Chinese Language Blog

The Beautiful Bones: Bone-Stretching (骨拉伸) Posted by on Jul 12, 2011 in Culture

Bone-stretching or 骨拉伸 (Gǔ lā shēn) has become quite popular in China, with over a million people partaking in the excruciating (and unnecessary) surgery. Why? The never-ending quest for beauty and success, which by the Chinese standards, means you must be taller. Here’s an in-depth National Geographic documentary on bone stretching in China and Asia:

Now after watching this video, you may be asking: why on earth would anyone subject themselves to this immensely costly, dangerous and life-shortening procedure just to gain a few inches? The answer, although simplistic, is that there is a warped sense of beauty in China.

Bone-stretching is a worldwide practice, and did not originate in China. That said, it has taken root in China due in part to the unique changes in Chinese society over the past couple of decades.

Following the Cultural Revolution, poor nutrition, and lack of adequate health care, had caused the Chinese population to follow the average heights of neighboring South Korean and Japanese. Yet, following the Open Door Reform, and as China opened up to Western (改革开放) goods, services and advertisements promoting western lifestyles began inundating the Chinese people.

Commercials, billboards and magazines everywhere portrayed a rich and glamorous western lifestyle where everyone was seemingly happy. China’s burgeoning upper class wanted to emulate that lifestyle. Suddenly, the disparity in physical appearance between China and the rest of the world became a focal point of the Chinese elite. Success is status and status comes from separating and elevating yourself from the 1.4 billion people in the mainland. Because success was measured in ability to adapt and accept western modes of consumerism, the Chinese elites began mimicking the style and appearances of tall foreign models. Yet wearing their clothes and buying their products wasn’t enough and in the quest for gaining status, and in the pursuit of height, bone stretching became popular in China.

For many,  bone-stretching was seen as a leg up into the corporate world, helping to guarantee  a long and successful career. For others, it was a way to find a husband or wife. Regardless, China has accepted a cultural and social stigma against short people within a nation that averages 5 foot 4 1/2” across the board (to put that in perspective, the US average is around 5 foot 7”). That’s like Sweden reproaching blond people.

One would think that such a stigma, especially relating to this invasive, body-augmenting surgery, would be looked down upon in China, due to the horrible history of foot-binding (缠足 chán ). For those unfamiliar, foot-binding was an extremely painful, dangerous and chauvinistic practice carried out up until the early 20th century throughout China. The point of it was to literally break the foot (almost in half) above the pad of the foot, having the girl walk upon curled up toes, to make her feet petite, elegant, and to guarantee that she could not run off with another man or flee the compound. Charming, right? The sad thing about foot-binding is that almost every girl hoping for a better life (and her mother) had to do it, otherwise no suitor would consider her as a wife. Sound familiar?

I mention foot-binding here because, just like in the bone-stretching situation, Chinese citizens feel forced to undergo these “quack” like procedures because of social and cultural pressure. In a nation so large and filled with so many people looking for work, discrimination towards a five foot 2 inch male is ubiquitous. Jobs, university spots and government positions are so cut-throat, that not only do you need to be well qualified, have good 关系 or an in with a public official,but now you have to work on your appearance. For some that unfortunately means risking life and health just to gain a few inches.

Unfortunately, the quest for beauty doesn’t end with these ridiculous procedures doesn’t end with bone drilling. A huge, huge, huge phenomenon in China and parts of East Asia is what I like to call “anti-tanning”. In China, women always carry around parisols, visors and wear forearm gloves to keep themselves from exposure to the sun. They do this to show that they are affluent, as exposure to sun is synonymous with lower statuses. However, as is China’s wont, they took this to huge extremes. The use of bleach skin creams (filled with carcinogens), lazer skin removal and even the age-old Michael Jackson surgery is sought after with great fervor.

Some women I’d see with almost translucent skin, some men checkered with molted spots, hell I even see women in full Geisha white face. The point I’m making is that rather than address the cultural stigmas associated with shortness and darker skin, the Chinese would rather avoid the issue, poisoning their bodies and damaging their health. But why should a country so great and so large succumb to Western modes of beauty? Chinese people are beautiful in their own right, why must they feel so concerned with having a societal makeover? “to thine own self be true”.

This is not to say that similar invasive “beauty” procedures don’t exist throughout the globe, beacause they do! From LA to Rio, Paris to Prague, augmenting your body has become a multi-billion dollar industry. My concern is really with the fervor in which China has bought into the system, especially after seeing the ridiculous lengths that Americans go through just to look “pretty”. Anything that is an instant fix will assuredly yield long-term complications.



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About the Author: Stephen

Writer and blogger for all things China related. Follow me on twitter: @seeitbelieveit -- My Background: Fluent Mandarin speaker with 3+ years working, living, studying and teaching throughout the mainland. Student of Kung Fu and avid photographer and documentarian.


  1. paule banwell:

    Good posting……

  2. Peter Simon:

    A very good discussion of what most people think is going on in China in this respect, though I haven’t detected anything similar with my friends there.
    One thing to point out is that ‘foot-binding’ didn’t depend on the choice of the girls involved in attracting suitors – it was practiced from the early years of the baby girl by the parents so the girl didn’t have the faintest chance to choose; she possibly never really understood what was going on with her right into her adulthood. It was a family-promoting effort to save what was left to be saved in a society concentrating on raising sons for centuries.

  3. Larry York:

    1 million is less than .1% of the Chinese population. Obviously it could only be afforded by elites. Similar to Peter’s suggestion, I suspect this is often paid for by a rich family for their aspiring children. It is totally ridiculous, of course.

    Now, the whitening of the skin thing is totally true. I’m in grad school in the USA, and spent 6 months in Guangzhou. Even at my school here you see the Chinese girls walking with umbrellas under the sun. As I’ve gotten to know the Chinese culture I was surprised whites called them yellow. In fact they often have whiter skin than Europeans, in my opinion, at least. Of course, whites came into contact, from what I understand, primarily with Cantonese people, who from what I saw do tend to be darker than Chinese from farther north.

  4. Ty:

    i guess every culture has its vanity. America has fake boobs, Europe has anorexia, China has long legs.

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