Late Bloomers: China’s Elderly Embrace Sex After 60


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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.

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.

One Retiree’s Solution for Solitude: Nude Modeling


SICHUAN, Southwest China — As a nude model, Wang Suzhong cares about his appearance. Though he now stands at 1.68 meters tall, he stresses that he used to be a better-sounding 1.70: “I’ve shrunk by 2 centimeters.” When he bothers to brush his silver hair, it flows like that of a much younger man. In the past six years, he has modeled several times a week in nearly all the art institutes and colleges in town. For an 89-year-old, he has quite the career.

This unusual line of work is Wang’s answer to what has become known in China as the empty-nester problem, or when elderly people don’t live with their children. Until fairly recently, this was a rare situation in the country, but as younger generations prefer having their own homes, a majority of seniors now live alone. Empty nesters make up more than 70 percent of the elderly population in urban areas like Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, a city of 14 million where one in every five is aged 60 or above. To make sure these lonesome seniors get enough attention, the filial duty to visit or call one’s parents became a law in 2013.

Wang Suzhong, an 89-year-old nude model, reflects on his past — and on his dreams for the future. Courtesy of Ergeng

“I want to set an example for empty nesters like me, to find their own passion, be independent, and not become a burden on society,” says Wang as he takes a sip of the noodle soup he made for lunch — a lighter dish than normal, on account of a toothache. All Wang’s friends feel old and have health problems; some have passed away. But Wang’s new passion keeps him young, he says.

In 2012, when Wang was strolling past Sichuan Normal University near his home, he glimpsed a nude model posing for students at a life-drawing class at an art studio. Having worked as a tailor in the fashion industry all his life, Wang has always been fond of art involving the human form. When the manager of a figure-model agency noticed him, he looked Wang up and down a few times, and after a short pause asked if Wang wanted to be a nude model as well. “I thought about it for a day, and I was so excited that I tossed and turned in bed that night,” Wang says.

Wang wasn’t the least bit nervous the first time he modeled. In each class, he must maintain the same posture for an hour. Sometimes, he sits on a chair or sofa; other times, he stands or leans against the wall. “The students look so serious when drawing me, which makes me feel like I’m a work of art,” Wang says, flashing an easy smile.

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Wang Suzhong sorts out his paintings in his apartment in Chengdu, Sichuan province. October 25, 2018. Fan Yiying 

When Sixth Tone meets Wang at his apartment in Chengdu, he’s on his day off. He’s wearing a dark jacket over a white shirt, and brown nylon pants. While eating his lunch, he watches international news on his new 55-inch TV; on a nearby desk is an assortment of fruit, a mirror, and a calendar themed after Chinese President Xi Jinping. His favorite portrait of himself hangs on the wall next to his bed. A student painted him sitting down on a table with his knees drawn to his chest and hands on his shins while looking into the distance. Wang says his mind is blank when he models for the students: “I don’t think about the past or the future. I just want to live in the moment.”

The public housing apartment costs 400 yuan ($58) in rent, just a tenth of his relatively generous monthly pension. He earns 110 yuan a day modeling, which he does up to three times a week. Wang doesn’t need the extra income. “Obviously, I’m not modeling for money,” he says. “When I’m working with the students, I feel like I’m not alone, and I’m still needed.” When Wang was younger, his mother needed him, then his wife needed him, and his children needed him. Now, his mother, wife, and younger son have passed away. The remaining three children have their own lives and rarely come to visit.

During summer and winter school breaks, when Wang’s modeling skills are not in high demand, he gets up at 6 a.m., reads his newspaper, and then buys food at the market. After cooking for himself, he goes to the neighborhood’s elderly service center and chats with other empty nesters. Despite being a big mahjong fan, Wang hasn’t played in a while. “I only enjoy playing with people I really like, but unfortunately they’ve all died,” he says. Sometimes, he joins the chorus at the park, singing revolutionary songs with other seniors.

Born in a small provincial city in 1929, Wang has gone through many of China’s most turbulent times, from World War II to the civil war that followed, and later the Great Chinese Famine and the Cultural Revolution. His father died when he was 3, and in 1942 Wang dropped out of school because his mother could no longer afford tuition. Wanting to fight the Japanese, he signed up for the air force, but an eye condition kept him from joining the war.

