Pensioners and Preschoolers Mix it Up in Chinese Nursery


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional reporting: Ai Jiabao.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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.”

My Makeover With China’s Blind Beautician


BEIJING — Sitting on the couch in Xiao Jia’s apartment, I learned how difficult it is to apply makeup to a face you cannot see.

Xiao, 27, gradually lost her eyesight during her teens. Determined to avoid the life in society’s shadows that most of her blind compatriots have, she channeled her love of painting into studies on becoming a makeup artist. It was a tough skill to grasp, but one so worthwhile to master, she has made it her mission to share it.

With a podcast, an account on social media app WeChat, and a small but lively community of followers, Xiao has inspired visually impaired women around the country to take pride in their appearance, even if they themselves cannot see it. “Everyone has the right to make themselves look pretty — even people like us who can’t see,” she tells me. “We are not putting on makeup to please others. We are just doing it to make ourselves happy.”

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Xiao Jia uses an eyelash curler at her home in Beijing, Dec. 27, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

I visit Xiao in her apartment in the southwestern outskirts of Beijing on a frigid winter day. She wears a long, gray cardigan and greets me with a big smile. She then shows me her black-and-pink multilayered makeup box, filled with her daily products. With the help of friends, she has labeled everything with special tape and braille — without which a full set of cosmetics would be daunting, says Xiao. “Many cosmetics come in nearly identical bottles or packages for different skin types and functions.”

After removing my own makeup, I ask her to apply it again. As we sit next to each other on her living room couch, she touches my face to determine its shape and suggests I get bangs. After feeling my cheeks, nose, and forehead, she finds bottles of toner and lotion that work well with my skin, and gently pats them onto my face and neck.

“Though many people think it’s unnecessary for blind people to apply makeup, since it’s tough and we wouldn’t even ‘see’ the outcome, I consider the whole process a way for me to enjoy the moment, and give myself a well-deserved break from daily struggles,” Xiao tells me while applying sunscreen, the second step. When not in a rush, she can spend two hours doing her makeup, but she can also get it done in five minutes, she says.

Xiao then selects foundation that matches how I described my skin tone to her and dabs tiny dots across my face. “We need to blend more on areas like the nose and the corners of the lips,” she tells me. For the visually impaired, Xiao says, applying foundation is like mopping the floor. “Since we can’t see where the dirt is, all we can do is to mop a few more times back and forth.”

Xiao studied painting for six years before being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition in which the light-sensitive tissue in the eye breaks down. It left her without vision after just two years. Her dream of studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, one of the nation’s best art institutions, was forever unattainable. “At that moment, I thought blind people were doomed to miserable lives,” she says. Like so many of China’s more than 12 million visually impaired people, she became a massage therapist.

In her early 20s, Xiao’s father bought her a computer, and the internet opened up another world for her. She wrote and emailed essays to Beijing-based Youren Magazine, a publication run by a nongovernmental organization for people with disabilities. Its editor-in-chief liked her works and encouraged her to pursue her dreams. Shortly after, Xiao quit her job in her hometown — a small county in eastern Jiangxi province — moved to Beijing, and got a new job as a stenographer. Later, she worked for a charity, organizing projects for women with disabilities. In late 2014, Xiao attended an event where, for the first time, someone put makeup on her before she went onstage. “The makeup artist said I looked pretty, like a superstar,” she recalls.

Xiao has never seen her own makeup. All her experience comes from her teacher Ji Chunli’s feedback over the years. The two met at a beauty event in 2015 after Xiao found a makeup tutorial video featuring a blind British girl, which gave her determination to master the skill. She bought cosmetics that were advertised as “so easy to use, you can do it with your eyes closed,” and started trying. “The hardest part for me is not whether I can be good at it; instead, it’s if I have the courage to make the first move,” she says.

Ji had no experience teaching the visually impaired, but was touched by Xiao’s resolve. Every week for a year, Xiao took a one-hour bus ride to attend classes at Ji’s beauty studio. Ji applied makeup to half a face, let Xiao touch and compare the different sensations, and asked her to complete the other half. Ji’s never thought of Xiao’s impairment as a problem. “Her painting experience helps her match colors, and years of massaging has familiarized her with facial structures,” she tells me.

When Xiao first experimented with cosmetics, she loved using eyeshadow pens, especially for dark colors, to draw a thick line on her eyelids. “In my mind, makeup needed to be bold and exaggerated,” she laughs. Back then, she had no idea how to use mascara or eyeliner and often ended up with watery eyes. “I remember people telling me my eyelashes were so clumpy, they looked like fly legs,” she says. Another time, a friendly stranger on the street told her that her face was full of uneven white spots. “But I was still happy,” she says. “I felt beautiful.”

