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2021-06-22 09:59:48

SHANGHAI — Walking around her studio, Gong Xin’s face lights up when she walks past her favorite girl. “This is my oldest daughter!” the 30-year-old says with a whimsical grin. Wearing a boho outfit with her berry-colored hair in half-up space buns, the girl resembles Gong.

She is the mother of more than 20 children, Gong tells Sixth Tone. She isn’t a heedless violator of China’s family-planning laws, however. Her sons and daughters are BJDs, or ball-jointed dolls, who range in height from around 10 to 70 centimeters and have skin made of resin. But that doesn’t mean Gong loves them any less. “The dolls are pure beauty,” she says.

With oversized heads and eyes, BJDs are flawless, hyper-idealized mini humans that are meticulously detailed — for some models, even down to their private parts. Their ball joints give them a gymnast’s flexibility, and all manner of accessories allow for endless customization. Gong will dress her most-loved dolls according to the weather: loose clothing in summer, thick scarves in winter.

Commercialized in Japan, BJDs have grown increasingly popular in China after its first domestic doll company was established in 2005. Hardcore collectors — who call themselves “doll moms” and “doll dads” — meet each other in microblog Weibo community Waquan Dongniang, or Doll Mom Hideout, which has more than 30,000 members. They give advice on eye-replacements, discuss where to find quality clothing, or ask how to fix a damaged nose.

Gong Xin’s work table at her home in Shanghai, May 2021. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

Gong Xin’s work table at her home in Shanghai, May 2021. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

Most BJD collectors are young, female, and unmarried, Gong says. They talk about doll ownership as if they are raising real children, referring to the monthslong wait after placing an order for a handmade doll as a “pregnancy period,” and the doll’s eventual arrival as its “birth.”

Beyond intricate outfits, some collectors also give their dolls elaborate back stories, having them pose for photo shoots that become works of fiction. Others will meet up with fellow doll parents so their resin offspring can become friends. Gong sometimes posts pictures of her oldest “daughter,” Laia, asleep on a fold-out train table or sitting outside on a rock during trips.

Many collectors spend considerable fortunes on their passion. BJDs are pricier than conventional dolls made for children. Dollzone, a Chinese BJD company with 175,000 followers on e-commerce site Taobao, sells 30-centimeter-tall dolls for about 800 yuan ($125). Clothes, exchangeable body parts, and makeup are also costly. The last is considered especially important. Makeup — or rather, paint — can give a doll an extra dose of realism and a unique personality. The touch-ups go beyond eyeshadow and lipstick. They can include hair, scars, and even faint turquoise lines to resemble veins.

Last year, when Gong’s day job as a museum curator was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, she began taking on gig work as a BJD makeup artist. She now receives around 20 orders each month, earning her a good amount of extra income and a degree of prestige in the community.

Because there needs to be coating applied to ensure the makeup will stick on the resin skin, Gong works almost exclusively on warm, sunny days when the humidity is low enough for the coating to dry quickly. On those days, she’ll wake up early, put on some rock and roll music and a gas mask, and carefully begin applying paint, beginning with the eyebrows because, she says, these set the tone for the doll’s character.

Gong Xin’s collections at her home in Shanghai, May 2021. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

Gong Xin’s collections at her home in Shanghai, May 2021. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

In her apartment, Gong decorates the wall of her studio with her customers’ hand-written requests. One client’s note asks Gong to create a pair of “slightly scraped eyebrows” for her doll, reflecting his backstory as a soldier who has survived several difficult battles. “Every BJD has its own story: They live in a world with other well-crafted characters and constantly experience unpredictable twists and turns,” Gong says.

Xuejie, one of Gong’s customers, is all about creating stories and using her dolls to bring them to life. “I was already a fanfiction writer before I started collecting BJDs,” she tells Sixth Tone. “But now with my dolls, I get to take photos of them and create stories that feel more real.” The 24-year-old bought an exchangeable lens camera a while back. “Sometimes I set up special lighting for my dolls so I can better record their lives,” she explains.

“I’ve spent around 3,000 yuan on each of my dolls,” Xuejie says, lowering her voice so her mother and grandmother in the kitchen next door won’t hear. “My boyfriend doesn’t really care for this hobby of mine,” she adds, joking that he might feel insecure around her dolls because of how ridiculously handsome they are. “Why should I care about his opinion, though?” Xuejie says, laughing.

Xuejie and other BJD enthusiasts know many people don’t quite approve of their hobby — Xuejie requested to only use her given name, fearing her colleagues would be judgmental. Interviewees say many people outside the community find the dolls creepy. Perhaps, they suggest, because of popular horror films centered around spine-chillingly evil dolls, such as “The Conjuring.” Another explanation is that, to some, the dolls are in the “uncanny valley” — the point at which human-like objects are too close to reality and evoke revulsion.

A doll belonging to one of Gong Xin’s clients, in Shanghai, May 2021. Chen Si/Sixth Tone

A doll belonging to one of Gong Xin’s clients, in Shanghai, May 2021. Chen Si/Sixth Tone

This is perhaps one reason why the BJD community is smaller than comparable subcultures. Besides being a doll collector, Xuejie is also a fan of anime and Lolita fashion — a clothing style heavy on Victorian dresses popularized in Tokyo. These subcultures share certain commonalities with BJD in how they give participants an alter ego. Volks, a famous Japanese company that creates BJDs, understands this psychology and markets their dolls as doppelgängers of the buyers themselves.

One thing that keeps the circle of BJD enthusiasts small is how exclusive and hierarchical the community is. People who buy off-brand dolls are shunned and labeled low-class. Those who can afford expensive dolls enjoy a higher status. Wu Weiwei, a 19-year-old cash-strapped student and BJD collector, isn’t a fan of the larger community, telling Sixth Tone that some of the rules aren’t fair. “Sometimes the off-brand dolls are prettier than the real ones, but members have a hard time admitting that,” she says, adding that such attitudes discourage fresh collectors from feeling secure in their new hobby.

But Wu won’t let the bickering disturb her enjoyment. Having studied animation and sketching, Wu says what she likes most about her dolls is applying makeup that looks like hers: willow-shaped eyebrows and soft sparkly eyeshadow. “Dolls are the projection of one’s own identity,” Wu says.

BJD has also found fans in the West, with various Asian companies now selling in some of these markets. In the U.S., BJD meetups are held from Portland to St. Louis.

Gong, the makeup artist, thinks there’s an easy explanation for why the dolls are making new friends in times of crisis. “Many of us have been under pressure these past two years — we are looking for something to count on emotionally,” Gong says. “We all need something to fulfill our spiritual needs.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: Gong Xin adds makeup to a doll’s head at her home in Shanghai, May 2021. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)