Wang then traveled to Chengdu to learn how to sew clothes from a relative. By 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established, Wang had become a skillful tailor specializing in Western suits. He eventually became the general manager of a state-owned garment factory. He has taught more than 100 apprentices and has traveled all over the country, from cosmopolitan Shanghai to dusty inland cities, to meet with clients.

Wang’s career brought him abundant income. He was able to purchase three apartments in central Chengdu that he gave to his children, hoping that he could live with them in old age. However, after his wife died in 1997, his relationship with his children wasn’t particularly good. And it got worse when they found out about his modeling, which they consider “disgraceful,” Wang says.

Wang’s elder son works as a security guard. When he found out that his father would habitually strip naked in front of art students, he called and yelled that he wanted to end their relationship as father and son. Both of Wang’s daughters are retired. One visits him once every few months, and he has lost contact with the other. Wang’s family members declined Sixth Tone’s interview requests. Earlier this year, one of his granddaughters, a university student, told Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper that she’s happy her grandfather found his own passion.

“It’s not shameful to be a nude model at all,” Wang says. It’s the kind of art he learned briefly at school — Western-style life drawing and oil painting — but back then, he didn’t have the opportunity to study it further. Wang used to envy his fellow seniors who had their children and grandchildren for company, but now he’s relieved. “How long do you think I can live?” he asks. “I just want to follow my dream and make a contribution to society by doing something most people are reluctant to do.”

And there are plenty of people who do appreciate Wang. In China, he is something of a web celebrity, or wanghong — a term he has heard of, despite not owning a computer or smartphone. Several news stories about Wang have appeared in the past few years, and eye-catching headlines about the mysterious 89-year-old nude model have made him somewhat famous on social media. He is said to be the oldest such model in Chengdu.

Many of Wang’s neighbors know about his modeling and see him as an open-minded hippie. Zhang Guoxing, another retiree who lives in Wang’s complex, is aware of his neighbor’s nude modeling, though the two have never talked to each other. “I think many seniors in the community activity center have seen him on TV or on their phones,” Zhang says while walking his dogs. “What he does is great, pursuing his dream and fulfilling his life, but I would never have the guts to [be a nude model].”

As his reputation grew, Wang was invited in 2013 to star in a 45-minute movie titled “Free-Renting.” The film is an adaptation of a news story about an empty nester in his 70s who, in search of companionship, houses young people for free. Wang says he was basically playing himself. There is a line in the movie that describes his situation: “My wife is gone, children don’t come to visit, and I have made my own burial clothes.”

People of Wang’s generation expect their children to take care of them and bury them after they die. “I was so afraid to die without my children, but now I’m over it,” he says. “I will enjoy my remaining days and keep modeling until the day I can’t move.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Why China’s Elderly ‘Huddle to Stay Warm’


HUBEI, Central China — Shen Exiang was feeding his six dogs with some minced pork and rice at home when his former colleague Deng Chao rode over on his motorcycle. It was a chilly February afternoon, but the snow was melting around the village, and Deng wanted to know if Shen and his wife would go hiking with him.

It’s a relaxed pace of life for the 60-somethings, who’ve recently swapped life in Wuhan, a city of nearly 11 million, for a new kind of retirement in the countryside. They “huddle to stay warm,” as the phenomenon has been dubbed. Unable to rely on their only children or state care facilities, they depend on each other for social support.

The concept of “huddling retirement” has aroused interest among middle-aged people ready to retire soon — China’s retirement age varies between 50 and 60 depending on one’s occupation. A couple in the eastern city of Hangzhou made headlines earlier this year when they invited five other retired couples, who shared a fondness for playing mahjong, to live in their three-story suburban home. They charged at most just 1,500 yuan per month for room and board, and cleaning services.

When Shen, 64, was getting ready to retire in 2012, he spent a year searching for the perfect place to start the new chapter of his life. One day, while hiking with friends, he came upon the area around Hanzi Mountain, about 100 kilometers east of downtown Wuhan. When passing through Hanzishan Village on their way down the mountain, he learned that the majority of the hamlet’s 800 residents worked and lived in the city, leaving their houses empty most of the year.

Shen retired after a 43-year career as an engineer at Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation, one of the largest state-owned enterprises in central China. He loves nature — hiking, hunting, camping, fishing, and looking after pigeons and dogs. “I can’t do any of these in the city,” Shen tells Sixth Tone. With his energetic demeanor, he organizes a range of activities and has a lot of friends who, like him, wish to stay active in retirement. “Our apartments in the city are just not big enough,” Shen says.

