Singling out a lifestyle

Updated: Mar 16, 2022 China Daily Print
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Director Dai Xianjing (right) and Laoyao (back) meet an old woman playing music at Jingshan Park in Beijing during filming of Women at Home.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Documentary looks at urban women who, for one reason or another, are living alone and the hopes they have for the future, Wang Qian reports.

The "home alone" are increasing in number, by chance or choice, as more women in urban China live a solitary life, when the "couple" lifestyle-while still an option for the majority-is not yet their option. A documentary, Women at Home, has put their lives into focus, taking viewers into the life of three women from different backgrounds who discuss what being alone means to them.

Premiering on the Tencent Video streaming site on March 7, one day before International Women's Day, the documentary, directed by Dai Xianjing, consists of three 20-minute episodes, telling the stories of freelancer Laoyao, 32, insurance consultant Wei Lin, 38, and retired professor Ye Jing, 58, and their reflections on single life.

"The documentary is my way to explore and accept myself, as well as answer my doubts about being a singleton in my 30s," the 34-year-old director in Beijing says, adding that although the three women in the series have separate stories, they represent different life stages that many women face.

"Their stories show that women who dare to be themselves are the most beautiful," Dai adds.

Preferring to be referred to by her internet username, Laoyao came to Beijing in 2014. In 2016, she wrote a book titled We Are Infinite, telling a story of a young woman facing and overcoming everyday challenges. In 2019, she purchased a 60-square-meter apartment in the city. She has more than 300,000 followers on Chinese micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo.

In some ways, she seems to encapsulate the very image of a confident and successful woman. But life can sometimes be a tough taskmaster. What it gives with one hand, it seems ready to snatch away with the other, and vice versa. She does not get on well with her mother, is anxious about her appearance and feels she is reaching a plateau in her career. Having undergone several plastic surgery procedures on her face, she is yet to meet her Mr Right.

Also included in the documentary are insurance consultant Wei Lin, pictured in her bedroom, and Ye Jing, a retired professor from the Beijing Film Academy. Women at Home reflects how women's roles in society, especially those who are single, have changed.[Photo provided to China Daily]

The second woman is Wei, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last year and had to face surgery on her own. The middle-aged insurance consultant, based in Beijing, seems to be the epitome of the woman who has made it. But she is eager to become a wife and mother. Despite attending several online and in-person matchmaking events, she, too, has yet to find the ideal husband.

"Behind them, there are the issues and questions facing contemporary women, not least about how their role changed over time," Dai says.

The final woman, Ye, is a retired professor from the Beijing Film Academy. Born in 1964, Ye's marriage failed and she has no children. Living alone in Beijing, the retiree enjoys her life and lives it to the fullest, plunging herself into the things that she loves. She started learning how to dance and wants to "feel young" into her 60s, and even her 70s.

"In Ye's story, I see my future. Her attitude toward getting old inspires me," Dai says, adding that, by each representing a unique journey, the three women are brave and independent in facing their life choices, no matter whether they are a temporary arrangement or a long-term lifestyle option.

According to the latest China Statistical Yearbook released by the National Bureau of Statistics, there were more than 125 million people living alone in China in 2020-25.3 percent of all households, compared to about 6 percent in 1999.Although there are no statistics about the percentage by gender, an increasing number of women, young and old, are embracing diversified lifestyles, instead of getting married straight after graduation and having children.

Dai herself joined the group when her last relationship ended in 2016, and the magazine she worked for in Shanghai also closed.

"It was when I first noticed an increasing number of women like me settling down alone in big cities, facing similar questions or stigma," Dai says.

Even in today's China, there is some stigma attached to being a single woman, especially for those who are in their late 20s and older.

She started the Women at Home photography project in 2016 to document the lives of women who live alone. So far, Dai has spent time with 44 urban women in their homes, discussing their stories about their intimate relationships and sharing their secrets, desires, pain and happiness.

Also included in the documentary are insurance consultant Wei Lin, pictured in her bedroom, and Ye Jing, a retired professor from the Beijing Film Academy. Women at Home reflects how women's roles in society, especially those who are single, have changed.[Photo provided to China Daily]

"Thanks to the photo project, I have had so many opportunities to talk with women from different backgrounds and at different ages. There have been many touching moments when I hoped that there had been a camera recording. I was not satisfied with photos-I wanted more," Dai says, explaining why she made the documentary.

She says that, through her lens, she doesn't want to glorify the single lifestyle, or trigger anxiety, but simply wants to record the real status of women.

"How to understand love and deal with intimate relationships has been an issue for people in the digital era. I want to build a mirror, which can reflect how I enter a stranger's life and get on with them," Dai says, adding that no matter how technology changes communication, face-to-face interaction still matters, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The documentary has been rated 9.1 points and garnered more than 2.24 million views on Tencent Video. A viewer named Zhang Laodong comments that living alone doesn't necessarily mean boredom and loneliness. It's more about freedom of choice after becoming financially independent, self-reflection and the ability to follow the heart.

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