Amid the Epidemic, a Quiet Leap Forward for China’s LGBT Community


The days leading up to the Lunar New Year was a tense time for people across China amid the worsening COVID-19 epidemic. But Jiang Junjie had even more reason to feel nervous than most.

The 26-year-old not only planned to visit his parents in the southern city of Chaozhou, 350 kilometers from his home in Shenzhen, in spite of the outbreak; he was also bringing along his boyfriend.

It would be the first meeting between Jiang’s partner and his family, and the young engineer had a lot riding on the outcome. In China, bringing a partner home for the holiday is a big gesture — and often a sign the couple intends to one day tie the knot.

Just months ago, Jiang wouldn’t have considered taking such a step. The previous Lunar New Year, he’d finally come out to his family, and it had gone worse than he’d feared. His father had told him never to come home again. His mother had said nothing at all.

But Jiang had managed to change his parents’ minds with the help of an unexpected ally: the Chinese government.

In late 2019, the country’s top legislative body allowed the public to make suggestions for an updated draft of China’s civil code. It received an avalanche of submissions, with nearly 200,000 people sending feedback in one month. Over 190,000 of them made the same proposal: Legalize same-sex marriage. It was so overwhelming that officials publicly acknowledged legalizing gay marriage was among the most popular suggestions they had received during a Dec. 20 press conference.

“As far as I know, never in the history of Chinese legislation have so many people put forward so many opinions on one law,” says Sun Wenlin, co-founder of iFamily, a nongovernmental organization that promotes same-sex marriage in China.

Jiang messaged his parents with the news, and told them tens of thousands of people like him had campaigned for it. “Two days later, my dad called and asked me to bring my boyfriend home for the Lunar New Year,” he tells Sixth Tone.

Many LGBT people in China have been similarly excited — and more than a little surprised — at the government’s reaction to the civil code consultation. Though few expect China to legalize same-sex marriage any time soon, the authorities’ willingness to recognize the issue is an important step forward — and could encourage more people like Jiang’s father to accept the gay community.

In previous statements, officials had signaled clear opposition to marriage equality. As recently as this past August, Zang Tiewei, a government spokesperson, told reporters that China’s current civil code — which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman — was “consistent with our country’s national circumstances, history, and culture.”

Sun, of iFamily, says he expected officials to take a similar line again, or ignore the issue completely, after the public consultation. “But they showed neither support nor opposition (for same-sex marriage), which is a lot more positive than last time,” the 29-year-old tells Sixth Tone.

The change in tone has convinced Sun that China may allow same-sex marriage much sooner than he’d previously thought. In 2015, he filed a lawsuit against his local civil affairs bureau in the central Hunan province for the right to marry his partner — China’s first case over same-sex marriage — but the court ruled in favor of the government. After that setback, Sun assumed he’d have to wait 20 years to get married, but now he’s more optimistic.

“Now I don’t think it’ll take that long, after seeing how quickly people’s attitudes toward gay people and same-sex marriage have changed in the past few years,” says Sun.

Though homophobia and discrimination remain all-too-common in China, there are signs that society is becoming more tolerant as the LGBT community gets more vocal and visible.

When Jiang started identifying as gay a decade ago, he says he didn’t feel he could confide in anyone, given the widespread negative attitudes toward LGBT people in society. Now, however, he has come out to his colleagues and family members and feels most people his age accept him for who he is.

The results of a December poll conducted by Chinese news website ifeng.com support his assessment. According to the poll, 6.3 million people — 66% of the respondents — voted in favor of legalizing gay marriage. Chinese Christian groups appeared to be alarmed by the news, with several beginning to organize opposition to a potential legalization on social media.

The Alibaba-owned shopping platform Tmall, meanwhile, caused a stir in January by producing a Lunar New Year TV ad featuring a father and mother warmly welcoming their son’s boyfriend into their home during a family reunion.

“It’s so exciting and encouraging to see a gay couple on a TV commercial in China,” says Jiang. “I feel we’re almost being acknowledged and accepted by society.”

Gao Bo, director of the LGBT group PFLAG in Wuhan, Hubei province, says the Dec. 20 press conference will definitely have an effect on China’s gay community, making more people willing to come out.

“We’ve been walking in the dark: Even if there’s just one star above our heads, we feel very bright and hopeful,” says Gao.

Two weeks after the press conference, Gao’s PFLAG chapter held a group wedding ceremony for same-sex couples in Wuhan. More than 200 people came to watch four couples — including Gao and his partner — symbolically tie the knot, an attendance beyond Gao’s expectations.