A picture of Xiao Jia at her home in Beijing, Dec. 27, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A picture of Xiao Jia at her home in Beijing, Dec. 27, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Once she had mastered makeup, Xiao wanted to share her skills with her community. “There’s a large number of blind people who want to make themselves look beautiful by applying makeup, but don’t know how to do so or can’t find a professional to teach them,” says Wang Jiaojiao, 31, one of Xiao’s students. “Makeup allows us to change traditional impressions of the visually impaired by changing our own images,” she adds.

The two met one day last summer when Wang walked into the downtown Beijing beauty salon where Xiao works. Many young women with visual impairments have done so over the past few years, having learned about Xiao through media coverage or her own social media presence. They are all examples of the power of learning how to do makeup, Xiao says. “Many of them felt nervous and anxious when I asked them to take off their sunglasses, but after a few times, they started to grow confident and no long resisted showing off their eyes.”

Xiao launched her public account “A Visually Impaired Girl Talks Beauty” on WeChat in January 2017. Even though she doesn’t have many followers, just around 500, she says the community is very active. Xiao also uploads her series of beauty lessons to the popular audio media platform Ximalaya FM, calling them “the skin care and cosmetics skills you can learn with your eyes closed.” Every month, with the help of co-workers, she records a few episodes on topics such as how to discern skin types, the correct order to apply cosmetics, and which kinds of clothing match. She encourages her audiences to reach out to her on WeChat if they have questions and often receives calls or messages after midnight — when most massage therapists finish work. She gave free lectures at first and has since been invited to give paid speeches and workshops on beauty around the country.

Thirty-something An Xin now spends half an hour doing her makeup before heading out to work in a massage parlor in northeastern Liaoning province. After listening to Xiao’s podcasts for over a year, she still hasn’t quite mastered doing her eyes. “It’s so easy to mess up with mascara or eyeliner,” says An, who is blind. But she adds, “for me, the process is more important than the result.”

For many of Xiao’s followers, her uplifting story is more meaningful than learning how to apply makeup. “She has inspired me to discover my own beauty and strong points, to understand that everyone is special in their own way, and to eventually learn to love and accept who I am,” says An.

Xiao Jia’s makeup kit at her home in Beijing, Dec. 27, 2018. Lu Yunwen/Sixth Tone

Xiao Jia’s makeup kit at her home in Beijing, Dec. 27, 2018. Lu Yunwen/Sixth Tone

Back in Beijing, Xiao has finished applying the base and moves her fingertips to the area around my eyes to apply blue eye shadow, matching my navy-blue sweater. She then suggests I draw the eyeliner myself — without a mirror — to experience “blind makeup.” Uncertain, I give it a try. I prop my right elbow on the table, close my eyes, and, under her guidance, draw dot by dot along my eyelashes. “This is so hard,” I blurt out.

After Xiao has determined the shape of my lips, she applies the “flame red” shade and hands me a napkin to wipe my teeth, unsure if there is any wayward lipstick. Similarly, she cleans my lower eyelids and the corners of my eyes after applying products, just to be sure.

Thirty minutes later, I’m filled with anticipation and have my face practically pressed against the mirror to see the result. I don’t see much difference with the makeup I had on before I sat down, but that’s probably the point. And in any case, it’s the process that really matters.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

One Retiree’s Solution for Solitude: Nude Modeling


SICHUAN, Southwest China — As a nude model, Wang Suzhong cares about his appearance. Though he now stands at 1.68 meters tall, he stresses that he used to be a better-sounding 1.70: “I’ve shrunk by 2 centimeters.” When he bothers to brush his silver hair, it flows like that of a much younger man. In the past six years, he has modeled several times a week in nearly all the art institutes and colleges in town. For an 89-year-old, he has quite the career.

This unusual line of work is Wang’s answer to what has become known in China as the empty-nester problem, or when elderly people don’t live with their children. Until fairly recently, this was a rare situation in the country, but as younger generations prefer having their own homes, a majority of seniors now live alone. Empty nesters make up more than 70 percent of the elderly population in urban areas like Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, a city of 14 million where one in every five is aged 60 or above. To make sure these lonesome seniors get enough attention, the filial duty to visit or call one’s parents became a law in 2013.

Wang Suzhong, an 89-year-old nude model, reflects on his past — and on his dreams for the future. Courtesy of Ergeng

“I want to set an example for empty nesters like me, to find their own passion, be independent, and not become a burden on society,” says Wang as he takes a sip of the noodle soup he made for lunch — a lighter dish than normal, on account of a toothache. All Wang’s friends feel old and have health problems; some have passed away. But Wang’s new passion keeps him young, he says.

In 2012, when Wang was strolling past Sichuan Normal University near his home, he glimpsed a nude model posing for students at a life-drawing class at an art studio. Having worked as a tailor in the fashion industry all his life, Wang has always been fond of art involving the human form. When the manager of a figure-model agency noticed him, he looked Wang up and down a few times, and after a short pause asked if Wang wanted to be a nude model as well. “I thought about it for a day, and I was so excited that I tossed and turned in bed that night,” Wang says.

