Artist Brings ‘Haha-Then-Aha’ Moments to China’s Gender Debate


SICHUAN, Southwest China — In most Chinese bookstores, there’s a section of bright pink books instructing women on how to be a good housewife or find a man before they hit 30.

But at an out-of-the-way underground art space some distance from provincial capital Chengdu’s city center, there are how-to books of a different kind. “Be a Man Who Never Cries,” instructs one. Other titles include: “Men, Don’t Lose Arguments Because You Don’t Know How to Fight” and “‘Bad Boys’ Go Everywhere; Good Boys Go to Heaven.”

It’s a typically tongue-and-cheek part of artist Wu Kangyang’s latest exhibition, held in Chengdu in October. In another area of the industrial-style room with exposed brick walls, there’s a platform where men are encouraged to sit or stand and think about why men rape women, rather than asking women what they can do to keep themselves safe from rapists. There are large white posterboards, mimicking the instructional boards you might find in a “feminine virtues” class, except these have phrases like: “Virginity is a man’s best betrothal gift;” “Do not participate in dinners where women are present; problems could creep up on you;” “Be alert on the bus. Don’t give female hoodlums an opportunity to be indecent;” and “Giving birth to a boy is useless. A married son is like spilled water.”

Since Wu’s first exhibition on heterosexuality went viral in April, he’s become known for his works that first make his audience giggle, and then reflect. It’s a unique approach in China, where many still hold traditional views on gender, and if the issues feature in art at all, artists rarely take a lighthearted tack. Wu’s witty commentary on stereotypes is especially popular online, where it plays into a national gender debate that has repeatedly surfaced in recent years following news about harassment on public transportationmedia misogyny, and misconduct in universities and workplaces. Wu’s even been given promotional support from NetEase, one of China’s biggest tech companies.

A visitor poses next to a white posterboard that reads: “Virginity is a man’s best betrothal gift,” at Wu Kangyang’s exhibition in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A visitor poses next to a white posterboard that reads: “Virginity is a man’s best betrothal gift,” at Wu Kangyang’s exhibition in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Born and raised in the city of Mianyang — about 130 kilometers northeast of Chengdu — Wu, now 29, developed his love of art while accompanying his mother, a retired textile worker, to the factory where she mixed colors. Despite his artistic bent, Wu caved to pressure from his parents to major in English, which they thought would make it easier for him to find work. When his classmates became teachers after graduation, Wu instead started his career in art and now works in a private art gallery. On the side, he makes money arranging holiday installations for shopping malls and follows his less lucrative passion of creating exhibitions on the issues of gender and sexuality.

It’s a subject close to home for Wu, who has known he was gay since middle school. Nevertheless, he’s never told his parents and doesn’t plan to, worried they’d isolate themselves from their friends out of shame. “Maybe they’ve already figured out that I’m gay, and it’s just that no one wants to talk about it,” Wu says. “I would feel relieved if I were to come out of the closet, but the reality might put them into a closet.” His mother and father, he says, are mostly interested in watching TV dramas and political news, respectively. They have little notion of their son’s popularity.

Wu’s latest show was inspired by an argument over China Central Television’s annual back-to-school gala, which featured a performance by a group of so-called little fresh meat entertainers — delicate, handsome, and often feminine young men. Parents criticized the national broadcaster en masse for imparting “non-masculine” and “non-positive and uplifting” values on their children. The discussion reached the highest echelons of Chinese public debate: While state news agency Xinhua said such “sissy pants” represent a “sick culture” that would negatively impact the nation’s children, Party newspaper People’s Daily argued modern society allows a diversity of interpretations of what it means to be a man.

Wu says he didn’t take the debate seriously until he noticed some middle-aged male curators that he admires share articles such as “Sissy Young Boys Lead to a Weak Country” on messaging app WeChat. “I was shocked and angry,” he says, adding that society puts pressure on men with expectations that they have a well-paid job, act tough, and don’t cry. “When ‘sissy pants’ becomes a trend, it challenges mainstream ideas and makes some people uncomfortable and anxious,” he tells Sixth Tone.

Wu decided to satirize women’s bookshelves and feminine virtues course posters because they were eye-catching and simple, making them perfect for getting his message across — and going viral on social media. But it was about more than just popularity: He wanted people to rethink their ideas.

On a chilly weekday during his six-day exhibition, visitors laugh out loud and take selfies with the installations, immediately uploading them to social media. Wu, who wears round, Harry Potter-style glasses and sports floral tattoos on his forearm, isn’t sure they’ve understood his intentions, yet he prefers not to explain his work to the visitors. “Everyone has their own views, and maybe their understanding is deeper than mine,” he says.

