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. 

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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.

Silent for So Long, Elderly Gays Livestream at Full Volume


HUNAN, Central China — Hu Pingsheng never knew there was a name for his feelings until a younger man explained it to him: He was gay. Despite a desire to live his true self, however, he has kept that revelation from his family. But a few months ago, he finally found a place to be who he wants to be, and he’s even found some small-time fame in the process.

On a rainy afternoon in Chenzhou, the relatively small city some 400 kilometers north of Hong Kong where Hu has a sixth-floor apartment, the 68-year-old dons his favorite navy blue suit and sits down in front of his camera. He’s about to livestream on Blued, China’s largest social networking app for gay men and the one place where the twice-divorced Hu feels like he can be himself. “When I was young, I didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t have the chance to get to know men I adore,” he says. “I feel like I’m now making up for my loss.”

A Blued spokesperson says the app’s livestreaming feature, available since 2016, has seen “hundreds of thousands” of users turn their cameras on themselves. Though the majority of them are young, Blued has noticed a rise in livestreamers aged over 50 since the second half of 2018. Hu attributes this to the closeted lives that gay men of his generation lead. “We have a limited circle of friends, and most of us haven’t come out to our families,” says Hu. “Without livestreaming, my life is boring and stressful.”

Hu fills his hourslong livestreams mostly by singing. He kicks off today’s show with his greatest hit, “Qinghai-Tibet Plateau,” one of the best-known tracks in China. Though Hu cannot quite master the high notes at the end of the song without his voice cracking, it still wins him a few dozen likes. He then performs “Over the Golden Hill of Beijing,” which became a household song in the early 1970s. “Chairman Mao is like the bright golden sun,” he sings, gently swaying with the rhythm.

Inside Hu Pingsheng’s home in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Inside Hu Pingsheng’s home in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying

Hu, who calls himself “Tasty Mango” on Blued, has learned to sing some 200 songs and has hundreds more downloaded to his phone that he wants to add to his repertoire. Red classics about Chairman Mao and Communist Party history are his favorites, he says. On a good day, he’ll have over 1,000 viewers — but he averages a couple hundred. He greets each of them as they join the stream.

As on other Chinese platforms, viewers on Blued can buy virtual gifts for livestreamers, which they can then exchange back into money. So far, Hu has earned more than 10,000 so-called beans, which amounts to 1,000 yuan ($150). But Hu’s not in it for the money. The retired accountant has a monthly pension of over 3,000 yuan, which he says can ensure him a comfortable life in Chenzhou.

Compared with more developed coastal cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, where people are more open about and tolerant toward sexual minorities, public gay life in inland cities such as Chenzhou is almost nonexistent. “I realized many people here still don’t know what ‘gay’ means,” says Liang Junjie, a swimming coach who hails from Guangzhou but has been living in Chenzhou for a few years. He is a fan of Hu and has sent him virtual gifts. “I think he’s handsome, and I’m happy that he can do things he really enjoys,” says the 26-year-old.

Liang has known he was gay since middle school. A few years ago, he came out to his parents — which he says is something people his age would consider doing, but is rare for older generations. Hu, for his part, didn’t know he was gay until 2000, a year before homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in China. A young man approached him at a park in Chenzhou and took him to a gay bar. There, someone told him he was gay. “I always knew I admired men, but it had never occurred to me that there is a word to define my sexuality,” he says.

Born and raised in the countryside, Hu always longed for an urban lifestyle. He moved to the local county seat in his late teens and in 1984 married his first wife after they’d been introduced by a matchmaker. A few years later, fed up with her short temper, he filed for divorce and moved to Chenzhou, where he married his second wife. This union also ended with a separation, on account of “personality clashes.” He’s not sure whether his sexuality played any role in the divorces.

Hu has two daughters — one with each of his ex-wives. He hasn’t come out to either of them and doesn’t plan to, uncertain of whether they will accept it. Hu’s family also doesn’t know about his antics on Blued, but he doesn’t worry about what might happen if his relatives saw him on the platform. “I’m not doing anything nasty or wrong,” he says. “I’m just doing what I love: singing.”

Hu Pingsheng’s livestreaming equipment in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Hu Pingsheng’s livestreaming equipment in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying

While it’s just a passion project for Hu, others hope the nascent popularity of elderly livestreamers will become a source of income. Wang Liyun, originally from the northeastern province of Jilin, stepped into the senior gay livestreaming business after hearing about its profit-generating potential from friends. China’s livestreaming market is already huge and still growing: According to a 2018 National Copyright Administration report, the market was worth nearly 40 billion yuan in 2017, fueled by virtual gift-giving. Popular streamers can earn a living wage, if not significantly more.

Wang’s approach was to start a group — a common format in which several singers live together and alternate behind the microphone. A “boss,” like Wang, organizes the group and provides accommodation and food. Participants get a cut from the gifts they earn. According to Wang’s own observations, there are over 200 groups of men over 45 on Blued. Their fans are of all ages. “A successful group can attract over 8,000 fans and receive as much as 60,000 beans per day,” Wang, 55, tells Sixth Tone.

With that goal in mind, Wang started looking for candidates all over the country to join his group in his home in Dongguan, a city in the southern province of Guangdong. Wang, who identifies as gay, only wants to hire gay men — he scoffs at groups on Blued that hire straight, amateur singers pretending to be queer — who are between 40 and 60 years old, decent-looking, and good at singing and interacting with fans.

Since he started in March, over a dozen men have livestreamed with Wang’s group, but turnover is high, especially when gift-giving disappoints. “When they realize they are incapable of getting beans, they just leave after a few days,” Wang sighs. He has invested over 30,000 yuan into his venture with returns, so far, of about 10,000 yuan. “When I start to make a profit, I’ll buy fancy lights and LED wallpaper to decorate the studio,” he says.

Last November, Hu joined a similar group. He took the train to Zhuzhou, a city about 300 kilometers north of Chenzhou, and sang with a group called Magic Dragons, consisting of four men — all gay and about the same age. For eight hours a day they sang from a living room-turned-studio, adorned with a color-changing crystal ceiling light and background wallpaper featuring the Great Wall. “It was more gorgeous and magnificent than any karaoke rooms that I’ve been to,” he recalls.

Before Hu would start his shifts, an announcer would hype up the audience and introduce him: “Now let’s welcome Uncle Hu from Chenzhou, Hunan. He’s 68 years old, 165 centimeters tall, and weighs 60 kilograms. Look: He’s slim, light-skinned, and handsome! Show your love with flowers, grass, or whatever (digital gifts)!” Hu says he felt embarrassed at first, but later started playing along, asking for more beans. He enjoyed singing with others and was paid 1,600 yuan for half a month’s work.

But most of all, Hu feels relieved finally knowing who he is, as do many gay men his age, he says. He’s got trips planned to the eastern cities of Nantong and Shanghai, as well as southern Shenzhen, to join livestream groups there. “If there’s a platform where I can do what I love,” he says, “I don’t want to waste another minute regretting not doing things that make me happy.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

My Makeover With China’s Blind Beautician


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article was published on Sixth Tone.