Old Cop Dogs Find a Happy Home in Hangzhou

Gray-furred Gongzi has lost most of his teeth, but he still loves running after a ball. At 12 years old, the venerable German shepherd is the canine equivalent of an 89-year-old human. He’s living out his golden years at Bai Yan’s nursing home for retired police dogs in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province in eastern China.


On a rainy afternoon in December, eight dogs aged from 8 to 12 are at the home with Bai, a police officer who devotes all of his off hours to his canine charges. A typical day sees Bai rising before dawn to conduct a round of training for the younger dogs and some games with the older animals before he leaves for the police station at 8:30 a.m. After his shift ends, he’ll return to the home to check that all is running smoothly. Today, he’s giving Gongzi a massage to relax his muscles.

Bai is 55 years old and sprightly compared to the retirees in his care, but he says all old dogs are young at heart. In addition to making sure the dogs get enough general exercise every morning and afternoon, he keeps their detective skills sharp with a variety of games, such as hiding balls for them to find.

“That makes the dogs feel like they are still valuable,” Bai tells Sixth Tone.

Each of the canine seniors enjoys individual accommodation, fresh spring water, and nutritious dog food, as well as occasional treats like eggs. Bai also employs a full-time housekeeper to look after the dogs in his absence. But the amenities at the home weren’t always so luxurious — when Bai first started the retirement facility in 2012, he fed the dogs rice with minced meat. “I didn’t have enough money to buy them dog food,” he remembers.

Bai’s canine-centric life began in 2004, when — as the director of a local police station — he had the opportunity to participate in training at Hangzhou’s official school for police dogs. With his lifelong love of dogs and a natural affinity for animals, Bai proved a quick learner, even teaching his own officers how to train the dogs.

He then started using dogs to crack cases at his local police station. In the first month, the canine officers managed to catch wanted thieves within a few minutes. “It strengthened my confidence in using dogs in the police force,” Bai says. “A good police dog is equal to five policemen.”

In 2005, Bai established his own training facility for police dogs, even giving up his post as station director in May 2010 so that he could focus on his side project. When the first batch of dogs he had trained were ready to retire, he expanded the training center to include a nursing home.

Bai’s dogs are an exception, as most of the country’s police dogs are trained at official bases and then distributed to different departments under the Ministry of Public Security. In China, hundreds of police dogs are assigned to track criminals, search and rescue disaster survivors, sniff out drugs or bombs, and carry out other tasks that humans can’t do.

Bai has trained 25 police dogs over the past 12 years. Two dogs were entrusted to him by the Zhejiang provincial public security department, and he purchased the other 23 from central China’s Henan province through a personal connection. He paid 3,000 yuan ($430) for each dog, plus the costs of daily care and medical needs.

Though the Hangzhou public security bureau recognizes his animals as certified police dogs, it doesn’t provide Bai with any financial support in return for training the dogs to work at his police department and other organizations. “Some people think I’m crazy, but I just can’t help it,” Bai says. “I love dogs too much.”

Training for Bai’s canines begins when they are 6 months old, with a focus on positive reinforcement. “Dogs think training is like playing games,” Bai explains. “The more you encourage them, the more effective the training will be.” After two to three months, the dogs are ready to join the police force.

Bai says that when he first started, he did it just for fun. “I love the game of cat and mouse; that’s why I work in criminal investigation,” he says. Dogs were helpful and delightful companions. But soon he was forced to realize that a dog’s life is short. Most police dogs retire at 8 years old.

In China, retired police dogs usually remain at the station or department where they served, if they’re not adopted by local citizens. But few bases for police dogs have adequate resources to care for canine retirees, especially in less economically developed regions. When the six police dogs Bai first trained in 2004 retired in 2012, Bai built his nursing home in the same year to ensure they would have a high quality of life in old age.

But though his love of dogs seems boundless, Bai’s energy and finances are limited. Luckily, his daughter — a successful businesswoman who owns two investment firms — has been able to lend a hand, putting 2 million yuan into expanding her father’s base and building a separate canine behavioral school for pets in 2014. An average of 20 dogs board and receive training at the pet school daily, and the money the school makes helps subsidize Bai’s nursing home and the police-dog training facility.


About a dozen of Bai’s retired police dogs have been adopted by friends and coworkers, but Bai doesn’t actively seek out adoptive families. “Honestly, I’m reluctant to give them away because of the emotion I’ve invested in them,” he says. Even after adoption, he visits each dog frequently to make sure they’re enjoying a good life. “If any adoptive owner decides they don’t want the dog anymore, I will bring it back and take care of it in the nursing home,” he tells Sixth Tone.

New retirees join the nursing home every year. Four dogs have passed away, and Bai has built a small cemetery for them in the sunniest part of the yard. Sometimes, the remaining dogs will join him when he visits the graves to pay his respects. “They know everything,” he says.

Bai is overcome with emotion when he thinks of his favorite dog, a beautiful German shepherd named Kaxi who died last year at age 11 after developing twisted bowel syndrome while running around on the job. “He was in great pain when he died,” Bai says tearfully.

Kaxi was a star officer who continued serving well past the ordinary retirement age because of his unusual aptitude for police work. Bai recalls a rash of break-ins in 2013 that had a hundred policemen stumped. Bai then brought seven police dogs to the affected village and had Kaxi sniff a shoe that the criminal had left behind. Kaxi circled the site a few times and then rushed to a nearby field. “After 10 minutes, we heard the dog barking and the man screaming,” Bai recalls.
Kaxi was awarded a badge of honor in 2007 after solving countless cases, but in Bai’s heart, all the police dogs are worthy of praise. Perhaps an even greater honor, he considers the dogs part of his family.

“When they’re young, they take care of me at work,” he explains. “Once they grow old, it’s my responsibility to take care of them.”

Bai hopes that all dogs who serve in the police force or military will be able to spend their retirement in a comfortable environment, and he’s happy to take the lead in making this dream a reality. Earlier in December, firefighter Shen Peng of Nanjing in eastern China’s Jiangsu province won permission to take his 10-year-old sniffer dog with him when he retires.

The case touched many people, including Bai, who feels that adoption of the dogs by their human colleagues offers the best possible future for retired working dogs. He hopes to see this become the norm, with each dog’s former employer paying a pension for the animal.

Bai himself will retire from the police force in five years. In addition to taking care of his old buddies, he plans to start training dogs as companions for lonely human seniors and autistic children. But while he intends to spend the rest of his life caring for the dogs, he feels that the inevitable discrepancy between human and canine life spans brings too much sorrow. If there is an afterlife, Bai says,

“I wouldn’t raise dogs again because it’s so hard to see them passing away.”

This article was published on Sixth Tone.


Half of Chinese LGBT Face Discrimination in Hospitals, Says NGO

Fear of discrimination is a major concern for LGBT people in China when they have to access health care, with 61 percent of respondents in a new study on the status of LGBT health in China reporting that they are afraid of being treated differently by doctors because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Released from Beijing on Monday, the report showed that 46 percent of respondents had experienced discrimination from health care workers after their sexual orientation or gender identity was disclosed.

Su Qi, a 20-year-old transgender woman living in Guangzhou in southern China, told Sixth Tone that she hesitates whenever she needs to visit a hospital, fearing the discrimination she might encounter as a trans woman. “My ID card says that I’m male, so I feel like I can’t wear female outfits when I see a doctor,” Su said. She added that she didn’t see “transgender” as an option in the gender column when filling out a form for an HIV test in Guangzhou last year.