“The wedding not only celebrates our love; it also encourages more people to speak up for themselves,” says Gao. He plans to make the group wedding an annual event in Wuhan once the city has recovered from the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, which was still at a very early stage in early January.

Participants in a group wedding ceremony for same-sex couples stand onstage in Wuhan, Hubei province, Jan. 4, 2020. Courtesy of PFLAG

Participants in a group wedding ceremony for same-sex couples stand onstage in Wuhan, Hubei province, Jan. 4, 2020. Courtesy of PFLAG

The 36-year-old created an online group with more than 100 members during the civil code consultation, to encourage more people to send responses.

“Many of them asked me if China would legalize same-sex marriage this time, and I told them 300% ‘no,’” says Gao. “But the key is that we need to stick together, get ready, and then when the government reveals any positive attitude, we’ll know what to do and how to seize the opportunity.”

Jiang and his partner took full advantage of their invitation to Chaozhou over Lunar New Year. Things started awkwardly, Jiang recalls, but the family gradually loosened up as they took part in a few activities together.

“We watched TV, played video games, wrote couplets in honor of the festival, and livestreamed on social media,” says Jiang. “My boyfriend cooked several different dishes every day, which really pleased my parents.”

Jiang’s parents even asked his boyfriend to join them in burning incense and praying to Buddha — a New Year tradition in parts of southern China. “It was a sign of acceptance, as we don’t typically ask guests to do it with us,” says Jiang.

But not even the success of the civil code campaign was enough to convince Chen Minming, a 35-year-old from the eastern province of Fujian, to bring her girlfriend to the Lunar New Year dinner with her parents over the holiday.

When Chen told her parents she was a lesbian in 2018, her mother was too shocked to speak. “Then, she cried for days,” she recalls.

Chen’s father also strongly disapproved of her sexual orientation. “My girlfriend was nice enough to collect some articles on LGBT issues online and print them out for my dad, but he still disagreed,” says Chen.

Unlike most of the LGBT people who spoke with Sixth Tone, Chen remains pessimistic about the prospects of same-sex marriage in China, pointing out that legalization in other countries came only after decades of campaigning. “I don’t think it’ll happen any faster than that in China,” says Chen.

In November, Chen and her partner held a small wedding ceremony in Thailand to celebrate their love. “I don’t care that it isn’t legal,” she says. “I just believe life should be filled with a sense of ritual.”

Eros Li, a 39-year-old from the southern city of Guangzhou, however, has no intention of holding a wedding, even if China decides to allow same-sex marriage. Li has been with his boyfriend for 17 years, and he says a piece of paper won’t affect the way they feel about each other.

“I think marriage is a tool for the government to promote the stability and unity of the country,” says Li. “And many people don’t get married for love anyway.”

Nevertheless, Li is an enthusiastic campaigner for marriage equality. He participated in the civil code consultation and encouraged his friends to do the same — even those afraid of coming out.

“Whether I want to get married or not is different from whether I should have the right to get married,” says Li.

Li doesn’t think the authorities’ recognition of the support for same-sex marriage means it’s rethinking its policy. “The number of responses on this topic was far higher than any other — they just couldn’t avoid mentioning it,” he says.

But the government’s attitude has no effect on him on a personal level, according to Li. He and his partner have good relationships with both sets of parents, and the couple spent the Lunar New Year with Li’s family in the eastern Jiangxi province.

“I take my partner home based on whether my family accepts him, not based on the civil code,” says Li. “Even if we’re not legally accepted yet, as long as my family embraces us, I’m willing to take him home.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

 

Pets, Abandoned and Blamed, Struggle to Survive Virus Outbreak


Du Fan had made plans to travel north and spend the Spring Festival holiday with friends amid wintery scenes of ice and snow.

Instead, during a viral epidemic that began in his hometown Wuhan, Du is roaming a deserted city to break into strangers’ homes and rescue their pets.

As the city — the capital of central China’s Hubei province and the epicenter of an outbreak that has killed over 700 people and infected more than 34,000 as of Feb. 8 — closed itself off from the outside world on Jan. 23 to halt the spreading virus, millions of Wuhan residents were out of town with no way home.

Across China, measures enacted to stop the spread of 2019-nCoV, as the coronavirus is known, have affected businesses, people — and animals. Pets have been blamed for spreading the virus, willingly abandoned amid the crisis, or unintentionally left to fend for themselves.