Wu Kangyang sits on a platform at his exhibition that encourages men to think about why they rape women, rather than asks women what they can do to keep themselves safe from rapists, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Wu Kangyang sits on a platform at his exhibition that encourages men to think about why they rape women, rather than asks women what they can do to keep themselves safe from rapists, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

But plenty of people seem to get the message. Luo Zhihui, 23, just moved to Chengdu for a master’s degree. He identifies as gay and has read about Wu’s other gender-equality exhibitions on social media. This is his first visit. The art-lover describes himself as sissy, but it’s not a negative word in his mind. It’s just who he is. “I’m slim. I care about my looks, but it doesn’t make me less of a man,” he tells Sixth Tone after visiting the exhibition.

Luo says he’s been to a few other exhibitions calling for gender equality, but they all look too serious. Wu can’t agree more. “Many people think that when discussing social issues, they must use a kind of hateful resentment,” he says. “They must shout slogans and stand in opposition. I think this is a misunderstanding, which creates a greater communication barrier.”

Wu used a similar sense of humor in his April exhibition on heterosexuality. Visitors were presented with a “Chengdu Heterosexuals Map,” which shows the places in the city where straight men tend to hang out. Then, photoshopped news headlines: “Global Outbreak of Heterosexual Demonstrations, Anti-discrimination Fight is Everyone’s Responsibility;” “Celebrities Speak Out in Support of Heterosexual Rights;” “Heterosexual Marriage Has Been Passed, History has Been Changed.” The show was aiming to turn discourse on its head, posing a series of questions: What is heterosexuality? What is the origin of heterosexuality? How can you recognize someone who is heterosexual?

Once again, that exhibition had been inspired by the news. That same month, microblogging site Weibo purged LGBT-related comics and videos amid a crackdown on violent and “lewd” content. A few days later, the site backtracked after a public backlash. Wu, who is unimpressed by the efforts of LGBT groups in Chengdu, believes his art can help raise awareness about LGBT issues.

Sometime before noon during the October exhibition, Huang Xinya walks in. Believing that gender equality is an important issue, she decided to check it out after reading about it on Douban, an app for reviews of books, movies, and art. Huang, 24, says she is one of the many young women who are fans of the “little fresh meat” aesthetic. “I don’t understand why many people say they are sissy,” she says. “And even if they are, what’s the problem?”

With Chinese women becoming more independent and fighting for equality in all aspects of life, Huang says, “we can like any type of men we want, instead of longing for a tough and masculine man to take care of us.” Huang mentions the changing attitudes toward men wearing makeup: “Everyone has the right to make themselves look good, which has nothing to do with gender.” Plus, she adds, “there are more than just two genders, male and female, in the world.”

Joy Lin, the founder of Shanghai-based feminist organization We and Equality, finds many Chinese people still hold stereotypical views on how men and women should dress and behave. She mentions a “feminine virtues” summer camp held in eastern Zhejiang province last August which reportedly taught children that wearing revealing clothes would cause rape. A similar workshop held in northeastern China in 2017 taught married women to swallow their husbands’ insults and eschew divorce at all cost. At the same time, many schools in recent years have introduced masculinity courses that teach boys how to be “true” men.

Visitors at Wu Kangyang’s exhibit are encouraged to put a red sticker on a water bottle if they prefer being straight in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Visitors at Wu Kangyang’s exhibit are encouraged to put a red sticker on a water bottle if they prefer being straight in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Lin praises Wu’s use of irony in challenging mainstream beliefs. “It’s a smart way for spreading ideas and educating the public,” she says. “These ironic phrases first make people laugh, and then think.”

While Wu believes that Chinese society has become more aware and supportive of gender and sexual minorities, LGBT and feminism are still sensitive topics. The downtown mall that was the original venue for his heterosexuality exhibition backed out of hosting it, meaning he held it in a private art space instead. He was recently given a list of words that are unofficially banned by authorities, including “homosexual.” And although Chengdu — his home for over six years — has a reputation for being China’s queer capital, Wu believes this reputation is unfounded. People in Chengdu care about pandas — there’s a breeding center in the city — and will line up for hours to try a newly opened hot pot restaurant, but when it comes to gender equality and the LGBT movement, Chengdu trails behind cities like Shanghai and Beijing, he says.

“I’m trying to make Chengdu a better city by making people think about real issues in my own humorous way,” Wu says. “I hope one day when Chengdu is in the headlines, it’s for more than just cute pandas and tasty hot pot.”

Nevertheless, Wu’s work has already made some people change their minds. After seeing Wu’s success, the downtown mall venue realized they made a mistake. “[They] regretted canceling the exhibition after seeing it was that popular,” Wu says. “I then responded that they’re not very farsighted.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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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.