The report was based on a survey of 1,205 participants across 30 provinces in China, and was conducted by the nongovernmental organization Love Without Borders Foundation. It covers respondents’ awareness of health issues, including HIV, and experience using medical services. The report was sent to Sixth Tone via e-mail and is currently not available online.

“This is the first comprehensive study of the status of LGBT health in mainland China,” Liu Wenyuan, project officer at Beijing Love Without Borders, told Sixth Tone. She said that previous research had typically narrowed the scope of LGBT health to mental health issues, or to HIV and AIDS, or had covered only gay men and lesbians. At 87.2 percent, the majority of respondents in the study were gay or bisexual men, while lesbian and bisexual women made up only 12 percent. Fewer than 10 percent of respondents were transgender.

Though Chinese society has become more accepting of LGBT individuals in recent years due to increased media coverage and public visibility, sexual and gender minorities still find their rights to health care are not fully protected.

In October, China’s state council passed the Healthy China 2030 plan, which sets forward a blueprint for improving the quality and scale of the country’s health care system, as well as equity of access across urban and rural areas. But Kong Lingkun, the president of Love Without Borders, said it is essential for China to provide equal, fair, and effective services to its long-neglected LGBT population if the nation is to achieve its goals of “health for all.”

Many respondents indicated that they felt medical professionals in China lack awareness and understanding of LGBT people, with 27 percent reporting that they experienced “contempt and indifference” from health workers, while 18 percent stated that hospital staff had considered their gender identity or sexual orientation to be “a disease,” either through implication or explicit diagnosis.

Homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in China in 2001, but gender identity disorder remains pathologized, both in China and internationally, though transgender advocates have called for it to be removed from the International Classification of Diseases.

Facing ignorance from medical professionals, 42 percent of respondents said that they do not disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity when seeing a doctor mainly because they “are afraid of being labeled,” “fear discrimination,” or “feel embarrassed,” while 36 percent said they would disclose these details if the medical issue was sex-related.

One gay man from southwestern Yunnan province was quoted in the report as saying that the medical workers in the district-level disease control and prevention center that he visited are blatantly homophobic and AIDS-phobic. “They asked, ‘Why are you here for testing? Did you engage in sexual behavior? Did you go whoring? And if so, we’ll call the police to arrest you,’” he said.

This article was published on Sixth Tone.

The New Old: China’s Grey Nomads Want More From Retirement

While many retirees in China are busy taking care of their grandchildren instead of pursuing life’s pleasures, a group of old friends from Qingdao, in China’s eastern Shandong province, are enjoying hot springs and organic meals in the city of Yangzhou, nearly 600 kilometers from their hometown.

The group are part of a new, wealthier generation of seniors in China who are choosing to grow old in style. Traditionally, elders lived with their extended families, and these days many rural elders are left behind to raise grandchildren while their adult offspring labor in distant cities as migrant workers. But increasing affluence in some circles and changing family structures in China have given birth to a new phenomenon: “destination retirement.”

This new retirement model, in which seniors move around to different locations each season, is a growing trend among those who have the money and time. Domestic tourism in China often takes the form of hurried and regimented group sightseeing tours, but destination retirement offers seniors longer sojourns — usually 10 days to a month — to get to know new places, keep active and healthy, and broaden their horizons.

People of our age have experienced the most turbulent times in China. Now we just want to enjoy the rest of our lives.

The industry has only really taken off in the last couple of years, particularly in regions with attractive climates and cultures, such as warm, diverse Yunnan province in China’s southwest or the tropical island of Hainan in the south. The eastern province of Jiangsu is catching up, and in May 2015 a government-supported organization,China Sojourn, was established to design and develop destination retirement routes.

China Sojourn’s chief, Qin Kaizhong, tells Sixth Tone that these days, seniors want more from retirement. “Elders who are in good health aren’t satisfied with retiring at home,” Qin says. “They are looking for new lifestyles and adventures in different cities, based on their schedules and preferences.”

Yangzhou, a city in Jiangsu that’s home to 4.6 million residents, has become one of the hottest destinations for seniors, especially those from northern regions who are drawn to the city’s delicate cuisine, exquisite gardens, and slow pace of life.

The group from Shandong comprise four couples who have known one another since the late 1970s, when they began working together at a state-owned company in Qingdao. Now retired and aged between 58 and 62, they decided to visit the Tianle Lake Resort in the west of Yangzhou on Sept. 15 after seeing friends share pictures of the getaway destination on social media.

A view of Tianle Lake Resort in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, Sept. 22, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A view of Tianle Lake Resort in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, Sept. 22, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone


Yang Lin, 58, is the youngest among the eight former colleagues. She drove six hours to Yangzhou with her disabled husband and their 11-year-old dog, eager to experience the city’s laid-back lifestyle.

People in Yangzhou know how to enjoy life to its fullest, starting the day drinking tea at a teahouse, and ending it by relaxing in a public bathhouse. The locals sum up their customs with a pithy saying: “In the morning, skin envelops water; in the evening, water envelops skin.” At the resort, the group sinks into natural hot springs even more luxurious than the public baths.

“People of our age have experienced the most turbulent times in China,” Yang tells Sixth Tone before getting ready for the hot spring. “Now we just want to enjoy the rest of our lives.”

Tianle Lake Resort opened in February 2015 with services targeted at seniors. The scenic 200-hectare resort offers guests and residents water town scenery, lake views, organic farms, and entertainment, and it will soon open its own on-site hospital.

The elderly pay much more attention to their health than young people do, and they are willing to invest in it.

Chen Yujin, the resort’s marketing director, tells Sixth Tone that most of their customers are “young retirees” aged 60 to 70, who are in good shape and have relatively high pensions. At present, China’s official retirement age is 60 for men; for women, it’s 55 for civil servants and state employees but 50 for others, though these baselines are likely to be raised.

Chen says most senior guests choose the resort for its organic catering and natural hot springs. “The elderly pay much more attention to their health than young people do,” says Chen, “and they are willing to invest in it.”

It took Chen and her team five years to set up the resort and its farm, largely because they needed three years to rid the soil of contaminants so their produce could be certified organic. “We lost 2 million yuan ($300,000) per year while we were preparing for the organic farm,” Chen says.

Due to the financial risks, few other operators have entered the destination retirement industry on such a large scale, but Chen is glad they made the investment. Now the resort runs a restaurant on the lake that specializes in hot pot using organic produce grown on the property. Food safety is a big issue in China, and Chen believes that by offering high-quality, healthy food, they’ll draw seniors through word-of-mouth without having to invest much in advertising.

Xie Wenying, 63, decided to try the resort just a few days after hearing about it from a friend in early September. “I had no idea what destination retirement was, but I’ve been looking for such a place in China for a long time,” she says from her rental apartment at the resort.

Xie is a retired dance teacher who opened her own fitness club a decade ago. Living in heavily polluted Changsha, the capital of central Hunan province, Xie says that even clean air seems like a luxury. “It’s even more difficult to find a place in China where organic food is farmed and certified,” she adds.

Guests like Yang and Xie pay 200 yuan per night for their stays at the resort, which includes accommodation and three meals, but not extras like the hot springs or horseback riding. Apartments can also be bought outright. According to marketing director Chen, the resort hasn’t yet made a profit from its retirement services. “But we’ve seen how huge the market is, and we hope to seize it as early as possible,” Chen says.