Three days after the lockdown that put Wuhan’s roads, railways, and airport out of service, Du issued a notice on social media saying his nongovernmental organization Wuhan Small Animal Protection Association would help stranded pets for free. So far, the association has received more than 2,000 requests, mostly from people who expected to only be away for a few days and are now afraid their pets are running out of food and water.

Du’s team of 28 volunteers are in a race against time, maneuvering through a city of 14 million without the use of cars or public transportation. They have so far managed to save more than 400 pets, mostly cats. Still, they’re receiving more new requests than they can handle. “We will keep doing this until the city is unlocked,” Du tells Sixth Tone.

Left: A locksmith opens the door of an absent pet owner’s apartment; Right: A volunteer feeds pets left alone as a result of the lockdown in Wuhan, Hubei province, 2020. Courtesy of Du Fan

Left: A locksmith opens the door of an absent pet owner’s apartment; Right: A volunteer feeds pets left alone as a result of the lockdown in Wuhan, Hubei province, 2020. Courtesy of Du Fan

 

Before entering a house, Du will ask its stranded owners to record a video holding their ID card and stating that they allow the volunteers to get in. After entering with the help of a locksmith or a hidden key, they are greeted by hungry but elated animals. In one video Du posted on social media, a pig locked in a closed balcony hadn’t eaten for a week. “The balcony is a mess, and he has even chewed on the water basin,” Du said.

In another video, a cat was giving birth when Du arrived. Two of the kittens died, but the volunteers cleaned up and left enough food and water to last a fortnight, preventing a worse situation. “In the face of disaster, helping small animals is also what we humans should do,” Du says.

Elsewhere in China, animals and their caretakers have also been put in a bind by the outbreak and the measures enacted to stop it. In cities throughout the country, businesses have been advised to stay shut following the weeklong Lunar New Year break, which would have ended on Jan. 30 but has been extended to Feb. 9 in many places.

Chen Junren owns a pet store in downtown Shanghai, and this week opened up anyway. With a decade of experience, he knows it should be a busy time of year. “Usually around this time, the store should be filled with owners taking their dogs over to buy food and give them baths, but now it’s so empty,” Chen tells Sixth Tone. He has turned to selling online, but is quickly running out of goods, especially imported brands. Chen thinks China’s pet market, which has rapidly grown and last year exceeded 200 billion yuan ($28.8 billion) for over 100 million cats and dogs, will be affected for at least a year.

Chen is also facing a staffing shortage. “None of my employees have returned yet,” he says. Some of them celebrated Lunar New Year with their families in Hubei and cannot leave the province until the lockdown lifts. In any case, it might be a while before Chen gets help. Anyone arriving in Shanghai from elsewhere in China is asked to go into two weeks of self-quarantine.

But Chen is not alone. A 7-month-old shiba inu was sent to stay in his store by its owner, who is stuck in Wuhan. “I will take care of the puppy for him no matter what,” Chen says. “Pets are more important now than ever because, without their company, life would be so much harder at this moment.”

Vet clinics have also largely been ordered to stay closed. Zhang Fan, a veterinarian in Wuhan, thinks such measures might be counterproductive and harmful to public health. “Some pet owners may take their pets to other cities for medical treatment, which will increase the possibility of unnecessary population flow,” he says.

Many clinics have launched online consultations, though there are limits to what doctors can do from a distance. “But we will do our best to alleviate the difficulties and save the lives of as many pets as possible,” says Qin Kong, co-founder of Shanghai-based pet services company Petform. “Every life deserves respect.” They launched their online consultations on Jan. 30 and have already helped hundreds of customers.

For most pet owners, the biggest worry is whether they should still take their animals outside. Li Lanjuan, an epidemiologist and member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering, said in an interview with state broadcaster China Central Television last month that people should “more strictly control their pets,” and that “if your pet runs around outside and comes in contact with an infected person, it will need to be monitored. This virus is transmitted between mammals, so we should take precautions for mammals.”

Despite statements from both the World Health Organization and an expert at China’s National Health Commission refuting Li’s claim, suspicion toward pets has spread. In Weifang, eastern China’s Shandong province, and Taiyuan, a city in northern Shanxi province, districts have banned public dog-walking. In Wuxi, Jiangsu province, a neighborhood committee staff allegedly buried a cat alive after its owner was infected with the coronavirus, out of fear the feline could spread the disease.

