Wrestling School Gives ‘Left-Behind Children’ a Fighting Chance


JIANGXI, East China — Sixth-grader Lin Hongyu is shy until he gets onto the wrestling mat. There, he becomes a different person: effusive, competitive, and devoted to his dream of becoming a champion.

“I’m not worried about how hard wrestling is,” the 12-year-old tells Sixth Tone between cartwheels. “All I know is that wrestling makes me happy.”

Wrestling is not particularly popular among either spectators or athletes in China. Yet the sport has won many hearts in Matian, a village of around 10,000 people in western Jiangxi province, because of a rural elementary school that has specialized in wrestling since 2006.

“All the students at the school can do some basic wrestling moves,” says Zhu Zhihui, the principal of Matian Central Primary School. The school has integrated wrestling into morning fitness drills and physical education lessons for its 600-plus students in first through sixth grades. Some students, like Hongyu, dream of pursuing wrestling professionally, but Zhu says that’s not the point.

I’m not worried about how hard wrestling is. All I know is that wrestling makes me happy.

“Our goal is not to raise each child to become a professional; instead, we aim to cultivate healthy students who are strong in body and mind through wrestling training,” Zhu explains.

More than 70 percent of the students at Matian Central Primary School are “left-behind children” whose parents have migrated to find better-paying jobs in distant cities. Hongyu, who lives with his grandma, is one of them.

Hongyu joined his school’s wrestling club four years ago and was quickly selected for the school team after excelling in five fitness tests — sprinting, long-distance running, pull-ups, sit-ups, and the standing jump — that the school uses to evaluate prospective wrestlers under national sports bureau standards. Now, he is one of around 30 students on the team who train from 3:30 to 6 p.m. every school day and almost every day during the summer break. They are registered with the provincial sports bureau and take part in the municipal and provincial games each year.

When Hongyu told his grandmother, Liu Qingyun, that he’d taken up wrestling, she had no idea what the sport was. Later, she saw the boy and his cousin practicing together in a field in front of the house. “I support him wrestling as long as it’s free of charge,” she sighs, as the pair live on government welfare. In August, Hongyu came in second in the annual citywide games. He walked home with a silver medal around his neck but didn’t show it off to his grandma.

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Lin Hongyu walks through a rice field in Matian Village, Luxi County, Jiangxi province, Sept. 6, 2017. Fan Yiying

Left-behind children and elders are the subject of ample media coverage and public concern in China, as the country’s mass migration to urban areas has disrupted traditional family relationships and social structures. Many fear that rural children who grow up without their parents will face psychological issues and developmental difficulties. School principal Zhu hopes that wrestling will help his students become confident, humble, and self-disciplined.

“It’s a way to plant character traits that will influence them throughout their lives,” says the 40-year-old headmaster.

[Wrestling is] a way to plant character traits that will influence them throughout their lives.

When Zhu transferred to Matian Central Primary School in 2006, it was a typical rural Chinese school with run-down infrastructure and facilities, insufficient faculty, and an outmoded curriculum. Himself a former wrestler, the new principal sought ways to revitalize the school and thought wrestling could create opportunities — but other teachers opposed the idea.

“They argued that as a school, our chief role is to teach core subjects,” Zhu says, referring to Chinese, math, and English. But he insisted that youth wrestling wouldn’t affect the students’ grades, and that it would even boost the students’ confidence and strength of mind.

Teachers gradually changed their attitudes as the school began to receive more government resources as a reward for their growing number of wrestling medals from all levels of competition. More and more families have been drawn to Matian Central Primary School’s success: In the last decade, the student body has nearly doubled.

Yet prioritizing wrestling over academics is still something of a dilemma for students who have a shot at a career in the sport. When members of the wrestling team graduate, they must decide whether they will go to a regular middle school or a professional sports school. This year, five students continued on to municipal or provincial sports schools to focus on wrestling training. It’s a difficult decision, especially if they’re doing well academically. Most parents would still prefer to see their children continue their studies and hopefully make it to university.

But wrestling can be a life-changing opportunity for children from poor families who aren’t academically gifted. Coach Zeng Hanjin says he’s a living example: Now 29, Zeng never excelled in school. He took up the sport when he was just 11. Coming from a poor family, his parents looked to wrestling as a way out — but they also saw that success came with painful costs for their little boy. “My mom cried when she saw me being brutally thrown to the mat repeatedly,” Zeng recalls. But she didn’t stop him from training, and he eventually made it onto the national team.

