China Musings #15: The Beijing Bikini


Even though this is my second summer in China, I still get SUCH a good laugh out of seeing Chinese men with their shirt rolled up and their bellies exposed. It’s a curious yet common sight on the streets of China, aptly named the “Beijing Bikini.”

They hang around, play cards, drink tea (or beer), or stroll on the sidewalks exposing their little voluptuous paunches. It’s not rippling abs you see, but more more a sight of flabby tummies – often accompanied with their trousers pulled up past their belly button, and their sleeves rolled up.

One of the main reasons behind this custom lies in Chinese thinking. The belly is an important receptacle for “qì” – energy in Chinese medical theory, believing that covering your belly will store it, while exposing it will help get rid of excess amounts. Another reason is more practical, they do it as a means of cooling themselves.

The habit is actually a sort of compromise to the custom of men going totally shirtless, which is often considered embarrassing to do. And although midriff-exposure is something men of all ages do – even the younger ones – the ones with the biggest belies are always the most prominent ones.

While this social behavior isn’t necessarily favored by the government (a state-run paper once expressed that “exposing one's belly is not conducive towards developing urban civility”), it’s tolerated socially because no one will call them out on it. That said, the government did once begin to crack down on the no-shirt habit during the pre-Olympic run up (2007/2008). During that campaign the Beijing Daily ran pictures of men who went around shirtless, often with less than attractive upper bodies, in an effort to shame them into dressing respectfully.

A newspaper, “The Paper” recently wrote on its Weibo account that the “Beijing Bikini” is a problem throughout China and the world at large, admitting that Chinese men are the brunt of ridicule by foreigners without saying anything in defense. This ambivalence is also seen in their conclusion: "There exists an unclear boundary between personal freedoms over clothing and the etiquette of sharing public spaces."

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