Soaking up the Unique Culture in the Chinese Public Baths

The Chinese Public Bath Ladies Ladies' Entrance (Roberta Sotonoff

The Chinese Public Bath Ladies Ladies’ Entrance
(Roberta Sotonoff)

Before I went to China, I saw the Chinese movie, The Shower. In the film, the public baths were a place to forge friendships, unload your troubles and even play cards. Bathing was part of it — but only part. It piqued my interest. I thought maybe a visit to one might give me a little more insight to the people.

A Little Chinese Bath History

A little research revealed that bathing has been an important part of the Chinese culture since the Shang Dynasty (16th century-11th century BC). Before rituals like sacrifices and coronations, formal baths were mandatory.

Hot springs, medical soaks and steam baths became popular with the upper class during the Han (206 BC-AD 220) and Tang (AD 618-907) dynasties. As time passed, they became a social event, the place to meet friends and, since many homes had no heating, the place to feel warm on a cold night. But today, China has an overzealous modernization agenda. There’s indoor plumbing in most apartments. Community baths are disappearing. You have to search pretty hard to find one.

Getting There

In Xian, our guide, Jing delivered: She found what she called a “middle class public bath” for me at the King Care Hotel.

So now I am about to have my Chinese bath experience. In its purple lobby, I exchange my shoes for rubber sandals and go upstairs, where I learn that I am expected to strip all the way down to my wedding ring. So bathers won’t have to witness my body, which is equivalent in size to three Chinese women, I asked Jing to get me a towel.

After getting me the towel, Jing asks, “There are three massage choices: honey, milk and salt. Which would you like?” I vote in favor of something new: Honey.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You want to do something that a busload of tourists wouldn’t do.
  • You have heard that public baths were once a way of life with the Chinese.
  • Because of China’s modernization, public baths are quickly vanishing and you want to experience one before they disappear altogether.
  • You are a spa person and like trying out different types of treatments.

The Treatment

I look around the clean, attractive bathing area. There is a wall of showers, a large soaking pool, a sauna, steam room and several side rooms. Groups of naked, Barbie-sized ladies nonchalantly walk around or sit in the pool and chatter. Being the only Caucasian there, I become the immediate main attraction: the ladies stop chatting and simply gape. During my shower, the skinny ladies gather around me and stare. Even in the steam room, eyes watch me through the window.

Smaller than a TV remote, this is what I thought I was supposed to wear for my massage.  (Roberta Sotonoff)

Smaller than a TV remote, this is what I thought I was supposed to wear for my massage.
(Roberta Sotonoff)

For my treatment, I am led to a noisy, brightly lit room that has about ten adjustable lounge chairs. The “therapists” scream across the room. My masseuse proceeds to spray hot water on the lounge and line it with plastic wrap.

She hands me a package. I assume that is some kind of covering to use during the treatment. Maybe the tiny ladies could wear this thing. Not me. I am starting to really get depressed. I hand it back to her. Turns out, it’s a mitt. She rubs my body with it like she is sanding a piece of lumber. Layers of my skin are falling to the floor. Then she rinses me with a hose.

That done, my masseuse leads me to a chalkboard. Slowly she reads each Chinese character and explains them to me–in Chinese. She is patient and trying very hard to please me. Since my Chinese consists only of “please” and “thank you,” I politely nod.

It is back to the Saran Wrap-covered lounge. She is holding a gallon-sized bottle of very, very slightly diluted honey. Using a combination of reflexology, stretching and pounding, she spreads it all over my body. The noisy chatter continues.

Totally honey-glazed, I am now a fly magnet. If a bear should happen by, I am dead meat. Out comes the hose. I feel like a car in a car wash.

Next, the sauna. I sit there thinking that this is a way of life with many Chinese. They come to do something special for themselves, put the outside world aside, share the ups and downs of their lives with their friends and just relax. It is sad that this tradition is disappearing.

After a few minutes, I notice a shiny patina forming over my body. I leave thinking if I stay much longer, the honey will have to be removed with a chisel. Asian eyes follow the whole process. The ladies put their hands over their mouths and whisper to one another. I shower and shampoo. The honey stays on my body. I shower and shampoo two more times without much progress. So, I smile at them and I leave.

Chinese Bath Men's Entrance (Roberta Sotonoff)

Chinese Bath Men’s Entrance (Roberta Sotonoff)

Meanwhile, my husband, Lou, is a captive in the men’s section. He has no Chinese man to explain that he wants a massage. Because they are mesmerized by his size 13 feet, he gets a foot massage. It lasts forever. He is only freed when a male patron enters the lobby and Jing asks if he could get Lou to come down.We pay for the treatments and leave. Two days and several shampoos and baths later, my finger sticks to my ear when I try to put on an earring. The honey hasn’t washed away.

And the memories never will.

Practicalities

  • This is not the typical spa.
  • No one speaks English. You need someone that speaks Chinese to explain to the therapist what you want.
  • Be prepared to walk around buck naked.
  • The treatment, bath and everything costs around US$13.

Comments

  1. Jere Fuqua says

    I loved reading your experience in the Chinese public bath. Great writing. I found your article when I googled for Jing who was my tour guide with China Spree in Oct 2013. I was looking for her email address to write her a note of thanks.

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  2. says

    This so reminds me of my Japanese massage in 1970. The massage ladies just couldn’t get over the size of my feet (10) and kept coming back for another peek. Nobody spoke a word of English. I loved it all. And it reminds me of early trips to China where I was followed and sometimes surrounded by dozens and dozens of curious folk. I was even followed into the loo once (early 1980s). I am sure they wondered if I had the same equipment. I am really glad to learn that kind of sweet experience still exists.

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