Wang wasn’t the least bit nervous the first time he modeled. In each class, he must maintain the same posture for an hour. Sometimes, he sits on a chair or sofa; other times, he stands or leans against the wall. “The students look so serious when drawing me, which makes me feel like I’m a work of art,” Wang says, flashing an easy smile.

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Wang Suzhong sorts out his paintings in his apartment in Chengdu, Sichuan province. October 25, 2018. Fan Yiying 

When Sixth Tone meets Wang at his apartment in Chengdu, he’s on his day off. He’s wearing a dark jacket over a white shirt, and brown nylon pants. While eating his lunch, he watches international news on his new 55-inch TV; on a nearby desk is an assortment of fruit, a mirror, and a calendar themed after Chinese President Xi Jinping. His favorite portrait of himself hangs on the wall next to his bed. A student painted him sitting down on a table with his knees drawn to his chest and hands on his shins while looking into the distance. Wang says his mind is blank when he models for the students: “I don’t think about the past or the future. I just want to live in the moment.”

The public housing apartment costs 400 yuan ($58) in rent, just a tenth of his relatively generous monthly pension. He earns 110 yuan a day modeling, which he does up to three times a week. Wang doesn’t need the extra income. “Obviously, I’m not modeling for money,” he says. “When I’m working with the students, I feel like I’m not alone, and I’m still needed.” When Wang was younger, his mother needed him, then his wife needed him, and his children needed him. Now, his mother, wife, and younger son have passed away. The remaining three children have their own lives and rarely come to visit.

During summer and winter school breaks, when Wang’s modeling skills are not in high demand, he gets up at 6 a.m., reads his newspaper, and then buys food at the market. After cooking for himself, he goes to the neighborhood’s elderly service center and chats with other empty nesters. Despite being a big mahjong fan, Wang hasn’t played in a while. “I only enjoy playing with people I really like, but unfortunately they’ve all died,” he says. Sometimes, he joins the chorus at the park, singing revolutionary songs with other seniors.

Born in a small provincial city in 1929, Wang has gone through many of China’s most turbulent times, from World War II to the civil war that followed, and later the Great Chinese Famine and the Cultural Revolution. His father died when he was 3, and in 1942 Wang dropped out of school because his mother could no longer afford tuition. Wanting to fight the Japanese, he signed up for the air force, but an eye condition kept him from joining the war.

Wang then traveled to Chengdu to learn how to sew clothes from a relative. By 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established, Wang had become a skillful tailor specializing in Western suits. He eventually became the general manager of a state-owned garment factory. He has taught more than 100 apprentices and has traveled all over the country, from cosmopolitan Shanghai to dusty inland cities, to meet with clients.

Wang’s career brought him abundant income. He was able to purchase three apartments in central Chengdu that he gave to his children, hoping that he could live with them in old age. However, after his wife died in 1997, his relationship with his children wasn’t particularly good. And it got worse when they found out about his modeling, which they consider “disgraceful,” Wang says.

Wang’s elder son works as a security guard. When he found out that his father would habitually strip naked in front of art students, he called and yelled that he wanted to end their relationship as father and son. Both of Wang’s daughters are retired. One visits him once every few months, and he has lost contact with the other. Wang’s family members declined Sixth Tone’s interview requests. Earlier this year, one of his granddaughters, a university student, told Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper that she’s happy her grandfather found his own passion.

“It’s not shameful to be a nude model at all,” Wang says. It’s the kind of art he learned briefly at school — Western-style life drawing and oil painting — but back then, he didn’t have the opportunity to study it further. Wang used to envy his fellow seniors who had their children and grandchildren for company, but now he’s relieved. “How long do you think I can live?” he asks. “I just want to follow my dream and make a contribution to society by doing something most people are reluctant to do.”

And there are plenty of people who do appreciate Wang. In China, he is something of a web celebrity, or wanghong — a term he has heard of, despite not owning a computer or smartphone. Several news stories about Wang have appeared in the past few years, and eye-catching headlines about the mysterious 89-year-old nude model have made him somewhat famous on social media. He is said to be the oldest such model in Chengdu.

Many of Wang’s neighbors know about his modeling and see him as an open-minded hippie. Zhang Guoxing, another retiree who lives in Wang’s complex, is aware of his neighbor’s nude modeling, though the two have never talked to each other. “I think many seniors in the community activity center have seen him on TV or on their phones,” Zhang says while walking his dogs. “What he does is great, pursuing his dream and fulfilling his life, but I would never have the guts to [be a nude model].”

As his reputation grew, Wang was invited in 2013 to star in a 45-minute movie titled “Free-Renting.” The film is an adaptation of a news story about an empty nester in his 70s who, in search of companionship, houses young people for free. Wang says he was basically playing himself. There is a line in the movie that describes his situation: “My wife is gone, children don’t come to visit, and I have made my own burial clothes.”

People of Wang’s generation expect their children to take care of them and bury them after they die. “I was so afraid to die without my children, but now I’m over it,” he says. “I will enjoy my remaining days and keep modeling until the day I can’t move.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.