China is aging rapidly: The latest statistics say that there were 243 million people over age 60 in 2014 — nearly 18 percent of the country’s total population — and forecasts show that there will be 487 million by 2050, when the value of the senior market is estimated to reach 354 trillion yuan.

Since Tianle Lake Resort opened last year, it has hosted more than 400 seniors, with a sharp rise in guests after the resort was featured on national television in March. But while seniors from all over the nation come to experience destination retirement, many locals in Yangzhou are hesitant to embrace the trend, or simply don’t have the means.

Xie Wenying practices archery at Tianle Lake Resort in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, Sept. 23, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Xie Wenying practices archery at Tianle Lake Resort in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, Sept. 23, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone


The state-owned company that Yang and her former colleagues from Qingdao used to work for is making high profits, so each member of the group enjoys a pension of more than 6,000 yuan a month — double what most of their peers at home receive — and this makes 2,000 yuan for a 10-day resort stay affordable. They’ve already started planning where they’ll go next month. But according to the Yangzhou Human Resources and Social Security Bureau, the average monthly pension for retirees in the city was 2,152 yuan in 2015.

Destination retirement is something that can only happen in my dreams.

For 56-year-old Yangzhou resident Zhou Li, her monthly pension of 1,700 yuan isn’t even enough to cover her family’s daily expenses. The former factory worker retired at 50 but later trained as a foot masseuse to boost the household income. “Destination retirement is something that can only happen in my dreams,” says Zhou, who can now make an extra 1,000 yuan each month from foot massage services.

Her life presents a sharp contrast to seniors’ luxurious experiences at Tianle Lake Resort. The resort will have 6,000 beds and a hospital by the end of 2018 and Chen says the next step is to offer services for seniors who need medical care, while also making them feel at home. “We want to change people’s views of nursing homes as places of desolation and loneliness,” she says.

China’s family planning policies have triggered a shift in seniors’ expectations. Unlike previous generations, those who came of age in the era of the one-child policy aren’t averse to the idea of nursing homes. “It’s too much work for one couple to take care of four elders in the family,” Xie says.

As a fan of leisurely travel and organic food, Xie has visited over 20 countries on her own, and she’s delighted to find a place in China that fulfills her desires.

“I’ll think about purchasing a small apartment in the resort so I can come stay here every summer and avoid the heat in Changsha,” says Xie.

This article was published on Sixth Tone.

HIV-Positive Students Ponder Life After High School

It’s the first day of the semester after the summer break, and a group of students gather in a schoolyard in northern China to watch the raising of the national flag. Dressed in their new uniforms, these 32 children make up the entire student body of Linfen Red Ribbon School, which claims to be the first and only school in the country that specifically caters to students who have HIV.

This coming school year will be a pivotal one for many of these children. That’s because next June, the first batch of seniors — or about half of those currently enrolled — will graduate and head out into the world.

Most of the students have been orphaned by AIDS, or abandoned by their families, so they’ve grown up in the boarding school. Leaving the Red Ribbon fold marks an important transition from childhood to adulthood. But it also marks a departure from a caring, comforting environment that has offered them some degree of shelter from discrimination. For the students, they will have to make it on their own in a country where, despite some modest advancements in recent years, HIV carriers continue to face significant discrimination in many areas of society.

More than 30 students gather for a flag-raising ceremony at Linfen Red Ribbon School, Shanxi province, Sept. 1, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

When Sixth Tone visited the school in early September, students’ apprehension about life after Red Ribbon was palpable.

Nineteen-year-old Hong Hong, one of Red Ribbon’s first students, says she’s nervous about leaving the school, which she describes as a safe haven. “I feel inferior,” she says. “I don’t have enough self-confidence yet.”

Such uncertainty is inevitable, says Guo Xiaoping, the school’s principal. “They will inevitably face all sorts of problems and challenges after leaving,” says Guo, “but that’s something they will have to deal with by themselves.”

During the morning flag-raising ceremony, Guo implores the students — aged 7 to 19 — to study hard, and also offers words of encouragement. “Remember that you are entitled to the same rights shared by everyone else in our society,” he tells them.

It’s easy to understand why some of these children need reminding.

When 10-year-old Kun Kun first came to the school from Sichuan province, approximately 1,200 kilometers away, he was unruly, his teachers say. In the village where he was born, the 200 or so residents there — including his grandfather, who serves as his guardian — ostracized him after he was diagnosed with HIV four years ago. The local school prohibited him from attending classes.

“I used to play by myself in the woods,” Kun Kun recalls of his days in Sichuan. Under the guidance of his teachers at Red Ribbon, he has transformed into a cheerful, attentive, and outgoing child. Still, because he missed out on so many years of schooling, Kun Kun has fallen behind most of his peers. “I can now write all the numbers up to 33,” he says with pride.

Sixth graders at Linfen Red Ribbon School during a math class, Shanxi province, Aug. 31, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

There are currently 575,000 people living with HIV or AIDS in China, according to the latest nationalstatistics. In order to ensure that they receive better care, the Chinese government began offering free treatment for low-income people in 2003, and then expanded the program nationwide in 2004.

Experts estimate that roughly 8,000 of China’s HIV-positive are children under 14. HIV prevention efforts have resulted in a drastic reduction in parent-to-child transmission over the last decade. Previously, 34.8 percent of infants born to HIV-positive mothers would be infected, but after a decade of targeted programs, that figure fell to 6.1 percent in 2014.

The Chinese government in recent years has carried out a series of measures to protect the rights of people with HIV, including the Regulation on the Prevention and Treatment of HIV/AIDS, adopted in 2006, and the Employment Promotion Law, adopted in 2007. The law states that an employer may not refuse to hire any person based on their HIV status. Yet discrimination persists despite the law, which relies on HIV-positive individuals standing up for their rights.

Discrimination and stigma are widespread, affecting many people living with HIV in China. Particularly in rural areas, they are barred from attending school and discriminated against at work due to a lack of education and awareness of how the disease is transmitted and treated.

Back in 2005, when Hong Hong was receiving treatment at Linfen Hospital for Infectious Diseases, the hospital staff started a class for her and three other children to teach them basic mathematics and Chinese. By the following year, there were 16 students, so hospital director Guo Xiaoping decided to set up a school. “Their parents were my patients too,” Guo tells Sixth Tone. “I treated them like my own kids after their parents died.”

Students do morning exercises at Linfen Red Ribbon School, Shanxi province, Aug. 31, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

The entire hospital officially turned into a school in 2006. But for the first five years, it was uncertified because the local government refused to grant approval until October 2011, when Peng Liyuan — China’s first lady, who in June of that year had been appointed World Health Organization Goodwill Ambassador for Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS — visited the school and had lunch with the students.

The school’s newest student, 9-year-old Hanya, was sent by her aunt last September from their home in the eastern province of Jiangxi. Her mother died in 2014, and her father broke off contact with the family. Hanya then moved in with her aunt and uncle, who always wore gloves around her and set up a separate toilet for her to use. Her grandfather said he’d rather die than have Hanya live with him.

Hanya still isn’t clear on what HIV is exactly. “My dad was infected with HIV after being bitten by a big animal,” she tells Sixth Tone as she sits on her dormitory bed. “And then he passed the disease to my mom and me,” she adds, holding a picture of her mother in her hands.

All that the little girl knows is that she has some sort of medical condition. “My aunt told me I’m here to treat my disease, but I don’t feel there is anything wrong with my body,” she says.

