Everyone has their own way of coping with the heat. For most, it involves fleeing to the comfort of air conditioning and electric fans indoors. But what happens when you’re stuck outside in the stifling heat? Most parts of China are in the upper 90s during the July and August months, with debilitating humidity that makes the United States deep south feel tolerable. Down on the street, the pavement feels like hot coals and the heat absorbed by building and concrete makes you feel like a steamed bun (包子). Fortunately, the Chinese have discovered a way to keep cool in this kind of heat in an interesting fashion display I haven’t seen anywhere else.
It’s called bǎngyé (膀爷) “exposing grandfathers” (despite the wide range of ages that do it) and it’s how men stay cool in China. How does it work? Well, when the temperature gets too hot, men simply roll up the bottom of their shirts to expose their mid-drift and stomach. As they perspire, they use their bottom flap of their shirt to fan cooler air over the exposed stomachs. It’s especially effective after eating a meal, as most of the blood in your body rushes to your stomach while digesting. As a result Chinese men–of all ages– swear by this fashion faux pas way of staying cool, as I’ve watched as everyone from Beijing businessmen to Shaolin monks put their tummies on display.
For westerners visiting China, it’s somewhat confusing seeing a slew of businessmen in full suits with plump bellies protruding out. But that’s just how the Chinese roll…up their shirts. Western notions of propriety and manners are thrown out the window here. Comfort trumps etiquette when the heat becomes just too much. While not everyone loves seeing the exposed grandpas, it’s hard to get them to stop showing off their stomachs when partial public exposure is common in the mainland. That’s not to say that the government hasn’t tried to censor these grandpa midriffs.
In fact, over the past couple of years, Beijing, Shanghai and other big Chinese cities have been trying to stop Chinese men from exposing their stomachs, with very little success. Numerous campaigns have been waged to liken bang ye behavior to lower-status, but it’s hard to convey when all walks of life do it. Many have even come to the defense of bang ye men, claiming it as a cultural peculiarity that harms no one and only seems to offend fashionistas and foreigners. My philosophy is: if it works, stick with it. Why try and imposed foreign standards of propriety on a culture without Judeo-Christian notions of shame?
In the US we say “sun’s out, guns out,” which is a slang term for taking off your shirt when the heat is too much. In China, they take a more tempered approach, and keep the shirt on–well at least from the chest down. Any of you that still thinks it’s uncouth, next time you are melting on a Beijing street, pull up your shirt and let your stomach breath. You might just find that it works, regardless of how silly it makes you look.