Since I am going to work in China for a year I naturally decided that I should look into the state of nudism in that country. In general things don’t look good. Public nudity is widely frowned upon as contrary to Confucian values, which emphasise a sense of propriety and shame.
Fang Gang, whose recent book on naturism is the first in the country to tackle the phenomenon, argues that existing Chinese laws do not make this kind of public nudity illegal. The most frequently cited law says that anyone who molests others or intentionally exposes oneself in a public place and causes bad consequences will be subject to detention of more than five days but less than 10 days. The law which targets exhibitionists could be used against nudists, even though they do not intend to cause distress, but Fang says that to his knowledge, no one in China has ever been punished for naturist activities. “The most the police would do is to banish a naturist from a public premise.” One hot September day in 2007, a pair of laowai decided to make use of the balmy weather and strip off in the Garden of Health and Harmony in the Summer Palace. Far from harmonious, their antics were cut short by the Public Security Bureau, who promptly asked them to dress and leave.
In essence the laws in China are not that different from those in the UK. Here it is against the law to be naked with the intent of causing distress, or if performing a lewd or sexual act. If people object to your nudity, you are asked to dress and leave. Yet the general attitude towards naturists in China is less accepting.
It only becomes a problem when the police or media get alerted, says Fang. The cops may come and drive away the naturists if it is a regular hangout; or the media may report on it, eliciting derision and outcries from the public. “But after the police and the media are gone, the naturists will come back. Local authorities turn a blind eye,” he says. “The nude beach in Sanya was shut down in 2008 when it made headlines, but there’s a lot of clothing-free activities there now.”(2012)
As in the West, the biggest misconception about naturism is sex. The public predominantly sees naturism as a precursor to sex, which of course, it is not. The behaviour of naturists in China is usually considerate and respectful. No sexual activities are allowed in public, not even between couples. Some groups even prohibit dancing or alcohol drinking for fear that they may lead to fondling.
There are very few naturist resorts in China and only one nudist beach. A small number of naturist resorts have sprung up in the past ten years, including spots in Sichuan, Hainan and in the North East. The nudist resorts generally have separate areas for male and female visitors, in order to avoid offending the Confucian sense of propriety, however even that is not enough to prevent there being objections.
A resort complex of two separate swimming pools for male and female naturists, was due to open in Lin’an county in July 2009. Its developer had won initial approval from liberal-minded tourism officials and spent 500,000 yuan (£44,000) to turn two large natural pools into a haven for naturists, shielded by thick bamboo groves and patrolled by security guards. However, when news of the resort reached senior Communist Party cadres, a ban was swiftly issued. “I got a call the day before we were due to open, saying the municipal government officials regarded the pools as improper and demanding that I shut them,” said Mr Xu. “Several hundred tourists had already signed up to come to our opening, and they were very unhappy,” he added.
The Qilu Evening News, a newspaper in Shandong province, condemned the project in an editorial. “A naked pool is totally unacceptable in Chinese tradition and social customs. China need not to be in line with international practice in this regard,” it said. Nudist camps have yet to win social acceptance and public understanding, but this should not be a reason for us to see the activity as an immoral thing.
Yet in June of the same year Chinese authorities lifted a six-year ban on nude bathing in southwest China’s Yuping Mountain resort. The nude-bathing area was closed six years ago on the grounds that it allegedly did not comply with “the cultural and ideological progress.” The region has a long-running tradition of nude bathing. According to a popular legend, a beautiful young woman named Lu Wan was abducted by robbers and jumped off the Mozigou’s Feishui Waterfall to defend her virginity.
Since then, people have been bathing nude in the area to pay their respect to the woman, whose body was never found. “Because of this beautiful tradition, we don’t feel many objections from locals to reopen this nude bathing place,” said Li Jun, the head of the Yuping Mountain Scenic Area. The 1-km-long nude bathing area is naturally divided by hills, thus creating a male and female area.
Similarly, the nude bathing camp in Hongya Forest of southwest China’s Sichuan Province reopened in 2009, six years after closing. This time, the organizer removed the word “nude” in its name for a more low-profile one.
China’s one and only nudist beach lies on Da Dong Hai (Great East Sea) beach, just only three kilometers from the popular resort of Sanya, or Hainan island, where it has become increasingly common to see groups of people chatting, bathing and playing cards in the nude at the far end of the beach. Even this one beach is not an official beach and has been closed to the public at times due to adverse publicity regarding naked beach users.
Although the fact that China’s rulers are able to tolerate some level of public social nudity is cause for optimism, there may be trouble ahead. The authorities are concerned that there is no signpost to inform tourists that the area is for nudists, and there have been reports of embarrassing encounters between clothed and nude beach goers. Although the beach isn’t yet under threat of closure, people are keeping their fingers crossed that the new leadership doesn’t decide on a heavy handed solution to this situation.
Nudist camps are common in foreign countries, but to the Chinese, steeped in the long history of Confucianism (highlighting propriety, righteousness, honesty and a sense of shame), it is natural for some people to feel concern. They assume that nudity is pornographic and are concerned that nudist camps lead to a corruption of public morals.
being a nudist in China is far from easy, and going naked in public has a chequered history. While outdoor nudity isn’t against Chinese law, it is frowned upon under Confucianism, as it goes against Kongzi’s ideals of propriety and shame. On the flip side, there are plenty of people who believe that there’s no shame in baring the human body in all its undressed splendour. For those who yearn to doff their garb and commune with nature, the good news is that they can do it in China, albeit in limited places.
