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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was published on Sixth Tone.


Caring for China’s Smog Dogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Longevity Pilgrims Go to Guangxi to Learn Secrets of Old Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was published on Sixth Tone.


When You Are Old, Chinese, and Gay

Zhang Guowei, a 76-year-old bisexual veteran, is relishing his twilight years. “I couldn’t be happier with my life post-retirement,” says Zhang, who was a doctor in the army until 1994.

As a former military officer, Zhang’s monthly pension is 10,000 yuan ($1,440) — five times the average pension in Changde, the small city in central China’s Hunan province where he lives with his boyfriend. Zhang divorced his wife in 2003 and met the love of his life — Wu, who is 40 years younger — a year later on the internet. “I expect him to accompany me through the remainder of my life,” Zhang tells Sixth Tone after finishing his daily exercise routine.

Zhang says he is bisexual but prefers men. He gained support and understanding from his ex-wife and two daughters when he came out to them in 2003. When he passes on, his assets will be divided equally among his daughters and his boyfriend. “My kids have no problem sharing with Wu because they know he is the one taking care of me in my final years,” he says.

The May-December couple have been living together since 2005 in an apartment provided by the government for retired army cadres and their families. The 10-story building houses a dozen veterans in their 60s through 90s, some living alone and others with their spouses.

When Wu first moved in, Zhang told his neighbors that Wu was his gan erzi, or adopted son, whom he met online. (The Chinese concept of gan erzi allows for a sort of informal adoption of adults, with no legal or religious implications.) “I had this vague idea that they might be gay,” says 74-year-old Lu Shize, who lives downstairs. “But it’s none of my business to ask about his private life,” Lu adds.

Last year, following in other veterans’ footsteps, Zhang wrote a 218-page autobiography — including his experiences of recognizing his sexuality — and shared it with his fellow cadres. His neighbors were very understanding. “Everyone knows about us, and no one gossips or gives us a hard time,” Zhang says.

Lu, who had never before met any out gay or bisexual men, says he admires Zhang’s courage.

“Being gay or not, it doesn’t change the way I see him,” Lu says. “We are in our 70s; what’s more important than being happy and healthy?”

China’s population is rapidly aging. The proportion of the population aged 60 or older was more than 16 percent at the end of 2015, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and that number is only set to increase. The nation’s changing demography brings with it challenges for managing welfare and health care, especially as fewer seniors are able to count on their families for support.

Two older men hold a symbolic wedding ceremony in Beijing, Jan. 30, 2013. ChinaFotoPress/VCG

Two older men hold a symbolic wedding ceremony in Beijing, Jan. 30, 2013. ChinaFotoPress/VCG

Decades of family-planning restrictions mean that even seniors who have children often must become self-reliant, as children born during the one-child policy can’t afford to support two parents and four grandparents. As a result, for many elders, being childless is no longer a major concern or an unusual occurrence.

Wen Xiaojun, 56, is single and childless. Immediately after he retired in November from working as a civil servant, he rented an apartment in Sanya, on the southern island of Hainan, where he is spending six months avoiding the cold of his hometown in the eastern province of Zhejiang. “I still feel young and restless,” Wen tells Sixth Tone. “Being childless makes it easy for me to travel after retirement.”

Like other older people, LGBT seniors want to have rich, fulfilling, and independent lives. They hope that retirement will give them the opportunity to focus on what they truly love.

Wen enjoys his slow-paced life in Sanya. He goes to exhibitions, takes walks along the beach, plays volleyball with locals, and sometimes meets up with men he contacts through Blued — a popular gay social app, on which he hopes to find a long-term boyfriend.

But dating isn’t easy for older gay men. “Younger generations can build a relationship quickly by kissing or having sex soon after they meet offline,” Wen explains. “But we want something more spiritual and stable.” 

