Being Bodies in China

We tend to forget it, and only get reminded when we feel sore or when something’s wrong, but of course we are bodily beings. Even with all the complications that have come to surround gender, let alone sexual orientation, it would appear to be a basic fact of life that we are also (predominantly) either male or female.

As far as facts of life go, that should be obvious. What we make of such biological facts, however, can be very different, and have great influence in intercultural interaction.

Just take the usual encounter between Chinese and others.Right alongside surprised “老外”-s (“foreigner”), accompanying the “Hello”-s (or should I write, “哈啰”?), one is also met with statements about good looks, big noses, fair skin, fatty paunches, tallness… Just like the attribution of strong and strongly different roles to men and women, and their different importance from that in “the West,” it’s usually attributed simply to culture. Behind it, however, seems to be a different understanding, also, of our bodily being, the fact that we are biological creatures.

Not that the usual nonchalance didn’t also appear. People (usually men) still smoke and drink and may or may not move enough, and (usually women) are still concerned about being too fat – and ever more so.

Even here, however, the background is rather different: the idea that a man should ideally be a man – strong, protective, caring (remember I’m talking about the ideal here…), is not just to be found as a role, but also as a body type – lean, muscular, with broad shoulders.

"Room Service" of a Different Sort

“Room Service” of a Different Sort

For the women – as usual – it’s easily even worse. Part of a woman’s role and value is inscribed in her good looks, along with proper demeanor and other signs of “quality.” Oftentimes, the body seems to be the beginning and the end. If it’s not ideal, other things can’t quite compensate. The resulting interest in cosmetics or even cosmetic surgery, near-obsession with body fat, and – a more peculiar East Asian thing – double eyelids does not seem all that unfamiliar, but the way it is very openly expressed and understood to be important is different.

 

It is different, or so I would like to argue, because your body is seen as you in a way that is much stronger than in “the West,” where this would be seen as a superficiality that one should try hard to look beyond – and if you can’t look behind the surface, at least don’t talk about it.

China doesn’t just talk about it, a lot is made of it – or not, but it may still not be hidden as much as in other parts.

Three cases:

  • Being checked out by another man is not the only strange encounter a foreigner may experience. And I’m not just talking about the strange situations women can find themselves in, as Jocelyn and Ellis pointed out in the comments.
    At least in somewhat more “traditional” Chinese surroundings, there tends to be little to no separation between bathroom stalls – at least part of you can commonly be seen by the others who are also “doing their business.” Why not, it’s all just natural…
    Same with the comments mentioned above, about tallness, fat, looks, noses.
  • That there will be a difference between men and women also follows to be just natural. It’s not “simply” gender roles that are somehow cultural and conservative (and rather patriarchal). Rather, bodies are different, so men and women are seen and expected to be different – “of course.”A side effect is the 例假 (lijia – “holiday,” except everybody knows it’s a euphemism for the period) recently mentioned by Jocelyn, during which a woman is meant to be treated extra-carefully by her partner. Not in the way you may think, because “she’s got her days” and can be made fun of for potential emotional instability – while she’s expected to just perform as on any other day – but because she has her days, might have cramps, and should be taken good care of. As some of the commenters on Jocelyn’s post mentioned, it goes to the point that a Chinese partner is supposed to know – and may even ask outright – when his better half has her days.It is also a reason why men will carry their partner’s purse, bags, etc.: They are the stronger ones, so – what else?
  • Less positively, this acceptance of what is natural/bodily is oftentimes coupled with attitudes and valuations where different color of skin, different looks, let alone disabilities, take on great importance, and nothing much is made of such attitudes because they also appear to be just natural, the same as the body and its functions are.

One notable case to the opposite needs mentioning: sex. This issue seems to be the one where social conventions dictate quiet. With your partner, it may be okay to discuss whatever you want, including on matters of 房事 (fangshi; taking its components apart, a “house matter”… but actually meaning “sexual intercourse (between a married couple)”). In public, let alone towards the kids, it is still – as in so many places, including the “lewd West” – hotly contested terrain… but that’s for another time.

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