Meet China’s ‘Pet Wheelchair King’


SHANGHAI — Wei Lijun was distraught after her 19-year-old dog Fufu had a stroke earlier this year. The mongrel was fully paralyzed and often cried out in pain during the night. “We’d have to carry her outside to someplace quiet to avoid disturbing the neighbors,” Wei tells Sixth Tone.

The 56-year-old worried that Fufu would never walk again, but she refused to contemplate having her beloved pet put down. Finally, a vet suggested a solution: Why not try ordering a wheelchair for Fufu?

Wei searched online and found a business offering customized pet mobility aids for just 630 yuan ($90). A few days later, the new wheelchair arrived, and the effect was almost immediate: Within hours, Fufu was zooming around the streets near Wei’s home in Shanghai.

“It’s magical,” says Wei. “She seems so happy and relaxed when she’s ‘walking’ outside.”

Wei is just one of thousands of Chinese pet owners who have called on the services of Gao Xiaodong, a former migrant worker from Huludao, northeastern Liaoning province, who has helped give countless animals a new lease of life.

A dog walks outside with a wheelchair that Gao Xiaodong made in Beijing, Sept. 16, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

A dog walks outside with a wheelchair that Gao Xiaodong made in Beijing, Sept. 16, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

The 44-year-old claims to have been the first person in China to sell animal mobility aids commercially, opening a small workshop in 2006. What started as a niche venture has since grown into a thriving business, thanks to the explosion in pet ownership in China.

Today, just under 100 million Chinese households have a pet, up 44% since 2014, and the country’s pet industry is worth an estimated 200 billion yuan. Owners are increasingly willing to spend large sums to give their animals a more comfortable life: The market for pet travel products — which includes carriers and mobility solutions — increased by 40% in the past year.

Gao now runs a 300-square-meter factory employing eight people, which churns out more than 4,000 wheelchairs each year. The firm is responsible for nearly all the pet mobility aids sold on e-commerce platforms Taobao and JD.com. The vast majority of other vendors are either agents or business partners of the firm, Gao says.

The Huludao native recalls first seeing a dog wheelchair around 15 years ago, while he was working a door-to-door sales job in Beijing. One of his clients had made a makeshift frame for his paralyzed Pekingese. “He could walk using this device made with a board and four bearings,” says Gao.

Two years later, Gao returned to his hometown to try his luck as an entrepreneur. After a couple of failed ventures selling health care and computer products, he came across the websites of some overseas pet wheelchair makers while searching for new business ideas online. The image of the Pekingese popped into Gao’s head, and he was sure he’d found a winning project. “It just hit me,” he says.

Gao and his wife, Fu Lijuan, made their first prototype for a disabled stray that often begged for food near their home. The “simple car” — which they fashioned from some discarded wood, wire, and roller skate wheels — didn’t look great, but the dog didn’t seem to mind, according to Gao. “He was so eager to try it and was running so fast,” he says.

Gao Xiaodong (left) and his wife Fu Lijuan look at a client’s dog on their phone in Huludao, Liaoning province, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

Gao Xiaodong (left) and his wife Fu Lijuan look at a client’s dog on their phone in Huludao, Liaoning province, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

After this early success, Gao was confident enough to quit his job at a local zinc factory to devote all his energy to the pet wheelchairs business. His parents, however, didn’t take the news well.

“They looked at me with a shocked expression,” says Gao. “They couldn’t believe I’d given up a stable job at a state-owned company for disabled animals.”

At the time, keeping a domestic pet was still a luxury for most people in China. Families had little disposable income, and animals incapacitated by disease or old age were normally put down. Gao and Fu’s neighbors frequently questioned whether the couple had lost their minds.

“None of them had heard of this business, and they didn’t believe that people would actually buy wheelchairs for animals,” says Fu.

During the early years, Gao sometimes wondered if they were right. In 2008, he remembers only selling a handful of wheelchairs each month. Over time, however, his sales figures gradually climbed into the dozens and then the hundreds.