Neither Hanya nor Kun Kun went home during the summer holiday because their families refused to take them. Instead, they stayed with their teacher, 44-year-old Liu Liping, who has been in charge of the students’ daily life for the past 11 years.

Liu was exposed to HIV through a blood transfusion 20 years ago, but she didn’t realize it until 2005, when she went to see a doctor for an oral ulcer. “When I saw the test result, I felt like it was the end of the world,” Liu recalls.

Liu says she almost lost all hope, but the children she met as she underwent treatment at what was then the Linfen Hospital for Infectious Diseases gave her courage and strength. After completing her treatment, Liu volunteered to be their teacher.

Though medication means that Liu and the students can enjoy normal lives, many of the surrounding villagers initially regarded the school with suspicion and even superstition.

A girl writes in her textbook at Linfen Red Ribbon School, Shanxi province, Aug. 31, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

In the early years, Red Ribbon administrator Qiao Jiping remembers that no produce was ever stolen from the school’s vegetable garden. “Villagers believed they would get infected if they ate our food,” Qiao says. “Taxi drivers didn’t want to drive near the school, and some shop owners kicked out students who tried to buy snacks.”

Nowadays, attitudes are shifting slowly thanks to the increased media coverage that has attracted a steady flow of volunteers to the school. Guo Fang — no relation to school Principal Guo Xiaoping — is one of the volunteers who comes at least once a month to make dumplings for the kids. Guo’s husband and 14-year-old son Tian Tian have started coming with her as well. Now her son plays games on his smartphone with Kun Kun.

“We learn about HIV and AIDS in biology class,” says Tian Tian. “So that’s why I really don’t understand why people are afraid of HIV/AIDS patients.”

Principal Guo says the school can accommodate only 40 students with its current income. When the seniors graduate next June, the student population will be halved. But rather than fill their places, Guo would like to see the student numbers dwindle.

“I hope the school can shut down soon,” says Guo, “because kids with HIV should be able to go to normal schools without facing discrimination.”

Surveying the children in the schoolyard, Guo wonders if they — and the world — are ready for a future without Red Ribbon. “They look so happy and carefree,” he says. “But they don’t have a clue what they’ll have to deal with after they get out of here.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

How I Got Out and Saw the World

During my college years, my biggest goal in life was to see the world. I wanted to backpack Europe, hike all the national parks in the United States, and eat from local food vendors in Southeast Asia. After I graduated in 2009, I managed to land well-paid jobs and began traveling solo in China, before forging amazing and unforgettable experience in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Europe.

In October 2013 I quit my job and traveled full-time for two years. Many of my friends were jealous — pursuing my dreams and traveling the world seemed a desirable lifestyle. However, few of them understood the hardships a Chinese female traveler has to face and how hard I had fought to get where I was. Independence and the spirit of adventure are not qualities that everyone in China appreciates.

I was born and raised in an ordinary Shanghai household. My dad works as a bus driver, and my mom was a drug inspector before her retirement eight years ago. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment where I had to sleep on the couch without my own space or privacy.

My parents always thought that I would be a typical Shanghainese girl: attend college, get a good job, find a boyfriend, get married, and deliver a grandchild before the age of 27 — after which time single women are considered “leftover” in China. Chinese men face similar pressure from their parents, but it is particularly bad for girls.

Since my parents don’t particularly like traveling and didn’t have the money to fund family vacations anyway, I didn’t even get out of Shanghai to see China for the first 20 years of my life.

It wasn’t until university that I suddenly got the itch. I became friends with many international students who shared with me their life experiences and travel stories, and I couldn’t help but wonder how we could be the same age and yet so different. I met my first boyfriend — a Londoner — when I was 20. That’s when I began having lots of arguments with my parents. Most people in their generation married their first boyfriend or girlfriend, often arranged by their elders. It took me almost a year to make them accept the idea that a person doesn’t necessarily have to marry their first partner.

However, although that particular argument was resolved, other fights surfaced. I remember at one point I suggested moving out when I reached my senior year of university. I expected them to be supportive and proud of me for taking charge of my own life.

But this desire to move out confounded them even more than the boyfriend issue. They questioned what my boyfriend had said to me, and expressed their reservations about the toxic ideas my Western friends were poisoning me with. They asked me to stop dating foreigners.

As opposed to parents in the West who expect their children to learn to fly the coop after high school, Chinese parents value community and social cohesion. Many parents in China demand obedience from their children and don’t know how to communicate with them as individuals. It is generally understood that a son or daughter won’t leave home until marriage. It took me a full year to persuade my parents to let me move out — I wanted to be happy, but I also wanted to make them happy. We finally compromised that I would live somewhere nearby them and have dinner together several times a week.

They were nervous when I first moved out in 2009. None of their friends’ kids lived alone and my parents felt constantly judged by their peers. To my relief, after about three months they calmed down and all of us began enjoying our newfound privacy and space.

I began getting good jobs and I could suddenly afford to travel. First I worked at the Shanghai office of American Public Media for a couple of years as a news researcher, before moving to work as a research specialist at a consulting company. My two former bosses, both American, supported my travel desires and appreciated my sense of adventure.

Western culture is adventurous and exploration-based. It values discovery, invention, and rational thinking. When I stayed with a local family in Australia, the parents often encouraged their young children to be adventurous by taking them hiking in the snow, canoeing in the river, and sliding down sand dunes. I remembered how when I was 24 and told my parents that I wanted to travel to Beijing on my own, my father simply responded,

“Beijing is such a dangerous city for a girl.”

I first told my parents that I wanted to leave and travel the world in 2013 and they weren’t against it. I guess they had become used to my dramas. To help them through my absence, I bought them each a smartphone and taught them how to use the messaging app WeChat. I wanted to share my moments on the road, to show them how happy I am, and how wonderful traveling really is.

After spending the past several years hopping around the world, I’ve noticed the attitudes of those around me beginning to change. My parents and friends actually prize my independence now. They are happy that I have followed my dreams and admire my spirit of adventure. Many of my friends have even confided that they can’t wait to hit the road themselves.

This article was originally published on Sixth Tone.

Letting Go of ‘Fangsheng’

On a sunny morning in late June, 50-year-old Liu Yidan prayed to Buddha as usual at Dabei Temple in Tianjin, a coastal municipality near Beijing. But this time she was pleased to see that there were no bird sellers crowding the alley surrounding the temple.

“Other Buddhists and I spent over a million yuan ($150,000) buying and releasing birds from these sellers from 2008 to 2014,” Liu told Sixth Tone.

Life release, or fangsheng in Chinese, is the traditional Buddhist practice of freeing captive creatures. The participants believe that by releasing the animals, they generate spiritual merits. But though the original intention of the practice was to show compassion to caged creatures, the popularity of the ceremony has fueled a black market that does far more harm than good to wildlife — and many Buddhists are becoming aware of the contradiction.

Liu, along with other environmentalists and animal rights defenders around the country, has been pushing the government to restrict the practice. On July 2, China announced an amendment to the 1989 Wildlife Protection Law that will regulate the practice of fangsheng. The amendment, which will take effect on January 1, 2017, states: “The arbitrary release of wild animals, if causing damage to humans or property or harm to the ecosystem, shall bear legal responsibility.”

Originally from northeastern Jilin province, Liu moved to Tianjin with her husband in 1991 and opened a restaurant. When Liu became a Buddhist and a vegetarian in 2007, she closed the restaurant, and the lives of all the animals killed for her business began to weigh on her conscience.