Fang Ling, the founder of a pet hotel in the mountains outside of southwestern Sichuan’s provincial capital Chengdu, tells Sixth Tone that Li’s comments created a wave of panic. “Every day, officials come to supervise and check whether we wear face masks, and how many times we disinfect and clean the place,” she says, adding she’s afraid she’ll be ordered to close any day. She’s taking care of some 35 dogs and has received new orders from people who’ve found it too difficult to keep walking their dogs in the city.

While most Chinese have stayed inside the past few weeks to limit the spread of the virus, Wang Yingchao, founder of WoWoDogWalk, a Shanghai-based dog-walking service, takes over 15,000 steps daily. “Staying indoors for a long time is painful for us, let alone some dog breeds who need more exercise,” says Wang.

With her team, she walks dozens of dogs every day, fewer than usual. But there’s also a silver lining. “It’s actually less hassle to walk the dogs now, as you can hardly see people on the street,” says Wang.

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

 

The New Breed of Handlers Preening China’s Prize


HUBEI, Central China — With her bushy beard, expressive eyes, and wavy coat, Feifei enters the ring and walks a lap. Set up outside a shopping mall in downtown Wuhan, the show makes some shoppers stop in their tracks to snap photos of Feifei. “What’s going on here?” one asks. “It’s a dog beauty pageant,” a middle-aged woman responds, carrying a toy poodle in her arms.

Feifei’s handler leads her to the judges’ table, where the dog strikes a pose as a judge, flown in from Latvia, checks Feifei’s teeth and makes sure her bones are properly proportioned. Spread out in the mall area, other dog handlers — themselves looking their best in sharp suits and dresses — are busy with last-minute preparations. A corgi visibly enjoys getting its butt brushed, and a Doberman pinscher is sprayed with water to cool down.

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Schnauzer Feifei waits for more grooming at Wang Xu’s new training kennel before a dog show in Wuhan, Hubei province, May 24, 2018. Fan Yiying

These 200-or-so purebred pups are the pampered pioneers of China’s growing love for dogs. As the number of pets — now estimated at around 100 million — is ever on the rise, more and more people are willing to pay a small fortune to own a standout dog. Shows like the one in Wuhan attract owners eager to have champion dogs, and kennels who want to show off their breeding prowess. Audiences are slowly catching on

Feifei is a 2-year-old miniature schnauzer whose coat shades from gray to white. “She must feel like a supermodel on the stage,” says Wang Xu, Feifei’s handler and owner. At China’s dog shows, dogs compete at the breed level in the morning. After that round, each Best of Breed winner advances on to the group stage, wherein the dogs are separated into sporting, hound, and other categories. The winners of that round then compete for Best in Show. Feifei has won the top award four times.

Dog shows have a long history in the West. The first English dog show took place in Newcastle in 1859, and every year, thousands of dogs fill New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the annual, multi-day Westminster Dog Show. In China, however, the events are a new phenomenon. The Wuhan show is one of about 80 shows organized around the country by China Kennel Union (CKU) — a nonprofit established in 2006 that’s the only recognized Chinese member of the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), the World Canine Organization. Whereas the Westminster Dog Show is nationally televised and has a large, paying live audience, CKU’s shows are free, and likely wouldn’t attract any viewers were they not organized in downtown shopping areas, says Wang. But the number of shows is growing.

Much like the shows, being a dog handler is a relatively new occupation in China. Fewer than 100 handlers are full-timers like Wang. “Presenting dogs in a show is just a part-time job or a hobby for most dog handlers in China,” the 33-year-old says. In Wenlin, the village in suburban Wuhan where Wang lives and trains his and his clients’ canines, people think he walks dogs for a living. “They don’t understand that dogs can be showed or should be groomed,” Wang says with a shrug.

To prepare the dogs for top performances, handlers give them daily exercise, obedience training, and continuous grooming. It can be physically demanding work, and requires passion and patience. “The dogs I train come in all sorts of different personalities and tempers, so dog handlers need to be able to communicate with dogs on a spiritual level,” says Lu Bing, who became a dog handler in 2015 after learning from Wang.

But dog handlers are well-compensated, mostly from the fees they charge owners for taking care of their pets, which can be more than 10,000 yuan ($1,450) a month. Depending on how many dogs they manage, the best handlers in the industry can earn over a million yuan a year. Wang has six dogs of his own, all schnauzers, and handles up to 14 dogs from clients — a self-imposed limit to make sure they all get enough care and attention.