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Coach Zeng Hanjin instructs two students during wrestling practice at Matian Central Primary School in Luxi County, Jiangxi province, Sept. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying

“If I didn’t wrestle, I’d probably have ended up being a farmer at home or a migrant worker in a faraway city,” Zeng says. Though he had to stop competing before the 2008 Beijing Olympics due to injuries — the sport has left him with back pain, cauliflower ear, and broken fingers — he still sees wrestling as his lifelong career. “This is the spirit of sportsmanship,” he says.

If I didn’t wrestle, I’d probably have ended up being a farmer at home or a migrant worker in a faraway city.

Girls, too, are increasingly getting in on the action: After the 2016 Indian movie “Dangal” — which tells the true story of two sisters from rural India who became world-class wrestlers under their father’s tutelage — emerged as a breakout hit at the Chinese box office, more villagers started to see wrestling as an option for girls.

“Before watching the movie, I thought wrestling was just boys fighting with each other,” says Lai Xuehui, whose 11-year-old daughter, Wu Yujie, took up the sport in March. The sixth-grader signed up for wrestling after watching her classmates train after school. “I think they’re awesome, and their moves are amazing,” Yujie tells Sixth Tone while sitting on the mat before practice.

Yujie is one of just a few girls on the school team. Zhu says his next goal is to recruit more female wrestlers. “It’s easier for the girls to attain wins, as the competition isn’t as fierce,” he says. “But they also need more attention physically and mentally.”

When the school first started offering the sport in 2006, the young wrestlers practiced in an outdoor sandpit. A few years later, a shed was set up with a secondhand wrestling mat provided by a sports school. “The temperature in the shed was over 50 degrees [Celsius] in the summer,” says coach Zeng.

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Students play on the grounds of Matian Central Primary School in Luxi County, Jiangxi province, Sept. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying

After Matian Central Primary School provided more than 100 graduates to professional sports schools and won more than 200 medals in provincial and national competitions, the local government paid for a brand-new wrestling arena at the school in 2016.

Zeng, who has never won an international medal himself, dreams of seeing his students become world champions — the Chinese flag fluttering in the wind and the notes of the national anthem echoing in the air. “I know it’s extremely difficult,” he admits. “But if we work hard together generation after generation, I believe this dream will eventually come true.”

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Dial D for Divorce: Court Uses WeChat in Moroccan-Chinese Breakup


A judge in east China resolved a Moroccan-Chinese couple’s long-running divorce case with the help of a video call through messaging app WeChat.

The ingenuity ended 20 months of cross-border litigation, the Intermediate People’s Court of Nanjing, in Jiangsu province, said on its WeChat public account Tuesday. The district court responsible for the piece of technological wizardry granted the divorce on Sept. 18.

The couple reportedly met when the Moroccan woman was studying in China. They registered their marriage and made plans to open a traditional Chinese medicine clinic in Morocco. However, after the woman moved back to her home country in 2015, she cut all communication with her Chinese husband.

The husband filed for divorce in January 2016. A trial date was set for Sept. 12, 2017, but by July this year the court still had not received confirmation from the woman as to whether she would attend. Instead of setting a new hearing date and repeating the complicated process of sending a court summons internationally, Judge Chen Wenjun opted for WeChat, a first for the court.

During the hearing, Chen compared the woman on screen with her photo on the marriage certificate and also verified her other personal information. A camera was set up in the courtroom to record the video call.

Protocol for divorce cases in China recommends that both parties appear in court so judges can question them. But, Chen was quoted as saying, “this can be achieved by WeChat video as well.” He added that using WeChat made it easier to persuade the woman to take part in the trial. One precondition for using WeChat was that the case wasn’t complicated, the article said, adding that the couple did not have any joint property.

A court in Zhangjiajie, in central China’s Hubei province, took a similar approach in May, when Chinese-Malaysian couple were also granted divorce via WeChat. Local media reported that the case “made it convenient for the parties involved, improved the efficiency of the trial, and embodied the judiciary’s concern for humanity.”

The Wedding Planner Reviving Naxi Traditions in Lijiang


YUNNAN, Southwest China — As the wedding party steps out into Lijiang’s old town square, curious tourists flock to the group, dazzled by their traditional Naxi attire. Many question whether the pomp and ceremony is a performance.