Whilst there is very little nudism amongst the dominant Han Chinese, there is more tradition of nudist activity amongst China’s minority groups, especially down south. Some of the top nudist sites in China belong to ethnic minority groups, such as the Hmong people in Yunnan close to the Laos border. On the 13th day of the seventh lunar month each year, the Hmong celebrate the harvest with a festival called Chixin (literally, “eat the new”). After feeding their livestock, they take off their clothes and indulge in a spot of communal bathing.
In western Yunnan, the De’ang tribe bathe in the Imperial Hot Springs whose waters are rich with coal and salt extracts. We’re not entirely sure how they’d feel about foreigners stripping down and hopping in alongside them, but if you ask nicely, the chances are they’d clear a space.
The Mosuo minority believe in the disease curing properties of their local water, so they frequently bathe naked. During the Cultural Revolution, the government built walls across their pools to segregate men and women, but the Mosuo tore them down soon after. The pools were opened to tourists in the 1990s.
A little further north in Sichuan Province, nudism seems to be all the rage. Chongqing Girls Nude Bathing Area sounds more like the title of a dodgy DVD, but it’s actually an area set aside for women in the Ba’nan District’s tranquil East Spring Village. The pool has been in use since the Ming Dynasty, and its water is said to cure blindness. If you fancy a dip, you’ll be pleased to know that it’s open to tourists. Female ones.
Sichuan is also the site of a controversial nudist colony. The Heaven Bodies Nude Bathing Centre was opened in 2002 by a lady called Shen Shuzhen, who was the president of Yuping Mountain Resorts in the Wawu National Forest. She picked a secluded spot between two waterfalls and opened it to the public for naked bathing. It proved to be very popular, but the government wasn’t so enthusiastic. The resort was closed down in 2003. Luckily, that wasn’t the end of the road for the centre. People’s Daily ran an online poll in June 2009 which proved that 71% of netizens wanted the centre to open again. Twenty one percent voted against re-opening, believing nudism to be immoral, but the naturalists won the day, and Heaven Bodies Centre lives on.
In the rest of China, a country of over 1.3 Billion people, it is necessary for nudists to head to very remote areas if they want to strip off, in order to avoid encountering anyone who might be offended. Wherever you go, you are likely to run into someone who is not ready to accept social nudity, or worse, who is prone to interpret such acts as criminal.
In online forums, there are many groups with a proclaimed interest in naturism. But most of them only talk about it. Nothing will come out of it. A few would organize meetings, not the clothing optional type, but fully dressed, for more talks about the possibility of arranging something. Out of those, a very small fraction may truly arrange a naturist getaway.
Due to the usual separation of genders at naturist venues, the appearance of a pretty young woman in an area frequented by men would invariably attract a lot of attention. A 24-year-old Beijing woman named Xiu-xiu went to a group spa, her first nudist event, and disrobed while eating. Some men noticed this and joked that she was “burning with sexual desire”. The Confucian ideas of shame are so ingrained that even amongst naturists, it seems that the Chinese may attribute shameful, sexual intent to mixed nudity. “Nothing is pure,” she says afterwards. “It is human nature. But why can men walk around bare-chested and women cannot?”
It’s hard to say if nudity will ever be widely practised in China, or whether the fear of moral opprobrium will prevent it becoming more acceptable. Despite the huge numbers of sex shops in most cities, the government still looks harshly upon anything that might influence negatively the purity of the People’s Republic. There is news of crackdowns on pornographic websites almost weekly and China’s history of policing racy content stretches back several hundred years.
Chinese society, unlike the ancient Greeks, does not celebrate the human body. While some can accept the aesthetic beauty of the supermodel type in artistically tasteful arrangements, most tend to treat a regular nude as an ugly sight, something to be covered up. There is essentially no tradition in China of enjoying the nude for what it is – other than as a sexual object. “Most people believe nudism has to be associated with sex,” says Fang Gang. “Deep down, we still adopt an attitude of mystery and sexual objectification toward nudism. And beyond that, we tend to paint sex in a negative light.” Chinese culture has always been conservative toward nudity with the possible exception of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) with its sexually suggestive fashion and dance moves.
There are occasions where public nudity is accepted, such as in public bathhouse where people of the same gender shower or bathe together without any awkwardness. But with widespread indoor plumbing and private bathrooms, this, too, is dying out. Meanwhile, many Chinese naturists admit they are made to “feel like thieves”, either in private homes or stripping just long enough in nature to take a photo or two. Whilst their laws are no stricter than our own, the prevailing attitude of the Chinese means that China is definitely not currently a good nudist holiday destination.
However, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. During an investment fair on June 14, 2013, officials from Hebei’s Luan County (near Tangshan) announced that the planned Luanhe Scenic Area will not only feature a golf course and horse riding grounds among other facilities; but it will also feature a nudist area. The scenic area is set cover a space of around 8,000 mu, (1 mu = 614 square metres) and will cost around 500 million RMB. The nudist area itself will feature an artificial beach and hot springs, and is aiming to become a space especially for those who wish to experience true nature. Things are looking up.