Liu Yidan holds a hatchling at her home in Tianjin, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Liu Yidan holds a hatchling at her home in Tianjin, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone


“I felt ashamed and regretful,” said Liu. So she started taking part in fangsheng to make amends. “I wanted to dedicate all merits to the lives I took in the past,” she said.

Liu’s first experience with fangsheng involved two turtles which cost her 30 yuan.

“After I released the turtles into the river, they stretched their necks long and seemed so happy,” Liu recalled.

A year later, another practitioner told Liu that it was much cheaper to buy birds from the bird market in Hongqiao District in Tianjin. Most birds there cost just a few jiao (10 jiao make 1 yuan). Liu went there every morning during the migration season to release birds directly from the market. “Bird sellers counted the number of birds we released, and we paid them on the spot,” she said. On average, Liu and other Buddhists in Tianjin would release a few hundred birds each day, but on some days they would release up to 10,000 birds.

“The bird sellers told me that if I didn’t buy these birds, they would suffocate them in woven bags right in front of me,” said Liu.

In six years of releasing birds, it didn’t occur to Liu to report illegal bird sellers to the police. There was no law to protect the birds then, so police wouldn’t have had grounds to take action anyway.

Yet the new amendment to the Wildlife Protection Law will protect not only species which are rare or near extinction, but also species which have ecological, scientific, and social value, including the sparrows and turtledoves sold in the market.

Liu Yidan handles birdcages found in the wild on the balcony of her apartment in Tianjin, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Liu Yidan handles birdcages found in the wild on the balcony of her apartment in Tianjin, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone


Liu came to realize the truth in 2014 after a short conversation with one of the bird sellers in the market. She was told that the birds she had bought and released were just the tip of the iceberg: There were at least five bird markets in Tianjin. Truckloads of birds came to the market from poachers all over Tianjin and the neighboring province of Hebei. The daily turnover could reach hundreds of thousands of yuan.

“I was suddenly awakened,” said Liu. She realized the practice of fangsheng just created opportunities for the black market:

“The more birds we buy, the more people will capture them to sell to us.”

Liu then gathered together everyone who took part in fangsheng. “If all the Buddhists can come out and protect the birds instead of releasing them, then these poachers and peddlers won’t be so rampant,” she said.

In the past two years, Liu and her team have searched for and found over 10,000 bird nets and traps in the fields and forests of Tianjin and Hebei. She has reported almost 400 cases to the police, who at first didn’t take any action or even file records, instead telling her to contact the forestry bureau or conservation organizations. When Liu called the police in early 2014 about bird nets she had found, they laughed at her: “They thought it was a joke to arrest bird sellers or poachers because they said they ate birds themselves.”

Liu Yidan finds a bird net near the Tianjin West Railway Station, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Liu Yidan finds a bird net near the Tianjin West Railway Station, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone


But through continuous patrolling and reporting, Liu and other volunteers drew attention to the illegal bird trade. In September 2014, the state-run national television network CCTV interviewed Liu for their exposé on the rampant trade of migratory birds in Tianjin. One month later, the local government announced a regulation banning hunting from March to May and from September to November. Catching even one bird during the “sanctuary season” is a crime.

It was the first time that Tianjin had implemented heavy penalties for illegal bird hunting. Though the new regulation did not offer year-round protection, “it was progress from nothing to something,” said Liu. According to China’s 1997 criminal law, violating hunting regulations could result in up to three years’ imprisonment.

The new Wildlife Protection Law extends Tianjin’s protections beyond its borders to the rest of the country, prohibiting hunting and poaching during wildlife migration seasons. But the law is only as effective as its enforcement, which in the past has been lacking. “People didn’t take birds seriously, and nobody reported illegal hunting and selling to the police,” Liu explained.

Since October 2014, Liu has registered over 30 criminal cases. She reported one poacher, 60-year-old Tianjin native Xiao Xiquan, after finding over a hundred bird traps in his melon field in Chenzui Village, in the northwestern part of Tianjin. Xiao was detained for seven days last fall before being released on bail.

While he was detained, Xiao developed a sympathy for the animals he had captured. In a video Liu recorded, Xiao confessed that he lost 15 kilograms during the week he was jailed. “I felt like a bird in a cage,” he said. When Liu visited Xiao’s melon field again in June, she didn’t find any bird traps or nets.

Police officers examine bird nets Liu discovered near the Tianjin West Railway Station, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Police officers examine bird nets Liu discovered near the Tianjin West Railway Station, June 30, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone


Liu said many poachers in Tianjin have given up catching birds, as they’re afraid of being caught by the police.

“Most poachers are farmers who are simple, honest people,” said Liu, “They have been catching and selling birds for generations without any clue that it now breaks the law.”

Liu has also persuaded many of the Buddhists who used to release birds with her to donate money to protecting birds instead. Zhou Meiqiang, another Tianjin Buddhist, followed Liu’s lead. In spring and fall, he drives Liu and other volunteers all over Tianjin to search for bird nets and traps.

“When we had just started, we were finding over a dozen bird traps a day,” Zhou said. Now they can hardly find any,” Zhou said.

In spite of their effort, a few stubborn poachers remain. While patrolling on June 30, Liu spotted a bird net in a field behind the Tianjin West Railway Station. “This is the fourth time we’ve found a net in this location, yet we’ve never managed to catch the poacher,” she said. But police showed up within 10 minutes of Liu’s call and rolled up the bird net while she familiarized them with the new anti-poaching regulations.

In the past two years — and with financial support from Beijing-based wildlife protection NGO Let Birds Fly — Liu and other volunteers in Tianjin have freed at least 100,000 birds from poachers. More significantly, dozens of poachers have decided to stop catching birds after being persuaded by Liu and her team. “These people could easily catch over 300 birds a day during the migration season,” said Liu.

More and more Buddhists are realizing that in the long run, protecting birds from poaching saves more lives than releasing birds from cages. Liu would like to extend her patrol and protection to other areas in the country. But money is a big issue, she told Sixth Tone. “We need more financial support from NGOs and the public.” Liu hopes the new national law will encourage more people to take part in protecting wildlife and to donate to the cause.

Liu Yidan holds an electronic device that plays sounds to attract birds, Tianjin, June 30, 2016. She has found dozens of sound traps set by poachers in the wild. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Liu Yidan holds an electronic device that plays sounds to attract birds, Tianjin, June 30, 2016. She has found dozens of sound traps set by poachers in the wild. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone


Liu and her team usually patrol from 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. When she is not in the field, she cooks for her kids, does housework, and attends Buddhist ceremonies. Patrolling has taken a toll on Liu’s health: Her knees and legs ache constantly. But she won’t give up. “I hope it will be more and more difficult for me to find bird nets and traps in the field,” she said.

Four days after the revised national law was announced, Liu came across a group releasing wild birds in front of Dabei Temple. She approached them immediately.

“People who release birds will be punished by law,” she told the group. “We have to destroy the profit chain behind fangsheng.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Abandoned Intersex Baby Rescued and Raised by Migrant Worker

Riding home on his electric scooter after work one day, Fan Xifa was stopped dead in his tracks by the sound of an infant crying. The cries, cutting through the noise of the heavy rain, led him to a cardboard box that lay beside the road.

It was November 2012, and Fan, a migrant worker in Sanya, in China’s southern province of Hainan, had just made a discovery that was to change his life beyond measure.