Gao puts the change down to a dramatic shift in social attitudes toward animals. Though China has yet to pass an animal protection law for domestic animals, cities have become much more pet-friendlyand a huge number of animal welfare projects have launched across the country.

“Animals often accompany their owners for many years and emotionally become part of the family,” says Gao. “It’s just like when people are terminally ill — the family will do anything to prolong their lives.”

Wang Jinyu bought a customized wheelchair from Gao for her Yorkshire terrier, Gin, in 2015. Her father had accidentally stepped on Gin when he was only 8 months old, and the puppy had gradually lost the use of his legs. The vet said Gin was only likely to live another five years, but Wang was determined to do whatever she could to help him.

She massaged Gin every day and looked for a wheelchair to help the dog stay active. The first one she bought was far too big and heavy for Gin, who weighs only 2.5 kilograms, but Gao’s work was an instant hit. Four years on from the accident, Gin still goes out for walkies at least twice per day.

Gin enjoys some walkies on a wheelchair in Shanghai, Oct. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Gin enjoys some walkies on a wheelchair in Shanghai, Oct. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

“With the wheels, he can walk much faster than before,” says Wang. “And he always sticks his tongue out, which shows he’s happy.”

According to Wang, at least a dozen people have asked her where they could buy a similar wheelchair while she’s been out walking Gin over the years. “One of our neighbors ordered a wheelchair for his old golden retriever so that he could enjoy the outdoors,” says Wang. “The dog passed away a few months later, but it’s all worth it.”

As Gao’s fame has spread, the factory in Huludao has found itself receiving an ever-greater variety of orders. The business now produces around 1,000 wheelchairs for export each month, according to Gao. He says 90% of his wheelchairs are for dogs, while 9% are for cats. The remaining 1% are made for a range of animals, including rabbits, tortoises, and pigs. The company has also created wheelchairs for horses at a Chinese zoo, as well as goats on an overseas ranch, he adds.

A GIF shows a cat walking with a wheelchair made by Gao Xiaodong. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

A GIF shows a cat walking with a wheelchair made by Gao Xiaodong. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

“We’re so happy to see a growing number of Chinese pet owners willing to help their disabled or elderly dogs enjoy a new life,” says Gao. “Dogs can usually adapt to wheelchairs very quickly.”

Sadly, some dogs pass away before their new mobility aids can be delivered. “Our customers will still pay for the wheelchair,” says Gao. “They often bury it with their beloved dogs, hoping they can run free in another world.”

Gao’s next project is to start making pet houses, tapping into Chinese owners’ desire to pamper their pooches. There still appears to be enormous room for growth in the pet market, with U.S. pet food giant Mars predicting it could more than double in size within the next five years.

Mainly, though, Gao just wants to make sure the country’s animals are as comfortable as possible, he says. “We were all born equal,” says Gao. “Animals, whether they can walk or not, all deserve to be respected.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Late Bloomers: China’s Elderly Embrace Sex After 60


SHANGHAI — Every Wednesday afternoon, Xue Xiaoqing grabs her favorite purse and heads to a beauty salon in the city’s leafy former French Concession. There, the 70-year-old receives special massage therapy that her therapist has coyly named “private maintenance.”

The treatment for vaginal dryness is designed to help Xue improve her sex life with her husband. After a year of weekly sessions, she says she feels much younger and more confident. “I want to keep having sex until I can no longer walk,” she tells Sixth Tone.

Xue is one of a growing number of elderly Chinese who are rejecting traditional cultural mores and embracing their sexuality as a source of health and happiness.

Like many of her peers, Xue, a retired teacher, used to feel intense pressure to refrain from intercourse. Chinese culture has long stressed that sex should be for procreation only, and making love after menopause was considered both unhealthy and immoral.

“I felt guilty whenever I had sex and tried to suppress any sexual thoughts,” says Xue. She cites a common proverb to explain her feelings: “An old man who desires sex disrespects the elderly and brings misfortune on his family.”

