The Mandarin word for “naked” is the beautifully mellifluous “lu? t?” (裸体) which slides off the tongue and summons images of arty nudes (NSFW), and liberated naturalists frolicking on beaches. But 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 (NSFW). 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.
The minority groups have nudity down to a fine art, especially down south (as you’d expect – Dong Bei, northeast China, with its chilly climate, is hardly the place for it). Some of the top nudist sites in China belong to ethnic 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 weren’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.
Over in Lin’an County, Hangzhou, a developer named Xu Fake gained approval from the Zhejiang tourist board to open a nudist area in 2004. He shelled out 500,000 RMB to build two pools surrounded by bamboo forests, but he was forced to shelve his plans even before the area opened to the public.
The beaches of Hainan Island ought to be a fertile playing field for naturalists. Although there’s no official nudist area, Dadonghai Beach in Sanya seems to be a popular meeting place.
But what if you’re really desperate to get naked, but don’t live near any of the designated spots? You could always take matters into your own hands, like two maverick laowai in Beijing a couple of years ago. One hot September day in 2007, the pair 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 reclothe and leave.
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. Still, proponents don’t see nudism as damaging to the society. Wang Yan, writing on China.org.cn, says: “Will nudist camps lead to a corruption of public morals? I don’t think so,” which seems like the sensible approach.