Inside the box was a newborn baby. Its lips were blue from cold, and its naked body was covered in blood from its uncut umbilical cord. Instinctually, Fan wrapped the baby up in his coat, and took it to the nearest hospital two blocks away, where a doctor told Fan it was unlikely that the baby would survive. It weighed just 1.4 kilograms.

Once the doctor had cut the baby’s umbilical cord and wiped away all the blood, Fan noticed something. The baby was intersex, born with both male and female genitals. This, Fan believes, was the reason the baby was abandoned.

Three and a half years on, Fan is still the guardian of the child, who goes by the pet name Zheng Zheng. Ever since finding Zheng Zheng, Fan has been preoccupied with the question of what can — and should — be done about the child’s gender. Fan’s dilemma has also heralded a chorus of conflicting voices from charities, NGOs, and intersex advocates around Asia.

The United Nations defines a person as intersex if they are “born with sex characteristics that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies.” Being intersex is different from one’s gender identity — female, male, both, or neither — or sexual orientation. According to U.N. statistics, those with intersex traits account for between 0.05 and 1.7 percent of the world’s population.

Like many places around the globe, discrimination against intersex people in China — particularly rural China — is commonplace, and the consequences sometimes tragic. Fan has firsthand experience with this: Two people in the small village where he grew up in the central province of Henan were intersex.

One of them, who self-identified as a woman, was discarded by her newly-wed husband when he discovered she was intersex. That divorce was the first of several.

School bullying drove the other intersex villager to suicide.

Memories of their plights motivated Fan — a widower without a child of his own — to take the baby under his wing. He left his job as a construction worker, and took on the role of parent full-time, relying on his 30,000 yuan (around $4,500) of life savings to get by. Determined that his child would not suffer the same fates as the two intersex individuals from his village, he decided to explore surgical options.

In 2013, tests by doctors in Hainan’s provincial capital Haikou showed the child had both mature ovarian and testicular tissue, a condition known as “true hermaphroditism.” Yet a chromosomal balance leaning a few percent to the male side has led Fan to decide that his child will be raised a boy, beginning as soon as possible with genital surgery. “I don’t want Zheng Zheng to hate me for not fixing the problem at an early age,” Fan says.

Dreams of rearing sheep and bringing up his child in his home village led Fan to make the 2,200-kilometer journey back to Henan in 2015. Fan’s village is not far from Zhengzhou, Henan’s provincial capital. It was then that Fan gave his child a name — Juzheng, a homonym for “living in Zhengzhou.”

Still determined to pursue surgical options for his child, Fan went to a local hospital for a second opinion on the available options. The hospital advised Fan that Zheng Zheng should undergo surgery that would remove his ovaries, pull down one of his testicles from his groin, and adjust his penis so that he could urinate standing up. Following the surgery, Zheng Zheng’s female reproductive functions would be irreversibly damaged.

Not everybody is convinced that such drastic surgery is the right course of action. Among them is Taiwan-based intersex rights advocate Chiu Ai-Chih, who speaks to Fan twice a month by phone to give advice on intersex issues. Fifty-year-old Chiu is a firm believer that an intersex individual must be able to give consent before any irreversible gender-assignment surgery is performed, a belief she emphasizes without fail to Fan each time they speak.

For Chiu, the subject is very close to home. Chiu’s body is genetically female, yet produces a high level of testosterone. Chiu was made by family members to undergo surgery to reduce what they considered an enlarged clitoris, when Chiu was just six years old, causing severe damage to the sexual function of Chiu’s genitals.

While advocates like Chiu have been appealing to Fan to reconsider his decision, Zheng Zheng’s case has also attracted the interest of some children’s charities who share Fan’s concerns that Zheng Zheng’s condition will lead to a life of prejudice and discrimination.

After raising money for Fan, the China Charities Aid Foundation for Children advised him that he should take Zheng Zheng for a health check-up at Beijing Children’s Hospital, considered one of the country’s best pediatric hospitals.

A consultation there in February this year revealed that Zheng Zheng was suffering from heart disease, a condition that had no relation to his hermaphroditism. Surgery on his heart was successful, and now Fan is waiting for him to recover before he broaches the issue of Zheng Zheng’s hermaphroditism with the hospital, which he plans to do with a formal consultation in June.

Zheng Zheng sleeps soundly in Fan Xifa’s arms at their rented home near Beijing Children’s Hospital, April 26, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Zheng Zheng sleeps soundly in Fan Xifa’s arms at their rented home near Beijing Children’s Hospital, April 26, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone


Gong Chunxiu, director of the hospital’s department that oversees hormones-related procedures, shares the same view as Chiu. Drastic and irreversible surgery should be delayed until the child is old enough to decide which gender they identify as, she tells Sixth Tone.

Nevertheless, she believes Zheng Zheng should undergo so-called “repair surgery” at the hospital in June that would give his penis full functionality yet would not remove his female sex organs. Gong explains that the treatment would leave Zheng Zheng the option to change his sex in the future, should he identify as female.

Luk Small Ela, an intersex woman from Hong Kong, has also weighed in on Zheng Zheng’s plight, having communicated her concerns directly to Fan. The 51-year-old is not against the less drastic surgery for Zheng Zheng in June if it’s necessary, as she believes temporarily raising Zheng Zheng as a boy has its benefits.

“It’s the safest way to protect the child from being discriminated against at school,” she says.

“When I was at school, there were no separate cubicles in the men’s bathroom,” Luk recalls. “The boys could see how I urinated.” This is Fan’s biggest concern. He worries about how difficult it will be for Zheng Zheng in school as an intersex person.

“Which bathroom should Zheng Zheng go to — male or female?” Fan says. “The discrimination could be traumatizing.”

As a child Luk underwent a series of unsuccessful surgeries to enable her to urinate standing up. After over a dozen painful surgeries, a 13-year-old Luk refused any further procedures. A large part of Luk’s parents’ desire for her to undergo surgery came from the wish that — as a male — Luk could continue the family line. Yet in her twenties, she learned that she had no sperm in her body. “All the surgery I went through was in vain,” she says.

The focus on fertility was also behind the recommendations by doctors in Hainan and Henan that Zheng Zheng undergo the drastic, irreversible genital surgery. According to them, Zheng Zheng’s chances of fertility are greater as a male than as a woman.

The question of fertility, along with concerns about how Zheng Zheng will be treated by those around him in later life, weighs heavy on Fan’s mind. But following his communication with people like Chiu and Luk, it seems likely that Fan will forego the irreversible surgery in favor of the less drastic procedure, which would preserve Zheng Zheng’s female sex organs. If, at a later date, Zheng Zheng wishes to identify as female, Fan says he will support that decision.

Whatever path Zheng Zheng takes, Fan says he will have no regrets.

“If I passed by without picking up the baby that day, I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself for the rest of my life.”

This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Three Men Under One Roof

For over 15 years, Tan Zhiliang’s parents refused to let his family spend the country’s most important holiday — Spring Festival, or the Chinese New Year — with them. Old and conservative, Tan’s parents wouldn’t accept their son’s family. Since 2001, Tan, now 46, has been living with his partner, Chen Dezhou, 42, and Chen’s 18-year-old biological son, Jack. But this year, Tan’s parents finally agreed to allow Chen and Jack to celebrate Spring Festival together at their house. Tan thinks the photos of Jack he regularly sends his parents led to their change of heart.

