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"Beijing Bikini" Successfully Satirizes a Chinese Custom

As welcomed guests, expats in China should know better than to blatantly criticize their hosts if for no other reason than not to hurt the feelings of those involved. And yet, sometimes the most astute analysis on China comes from abroad – one in which no one gets offended. That's the "Beijing bikini."

For the uninitiated, men all around China take part in the custom of walking around in public in the summertime with their bellies exposed. Instead of taking off their shirts, men will roll up their shirts halfway up their torsos in order to expose their midriffs. And although men of all ages do it, the ones with the biggest bellies are always the most prominent.

The various reasons behind this custom lies in Chinese thinking. The belly is an important receptacle for "qi," energy in Chinese medical theory, meaning that exposing it will help in getting rid of excess amounts (as will covering it up help in storing it). Secondly, rolling up the shirt instead of taking it off allows one to maintain their modesty, leading to "compromises" like this. And lastly, even though this is done publicly, this kind of behavior is tolerated because no one will call them out on it.

That is, until expats got involved.

Two years ago, Instagram group IgersBeijing ( held a photo contest that focused upon this seasonal custom. At first referred to as #igersbeijingbelly, the practice soon became known as the "Beijing bikini" such as when the Beijinger covered the story. This switch proved to be the key element as this satirical look at a part of China it would rather ignore continues to endure.

With new submissions continually added to #beijingbikini, this news has finally hopped over the Great Firewall and reached Chinese media. However, even though they are reluctant to accept any foreign criticism, this time Chinese media have pretty much given up on mounting a defense against the criticism, leaving their midriff-baring countrymen to fend for themselves.

The Paper said 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."

As republished in the China Daily, the strongest stand The Paper would take on the issue would be to quote unnamed scholars as saying "exposing one's belly is not conducive towards developing urban civility."

Meanwhile, other Chinese media could only sarcastically suggest that the Beijing bikini was invented in China, and that "laowai" were "clamoring" for this "original Chinese characteristic":

    It's not a coincidence that this creative deconstruction has been seen on fashion runways.

Why is the "Beijing bikini" such an effective piece of satire? We can think of three reasons:

1. It gave a name to something that didn't have a name. Long before it became the "Beijing bikini," men exposing their bellies during the summer was just something Chinese society tolerated that wasn't necessarily acceptable. Instead of ignoring it, this social faux pas may finally be addressed and dealt due to this media attention. And even though alliteration is the most likely culprit, attributing this custom to China's capital only elevated this focus.

2. It's so subversive. Chinese readers are largely confused by the term "Beijing bikini" since a "bikini" is largely thought of as a swimsuit worn by a woman. And yet, the satire only becomes more pointed when this sexy association is applied to a not-very-sexy man who happens to also be revealing too much.

3. No harm, no foul. Good jokes are funny, but the best jokes are the ones in which everyone laughs. By being an inoffensive jibe, this critique of Chinese society has been more easily accepted by the public.

And, in the spirit of inclusiveness, the Beijing bikini continues to grow:

Images: New York Times, Weibo

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