But things changed for the 70-year-old when her beautician recommended she give the massages a try. “The therapist told me women in the West have sex into their 80s, and we can achieve that, too,” says Xue.

Quietly, millions of other retirees are joining the silver sexual revolution. Though 85% of young Chinese believe their parents never have sex, according to a recent survey, research suggests that most of the respondents are mistaken.

A 2018 report by researchers at Renmin University of China found that 53% of Chinese people aged between 55 and 61 had sex at least once a month. The number of elderly respondents that reported having an active sex life, meanwhile, rose from 25% in 2000 to 39% in 2015.

Zhang Ying, a professional matchmaker from Kunshan, a city roughly 70 kilometers west of Shanghai, says she has noticed an attitude shift among her elderly clients in recent years: As income levels rise, they are looking for more than just economic security — they are increasingly prioritizing their emotional needs.

“Almost all my clients emphasize that they want to have a sex life after they remarry,” says Zhang.

Personal information from a matchmaking event in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Feb. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Personal information from a matchmaking event in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Feb. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying

Though media discussion of this trend remains rare in China, it is no longer taboo. A growing number of commentators are advocating “scientific sexual knowledge” and encouraging the elderly to keep on having sex “until the end.”

And as public awareness of sexual health issues grows, more retirees are seeking treatments to prolong their sex lives. Zhou Yujing opened a female beauty clinic specializing in sex-related therapies in the eastern city of Hangzhou in 2017. She says nearly 10% of her patients are aged 60 or over.

“This number is already larger than I expected,” says Zhou, adding that she expects to attract more older patients as society becomes increasingly open. The 33-year-old surveyed the mothers of dozens of her friends before starting her business, and she was struck by how many chafed against the patriarchal valuesthey had internalized as young women.

“They all wanted to have sex, but moral hang-ups prevented them from doing so,” says Zhou. “If a woman stops having sex after childbirth or menopause, she’s being unfair to herself.”

Yuan Baohong — secretary general of the China Health Care Association, a Beijing-based nongovernmental organization — encourages elderly patients to pursue an active sex life, arguing that it can offer mental and physical benefits.

“When they have sex, older people feel they are actively engaging in life, rather than retreating from it,” says Yuan. “The self-confidence and positive mental state this fosters can help prolong their lives.”

For Yuan, sex can be an effective cure for the loneliness and negativity that often affect elderly patients. Though many understandably feel unable to move on after they lose their partners, this often heightens their sense of alienation, he says.

“Because their (sexual) needs can’t be understood by their children or society, they often feel distressed or depressed,” says Yuan. “Their moods can become volatile, and they sometimes lose their tempers for no reason.”

At an Ikea store in downtown Shanghai, however, more than 100 single elderly residents are actively searching for a new partner. Groups of retirees meet at the store’s second-floor café twice per week, many of whom attend multiple meetups each month.

On a humid Thursday in August, several attendees in their 60s and 70s tell Sixth Tone they are hoping to find a new spouse at that day’s coffee date, while others say they are simply looking for a friend with benefits. Many openly speak about their previous marriages and desire for emotional intimacy, though most prefer not to discuss their sex lives.

But Wu Xiangui doesn’t shy away. The 68-year-old strides across the cafeteria, remarking to Sixth Tone that he is searching for a “target.” He says he has dated three women since his wife passed away four years ago.

“China is now an aging society, so why is it shameful to talk about the sexual problems of the elderly?” asks Wu. “Everyone has the same desire for intimacy, regardless of age.”

According to Wu, most of the regulars at Ikea have not found suitable life partners despite years of searching, but many have become “old lovers” who meet weekly. They share meals and sing karaoke together and often have one-night stands. “It’s just a need that is understandable and should be understood,” says Wu.

Experts observe that clear gender differences remain among elderly Chinese regarding attitudes toward sex, with men more likely to support the idea that older people have “normal sexual needs.” This is partly due to cultural conditioning, and also a result of the physical changes women undergo during menopause, according to Zhou, the Hangzhou-based sex therapist.

