HYGIENE IN CHINA: EAR CLEANING AND THE LAST BATHHOUSE IN BEIJING

HYGIENE IN CHINA

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Communist hygiene poster
The first known bristle toothbrushes were produced in China in 1498. Outdoor dentists can still be seen in Dali in Yunnan and other places. Deodorants are difficult to find in China.Cleanliness is virtue. The streets may be beat up and litter can be found here and there but the insides of homes are spotless. Often times the only way poor families surrounded by filth can express their self worth is through their clean clothes, bodies and homes. Children usually wash themselves before school with rough soap and well water in a pail. Mothers spend a lot of time making sure that their house is tidy and clean. Floors are mopped on daily basis and walls are scrubbed weekly. The condition of a house is a reflection on the family and especially the mother.

Some women wash in their bathrooms; some was wash in the kitchens. Studies by L’Oreal have found that women like to wash using plastic basins filled with water to save water when they moisten or rinse their face. When washing some women rub, some tap, some use the — five point method,” some use a sponge.

In March 2008, Xinhua reported that a Chinese bride burned here new husband to death after he got into bed after a drunken argument without washing his feet. Xinhua reported the couple — frequently fought over trivial things while still on their honeymoon and — in frustration they together drank a bottle of liquor to ease their anger.”

“At Around 11:00pm, Lio watched her husband get into bed without cleaning or washing his feet. In a fit of anger and intoxication, she set fire to the sheet he was sleeping in....When he awoke the two began fighting before a very drunk Wang collapsed. As fire engulfed the bedroom. Luo escaped to the living room, leaving her other half to burn,:

Ear Cleaning in China

Xian and particularly Chengdu are well-known for ear cleaning. Describing an ear cleaning session on the streets of Xian, Michael Finkel wrote in the New York Times: "Fiddling with her own hair, she isolated two individual strands. And then, as I watched, she plucked them both out, rubbed the hairs between her fingers for a few moments, and then inserted one hair into each ear...The hairs were pushed deep into my ears, slowly, until it felt as though they brushed against my eardrums. Whereupon the stylist began swirling them about. The sound within my head was discordantly peculiar, as tormenting as fingernails upon a chalkboard, and yet, at the same time arousing. It lasted perhaps 30 second, during which time I remained in the salon's chair, utterly still and completely confounded. Then, without explanation it was over, and I was handed the bill."

left Hilda Hoy of the BBC wrote: “Ear cleaners are a common sight on the streets of Chengdu, part of a unique local tradition that is believed to date back to the Song dynasty (960-1279). To this day, these men – and less often, women – regularly patrol the city’s popular teahouses, such as the ones in the central People’s Park, and the well-touristed Wide and Narrow Alleys, a maze of reconstructed lanes and Qing dynasty-style buildings. Though they’ll occasionally set up temporary shop for a day with a few chairs, their work continues to be an outdoor, informal affair. [Source: Hilda Hoy, BBC, October 31, 2018]

"To understand why anyone would pay to have their ear canal probed it’s necessary to understand general Chinese attitudes to ear hygiene. While cotton swabs are the norm in the West, in many parts of East Asia, it’s common to use ear scoops – a long, thin tool with one tip flattened into a little spoon – to tease out excess ear wax. My Chinese mother had a bamboo one when I was growing up, though I don’t remember her using it often on us kids. The Chengdu practice, however, takes ear cleaning much further. Tao er, or ‘ear scooping’, as it’s done here, is an elaborate, 20- to 30-minute ritual featuring an array of specialised tools.

"A few afternoons after my arrival in the city, I was sipping a bowl of jasmine tea at the Heming teahouse in People’s Park when I heard the pinging of the ear man again. I beckoned him over, and swallowed my nervousness as Master Shu, as his name tag read, adjusted his headlamp and reached toward my ear with a skinny metal prong. “Will it hurt?” I asked pointlessly. It was already too late to flee. “Won’t hurt at all,” he murmured. The same thing my dentist always says before flicking on his drill of terror. There was some twirling around the contours of the ear to begin with, then Master Shu went in for the kill. His probing around in the private recesses of my skull was surprisingly… tolerable. It felt like an awkward tickle, akin to having a sensitive spot on the sole of one’s foot teased very lightly: squirmy discomfort and weird pleasure combined. I tried my best to hold perfectly still – not an easy feat as Master Shu began to tut-tut his disapproval into my ear. “Very dirty. Too dirty,” he admonished. “You need to do this more often.”