In fact, the Saturday afternoon spectacle is the real wedding of groom He Libao, 29, and bride Duan Jing, 21, both members of the Naxi, one of China’s 56 official ethnic groups. The Naxi population numbers around 300,000; most live in Lijiang, while the rest reside throughout Yunnan province and in neighboring Sichuan province and Tibet Autonomous Region.

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He Libao and bride Duan Jing are surrounded by tourists in Lijiang during their wedding ceremony.  Aug. 5, 2017. Yiying Fan

Though traditional wedding ceremonies are still common in remote villages, the custom has faded in the city of Lijiang since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), when cultural influences from the Han ethnic majority began to overwhelm the area. But now, a local wedding planning company called Xihe is reviving interest in the tradition — partly at the behest of tourists.

“Tradition is like a siege,” Wang Dejiong, a Naxi folk culture researcher, tells Sixth Tone. “People outside want to get in, while people inside want to get out.”

Most Naxi people follow the Dongba faith, which teaches that humans and nature are brothers. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, at important events such as weddings, the Naxi would invite a dongba — or shaman — to perform chants. Highly respected as accomplished scholars of Naxi culture, dongba pass down their duties within families from generation to generation.

Xihe organizes around two weddings every week, including the recent Saturday ceremony, which kicks off at the Yulong Bridge, where young couples would court in the old days. Groups of Naxi boys and girls sing in praise of the bride and groom. The newlyweds then release fish into the river to show their respect for nature.

After the fish are released, the bride is carried through the center of the old town in a fringed bridal chair — followed by a wedding party of close to 50 people — to a traditional Naxi house with three wings enclosing a courtyard.

In the courtyard, a dongba presides over the “soul-binding” ceremony — the most important part of the wedding. The dongba ties the couple’s hands together and announces that they can never again be separated. Afterward, dozens of young and old dance hand in hand, wishing the newlyweds happiness and prosperity.

I was so used to my own culture — all I wanted was to escape from it.

The ceremony does not include vows, as Naxi people are shy about expressing love verbally. “We believe actions speak louder than words,” the groom explains.

“Our souls are bound together,” the bride says after the ceremony. “If I ever got a divorce, I’d feel like I lost my soul.”

The ceremony venue is also the headquarters of wedding company Xihe, founded by Naxi woman He Yumiao — who is not related to He Libao. The company’s name means “joyful crane” in the Naxi language; Naxi people worship cranes and consider the sacred birds to be a symbol of a blessed marriage, as cranes are faithful to their mates. Once one dies, it is said that the other will starve itself and die for love.

Since its establishment in 2008, Xihe has arranged traditional Naxi wedding ceremonies for more than 1,000 couples in Lijiang. Wedding packages start at 6,999 yuan (around $1,050), and the ceremony lasts about one and a half hours.

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He Yumiao stands outside her company Xihe in Lijiang, Yunan.  Aug. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying 

He Yumiao, now 38, was born and raised in a Naxi household with three generations living under one roof. “I was so used to my own culture — all I wanted was to escape from it,” she tells Sixth Tone.

After graduating from high school, He Yumiao moved from Lijiang to Kunming, Yunnan’s provincial capital, in 1997 and worked at the city’s Naxi minority village tourist site as a performer. It was there that she wore traditional Naxi attire for the first time. Every day, she answered questions from tourists hailing from all over the world who were interested in the Naxi way of life. “It was overwhelming to see that they cared about my culture, which I took for granted every day,” she says.

A couple years later, He Yumiao moved back home to Lijiang and became a tour guide in the old town. In 2006, she met a Singaporean couple who had come to the city on their honeymoon. They were enamored with the local culture and asked whether she could arrange a traditional Naxi wedding for them. At the time, she knew didn’t know much about the ceremony — nor were there many examples in the city that she could follow — but she was determined to try. With the help of elderly locals, she organized a Naxi wedding in just a few days at Lijiang’s Black Dragon Pond Park.

It was then that He Yumiao decided to devote herself to preserving the Naxi wedding tradition. “I finally found where my heart belongs,” she says. “Folk customs are critical to an ethnic group, and a wedding celebration is of the utmost importance because it reflects the values of the [Naxi] culture.”

Tradition is like a siege. People outside want to get in, while people inside want to get out.