Tan and his family have become minor Internet celebrities in recent years after he set up an account calledsannanyizhai, or “three men under one roof,” on microblogging platform Weibo in 2009 to blog about his family’s day-to-day life. Tan followed this endeavor with a public content account on social network WeChat in 2013, and the family now has over 50,000 followers across both platforms.

The family’s story has brought hope to many same-sex couples in China who also want to have their own families — an arrangement that to this day is still rare. Traditional beliefs about relationships and families dominate in China, and marriage law expressly forbids same-sex marriages, a fact emphasized by the recent case of Sun Wenlin and his partner, who lost their appeal against the rejection of their marriage registration earlier in April in Changsha, Hunan province.

Tan Zhiliang (right) and Chen Dezhou (left) pose at the rooftop garden of their apartment in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, March 16, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Chen and Tan first met in 1997, when Chen was a migrant worker at a garment factory in Shunde, a small city 50 kilometers from Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. One weekend in October of that year, Chen was reading magazines in a local bookstore, when he came across an article about a transgender woman. The woman was despised by her family and cheated on by her boyfriend for not being a “real” woman. It resonated with Chen, who was feeling miserable about his marriage, so he penned a letter to the journalist who wrote the article – Tan Zhiliang.

Over the next month, Tan and Chen exchanged more letters and phone calls, sharing the details of their lives. It was clear they had a lot in common, so Chen got on the train to Guangzhou at the end of Nov. 1997, to meet Tan for the first time. Chen confided in Tan that he felt no love for his wife. It was the first time Chen had ever told anyone, and he felt a great weight lift from his shoulders. The only route for young men in the small village Chen grew up in was to get married to a woman as soon as they hit their early 20s. This was a course that Chen, under pressure from those around him, also followed. Chen had already told Tan about the marriage before the two met. But there was one detail Tan wasn’t expecting: Chen’s wife was about to give birth.

Ten days later, Chen’s son was born into a home shared by two people who barely saw each other and who weren’t in love. With Tan on his mind, Chen told his wife that he was gay and in love with Tan. Her calm and composed reaction spoke volumes. “There was no love between us,” Chen says. He moved in with Tan in 1998, while Jack went to live with Chen’s parents. But after Jack badly burned his thigh reaching for a bottle of hot water in 2000, Chen worried that his parents were getting too old to look after Jack, and so he decided it would be safer if Jack moved in with him and Tan.

Initially, Tan started the Weibo and WeChat accounts to share stories about the family’s life together. But he soon realized that what he was doing mattered to other gay people in China. The family’s experiences have brought hope to many gay people who want children for themselves. For Tan, the message he wants to communicate is clear:

“Being gay doesn’t mean you can’t have your own family.”

But for most gay couples, having children is complicated. Adoption law in China prohibits applications that violate “social morality,” which includes those submitted by same-sex couples. If a couple is wealthy enough, they can use expensive services in the U.S. that provide surrogacy or in vitro fertilization. In rare cases relatives may let a couple look after their child. Abandoned infants are still a reality in China, and some gay couples might take one home if they happen to see one. But aside from the ethical implications, this is also illegal. The only option for the majority of gay couples in China is to remain childless.

It was 2001 when Tan invited his parents to Guangzhou to see his new apartment. Still in the closet to his parents, he introduced Chen as a friend and Jack as his godson. Naively, Tan thought his parents would be immediately accepting of the arrangement. But Tan’s parents hated the idea of their son raising another person’s child, and urged him to find a woman to marry as soon as possible.

In 2003 Tan’s mother told him to come home and visit a relative. But the order was a ruse, and when Tan arrived home he was confronted by a witch who put a spell on him. Superstitious beliefs are still common in China’s countryside, and Tan’s parents thought he was possessed by a female devil that was preventing him from finding a girlfriend. This was the last straw for Tan, and he told his parents the truth about his sexuality.

“I felt the air in the room freeze,” he says.

Tan and Chen live in Guangzhou, but because Tan is vice president of a state-owned media outlet means he spends most of his time in the city of Kunming, Yunnan province. However, the pair decided to live in an affluent suburb of Guangzhou because they think the city is more open-minded. Tan and Chen say that because their neighbors are well-off, they are more accepting of the family.

“Jack is active with the other kids in the compound and has never been confronted with awkward questions,” says Chen.

Photos of Tan, Chen Dezhou, and Chen’s biological son Jack, from their apartment in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, March 16, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Jack doesn’t think his life has been unusual in any way.

“I just happen to have one more dad,” Jack says.

Chen and Tan have been able to maintain a degree of anonymity in spite of their popularity on social networks, but they have shied away from some public events in order to protect Jack’s privacy. Now 18, Jack realizes that his life and experiences might help others.

“I just want people to know that gay families are as ordinary as other families,” Jack says.

In reality, Jack has two fathers and one mother. Chen’s wife requested a divorce in 2003, and the split was amicable. Soon after, Chen and Tan helped her move to Guangzhou where, according to Chen, she is free to visit whenever she wants. Chen has a child in Jack, and he financially supports his family — the two main demands his parents had of him. Because of this, Chen’s family has been accepting of his relationship.

“My job as a son is done,” Chen says.

Tan’s relationship with his own parents didn’t improve after he came out to them. In the years following, he lied to his parents, saying he had broken up with Chen. He pretended to date a lesbian friend, even going as far as to consider a sham marriage with her. But deep inside, Tan knew he couldn’t go through with it.

In January 2016, Tan posted about the changing relationship with his parents on the sannanyizhai public WeChat account. For the first time ever, he shared a post from that account on his personal WeChat feed, where all of his contacts could read it. Tan was incredibly nervous: He was lifting the lid on his double life and coming clean about his sexual orientation. He even worried that he might lose his job.

But Tan’s post received tens of thousands of views and comments of support, including many from close friends and colleagues. Despite the support of people in wider society, Tan was made to wait by his own parents.

“It took them 15 years to finally accept my family,” says Tan.

The English name “Jack” has been used to protect the true identity of Tan and Chen’s son at their request.

This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Think Twice About Marriage, Shanghai Counsels Couples


On a Tuesday afternoon in March, one of the young, soon-to-be-married couples at Shanghai’s Putuo District marriage registry was less than excited. Wei Jun, a premarital counselor, was asking the spouses-to-be to rate each other on a 10-point scale.

“Seven,” said the woman of her fiance.

This, according to counsellor Wei, was a little on the low side. In her experience most couples who come to her right before registering to marry score each other at least a nine, she told Sixth Tone.

Wei said the woman then burst into tears, asking aloud whether her fiance really cared about her. After some prodding, Wei found out the couple had come to get married because of constant pressure from the man’s family. Wei told them they ought to think twice about whether they should get married.

After their counselling session, the couple still chose to wed at the registry office later that day.

Wei is one of several volunteer premarital counselors at the Putuo marriage registry. Every Tuesday she talks to couples — sometimes as many as 30 a day — who come in to apply for a marriage certificate. Wei, 46, works as a full-time lab technician in a hospital. Out of an interest in psychology, she took a course to become a registered counsellor a decade ago. She had been volunteering at a school until December 2015, when Shanghai started with a new program aimed at preventing unstable marriages.

Shanghai was ahead of the national curve. Regulations recommending that every marriage registry in China hire premarital counsellors came into effect on Feb. 1, 2016. Now every couple has to sit down for a free, mandatory counselling session before they can apply for a marriage certificate. The new rules are a reaction to China’s rising divorce rate, which has increased more than tenfold since 1980in 2014 3.6 million couples ended their marriage.