"Once he’d removed as much wax as possible, Master Shu switched to a feather-tipped tool, which went deep into my freshly scooped ear canal and made a few gentle twirls. For his finale, he whipped out that tuning fork-like instrument with a flourish, then touched its vibrating prongs against the feather tool, making it buzz against the nerves of my ear in the strangest way. He repeated the whole routine on the other side of my head, then dashed off to his next customer. Though I didn’t emerge with superhuman hearing, the experience was oddly satisfying – like having an out-of-reach itch scratched. The experience was oddly satisfying – like having an out-of-reach itch scratched."

Sidewalk ankle massages are also available.

Toilets in China

China claims to be the home of the first flush toilet. An ancient latrine was discovered on a Western Han Dynasty (200 B.C. to A.D. 24) tomb. The Chinese invented toilet paper in the 14th century. Despite this, The World Health Organization estimates that tens of millions of Chinese have no access to toilets and defecate in the open. A 2010 report estimated that 45 percent of Chinese lacked access to improved sanitation facilities that protect users from contact with excrement, contributing to the risk of disease. According to a United Nations report, half the world's people don't have access to a toilet or a clean latrine. People often relieve themselves in the bushes or in a field. Only 30 percent of the world uses toilet paper. Alternatives include hands, water, sand, small rocks, mud, leaves, rope and seaweed. [Source: Sharon LaFraniere, New York Times, February 29, 2012]

But China’s sanitation has improved drastically in the past 20 years and continues to get better. Riding a historic property boom, Chinese are now buying nearly 19 million toilets a year, about twice the number sold in the United States, according to industry estimates. Last November, China hosted the World Toilet Organization’s 11th World Toilet Summit and Expo on Hainan Island. The Chinese authorities there said that the island, a tourist spot, was in the midst of a — toilet revolution.”

A typical rural bathroom is a shed-like outhouse in back of the house with cinder blocks walls and a metal door and roof. The toilet more often than not it is a latrine or a hole in the ground surrounded by concrete. People squat instead of sit. If there is a flushing system it is more often than not a ladle and a bucket of water. Most guesthouses and hotels used by foreigners have Western style toilets.

Substandard plumbing and overloaded city sewers are problems in many places. Blockages are common, plumbing work can be shoddy, and pipes often are placed too close to floorboards. A well-known joke in China goes like this: If you need a bathroom, just follow your nose. Places with sewers often have no waste-water treatment facilities and sewage is dumped directly into water supplies from which people draw their water.

Many Asians consider squat-style Asian toilets to be more hygienic than Western toilets because no part of the body touches them. Studies have shown that people who use Asian-style squat toilets are less likely to get hemorrhoids than people who use Western-style toilets. David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: ‘squat toilet habits are hard to break in China, particularly among the older generation. Women's public restrooms commonly include signs asking visitors not to stand on the seats. The telltale sign it's too late? A set of footprints.”

Chinese Bathhouses

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Smoking in the washroom tip
Bathhouses used to be fixtures of Beijing and other Chinese cities. They hark back to a time long past when homes here lacked plumbing and all bathing was communal. They also served as social gathering points where men flocked to sweat, talk politics and relax. [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2011]

Benjamin Haas wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Chinese courtyard houses traditionally didn't have plumbing, so public bathhouses and toilets dotted the city. In 1935, Beijing alone had 123 traditional bathhouses. Families would make special trips during three major traditional Chinese holidays: the Spring and Dragon Boat festivals and Tomb Sweeping Day.

Traditional Chinese bathhouses date back to the 17th century, when specialized bricks were imported from Europe. Almost all were for males only. Bathhouses were a destination for people from all walks of life, who would mingle without being subject to the rigid hierarchies of the outside world. "There wasn't a separation between common people and nobility," said Zhao Shu, a retired member of the National Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Program. "Once you take your clothes off, everyone is the same."