On the top of a hill overlooking a reservoir, Shen and his wife Yan Shifeng, 61, found their own retirement home. The single-story brick building had been abandoned for 10 years — the surrounding land was overrun with weeds and the fish in the nearly dried-up pond had long since died. The owners agreed to rent the 200-square-meter house and the land around it for 1,000 yuan ($160) a year for a decade. “It seemed incredibly cheap,” Yan says. “But we’ve spent over 100,000 yuan on renovating the house and cleaning up its surroundings.”

A view of Hanzishan Village on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A view of Hanzishan Village on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

As an engineer who used to be in charge of large-scale experimental energy projects, Shen considers the village’s “huddling community” his retirement project. Shen spent nearly two months converting the dilapidated house into what he and his wife now affectionately refer to as their “mountain villa.” Most of the work went into repairing the ceiling and installing a new bathroom and kitchen.

After local media reported on Shen and Yan’s hilltop abode, more than a thousand people have come to visit, many of whom were thinking about moving to the countryside themselves. Shen invited them to stay in one of his six spare bedrooms to experience rural life for a few weeks before making their decision. Since the couple moved to the village in 2013, more than 30 retirees from Wuhan have followed suit.

Traditionally, Chinese live with and depend on their children to take care of them later in life. However, most people who are currently entering retirement started their families in the 1980s, when China’s strict family planning policies only permitted one child. Many of today’s pensioners have realized that it is unrealistic to rely on just one child, who might be also raising children of their own. Official numbers reflects this, too. In 2016, over half of seniors nationwide were so-called empty nesters — seniors who live apart from their children. The proportion exceeded 70 percent in cities.

As a result, China’s youngest pensioners are more open-minded about their retirement plans— from spending big on high-end apartments in luxury senior housing to “destination retirement,” where seniors move around to different locations each season. Luo, the sociologist, sees “huddling retirement” as a response to inadequacies in state-provided elderly care. “China’s old-age welfare system was mainly built to fullfill material and service needs, but very little attention is paid to elderly people’s spiritual and social needs,” Luo says. “Huddling retirement satisfies precisely these requirements.”

Shen Exiang poses for a photo on the Hanzi Mountain on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Shen Exiang poses for a photo on the Hanzi Mountain on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

For Shen, life in the countryside is certainly fullfilling. He wakes up around 6 every morning, eats breakfast, and exercises. Donning his favorite camouflage outfit, he then feeds the chickens, ducks, dogs, and sheep. For lunch and dinner, the couple and the other “huddling buddies” take turns to cook, and eat together in each other’s house.

Deng, 62, moved to the village four years ago. He raises hundreds of chickens in his yard and sells them at the market every weekend. “The high prices, traffic congestion, and poor air quality in the city are not suitable for retirement,” he says. “The natural environment here is a great attraction to me,” Deng adds.

Shen admits that he wouldn’t have moved to the countryside if it wasn’t for his sister, who is taking care of their mother in the city. His son, who is unmarried and loves to travel, also fully supports his parents’ move. “Many of my friends envy my carefree life in the country; however, they can barely step out of the urban center as they have to take care of their grandchildren in Wuhan,” says Shen.

Huddling retirement is still rare in Luo’s eyes, and she doesn’t think it’s a realistic alternative for most people. “These retirees are the ‘young seniors’ who are in good shape,” she says. “When they are ill and their health condition won’t allow them to live in the countryside for very long, they will have to move back to the city.” Though the government has promised improvements in rural health care, the best hospitals are still in the city.

But while Shen is concerned about health, he hopes he will never have to leave. “I think that when I’m old and need professional medical care, there will be good nursing facilities in the countryside, so that I could keep living here instead of moving back to the city,” he says, as he sips his favorite green tea.

A view of a newly renovated cottage bought by a couple, who are both doctors, in Hanzishan Village, on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A view of a newly renovated cottage bought by a couple, who are both doctors, in Hanzishan Village, on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

But if that doesn’t happen, Shen has another plan.

A five-minute walk down the hill from his home stands a house that’s currently being renovated. Its walls are now stark white, but the most eye-catching feature is the wood-paneled walls and terrace on the second floor reserved just for pigeons. Shen says that a couple bought the house recently and is planning to move in later in the year, when they retire. “They are both doctors,” he says. “I think it’s a really good thing for us to have them here.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.