Growing up in the Hubei countryside, Wang’s family had mutts, though back then he had no concept of dog breeds. In 2012, Wang was getting tired of working as an engineer in a state-owned company. He decided to learn from his sister, who is a schnauzer breeder, and later to become a handler. “I feel happier and less stressed when I am with dogs than humans,” he says, adding that, purebred or not, “emotionally speaking, I love them all.” In 2015, he became the first A-level dog handler in Hubei province — the top level as certified by CKU.

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Wang Xu’s dog handling team at their new training kennel in Wuhan, Hubei province, May 25, 2018. Fan Yiying

For every breed there are particular techniques to achieve the best look. For schnauzers like Feifei, it’s all about the back hair, which is tangled and thick in its natural state. About three months before she is to compete, Wang will pull out most of the hairs on her back — which he says is slightly painful but bearable for the dog — so new hairs will grow and form a neat, needle-like coat come showtime.

Dogs are judged on their posture, appearance, expression, and pace. Whenever Wang gets a new dog, he’ll first conduct a series of inspections — such as the dog’s bone structure, waist circumference, and ear and eye spacing — to check whether the dog meets its breed’s standards, which are determined through the FCI. The dog’s character is also crucial. “If a dog is too stubborn and refuses to change after a period of training, it can’t compete,” says Wang.

Wang competes in about 30 shows a year, and has so far won over 200 Best in Show awards. There’s no prize money. Instead, he’s been rewarded with trophies, dog food, promotional items in every shape and form, and even the latest iPhone. “It’s not about the money,” he tells Sixth Tone. “I just want to present the dogs’ best sides and enjoy the show.”

But winning can be profitable. Wang Lin — not related to or a client of Wang Xu — is the manager of a kennel in Wuhan that’s registered with CKU. The kennel has over 200 dogs of about 10 breeds for sale. A few years back, they hired professional dog handlers to compete in shows. “After earning a couple of Best in Show honors, it’s definitely boosted our visibility and raised the dogs’ prices,” she says. Business has improved so much that the kennel didn’t have the time to partake in any shows this year.

Some clients are enthusiasts with deep pockets. “Owning a champion dog is a way for the wealthy to show off,” says 24-year-old Lu, Wang Xu’s former protégé. “Once their precious dog has a breakout performance onstage, they can brag to others: See, even my dog is awesome!”

Tan Liang, a thin and soft-spoken 50-something who works in finance, has wanted to show his dogs since he bought a purebred German shepherd back in the late 1980s for over 2,000 yuan — then a whole year’s income. Since then, he’s grown his pack. “I know I bought good dogs, and I want other people to admire them and have professionals judge them,” he says. “It’s all about gaining face, you know.”

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Lu Bing, right, and Wang Xu with border collie Yuanyuan outside their new training kennel in Wuhan, Hubei province, May 24, 2018. Fan Yiying

Tan bought a black-and-white border collie he named Yuanyuan — meaning destiny in Chinese — at a certified CKU kennel for 10,000 yuan in 2017, and has entrusted her to Wang Xu. “I can imagine that handling my own dogs would be one of the most enjoyable things in the world,” Tan tells Sixth Tone. “But presenting a dog to show its best qualities is an art, and I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to do such a good job.” Last year, Wang Xu handled another of Tan’s dogs to Best in Show awards at all the competitions in which he participated. “This is rare in the history of Chinese dog shows,” Tan says with pride.

On the day of the Wuhan competition, Wang Xu gets up at 5 a.m. He bathes the dogs, and then packs his equipment — from grooming tables and cooling mats to brushes and blow dryers. Then he puts his four show dogs — Feifei, a French bulldog named Cool, and border collies Weiwei and Yuanyuan — into his van and hits the road.

Arriving at the venue an hour before it begins, Wang Xu has no time to waste. He finds an empty spot, and one by one gives the dogs their last go-over. “I’m trimming her legs into the shape of a baseball bat,” Wang Xu says while working on Feifei. “They’re slightly thinner on the top and slightly thicker on the bottom.”

After a little while, Tan spots his border collie, Yuanyuan, entering the ring. He is thrilled and nervous, and eventually takes a step back so as not to distract her. “It’s her first show,” he whispers. “I don’t want her to see me and get too excited.” He takes his camera to capture every moment.

In the end, Feifei is judged Best in Group but falls short of the top award. Yuanyuan wins Best of Winner, a prize which is four levels lower than Best in Show. But Tan is happy. After the show he goes backstage, and strokes Yuanyuan. He hasn’t seen his furry friend for weeks. “You did great today,” he says softly. “Let’s keep it up.”


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.