Naxi couple Li Jixing, 35, and He Dong, 38, stumbled upon the Singaporean couple’s wedding ceremony while they were strolling in the park, discussing their own wedding plans. Though they had heard elders speak of traditional ceremonies, it was the first time they had witnessed one for themselves. “I had never seen such a happy and glorious wedding in all my life,” Li tells Sixth Tone. The couple watched the entire ceremony and asked He Yumiao to arrange a similar one for them. “We always wanted a traditional wedding, but we couldn’t find a wedding company that offered such a service,” He Dong, Li’s husband, says.

The couple held their wedding ceremony in 2007 in their courtyard at home. Because He Yumiao’s business hadn’t officially launched yet, the ceremony was simple and brief. “But at least we had a ceremony,” He Dong says; otherwise, they would simply have had a banquet with family and friends like most couples of their generation.

After He Yumiao launched Xihe, she didn’t book her first wedding until six months later, when a transnational couple from Scotland and central China’s Hubei province asked her to arrange a wedding ceremony in Lijiang that brought together Naxi and Western customs. Photos of the ceremony posted online brought her many new customers.

But for the first five years of running her business, He Yumiao was frustrated that most of her clients were tourists, while many Naxi people paid little attention to their own traditions. “Locals would rather pay thousands of yuan to have a Western wedding at a church,” she says.

She credits tourists for helping to turn the tide. “The tourists have made Naxi weddings trendy and fashionable, which piqued locals’ interests,” she says. Now, half of her clients are locals, as more and more Naxi young people have begun to take pride in their traditions.

Yet the romance of the Dongba ceremony continues to draw many outsiders. Yang Cailing and her husband are both Han but have lived in Lijiang for the last decade. Though they had a Western wedding in 2012, Yang always felt something was missing. She decided she wanted a second wedding after finding out that the Naxi language had no word for divorce.

“At first, [my husband] was against the idea because he thought it would be like a performance for tourists in the old town of Lijiang,” Yang laughs. Meanwhile, she hoped the ceremony would spice up married life, which had begun to feel dull after a few years. The 31-year-old persuaded her husband to have a Dongba ceremony in January, and one month later, she found out she was pregnant with their second child.

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Yang Cailing and her husband hold a traditional Naxi Wedding in January 2017. Courtesy of Yang Cailin

He Yumiao started her company mainly out of curiosity, but she has since developed a deep sense of cultural responsibility. “We are probably the last generation of Naxi people to be raised in our local culture,” she says. “If I didn’t do something to save our wedding ceremony traditions, who would?”

But cultural researcher Wang still has doubts about the tradition’s prospects. “Naxi minorities are sinicized and tend to worship anything foreign,” he says. “It’s hard to revive the tradition, but at least [He Yumiao] is doing something.”

Plus-Size Models Challenge China’s Narrow Beauty Standards


GUANGDONG, South China — As soon as the sky clears one rainy summer day in Guangzhou, plus-size modeling hopeful Wang Jialin hurries out for a test photo shoot. Passersby stare as she poses on the busy street.

“I’m used to it,” the 20-year-old mumbles. At 165 centimeters tall and weighing 94 kilograms, she stands out in Chinese crowds. The long black floral dress she wears is size 5XL, while most stores only carry small, medium, and large.

Wang had never considered becoming a model until her mother, who works in the clothing export industry, came across a plus-size modeling agent and suggested that her daughter give it a try.

“Chinese people think of beauty as slenderness,” Wang tells Sixth Tone. At school, she was bullied for her size. She doesn’t remember anyone ever telling her she was pretty until she met modeling agent Huang Fei.

Fat-shaming is rife in China, whether in everyday interactions or popular media. While many countries have beauty standards that favor the slim, the pressure to be thin is particularly intense in China, where it is common for family members, acquaintances, and even strangers to comment on one’s weight.

Chinese people think of beauty as slenderness.

Last year, the viral “A4 waist” challenge saw swarms of Chinese girls post photos on microblog platform Weibo to prove that their waistlines were narrower than a vertical sheet of A4 paper. Shortly after, another Weibo beauty challenge launched in which female users posted photos showing off legs skinny enough to be covered by their smartphones.

Yet the nation is gaining weight as nutrition and living standards improve and lifestyles change. In a 2015 report, China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission stated that more than 30 percent of the adult population is overweight — defined as having a body mass index of 24 to 27.9 — up from 22.8 percent in 2002.

