81-year-old model reshapes popular view on aging in China
"I'm 80. But I still have dreams and I always want to do something. It feels like something is calling me and I look at it, I want to be there."
- Wang Deshun
A grey-haired old man with a shirtless torso stole the show at China Fashion Week in Beijing on March 25, 2015.
Tall and toned, the man strutted down the catwalk like a warrior king with chest pushed outwards, steady decisive strides, and an intense gaze – a domineering demeanor rarely seen in people of his age.
He wowed the audience and he became an Internet sensation overnight. Chinese netizens dubbed him “China’s most handsome grandpa” and “old fresh meat” (Mandarin: Lao Xianrou).
Wang Deshun at China Fashion Week in 2015
Wang Deshun at China Fashion Week in 2015
He is Wang Deshun. A kidult.
At the age of 81, Wang still maintains a routine of exercising, skiing, swimming, acting and even keeping up with social media trends, much like a teenager. To him, the peak of his life has just begun.
Life like an inspirational drama
Wang Deshun was born in a rural community in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, northeast China. After dropping out of school aged 14, he went to work at a munitions factory to support his family.
Wang had no family history of art or performing. Yet at 24, he fell in love with drama. Taking the stage seemed a long way off, but Wang was dogged in pursuit of his dreams. After receiving limited education as a youngster, he signed up for night classes. And in 1960, he finally became a theater actor in his hometown. Aged 30, he started learning splits.
Wang’s hard work began to pay off. He became the star of a theatrical troupe in Changchun, Jilin Province. But he gradually found that northeast Chinese are more fond of errenzhuan (a form of art that features two characters singing and dancing) than drama. And he had little room to release his full talent and ambitions. So as a 49-year-old, the dedicated Wang studied pantomime, quit his job at home and moved to Beijing. With his wife and two kids in tow, he became one of the “Beijing drifters” (a term used for those who are from outside Beijing yet choose to work and live in the city without the hukou, or household registration).
Wang’s pantomime drew the attention of a cultural official from Germany when he performed at The Central Academy of Drama in Beijing. He was invited to perform in Germany, and with the help of his wife choreographed a repertoire of 10 plays for his first overseas show.
When Wang’s family first arrived in Beijing, they had nowhere to live. The night before they were due to leave for Germany, they had no money to book a hotel. Wang and his wife wandered along the city’s cold Changan Street. They walked until they could walk no further, eventually nestling together inside an incomplete underground station.
"I’m a silly guy. Silly people are insistent and stubborn. I just feel art is something that I will pursue through my life. No matter how tough it is, how poor I am. It is something that I will never give up and abandon. When we were in Beijing, we had no money to eat, we lived on 10 yuan. But even at that time, we still played the show with our go-all-out efforts. It’s like something that I’m obliged to do. I was obsessed with art, crazy, I must do it even if I’m damn poor."
Wang’s talent and hard work shone through. The performance was a success. He was invited to attend the 12th International Drama Festival held in Cöln, Germany. And an art festival in France soon followed. The family then went on tour together.
Because of the physical requirements of pantomime, Wang Deshun, at 50 years old, decided to hit the gym, and cut down on watching television and playing cards. Training for two hours was followed by two hours of swimming every single day for 30 years, helped him shape a healthy and strongly-built body.
Wang, always evolving creatively, came up with an original performance art form – “living sculpture” - at the age of 60. Sculpture doesn’t breathe, Wang said, so when playing the living sculpture he tried to breathe with just the strength from his back.
At 65, he learned to ride a horse. In his 70s, he became an actor, and at 78, he learned to ride a motorcycle. At 79, he walked down the catwalk for the first time, and the rest is history.
“Thirty years ago, I used to train models how to walk with the help of my wife. One day (in 2015), one of our students asked about my body’s condition and I said it’s fine. So I was invited to make an appearance in the show,” Wang said, recalling the events that led to overnight fame.“My student asked me to do so, how could I reject?” he quipped.
Wang had unknowingly spent 60 years preparing for that day.
Born in 1936, this 81-year-old grandpa’s spirit is as strong as ever. “I still have dreams and pursuits. I can do now what I could not do in the past, and that is what rebirth should be about.”
Photos courtesy of Wang Xiaotong, Hubert Cecil, Xia Xiaoxi
Kevin Macleod’s song “Militaire Electronic” used in accordance with permission granted: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/