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Publication Date : 09-01-2013
Thermal underwear has long been part of Chinese society and medicine, but more style-conscious youth are shedding this layer and freezing for fashion
Peking University graduate Wu Qi's friends told him to bring several pair of qiuku, or thermal underwear, when he was preparing to study in Stockholm in 2009.
That's because many Chinese erroneously believe foreigners don't wear thermals in their homelands. That said, a growing number of youth are shedding qiuku - a longstanding cultural institution - preferring to look cool rather than stay warm.
One reason thermals are so culturally entrenched in China's colder climates is that traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) claims they offer health benefits.
TCM contends cold causes illness - a belief shared by Western medicine. But TCM specifically recommends keeping the lower limbs warm, which is important to combat such ailments as arthritis.
But that belief is changing - or, at least, the recommendation is increasingly ignored - even as China faces the coldest winter in 28 years.
Beijing resident Song Meifeng says she wouldn't even know where to buy a pair - even though they're found in virtually every department store.
That's not to say the 30-year-old has never worn qiuku. Rather, she purged them from her wardrobe when she moved to Beijing to study in 2002.
Song comes from North China's frigid Inner Mongolia autonomous region, where temperatures have this year plummeted to around -40 C.
The region's cold snap has affected 770,000 people. Its icy weather has killed two people and 180,000 heads of livestock. About 260,000 people have required emergency aid, and more than 3,700 have been evacuated, Xinhua News Agency reports.
Most Inner Mongolia residents agree long underwear are necessary, no matter how unsightly it might be.
"I had to wear layers upon layers when I was a kid," Song says.
"You can imagine how ugly it was."
Song doesn't even wear trousers or jeans in Beijing's winter, even though temperatures in the region this season have plummeted to a 42-year-low average of -7.4 C.
Instead, Song wears skirts with leggings. She doesn't see a need to wear qiuku in the city, she says. The international media outlet executive lives near a subway stop, and her well-heated office is in Beijing's central business district.
Song says she can endure a few minutes outside, clad in two layers of leggings, tall boots, sweaters and a long down coat.
She wears this same set when she returns to her frosty hometown, she says.
"Every place I go there has good heating," she says.
"Leggings have similar warming abilities. So, why would I wear qiuku?"
American John Stewart says he doesn't wear thermals in his hometown in the state of Minnesota, even though it's colder than Beijing. But the 31-year-old occasionally dons them in the Chinese capital.
However, he only wears them when skiing or if he knows he'll be outside for a long time. "If I wear qiuku, I'll certainly feel too hot," Stewart says.
He guesses most foreigners in China don't wear them for the same reason.
But American Mike Fuksman, who hails from nearby Michigan, says most of his compatriots back home and foreign friends in Beijing wear thermals.
"I wasn't aware of the Chinese fondness for long johns before I came here, but, to be honest, it's not something that really entered my mind," he says.
"In my hometown, most people wear long johns. They're probably made in China, actually. They're warm and comfortable, and just great. I just wish they had pockets."
The 27-year-old says he's aware many young Chinese don't wear thermals because they're perceived as less-than-stylish.
But Fuksman takes an entirely different tact - he likes them as outerwear at home, and sometimes when he's out and about, too.
"I like wearing my long johns in public, mostly because I'm lazy, but also because they're comfortable, and I'm not particularly concerned with how strangers perceive me," he says.
"If I'm going to work or a nice dinner, naturally, I will wear normal pants. But if I'm just running to the xiaomaibu [convenience store] or hanging with close friends, long johns are just fine."
But the health implications have never crossed Fuksman's mind, he says.
Westerners generally don't believe in the TCM edict of shouliang - that is, that chilliness not only harms health in general but also places the specific body parts exposed at special risk.
Most Westerners also own cars and enjoy efficient indoor heating in their home countries, he says. So, they don't need to spend much time enduring brisk temperatures.
China is also moving in this direction as the economy develops, although this trend's unevenness matches geographic imbalances.
Nanfang People Weekly journalist Wu Qi says he's less likely to wear thermals in Beijing than when visiting his hometown of Loudi city, Hunan province.
"Back home, I put on as many clothes as I can," he says.
The Central China locale is south of the Yangtze River, which central government policy designates as the dividing line for mandatory central heating. So, Loudi's winters are chilly and clammy - even indoors.
"The cold in my hometown seeps into your bones," he says. "It's unbearable."
The 26-year-old always wore thermals and padded trousers as a child, he recalls.
"But young people today don't think it's stylish," Wu says.
He believes that's because of improved living conditions and the fashion industry.
Wu wears qiuku - literally, "autumn trousers" - in the coldest month of Beijing's winter but no longer dons qiuyi - thermal shirts. He wears long-sleeved, non-thermal shirts to save face, he says.
"It's embarrassing when others see your long underwear when you take off your sweater or jacket in warm buildings," he says.
This outlook, however, isn't widely held by the older generation, which largely scoffs at youth's vanity. This is largely because of a solid belief in TCM doctrine.
But China-Japan Friendship Hospital Western and Chinese medicine doctor Jia Haizhong says traditional beliefs about qiuku are exaggerated to the point they're old wives' tales.
"The idea qiuku are crucial to health is nonsense," says the doctor in his 50s.
"Keeping the body temperature from dropping is a basic rule of Western and Chinese medicine. You need to stay warm.
"But there's no advantage to doing so with qiuku compared to other means."