Clothing sizes in China are not standardized across the fashion industry, but “plus size” typically begins at the equivalent of a U.S. size 10 or U.K. size 14. “It used to be that the middle-aged were the main customers for plus-size clothes, but now they have been replaced by young women who can afford trendy clothing and love dressing up,” Huang tells Sixth Tone.

Plus-size model He Jiahui poses at a lingerie shoot for her own Taobao shop in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth TonePlus-size model He Jiahui poses at a lingerie shoot for her own Taobao shop in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

 

In China, plus-size modeling is a relatively new business that only surfaced around 2010. Now, the city of Guangzhou has become the center of the plus-size modeling industry due to the southern coastal region’s flourishing garment export sector and its status as a hub for online women’s fashion retailers. Plus-size models can make over 10,000 yuan ($1,470) per month, twice the average monthly salary in the city, according to state news agency Xinhua.

Huang is one of the plus-size modeling industry’s pioneering agents. She sees plus-size modeling not only as a business opportunity with real growth potential, but also as a way to change popular perceptions around fatness, beauty, and health. Since she started her agency in 2012, she has signed more than 20 female Chinese plus-size models, all weighing between 70 and 100 kilograms, but she says she sees demand for many more. Her clients are primarily retailers on Taobao, China’s biggest e-commerce website, who want to showcase their fashion on a range of body types.

“We have a great shortage of models, but it’s so hard to find qualified ones,” Huang says. Every day, she receives photos from more than 100 eager young girls with dreams of glamour and stardom, but few make the cut. “I can select maybe one good candidate every couple of days,” she says.

Strict beauty standards apply, even in the plus-size modeling world. Huang looks for pretty girls who are at least 1.65 meters tall; are under 25 years old; and have a relatively slender waist, a long neck, and — most importantly — a small, photogenic face. “These requirements rule out most big girls who want to be models,” she says.

Plus-size modeling agent Huang Fei (left) takes sample photos of model hopeful Wang Jialin in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth TonePlus-size modeling agent Huang Fei (left) takes sample photos of model hopeful Wang Jialin in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Huang herself is plus size, weighing 80 kilograms. The 34-year-old Guangzhou native studied sculpture at university, which she says gave her confidence in her aesthetic judgment.

“I can tell immediately that you’ll be a popular model,” she tells Wang. But though she encourages Wang to take pride in her appearance, she also asks Wang to lose 15 kilograms in two months so she will have a more defined hourglass figure.

Huang used to model herself, in addition to running her own clothing shops and restaurants. She got her start in 2010 when a friend asked her to pose for his plus-size online boutique. Back then, she says, the nascent industry was so desperate that she was chosen despite her height. She quickly saw an opportunity to build a business by recruiting girls who were taller, prettier, and younger than herself.

I have this sense of crisis; I feel like I need to constantly improve so I’m not eliminated by this industry.

Her business partner in the neighboring city of Dongguan, 32-year-old Cai Wenwen, had a similar experience. Cai began modeling part time in 2011, thrilled that she could make 300 yuan a day when her salary as a secretary was only 2,000 yuan a month. “I enjoyed applying makeup, posing, and being pretty in front of the camera,” she recalls. “I was proud to be a model because it satisfied my vanity.”

As Cai grew older and the industry matured, she decided to step aside and become an agent. She’s also in charge of a live-streaming channel for a plus-size Taobao shop. “Customers trust us if they see girls their size trying on the clothes in front of the camera and answering all kinds of questions live,” Cai says. One store for which she used to model herself boosted its sales from a few pieces a month to several hundred a day after Cai replaced a slimmer model.

Wang says that as brick-and-mortar shops don’t carry her size, she relies on Taobao, which boasts hundreds of retailers that sell plus-size clothes. But she only buys from those that use plus-size models, which she says make up a small minority.

Another model, 22-year-old Wang Lanxi, says she is anxious about the future of her career. “Youth is prized in modeling,” she tells Sixth Tone. “I have this sense of crisis; I feel like I need to constantly improve so I’m not eliminated by this industry.”

Plus-size modeling agent Huang Fei (right) measures model He Jiahui during a live stream for a Taobao store in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone Plus-size modeling agent Huang Fei (right) measures model He Jiahui during a live stream for a Taobao store in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Every week, Wang Lanxi presents a two-hour live stream for a Taobao store with another model, He Jiahui, also 22. The duo try out a dozen new items in front of some 10,000 viewers, explaining which styles pair best.

