Chinese 'Cinderella' dares to live differently

Wearing a plain dress padded with a bustle and framed with a corset, Wang Xueqing sits by a blazing fireplace knitting a sweater with a poodle curled up beside her. 

Wearing a plain dress padded with a bustle and framed with a corset, Wang Xueqing sits by a blazing fireplace knitting a sweater with a poodle curled up beside her. 

It has been two years and four months since the 36-year-old retreated to the remote village of Xindong in southeast China’s coastal province of Fujian to lead a life imitating European oil paintings.

An hour north of the city of Quanzhou, a winding road leads to her cottage in the woods. The blue walls are covered with ivy and the little garden is filled with flowers. Wang has decorated her two-story home with ceramic pumpkins, rabbits, goblins and photos of herself dressed like the women depicted in 19th century European pastoral paintings.

Above the door of the cottage is a sign reading “Cinderella” in English.

Growing up in the Fujian fishing town of Hui’an, Wang never attended a day of school. She only began to study Chinese characters at the age of 19, while working at a factory in the south China metropolis of Shenzhen, the country’s manufacturing center.

As the eldest daughter, she was sent to work at age 6 to help support her family. She spent hours shucking oysters, or threading shells on strings to be placed in the sea for oysters to grow on.

“Reading opened the door to an entirely new world for me. For the first time, I realized life could be so beautiful. I devoured every book I could get my hands on, from traditional Chinese literature to Jane Austin novels,” she said.

Later, she became enamored with the paintings of Jean-Francois Millet and Johannes Vermeer, and tried to recreate the costumes portrayed in their works.

“I was so fascinated by the tranquil life in rural Europe,” said Wang, her eyes alight with excitement. “I wanted to live the reclusive life portrayed by Austin and Millet.”

She said her yearning for a simpler life grew during her years of tedious work on the assembly line. However, Wang did not make the move until she turned 34, when she was hurt by an unrequited love. Heart-broken, she decided to retreat into the woods for “healing.”

She found a deserted and dilapidated 100-year-old cottage, buried in a thick growth of weeds. She decided to stay there and renovate it.

Huang Liangshui, the village Party chief, was astonished when Wang arrived in Xindong alone, asking to rent the deserted cottage. With only 10,000 yuan (US$1,500) on her, Wang started renovating it herself, from carrying building materials to woodworking.

Bit by bit, she repaired the leaking roof, built a sheep pen, and reclaimed a vegetable plot from the wasteland.

She also made costumes and took pictures of herself dressed like the women in world-famous paintings such as “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” “The Milkmaid” and “The Gleaners.”

Wang could often be seen posing in front of a camera, while carrying straw in her arms or standing beside a herd of cattle, which took her neighbors by surprise. She lived in seclusion until a former colleague visited her and shared some photos on the Internet, making her an online sensation overnight.

Curious visitors started to pour in from all over the country. Some stayed at the cottage, admiring it as a haven from the weariness of urban life.

However, Wang’s lifestyle perplexed the villagers. Many would wonder “why so many full-bellied have nothing better to do than visit a mentally-disoriented person.”

“I soon realized I could make a living with my unorthodox lifestyle instead of washing dishes in restaurants,” she said. “But I had to improve my service. So I cleaned up the house daily and made costumes in various designs.”

Brisk and eloquent, Wang has the charisma to attract and inspire followers. She now charges visitors 288 yuan for photos wearing her costumes, and 200 yuan to spend the night in her cottage. The cash helps in supporting her cherished lifestyle.

It has also led to some people accusing her of creating “commercial hype” — her reclusive life proving to be “good business.”

“I earn a living with hard work and skill. It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she said.

Wang is now teaching herself English from smartphone apps. “I want to travel the world some day, especially to the Louvre and view the great paintings.”

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