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    Not Just Toys: How Young Chinese Are ‘Parenting’ Dolls

    As more young Chinese women “raise” plush cotton dolls like children, researchers find a link to loneliness and a desire for belonging.

    Ph.D. student Xiong Yuelei bought her first plush cotton toy while investigating the growing trend of “cyber doll parenting” in China for an academic paper. After that, she “kind of disappeared down a rabbit hole,” she says.

    By the time her study was published a year later, the 31-year-old researcher had become a devoted member of an online community of mostly young women who care for cotton dolls as their own offspring, regularly posting pictures and videos to attract likes, shares, and comments from fellow “mommies.”

    Xiong, who has been married for three years, takes every opportunity to show off her 1-year-old “child” Lucine, who has long, light-green hair and a permanent sweet smile. She says the appearance was inspired by a young male celebrity, although Lucine is a girl. Several months after the doll landed on her doorstep, Xiong had her upgraded with a wire skeleton, allowing her to set Lucine in various poses, such as standing on tiptoes or with her head tilted.

    “I had a skeleton installed because I wanted my child to look a bit cuter,” says Xiong, who explains that many of the doll owners she interviewed for her 2022 study believed that installing a skeleton imbued their dolls with “a soul.” In her research report, she quotes one woman saying, “Without a skeleton, the doll just lays there stiff as a board, staring blankly, which isn’t at all like a lively child.”

    According to the findings published in the Chinese Journal of Journalism and Communication, the fulfillment for these “doll parents” largely comes from customizing their dolls and endowing them with a distinct personality, such as dressing and beautifying them in a particular style. And like any proud mother or father, they take great pleasure from their “child” receiving praise.

    The vast majority of members in this “cyber doll parenting” community routinely share images online of their dolls as the main character in an everyday scene, such as sitting in a café with a cup of coffee, taking in the scenery at a tourist spot, or as part of the crowd at a music concert. “It’s about wanting people to see these photos and engage with you,” says Xiong, who often posts pictures of Lucine on social media and in chat groups. “I really enjoy that feeling.”

    Taking good photos has, to some, become evidence of good parenting. In extreme cases, the online reaction to a doll can also affect how much its owner cares about them. A woman with a collection of custom plush dolls told Xiong that she preferred those that “generate better data,” explaining: “If a doll gets more comments and engagement, I will like her more, take more photos, and play with her more. Gradually, I will feel they are cuter and buy her many, many clothes. If a doll does not get many likes, I might show her online less and take fewer photos.”

    One doll, called Toffee, even has her own dedicated fan site on the social networking platform Douban. One user wrote, “I think Toffee is so cute, but of course her charm also comes from all the likes and praise she receives. At first, I thought she was just a cute doll, but the other ‘mommies’ have given her a soul.”

    Costs of companionship

    Xiong says enthusiasts generally purchase their cotton dolls in groups from specialist dollmakers, known within the community as “doll mothers,” and pay in advance. Prices for design and production range from 40 to 70 yuan ($6 to $10), and each group purchase includes 50 to 100 people.

    Xiong had to wait a year for Lucine to arrive after placing her order, which is fairly standard, although the quickest possible turnaround is about three months. Like most dolls bought this way, Lucine has large eyes that take up almost a third of their face, a popular “cute look.”

    Some people also opt for customized dolls, which cost between 2,000 and 3,000 yuan. Xiong observed that these owners tend to pay more attention to detail, carefully selecting their doll’s skin tone and hair color, and have strict requests on the embroidery. “Even a 1-millimeter difference in the spacing of the eyes will determine whether they think the doll is beautiful or not,” she says.

    Whether mass produced or custom made, clothing is the biggest expense, with prices ranging from 40 to 100 yuan for outfits including school uniforms, traditional ethnic dresses, and animal costumes. Owners also use props to create “living spaces” for their dolls, with tables, chairs, computers, record players, carpets, plants, mini snacks, and many more items available to purchase online.

    Such behavior has become the minimum requirement for people in this cyber parenting community, while some even hire professional photographers to take portraits of their dolls, complete with makeup and hair, and picturesque backdrops. While specialized dollmakers offer services in cleaning, installing skeletons, stuffing, and applying blush, many online tutorials are also available for those who wish to do these themselves.