Before this week’s broadcast, He spent nearly eight hours at a lingerie shoot for her own Taobao shop that hasn’t officially opened yet. After failing to find any decent plus-size lingerie in Chinese stores, she decided to order 122 sets from a manufacturer in eastern China and start her own shop. She plans to launch by Qixi Festival — known as Chinese Valentine’s Day — which falls at the end of August this year.

“I believe it’ll be a hit,” she says. “I just want people to know that big girls can be sexy as well.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Dalian’s Patchwork Family of Prisoners’ Children


LIAONING, Northeast China — As the sun rises in the seaside city of Dalian, 46-year-old Ju Chunmei prepares breakfast for 20 children while holding 2-year-old Hai Fan. “Mama, Mama,” the little girl mumbles, pointing out a bag of oranges on the ground.

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Children play on a seesaw at Dalian Children’s Village in Liaoning province, April 17, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

In fact, Ju is not Hai Fan’s mother but a former prisoner who volunteered to look after the young charges living in Dalian Children’s Village after she was released last October. A single mother, Ju entrusted her own son to the village in 2011 when she was sentenced to five years in prison for credit card fraud.

Located on the western end of the city, Dalian Children’s Village is a registered nongovernmental organization that was established in 2003 to provide a home for minors whose parents were in prison. Children of prisoners have mostly been ignored by government welfare bodies, which expects extended families to fill in when parents are incarcerated.

Many of the children in Ju’s care were homeless and hungry before they came to the village, after being rejected by their relatives because of the stigma associated with having a family member in prison. Half of the children also lack household registration, or hukou, usually because they were either born out of wedlock or considered additional to family planning rules, meaning they cannot easily access many public education and health care services. Besides material deprivations, they have endured both the loss of their most loved and trusted guardians and, often, humiliation for their parents’ crimes.

Society discriminates against these children, and what we do here isn’t supported by the government either.

Children of prisoners are also at a higher risk of dropping out of school or breaking the law themselves, a 2006 report from the Ministry of Justice warned. The report found that there were more than 600,000 children belonging to China’s 1.56 million prisoners at the end of 2005, and nearly 95 percent of these children hadn’t received any kind of social aid. Yet no government department is held responsible for the welfare of prisoners’ offspring.

The children cannot be legally adopted either, as the State Council — China’s cabinet — explicitly excluded juveniles whose parents are in prison from its definition of orphans in a notice issued in 2010.

Though Dalian Children’s Village receives some donations from individuals, universities, and other charities, funding for most of its daily operating costs comes out of the pocket of its current head, Wang Gangyi. The 61-year-old took over the village in 2007, after its founder died unexpectedly and its second head quit due to the pressure of the position.

“Society discriminates against these children, and what we do here isn’t supported by the government either,” Wang tells Sixth Tone.

Hai Bao chases a dog at Dalian Children’s Village in Liaoning province, April 17, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Hai Bao chases a dog at Dalian Children’s Village in Liaoning province, April 17, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Dalian Children’s Village is now in its third home, spread over 4,000 square meters of land that Wang purchased for over 3 million yuan ($435,000) in 2012. Its 20 juvenile residents range in age from a few months to 17 years old. Wang says that the village is one of nine registered charities around the country that have served about 3,000 children of prisoners to date.

Zhang Hongwei, a law professor at Jinan University in the southern province of Guangdong, has been researching the issues facing children of prisoners for several years. He tells Sixth Tone that his research suggests very few children have both parents in prison. “When we don’t have detailed data, and the number of victims doesn’t seem very large, it’s hard to push the government to enact a law,” Zhang says.
Wang also has a legal background. Until his retirement last year, he worked as a lawyer and as a law professor at Dalian University of Technology. Yet he came into his role in the charity through his career as a cold-water swimmer.

Dubbed “China’s Iceman,” Wang is considered a national hero for his feats in icy waters. Between 2001 and 2006, he set several Guinness World Records for cold-water swimming, including a plunge into the Antarctic Ocean. As a celebrity, he made countless public speeches; one at Dalian Nanguanlin Prison in 2004 changed the course of his life.