“Women’s inner vulvar mucosa gradually declines with age,” says Zhou. “This can make penetration painful, and slowly, women become sexually apathetic.”

The contrast between the sexes can sometimes create tensions within heterosexual couples, as Zhang Weibin attests. The 60-year-old has been married for more than three decades, but he says he and his wife last made love eight years ago, shortly before his wife started having menopause.

“Ever since then, her sexual desire started to decline,” says Zhang. He adds that he can “solve the problem by himself,” but admits that he has thought about having an affair.

“I think the ancient Chinese were wise,” says Zhang. “They allowed men to marry younger women when their first wives weren’t able to have sex with them anymore.”

For other couples, however, retirement provides the time and space to rekindle their sex lives. Zhuang Xin, a 58-year-old former state-owned enterprise employee from Hangzhou, says she and her husband have sex at least three times per month.

“It’s not as passionate or as long as before, but I see sex as a way for us to show affection for each other,” says Zhuang.

Many of Zhuang’s friends complain about their unsatisfying sex lives, but Zhuang says that old age also brings advantages. “My husband doesn’t need to use a condom now,” she says. “The pleasure is much greater for both of us.”

The couple is able to keep the conjugal flames burning because both make an effort to spice things up, according to Zhuang. They change into each other’s favorite underwear and pajamas for special occasions. On Zhuang’s 52nd birthday, her husband cooked her a romantic candelit dinner and bought her a dildo as a gift. “He was ill back then, but he still cared about my needs,” recalls Zhuang.

Mao Yongyi, who owns a sex shop in Shanghai, says he is receiving more and more orders from middle-aged and elderly people. He also notes that there is a marked difference between his older male and female customers: Women usually purchase lubricants and vibrators, whereas men tend to favor BDSM products.

“Elderly women who come to the shop know that it’s normal to have sexual needs, though they are still concerned about society’s opinions,” says Mao. “But if a man still has a sexual partner at this age, he’ll be particularly confident, feeling awesome about himself.”

But both genders have one thing in common, which is that sex helps them maintain their youth, according to Mao. One of his male customers, 83, needs assistance walking but still purchases bondage gear, while his oldest female customer, 76, is a joy to talk to, he says.

“I can tell she has a stable sex life, because she’s glowing and looks so young for her age,” says Mao.

A few blocks away from Mao’s sex shop, Xue has just finished her therapy session at the beauty salon. She fixes her hair and takes a sip of her favorite green tea. “If young people take it for granted that sex is exclusive to them, it’s only because they are not old yet,” she says.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

China’s Newest Cram School Craze: Sex Ed Camps


SHANDONG, East China — “What are the differences between men’s and women’s bodies?” asks Jiang Lingling. The 11 young children huddled around her look thoughtful for a moment. “Girls’ chests are bigger than boys’,” says one boy. “But Captain America’s chest is also big,” counters another.

At the back of the room, the children’s parents start to giggle. But Jiang isn’t fazed. She’s used to this kind of reaction. “This is a desensitization process,” she tells Sixth Tone.

The 38-year-old is one of a small group of specialists bringing a new, franker style of sex education to families across China who are tired of the conservative approach taken by most Chinese schools.

Though the State Council, China’s Cabinet, made sexual and reproductive health education compulsory in all schools in 2011, the subject remains poorly taught. Lessons still often focus on preaching abstinence rather than providing practical information about contraception, and this has left shocking numbers of young adults clueless about how to stop unwanted pregnancies.

Many parents are turning to extracurricular cram schools to give their kids a more thorough grounding in the facts of life, and this is opening the door for lecturers like Jiang who advocate a radically different approach. Last year, the national government began issuing certifications to sex education lecturers, and it has already issued more than 330 licenses.

Jiang is in Qingdao, eastern Shandong province’s coastal city of 9 million people, to teach a three-day course in empowerment sex education — a curriculum developed by the renowned Chinese sexologist Fang Gang in 2013. The approach is based on Fang’s belief that teaching children as much as possible about their bodies from a young age — the younger, the better — not only benefits their physical safety, but also their mental health.