Similarly, 62-year-old Ah Shan, as he’s called within the gay community, says that finding a partner is his biggest problem these days. His finances are secure, as he owns his apartment in Guangzhou — capital of southern China’s Guangdong province — and receives a monthly pension of about 5,000 yuan, but he has been single for four years and is ready for that to change. In the meantime, he is renting out one of his bedrooms to gay friends so he has some company at home.

Ah Shan poses for a picture in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 2013. Courtesy of Ah Shan

Ah Shan poses for a picture in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 2013. Courtesy of Ah Shan

Most gays, lesbians, and bisexuals of Ah Shan’s generation knew little about their sexual orientation until internet access became available at the turn of the millennium. Even when Ah Shan was working in the U.S. in the late 1980s, he refused to consider himself gay because the only information he’d heard about gay topics in China was AIDS-related or implied that homosexuality was shameful or immoral. “I think I was brainwashed,” Ah Shan laughs.

Over the last two years, Ah Shan has been working on a gay oral history project, recording the stories of older gay men in Guangzhou. He has talked to more than 60 gay men aged from 60 to 90, who have experienced some of China’s most critical historic moments, from the Cultural Revolution to the nation’s opening-up era. “If we don’t record them now, part of the important history of LGBT in China will be gone,” he says.

Many of the men are married and choose not to come out to their families. “They go to this particular park to chat with other gay men in the daytime to release their emotions, but when the sun goes down, they have to return home to bear their family responsibilities,” Ah Shan says with a sigh.

Ah Shan’s own parents passed away before he was brave enough to tell them the truth. His mother died in 2000, a year before homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in China.

Compared with gay and bisexual men, older women find it even more difficult to disclose or discuss their sexual orientation. Since 2010, 45-year-old Yu Shi from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, has been working on an oral history project for older same-sex-attracted women across China, but she says the process of locating participants and persuading them to share their stories is tough.

“Chinese women are in a weak position in the family, which doesn’t allow them to speak out for themselves,” Yu says, adding that of the 30 or so lesbians who have taken part in the project over the last six years, only one has come out to her family. Many won’t divorce their husbands even if they have female partners. “Chinese people are very concerned with saving face, and they think it’s a loss of face to get a divorce if you’re already a grandparent,” she says.

Yu and her 40-year-old girlfriend have lived together for over a decade, but despite their enduring, loving relationship, they can’t enjoy the security of a formal union, as same-sex marriage is not yet legal in China. Some issues can be resolved by making a will, but others — like legal or medical power of attorney — remain a problem.

According to Yu, some LGBT seniors who are single and childless have considered building their own retirement estate where they can live together and take care of one another. Although they aren’t opposed to regular nursing homes, Yu says “they prefer to live in a place where they can open their hearts and share their experiences with others in the same circumstances.”

A lesbian couple kiss each other during an event in Shanghai, Dec. 22, 2013. Sun Zhan/Sixth Tone

A lesbian couple kiss each other during an event in Shanghai, Dec. 22, 2013. Sun Zhan/Sixth Tone

As more and more seniors live separately from their children, retirement facilities in China have struggled to meet growing demand. The government encourages investment in privately owned nursing homes, but so far none have been established exclusively for members of sexual minority groups.

Little public attention is given to the needs of older LGBT people, but to Wang Anke, a 50-year-old bisexual woman from Beijing, these individuals don’t do enough to stand up for themselves, either. “We are almost invisible,” she says.

Wang married her husband in 1990 and plans to spend the rest of her life with him. Though Wang considers herself happy and fortunate, she says that most older lesbian and bisexual women she knows are pessimistic about their senior years. “They’re lonely and lack emotional care,” Wang says, adding that many would rather live alone than move into a nursing home where they fear they can’t be themselves. “Loneliness will go to the grave with them.”

But while some LGBT seniors advocate dedicated nursing homes, Ah Shan opposes the idea of separate services. “In the long run, LGBT people shouldn’t lock ourselves in a so-called safe place,” he says. “What we really need is for the overall environment to allow us to live comfortably in the community.”

This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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.