By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 6, 2007
NANJING, China -- On the street, they are often the target of laughter or cruel whispers. Individually, they have all been denied jobs or their parents' praise.
On stage, however, the four members of a singing group known as Qian Jin Zu He are strong and confident, belting out their signature rap song, "So What If I'm Fat," passing out photographs of themselves and signing autographs.
The lead singer, 26-year-old Xiao Yang, is 375 pounds; the others in the group are between about 200 and 300 pounds. Together, they tour the country, performing at nightclubs, paint factories, garment industry conventions and shopping malls.
Their success has been modest, but given the powerful discrimination against the obese in China, Xiao said her discovery by a talent agent has been "like a tree branch saving me in the water."
The story of precisely how Xiao's group came to be is a window onto the challenges of being obese in a country where the ideal form of feminine beauty is delicate, girlish and small-boned. As China has grown more prosperous, the percentage of overweight citizens here has also grown. Still, those who are obese continue to struggle in relative solitude. Only about 7 percent of the population in China is considered obese, compared with 30 percent of the population in the United States.
Not long ago, having overweight children in China was viewed as a sign of prosperity. Even today, grandparents who can remember famines, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s, tend to spoil and overfeed their grandchildren.
But chubby is no longer in fashion here, and image has become more important than ever. Summer boot camps for the overweight are springing up. In an increasingly competitive market, employers demand height and weight information from job candidates. And in higher education, fitness can now be a reason to reject college applicants, officials say, all other factors being equal.
"Chinese people now have a higher requirement for fashion and healthiness," said Wang Zeqing, a social psychologist who is leading a nationwide project analyzing the psychological health of Chinese. "Being fat, in people's minds, means not trendy and healthy."
Discrimination against the obese is inevitable, Wang said: "It's how society is now. Employers have countless choices. They can easily turn down a fat person and choose a better-looking one."
It was against this backdrop that Xiao struggled to make a life for herself. Growing up in the city of Xuzhou, in the eastern province of Jiangsu , she took weight-loss pills at age 5. Her embarrassed parents refused to hold her hand in public and enrolled her in what she recalls as a "devil eating program" that allowed participants to eat only fruit and drink only water.
Xiao recalled being rejected from three technical schools because of her obesity. She had wanted to become a chemistry teacher; though her test scores were not low, she said, officials feared she couldn't stand up in a classroom for 45 minutes at a time.
Four years ago, in desperation, Xiao placed an ad in a local newspaper, begging for someone to help her lose weight or find a job. Hu Zhi, a public relations agent based in Nanjing, saw it. He decided to add her to his roster of "special people" with unusual talents.
The acts Hu envisioned were not subtle. Already on his roster of performers were a man who could drag a car with his ear and another who broke glass with his teeth. Such acts aren't all that unusual in China, where variety shows, reality television and competitions involving audience participation have become increasingly popular.
Xiao "was educated, so I thought if I could dig out some potential performing skill, maybe I could help her and she might be a good resource for my company," Hu said.
He gave her CDs and DVDs featuring various performers, as well as a coach, and asked her to study dance moves.
Xiao felt uncomfortable at first. Every time she called home, her family asked if she had lost weight. "Obesity has already made my parents and me so unhappy. I thought, 'Am I really going to use my fat figure to make a living?' " she said.
To build her confidence, Hu tried to find her a boyfriend. He knew that the relentless pressure from her family to lose weight was driven by fears she would never marry. He got the largest newspaper in the city, the Nanjing Evening News, to write up every detail of Xiao's misfortune in a story and seek prospective husbands.
Xiao wasn't serious about getting married. But the story in March 2006 was a big boost to her confidence and drew 200 letters from interested men. It also attracted letters from more than 100 obese women from all over China who had had the same feelings and experiences. They all wanted to be friends with Xiao.
Hu and the newspaper formed a club for the women, with activities such as a beauty contest. That produced enough talented performers that Hu decided to form a band. Dozens of people auditioned.
The result was Qian Jin Zu He.
The group's name is a play on words. One meaning refers to a courteous expression for another person's daughter or, in ancient times, a thousand pieces of gold. But no one who sees the band perform can mistake its second meaning: 1,000 jin, a Chinese measurement that would translate to just over 1,000 pounds.
These days, the band is making more TV appearances than before, on cooking shows and alongside Olympic wrestlers. It performed in more than a dozen provinces last year.
But as Qian Jin Zu He crisscrosses China, the band sometimes meets less welcoming audiences. Once, a spectator thought Xiao was wearing a fat suit and asked if he could test his theory by burning her skin with a cigarette. Another audience member came onstage to trip her.
"Only a small part of the audience understands and supports us," said Shen Jing, 23 and, at 198 pounds, the lightest member of the group.
"Most of them aren't tolerant, though in the big cities it's better. We've seen some bloggers say we're cute, our lives aren't easy," said Shen, wearing blue eye shadow and earrings shaped like the Eiffel Tower. "But others say, 'You're so fat, you shouldn't step outside and frighten people. You should hide yourselves.' "
At a recent performance at a nightclub in Nanning, in the southern province of Guangxi, Xiao greeted the crowd and wished all the men good health and good looks. "And to the women," she said, with a mischievous pause, "we hope you will be as beautiful as us."
Then the group members changed into ballerina tutus and took mincing steps on tiptoe. At one point, the nightclub's emcee pretended to try to lift Xiao but could barely get his arms around her middle.
"The show is very creative," said Huang Licheng, a 21-year-old university student attending the show. "They're very confident, daring to show themselves in front of the audience. I admire them because I feel I'm not confident enough."
Though the audience is appreciative, the women of Qian Jin Zu He say their skits are often an uncomfortable reminder of the rude comments they get each day when not in costume.
"I rode a bicycle home the other day and a person walking close to me said, 'Wah, you're so fat!' I cursed him in my heart and pretended not to hear," said Shen, who said she once lost a job in hotel sales because she was overweight.
The women say their partnership with Hu is mutually beneficial. "Without him, I won't have a job, I'll be home depending on my parents," Xiao said. "Without him, we wouldn't be able to see our value."
None of them see a nutritionist, saying it is not a habit of Chinese people. They are quick to note that obesity can be the result of a chemical imbalance or other problems, and not just the result of overeating. But this is not a commonly held view in China.
"In China, they think you eat too much and you're not exercising. They will immediately connect your obesity to your personality and say you are lazy," Xiao said. "If you cannot lose weight, it's your fault."
Yang Ye, one of the other band members, used to be a pastry maker in a five-star hotel, but only because her family helped her get the job. "People said, 'Oh, you're so fat, how did you still get this job?' " said Yang, 21 and 287 pounds.
Through their performances, the group hopes to change stereotypes about the obese, said Zhang Wen, 24, the fourth member, who weighs 209 pounds and is from Tianjin.
"Our original purpose for joining the band is to help other girls like us feel more confident, feel better about themselves, and to prove our capability in front of others," she said.
Researcher Li Jie contributed to this report.