“It empowers children to know, understand, judge, choose, and learn to be responsible,” Fang tells Sixth Tone.

The event, held at a local hotel in early August, is Qingdao’s first-ever empowerment sex ed camp. Until this year, Fang only organized courses in relatively liberal metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, but now he’s starting to spread the gospel across the country. He expects to hold camps in 20 different provinces and regions in 2019.

The Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou summer camps sold out in just a few days, but sales in Qingdao have been slower. Eleven children aged between 7 and 11 have arrived with their parents — just over half the maximum 20 spots. Jiang says demand is sure to pick up in the future.

“People from provinces like Shandong are still relatively conservative,” says Jiang. “But the parents who attend are open-minded and understand the importance of such education for young children.”

Sex education lecturers Wang Yi (left) and Jiang Lingling (right) show children male and female organs on dolls during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Sex education lecturers Wang Yi (left) and Jiang Lingling (right) show children male and female organs on dolls during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying

One of those parents is Wang Yanhua, who has spent more than 5,000 yuan ($700) on accommodation, food, and the booking fee to travel over 300 kilometers from her hometown Weihai and make sure her 9-year-old son Luoyuan could attend. She says it was worth it.

“It’s not cheap for anyone,” says Wang. “But the real problem is, even if you have money, it’s so rare to find good sex education opportunities like this.”

The 43-year-old tried to convince her friends to also bring their kids, but they told her they did not consider sex education that important. This is especially true of parents with young boys, according to Wang. “Some parents of sons think that boys don’t lose anything if they get a girl pregnant, or that sexual assault doesn’t happen to boys,” she says.

For many of the parents, the camp is a learning opportunity for them as well as their children. Several confess being unsure of how to respond to sex-related questions, though they dislike the traditional Chinese dodge of telling their children that they were found in a dustbin.

Luoyuan first asked where he came from at 5 years old. Wang told him: “Mom has a seed, Dad has a seed, and the two seeds grow together in Mom’s belly.” But now he is growing evermore curious and confused. “So, I told him there’s a summer camp in Qingdao where you can learn all about it,” says Wang.

Jiang starts the first day of activities by playing a set of cartoons showing how a couple falls in love and gives birth to a baby. When the pictures of male and female sexual organs appear on the screen, the children begin to laugh. But Jiang insists they treat them matter-of-factly.

“This is called a penis, not a wee-wee,” she tells the children, none of whom have ever heard the word before. “This is a vagina.” Jiang does not use any nicknames or pronouns. “The idea we want to convey is that every organ is equal and noble,” she says.

Within 15 minutes, the children are able to say the names of the body parts naturally, without laughter or awkwardness. This is easiest with young children, Jiang says. “That is why we emphasize the importance of early sex education,” she adds.

A girl in the sex education summer camp experiments with “blood” on a pad in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A girl in the sex education summer camp experiments with “blood” on a pad in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying

After the knowing your body course, parents are most keen for their children to experience the lesson on preventing sexual assault. The number of reported cases of sexual assault against children has risen in China, from 2,962 recorded cases in 2017 to 3,567 last year. While much of this increase can be attributed to growing awareness of child protection issues and timelier reporting of cases, parents are still concerned.

Jiang asks the children to draw small figures on a piece of paper, then mark up the body with colored pencils — green for where it’s OK for others to touch, red for where they don’t want to be touched, and yellow for where they’re not sure. Then, she invites them to show their cards. They accurately use the words “breasts,” “buttocks,” and “penis” — which they have just learned — to describe their drawings. “If the child can accurately use these terms, it could greatly help a police investigation,” says Jiang.

But as the first day comes to a close, some parents express concern that their children will be mocked by their peers for using formal terms like “penis” rather than “wee-wee.” “You need to know that what your children have learned today is the most accurate and scientific knowledge, and you — the parents — should be proud of that,” Jiang tells them. “If they are teased because of that, then that is due to others’ ignorance.”
The parents are also forced to grapple with their own views during the second day of classes, which focuses on sexuality and gender issues.