    However, few people share their hobby with their parents or elderly relatives, as playing with dolls instead of preparing to have a child can be seen in some families as “inauspicious.” When Xiong learned that her mother, who lives in another city, was planning a surprise visit to her home shortly before the Lunar New Year, she spent an entire evening packing up her dolls and hiding them in a wardrobe. She was worried her mother would criticize her for engaging in childish activities.

    These doll owners also struggle sometimes to find acceptance from the wider society. In October, a woman in Shanghai visited the popular hotpot restaurant Haidilao and asked for baby chairs for her plush cotton dolls, as it was their birthday celebration. When the staff refused, the woman posted her story online, resulting in the incident becoming a hot topic on the microblogging platform Weibo.

    Lately, a new service has emerged to cater to this community: kindergartens for dolls. There are generally two types, according to Xiong. One kind is purely an online space where people check in daily to share photos of their dolls and even complete homework assignments on weekends, while the other kind is brick-and-mortar spaces where owners can drop off their dolls to be looked after during holidays.

    In its brochure, Spring Flower Kindergarten promises to provide playtime companionship and psychological counseling for dolls so that cyber parents can rest easy in the knowledge that their little ones aren’t lonely or afraid.

    History repeating?

    In the early stages of her study, Xiong found that “doll parents” are mainly young people either at university or just starting their careers. Different from the way children play with dolls, which tends to imitate child-rearing behaviors, owners of cotton dolls do not associate caring for their dolls with raising children. Many interviewees even said they had considered staying unmarried and childless.

    So why then do most members of the community define themselves as “mommies”? Xiong did not think about this question at first, because the term seems like a natural fit. “Perhaps because mothers embody the idea of unconditional support,” she says. Indeed, ethical constraints exist from the very beginning of the cotton dolls’ production. For example, the community prohibits reselling dolls at high prices, while the production of the dolls is essentially a form of crowdfunding.

    One “doll mother” told the researcher that, although she had heard of people in the community profiting from selling dolls, it would be impossible in the fan group she runs, which had more than 1,000 members. “After our dolls are produced, we have to make various details public. Some fans are very strict, and they really check the details one by one,” she’s quoted as saying in the paper. “There are many eyes watching you to prevent you from making even a penny from the dolls.”

    In addition, Xiong says that all the specialist dollmakers she has come across who offer services such as cleaning, cotton changes, skeleton installation, and filling are students out to earn just a little extra pocket money. For them, the main reason for doing the work is pleasure.

    However, with the sharp competitive edge that exists within the community, is there a risk of this cotton doll culture evolving into intense “chicken blood” parenting, a term used to describe strategies that exert high pressure on children to improve in school? Huang Weizi, who served as Xiong’s doctoral adviser at the Macau University of Science and Technology, does not think so. In her view, real-life extreme parenting involves competitive relationships with a brutal logic of elimination. In contrast, the world of cotton dolls sees everyone’s dolls dressed beautifully, mothers praise each other, and everyone feels satisfied.

    These young women mainly crave approval, recognition, and belonging, Huang says. “It’s precisely because this generation may have grown up in an environment of extreme parenting; they are the children who have been injected with chicken blood.”

    Huang and Xiong also found that their interviewees were mostly in a state of transition: Whether it was leaving their parents to study in another city, trying to live independently, or entering the workforce for the first time, they felt the responsibilities of adulthood bearing down on them. One interviewee had been interning for six months without returning to her home city, mostly keeping to herself, and rarely interacting with others outside of work.

    Feelings of loneliness are common among doll mothers, with their dolls serving as repositories for their emotions and becoming avenues for them to connect with the outside world. 

    Xiong found that some young women would act with their dolls the same way their mothers had raised them. If their mothers had made them pretty clothes, for example, they would do the same for their dolls. For others it provides an opportunity to reflect on their upbringing. “There was a sophomore student I talked with who felt she did not receive enough love from her parents when she was young, so she wanted to give her dolls only the best and dress them in the most beautiful clothes,” she says.

    Although the pressures of being a mother will not suddenly disappear, these young women are finding long-lasting and reliable companionship in their interactions with dolls. In a way, they are caring for themselves by caring for another.

    Reported by Wei Ronghuan.

    A version of this article originally appeared in White Night Workshop. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Vincent Chow; contributions: Strapko Nastassia; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: A doll store in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, 2022. IC)