Blog image

Natural Intentions: Health and Beauty in Beijing

June 2014

By Laura Fitch, Beijing

Chinese concepts of health differ from those in the West, particularly when it comes to the North American, “no pain, no gain” variety.  Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) takes a holistic view of the body, and TCM doctors often treat ailments, such as stomachaches, as a symptom of a larger problem, rather than prescribing medicine to get rid of the stomachache itself. The wider focus also places a large emphasis on regular exercise.

But the types of exercise most Chinese people favor are those that are perceived to work with the body, like the long, slow movements of Tai Chi or yoga, rather than seemingly against it, like the high-energy, high-impact sport of running. The movements of Tai Chi are fairly common knowledge, and people don’t join studios to learn them. But yoga studios are booming, with chain studios such as Fine Yoga and Yogi Yoga, alongside the independent studios who offer a range of styles, such as hot yoga at Om Yoga 42, and hatha vinyasa at Yoga Yard. There has been a rise in the number of gyms throughout the city, including chains such as Powerhouse Gym, Bally Total Fitness, and Nirvana Fitness & Spa. The exercise classes they offer, such as belly dancing, yoga, or Zumba, remain more popular draws than the running machines (which are often used for walking) and elliptical machines.

Traditional ideas of balance also extend into local diets, though there are recent shifts in the Chinese diet. In the not-so-distant past, meat was a rarity in China, but now belt buckles are loosening as fatter wallets allow people eat as much meat as they like. Meat is traditionally shredded, chopped, or sliced into small bits in Chinese meals and mixed with vegetables. There is little bread, and several dishes are shared between several people. But, as international fast food chains, like McDonald’s and KFC, continue to rise in popularity, meat and bread are the main events and customers are encouraged to eat individual meals. Crowds also line up at domestic fast food chains, like the ubiquitous Yonghe Dawang for Chinese meals, and will splurge on beef, chicken and vegetables on top of bowls of rice at Japanese Yoshinoya. The convenience store chain 7-Eleven is also a popular place to grab fast food, and serves hot lunches of fried vegetables, meats and fish on rice.

Overall, people are less concerned with body shape than they are with the quality of the food on their plates. Scandals, such as the Sanlu powdered milk fiasco, where children developed health complications due to contamination in 2008, have sparked a strong interest in organic vegetables and goods. There has also been increased engagement with food safety products, such as vegetable washing powders, which are available in supermarket chains, such as Jinkelong and Wu-Mart, and online shopping sites like Taobao.

There is a startling disconnect between traditional ideas of health and modern beauty ideals, however. Baifumei, or beautiful woman, literally translates as “white, rich and beautiful.” In China, feminine beauty is still strongly linked to pale white skin, reminiscent of a woman who hasn’t browned her skin by working in the fields. Major international brands, such as L’Oreal, Ponds, Oil of Olay, Shiseido and Lancome all peddle an astonishing range of “whitening” cosmetic products, including face and body lotions, masks, cleansers, gels and powders.

Beauty & Cosmetics
Food & Drink
Yoga studios boom in Beijing, where gentler exercise is popular with millennials
Traditional Chinese dishes feature chipped meat and carbs
Being Baifumei, or a beautiful woman, with whitened skin is top-priority among Beijing local women

Subscribe Form