After learning about the effects of gender stereotypes, Wang feels guilty about making her son play with toy cars and water pistols rather than buying him the Barbie doll he has always wanted.

“I was so worried that he might be gay or transgender,” says Wang. “But now I understand that hobbies and good traits have nothing to do with gender or sexuality.” During the break between classes, Wang apologizes to Luoyuan, who looks surprised. “It’s OK, Mom,” he says quickly, before rushing back to his seat.

The lecture about gender stereotypes also makes an impression on 10-year-old Yaya. Her father Wang Tong — no relation to Wang Yanhua — often says that her grandparents describe her as a tomboy when she misbehaves. “Dad, I thought I was doing something wrong, but now I know boys and girls are equal,” Yaya whispers to Wang Tong, the only father attending the event.

As a pediatrician, Wang Tong, 38, understands the importance of sex education. “It’s easier to cure physical diseases; mental illnesses are difficult to cure, as they’re largely impacted by the family and a lack of sex education,” he tells Sixth Tone after the entire camp is done. He says he can do a better job of teaching Yaya about physiology and reproduction but believes it’s better to have professional experts teach her about these psychosocial issues.

Yaya has not received any sex education at school, according to Wang Tong. “Many parents can’t accept it, and schools don’t want to get in trouble,” he says. In 2017, when a school in the eastern city of Hangzhou tried to introduce a more detailed sex education curriculum, it faced backlash from some parents arguing that second grade was too young to learn about intercourse, gender equality, and sexual orientation.

Sex education lecturer Wang Yi shows children how to use a tampon on a doll during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Sex education lecturer Wang Yi shows children how to use a tampon on a doll during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying

On the last day of the summer camp, Wang Yi — who runs the event alongside Jiang and has no relation to Wang Yanhua or Wang Tong — shows all the children how to use cups, sanitary pads, and tampons on a doll. She then hands out disposable underwear and pads for the children to practice on their own.

“For girls, having their first period is something we should celebrate,” says Wang Yi. “For boys, the earlier they know about how pads work, the better they’ll learn to respect women. It’s an education in responsible intimacy.”

Since 2008, Chinese law has stated that fifth and sixth graders should learn about menstruation and wet dreams, but the children in Qingdao have received no education about this. They fall over each other to ask questions. “What color is sperm?” “Do we need a pad for the sperm?” “Would a tampon grow as big as a penis that might hurt the vagina?”

The parents look at each other, slack-jawed. Wang Yi suggests that fathers and mothers share their experiences with their children. “I always avoided answering when Luoyuan asked me about pads,” Wang Yanhua says. “But now I feel more comfortable talking about it with him.”

When asked how his family has been influenced by the summer camp, Wang Tong says it’s hard to say how much Yaya could learn in just three days, but he is sure she has learned some valuable principles. “It’s more important for the parents to accept these principles and apply them in daily life,” he says. “The lecturers only plant seeds; whether they grow depends on us.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone. 

Pensioners and Preschoolers Mix it Up in Chinese Nursery


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional reporting: Ai Jiabao.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Chinese Asexuals Navigate Love, Duty, and Ignorance


SHANGHAI — When Marie Guo confided in her dormmates about her asexuality, she received little sympathy. Instead, they questioned how a virgin could be so sure she didn’t feel sexually attracted to anybody. “They suggested I have sex with my boyfriend and emphasized I needed to do it repeatedly before drawing a conclusion,” Guo tells Sixth Tone.

Being questioned, ridiculed, and dismissed is a common experience among people who identify as asexual, a sexual orientation defined as lacking sexual attraction to others. But while there is some public knowledge of asexuality in other countries, in China ignorance is still widespread.

In a 2004 paper, Canadian psychology professor Anthony Bogaert estimated that asexuals account for about 1% of the world’s population, which would mean the sexual minority has about 13 million members in China. Many of them fear coming out — especially to older generations, who often put immense value on marriage and having children. Parents find asexuality hard to accept or see it as a disorder that can be cured. Some interviewees did not use their Chinese given names to protect their privacy.