Sun Xiaohong, the deputy director of the marriage management department at the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau, told Sixth Tone that 58,302 Shanghai couples filed for divorce in 2015, a 9.5 percent increase compared to the year prior.

Part of this rise can be explained by easier, cheaper ways to get a marriage annulled — the fee is usually less than 10 yuan ($1.50) in most places, and it is waived entirely in Shanghai. The whole procedure only takes about half an hour. Also, as has happened in other countries, economic growth means more and more people discover they are no longer financially dependent on their spouse.

Sun said this has also meant that “people pay more attention to emotional demands.”

More recently, new rules making it more expensive for couples to buy a second house in Shanghai have led to them filing for divorce as a way to circumvent these regulations.

In the hope of halting the tide of ended marriages, divorce counseling has been available in Putuo since 2006. According to Qian Cuiping, head of the Putuo marriage registry, about 70 percent of couples who go through these sessions either delay a divorce or decide against one altogether.

With premarital counselling, the government hopes to lower the divorce rate by stopping couples who are not ready from rushing into a marriage that will likely end in tears. Wei has come across many young couples who fall into this category.

“A lot of people don’t really know themselves, let alone their partners,” she said.

Many people leave Wei’s office with more problems than they realized they had when they came in. Wei says she often makes happy couples feel “sad and confused,” but she thinks it is necessary.

“It’s my job to help these couples face reality,” she said.

On the same Tuesday that Wei saw the first pair, another young couple from Shanghai visited her for their mandatory counseling session. Although initially very excited to be registering for marriage, they realized after speaking to Wei that they had different opinions on whether they would live with his parents after the wedding and, crucially, on when to have a baby. The couple left the counselling sessions unhappy. “This is not ideal,” Wei said with a smile.

“But it can also save them from the heartbreak of divorce later.”

This article was published on Sixth Tone.

The Honeymoon Is Over: China’s Late Marriage Leave Cancelled


As of January 1st, the Chinese government has canceled the ‘late wedding leave’ that allowed China’s twenty-five-somethings to take a 30-day paid leave when getting married. With the policy’s cancelation, newlyweds can now take no more than a 3-day wedding leave. Chinese netizens are angry about the sudden reversal: “Who wants to get married if we don’t even have time for a honeymoon?”

At a news conference for China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee last Sunday, an amendment of the Family Planning Law was announced to cancel China’s so-called “late marriage leave” (晚婚假).

The amendment to the family planning law has come into effect on January 1st, 2016. Most newlyweds were previously entitled to a 3-day marriage leave plus the additional ‘late marriage leave’ that ranged from 7-30 days, depending on local policies. In China, the legal marriage age is 22 for men, and 20 for women. The ‘late marriage leave’ was meant for anyone who got married three years after their legal marriage age. With the revised policy, all Chinese newlyweds, no matter age or location, are only entitled to a 3-day leave.

The late marriage leave was introduced at the time of the one-child policy to encourage people to postpone marriage and childbirth (“晚婚晚育”) in order to help control China’s population growth. Now that China has started to adopt the two-child policy, the government no longer intends to encourage people to marry later on in life.

images-1 201512231450858011773_59
Propaganda posters encouraging late marriage and late childbirth. 

On Sina Weibo, thousands of netizens commented on the news under the hashtag of “late marriage leave cancelled” (#晚婚假取消#). Many of them speak out against the new policy, believing that couples should be allowed longer paid leaves, also now that the two-child policy has been implemented.


“The government wants us to deliver more babies, but doesn’t help to reduce our stress.”


“The new policy just doesn’t make sense to me at all,” says Weibo user “ZPPPPL”: “The fact is that those who get married late need more vacations. The government wants us to deliver more babies, but doesn’t help to reduce our stress, nor does it offer us better welfare. That’s so unwise!”

According to Zhang Chunsheng (张春生), the head of legal affairs at the National Health and Family Planning Commission, the average marriage age for Chinese is now 25. This is already older than the previously established ‘late marriage’ standard age.

User “Jennifer” does not understand why the late marriage leave policy coincides with the implementation of the two-child policy: “I don’t think couples will get married earlier just so they can have two kids. Getting married late is related to higher education and improved living conditions – that’s the reason why so many people choose to get married after 25 nowadays. We really need those longer marriage leaves to have a break.”


“The 30 day paid marriage leave was the sole motivation to tie the knot.”


Employees working at state-owned companies in China are entitled to five days of paid vacation per year. The late marriage leave is very important for many of them. Over the past few decades, Chinese couples have come to view the ‘late marriage leave’ as their right. Now that this right has been taken from them, many go online to vent their anger and voice their disappointment, saying they were already looking forward to their late marriage leave for a long time.

According to some netizens, the 30-day paid marriage leave was “the sole motivation to tie the knot”.

A user nicknamed “Heavy Manual Labor” complains: “The late marriage leave is a precious vacation for me, and now it’s canceled. The government really takes extreme measures to push those twenty- or thirty-somethings who are still unwed to get married and have two kids.”

Medical worker “Eileen” writes: “I don’t have enough time to get rest. The prospect of the late marriage leave was extremely important to me. What can I expect now that it is canceled? The government doesn’t encourage us to get married late now, but it also doesn’t encourage getting married young by offering any favorable policies.”


“How are we supposed to make make babies without our honeymoon?”


Aside from the worries of not getting that much-needed vacation, many netizens also worry about more practical issues, fearing that three days is not enough time to prepare for the wedding, let alone to go on a honeymoon.

User “Miss Wang” writes that three days is nowhere near enough time to cope with all the concerns before and after the wedding: “Have you ever considered the needs of couples who work far away from their hometowns, and who will already spend days just to get home for the wedding? You can’t just change the policy like it’s a game. This must be a joke.”

Another user “Jugeng Xiaoran” adds: “We need more than three days to prepare the wedding banquet. What about the honeymoon? Who wants to get married if we don’t even have time for a honeymoon? And how are we supposed to make babies without our honeymoon?”


“I will still marry late, I won’t have two kids, I am the boss of my own life.”


A number of Weibo users also criticize the government and the Party from a human rights perspective. “How many kids we want should be our own business. It’s our rights. But in China, it’s decided by the government. No wonder so many Chinese choose to migrate to other countries,” one user says.

“Go ahead and cancel our welfare,” user “RiveGauche” continues: “I will still marry late, I won’t have two kids, I am the boss of my own life. Meanwhile, I will work harder so that I can move to another country where there actually are human rights.”

The cancelation of China’s late marriage came without warning, and took five days from its announcement to its enforcement. Many netizens are caught by surprise, and suggest a ‘deadline cushion’ for future change in policies. Weibo user Vincent writes: “The cancelation itself is unreasonable, but what’s more, there is barely a buffer period for it. These kind of distressing policies will bring about social unrest.”

The amendment has led to a wave of last-minute marriage registrations. Since it passed on December 27, many couples rushed to get registered by January 1st so they would still be entitled to the late marriage leave.

According to the Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau, there was a 30 percent increase in marriage registrations compared to the same period last year. In Shenzhen, the wedding registration offices were flooded with couples who hoped to get registered before the new rule would go into effect. “Getting registered for the sake of the late wedding leave” (#为晚婚假扎堆领证#) even became a hot topic on Sina Weibo.

One Weibo blogger predicts that China’s divorce application offices will be packed within a year. Another netizen agrees, and says that in China, marriage choices are distorted by policies. “And that is pathetic,” he concludes.

By Yiying Fan