In recent years, one by one, the traditional bathhouses have been replaced by modern spas in upscale hotels that help define today's Beijing. The new ones cost 180 yuan ($27) and up, compared with the eight-yuan entrance fee of the old bathhouses.

Chinese Bathhouse Users and Culture

Zhang Shan, a 67-year-old factory worker, is a typical bathhouse user. Haas wrote he has simplified his daily schedule to the bare essentials: Wake up, eat breakfast, walk to his local bathhouse and undress. Zhang, 67, used to commute more than an hour by bus to fulfill his daily ritual, but two years ago he moved within walking distance. [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2011]

Zhang lives alone in a small room. His bathroom has a toilet and a sink, but no shower. "If I'm at home, I'm not happy, I'm lonely," Zhang explained, sitting with only a white towel around his waist. "But then I come here and talk to friends, read the newspaper or play chess." "I've been to Bali to see what a Western spa is like," said Xiong, who often washes in his own bathhouse. "They don't use natural light, there's no socializing and there are too many creams and soaps. It's so artificial." Beijingers, young and old, spend hours wrapped in white towels playing chess or singing patriotic songs. Socializing clearly takes precedence over scrubbing; less than one-third of the 1,800-square-foot bathhouse is devoted to baths and showers. Upon entering, patrons are greeted by two rows of narrow wooden beds where they can nap, eat or converse. When they do go for a dip, they gather in groups and bob around the bath.

One of Zhang's closest bathhouse friends, Dou Liya, 54, an eccentric poet who recites verses to anyone who will listen, first started visiting Shuangxing on doctor's orders after suffering a stroke. Now he frequents the bathhouse for the companionship, not for his health."If Zhang Shan wasn't here, I would stop coming," Dou said before launching into another poem.

On a recent Sunday, retirees discussed the Western-led airstrikes on Libya and debated whether other countries had their own Tomb Sweeping Day, during which Chinese visit their ancestors' graves.

End of Beijing’s Bathhouses

Shuangxing Bathhouse, built in 1916, is the last known bathhouse in Beijing. Located in the southern outskirts of the city, it seem destined to be torn down by local authorities intent on the redeveloping the area where it stands. [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2011]

Shuangxing Bathhouse is on the first floor of an unassuming hotel. Countless renovations over 95 years have left the entryway with a hodgepodge of architectural styles varying from Greek columns and gilded molding to round Chinese archways and carved calligraphy signs. But the bathhouse itself has seemingly stayed untouched, and owner Xiong Zhizhong is adamant about keeping the interior as close to the original as possible.

In 1999, the interior of the bathhouse served as the location for an acclaimed feature film, "Shower." The plot follows an elderly owner in failing health as his fictional bathhouse faces imminent destruction by the authorities, with an eye to redevelopment. Now that the plot could become reality, Beijingers savor what could be close to their last soak here. Zhang waxed philosophical about the need to protect Shuangxing Bathhouse. "We came from water. Without it, there would be no life," he said.

Since the economic liberalization of the 1980s, more than two-thirds of Beijing's traditional alleyways, or hutongs — where bathhouse culture was most alive — have been destroyed to make way for apartment blocks. Local government "officials only think about what the top officials want them to focus on, and that means new things and Western styles," said He Shuzhong, founder of the nongovernmental Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center. "They believe old buildings and the idea of the new Beijing, as a world city, are incompatible."

In 2006, Xiong applied for protected status for his building with the Ministry of Culture. Five years later, he hasn't heard back. In a last-ditch effort to save the site, Xiong hired experts to measure and photograph every inch of the space. He plans to move the entire building nearby.

Zhao, the retired culture official, used to sit on the committee that grants historical protected status. If his thinking is in line with that of current members, Shuangxing Bathhouse's days could be numbered. "We have to move forward," he said. "Our life in Beijing has already changed so much." But the same crush of development that has swept Chinese people into modern apartment blocks has also meant that bathhouses have become obsolete.

Image Sources: Julie Chao except toilet paper delivery, Perrechon, and poster, Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/ : Toto Japan; Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021


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