Asexuality is often confused with sexual dysfunction, where people with disorders experience distress due to their lack of sexual attraction — something asexual people don’t typically feel. Some asexual people say they masturbate to relieve tension — as does Guo, who remembers being met with more disbelief when she tried to explain this to her dormmates. Other people who identify as “little A,” the common nickname in China for asexual people, have sex only to satisfy their partners.

Diane Xie cannot imagine how it would feel to have sex with someone. “When people say someone is sexy, I have no idea what it means,” she says. When searching for answers online, she found AVEN — the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, the world’s largest online community for asexual people. After reading its explanation of asexuality, she exclaimed that this was who she was. But she was still a bit uncertain, wondering if maybe the person who could interest her sexually just hadn’t shown up yet.

Therefore, when studying in Hong Kong in 2015, Xie began dating a Dutch student for whom she had feelings. She tried intimacy up to second base but felt nothing other than uncomfortable. “I thought he was attractive and I really enjoyed hanging out with him, but I just didn’t have the desire to have further physical contact with him,” says the 24-year-old Shanghai native, who wears a black ring on her right middle finger, an internationally used sign for asexuality.

Diane Xie shows her black ring at a café in Shanghai, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Diane Xie shows her black ring at a café in Shanghai, 2019. Fan Yiying

Chinese academic research into asexuality is, for now, limited to just one paper, published in 2018 by researchers at Southwest University in the city of Chongqing. The findings of their study of 284 individuals who were certain they were or thought they might be asexual were in line with results in the West. But what the country lacks in scientific writing, it makes up for in social media activity. Popular apps like DoubanZhihu, WeChat, and QQ all have asexuality communities whose members can number in the tens of thousands.

When Yin Xuyan’s middle school classmates started to obsess over celebrities or experience their first loves, she remembers feeling nothing. “I don’t even have the experience of having a crush on someone, and I have no impulse at all to fall in love,” says the 19-year-old from the eastern city of Yangzhou. She then began to reflect on whether she’d suffered any physical or mental trauma in childhood, but other than her mother telling her that girls can’t touch boys or masturbate, she couldn’t think of anything. She sought porn catering to female pleasure, but that didn’t arouse her either.

Like thousands of others before her, Yin found the answer on Douban. “The moment I knew I was asexual, I felt so relieved,” she says. “Everything seemed to make sense then.” But when Yin told her best friend, she didn’t take it seriously. “Maybe no one will ever take it seriously,” Yin says. The freshman doesn’t talk much about her sexuality, and when people ask whether she has a boyfriend, “I just pretend I’m a good student who wants to devote herself to studying and has no time for dating,” she says, laughing.

But Yin will have to tell her conservative parents at some point and has been preparing what she calls a “psychological setup” since middle school. “I told them I might not get married in the future, and I act like a proactive feminist who doesn’t accept any patriarchal suppression,” she says. The argument lasted three years before they tacitly accepted that their daughter might be single for the rest of her life.

“While asexual people in Western countries are getting recognition and equal treatment, most asexuals don’t dare come out in China,” says Su Yanchen, one of the authors of the 2018 paper. He hopes their research can increase the social visibility of the asexual community and give them the opportunity to speak up in China. “Asexuals must expand their influence and fight for more rights, just like other LGBT groups, if they want to be recognized and live happily in this sexual-dominated society,” he says.

Compared with other sexual minorities, public awareness of asexuality is much lower. “Homosexuality is at least in line with the mainstream view that everyone needs sex, but asexuality is farther away from the mainstream,” says Frank Gao, a 26-year-old graduate student currently living in Germany. He previously identified as gay, but after dating men for years, he felt that something was off: Sex was boring to him. “It’s just as boring as when we are required to write something 100 times by the teacher as punishment,” he explains. “I don’t want sex, and if I have to do the same action many times, it bores me.”