After Wang gave a motivational speech to the prisoners, one inmate pleaded for Wang to find his daughter, who had been abandoned by his wife after he went to jail. When Wang located her, the 4-year-old had been living under a bridge for over a year, begging and scrounging for food in trash cans. “She looked so bony and frightening,” Wang recalls.

Volunteers make dumplings with the kids at Dalian Children’s Village in Liaoning province, April 17, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Volunteers make dumplings with the kids at Dalian Children’s Village in Liaoning province, April 17, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Wang gradually became involved with Dalian Children’s Village after sending the girl there in 2004. When he took over the village in 2007, he gave her the name Hai Ou. Wang renames all the children who join the village, giving them the surname Hai, meaning “sea” in Chinese. For one, Dalian is the largest port in northern China, and secondly, Wang wants the kids to grow up broad-minded, with lives as vast and varied as the ocean. Now, even Ju calls her own son by his new name.

“With the same surname, we are like a family,” says 8-year-old Hai Xi, who came to the village last November. Her mother was sentenced to 10 years in prison for kidnapping and trafficking, and her father died in a car accident shortly afterward.

As grateful as she is to Wang, who saved her from being homeless, Hai Xi is glum and shows no interest in playing with the other children. “I miss my mom to death,” she says. She counts down the days until she can visit her mother in Shenyang, around 400 kilometers north of Dalian. “Each day seems like a year,” she mutters.

It’s not easy for ex-cons to start a new life immediately after we get released.

Children come to the village from all over China, so many of their parents are serving sentences far from Dalian. The cost and distance makes visits difficult, but Wang drives the children thousands of miles every year during the summer holidays to spend time with their parents. “Seeing their kids doing well gives prisoners more courage to live and remold themselves,” says Wang. Even those sentenced to death or with no hope of release find motivation in their children.

The village also aims to provide a safe haven for recently released prisoners like Ju. “It’s not easy for ex-cons to start a new life immediately after we get released,” Ju says. Feeling disconnected from the wider society and facing pervasive discrimination, Ju says she feels comfortable in the village because everyone there understands her circumstances.

Wang believes it’s far from sufficient to simply meet the children’s material needs. He hopes to instill self-esteem, self-reliance, and a strong sense of initiative in each of them. After school, the kids are assigned housework or gardening chores in the village’s vegetable patch.

“The kids in the village are more thoughtful and hardworking compared with children who are spoiled by their parents and grandparents at home,” says Ju. But their difficult experiences also lead the village children to act out.

Hai Xi sits in the activity room at Dalian Children’s Village in Liaoning province, April 17, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Hai Xi sits in the activity room at Dalian Children’s Village in Liaoning province, April 17, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

“They are stubborn, wayward, irritable, and aggressive,” Ju says. She doesn’t want to replicate the harsh discipline she experienced in prison, but she is careful to set hard limits. “I have to be strict with them to prevent them from following in their parents’ footsteps.”

According to law professor Zhang, most children of prisoners experience discrimination at school, and many feel guilt and shame for their parents’ crimes. “Psychological intervention is crucial,” he says, “but most charity NGOs can’t afford professional staff to help these children with regard to their mental health.”

Psychological intervention is crucial but most charity NGOs can’t afford professional staff to help these children with regard to their mental health.

Though he believes organizations like Dalian Children’s Village benefit their charges, Zhang feels they do not address the underlying problem of legal custody and guardianship.

In recent years, the Ministry of Civil Affairs has begun to take responsibility, establishing rescue centers in some cities for children of prisoners. “But it will take a long time to build support facilities and improve staff capacity nationwide,” Zhang says.

More than 100 children have grown up in Dalian Children’s Village since its inception. Some stay for a couple of years until their parents are released, while others remain until they come of age.

Hai Ou, the then-4-year-old who started Wang on his journey, is now 18. She left the village last year and now works as a waitress in the city, visiting Wang and her de facto siblings whenever she has free time. “He’s like my father,” Hai Ou says of Wang. “I wouldn’t be what I am now without him.”

However, most of the children never return once they leave the village. Wang says many are desperate to escape the label of being a prisoner’s child at the first chance they get. He doesn’t resent their decision. “As long as they are doing well, my job is done,” he says.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Caring for China’s Smog Dogs


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Longevity Pilgrims Go to Guangxi to Learn Secrets of Old Age


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

 

When You Are Old, Chinese, and Gay


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Old Cop Dogs Find a Happy Home in Hangzhou


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article was published on Sixth Tone.