde of tourists snaps away on their phones, she smiles and says, “Some visitors from Beijing told me they would take me there one day.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.