During his senior year at university, Gao came across the term “asexuality” on an LGBT forum and started to reflect. “It shocked me,” he says. “I had lived as gay for years, and all of sudden it changed.” In 2011, an online survey of 3,436 people aged 16 to 25 who identified as asexual suggested that women asexuals significantly outnumber their male counterparts. And the percentage of asexual people who are attracted to the same sex is much lower than the percentage of those who like the opposite sex. This means that someone like Gao, a male asexual who’s into men, is a minority within a minority.

None of Gao’s ex-boyfriends are asexual. When he told them he didn’t enjoy sex, they thought it was because he is “too rational.” The lack of a sex life affected his relationships. “Most gay men have a strong libido, and that’s why if I didn’t have sex with my exes, they’d often complain that I didn’t love them.”

Gao has been dating another Chinese student in Germany for a year. The couple have a lot in common, from values to interests — except when it comes to sex. But Gao says they compromise and have negotiated to have sex twice a month: “This frequency is quite low for a gay person, but we are willing to sacrifice for each other.”

It’s hard to explain to sexual people what asexuality is, says Gao, who often attempts to do so both online and offline. “They can’t empathize with what it means for someone not to be sexually attracted to any gender,” he says. Once Gao was asked if he had sexual desire for animals. “The public is set on the idea that humans have a desire for something,” he says.

When Jenny Wang explained to her roommates last year what sex means to asexual people, she used a metaphor. “Everyone has a few kinds of food that they don’t crave but don’t absolutely reject, either.” They understood right away, which Wang doesn’t think would happen with her parents and friends back home in China’s southwestern Yunnan province, where awareness and information about such topics are scarce.

Despite her successful food metaphor, Wang thinks there is little understanding among the public: “If we don’t have sex, people would ask how come we know we are asexual before we try it; but if we do have sex, people question how we can do it if we are asexual.”

Wang started identifying as asexual after moving to Shanghai in 2017 to study journalism. She did the Kinsey Scale test, designed half a century ago by sex research pioneer Alfred Kinsey. In his sexual orientation research, Kinsey reported that 1.5% of the population didn’t have any sexual reactions, and so he created a new category, “X,” for them. “I felt happy when I saw the X result, meaning I’ve fully accepted myself,” says Wang.

Wang joined a WeChat group of over 180 Chinese asexual people last year. There, she found a sense of belonging. Group members chat daily about everything from LGBT events to self-motivation. “I feel they feel me, and it’s easier to find common ground with them — and more importantly, I don’t need to think too much before I share my feelings,” says the 20-year-old.

A few months ago, Wang’s best male friend confessed his love to her. Wang turned him down after hesitating for two days, in large part because she’s afraid her asexuality will affect the relationship. “The most intimate thing I can accept,” she says after a long pause, “is probably hugging, and kissing on the lips at the most.”

Though having a child is not in her life plan, Wang already knows her parents will make her have one. Growing up in a small town where most girls have their firstborn before the age of 20, she doesn’t want to come out to her parents until she’s financially independent. Her parents, who are in their early 50s, still believe gay people are mentally ill — a thought that lingers, despite homosexuality being taken off China’s list of mental illnesses in 2001. “If I want to live the way I want, I must stay in Shanghai after graduation, because people here are much more open-minded,” she says.

Chen Mei, 27, found out she’s asexual while at university and has been married for nearly a year now. She told her husband she’s asexual when he asked her out for the first time. Though he had little clue of what the term entailed, he searched online and was considerate. “He said he’s OK with this, and I have feelings for him, so we’re together,” Chen says.

Just like Gao and his boyfriend, Chen and her husband discussed how often they would have sex before registering their marriage. “Any couple needs to adjust to one another,” she says. “Even in sexual relationships, things don’t always go smoothly. Sexual compatibility is just one of many factors that a relationship needs to take into account, such as life goals, lifestyle, and personality matches.”

Chen isn’t actively seeking asexual friends to bolster her sense of belonging. She’s happy with her current life. “Asexuality is just one of my identities. It doesn’t make my life better or worse. Asexual people just have different needs and meet different challenges from sexual people.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.