Beijing Paper Wages War On Bellies

A bare-chested Chinese man plays table tennis during a hot summer day in Beijing. Men across China's capital are losing their shirts, and one newspaper has had enough. The Beijing Youth Daily, irritated with an old "uncivilized habit" of men shedding their tops in summertime, hopes embarrassment will help solve the problem of what many call "bare-chested masters."
Every summer, day and night, it's the same story: young men, old men, skinny men, fat men, all walking the streets of the Chinese capital with bellies bared for the masses to see. In Beijing, they're known by their nickname — "bare-chested masters."

Some roll undershirts up to their nipples to air out the gut. Others shed tops entirely, exposing various levels of girth to helpless passers-by. Now, after years of watching men across Beijing lose their shirts when the sweaty weather comes, one local newspaper has had enough.

The Beijing Youth Daily, vexed at what it calls a "little bad habit" unworthy of a modern Olympic metropolis, has put its eyes where its city's stomachs are, running random photos of Beijing's topless men to shame them into putting their shirts back on.

"It's been percolating with us for a while. Then summer came again, and men started taking off their shirts. So we thought we'd do something," the newspaper's editor-in-chief, Yang Tao, said in an interview Tuesday.

For three weeks, a standing feature on the back page of the newspaper's front section — dubbed, in inimitable Chinese style, "Grandpa Shoulder" — has captured attention with pictures of publicly shirtless men engaged in various activities.

There's "Grandpa Shoulder Rests His Feet," a shot of a shirtless man kicking back, and the self-explanatory "Grandpa Shoulder Does Morning Exercises." "Grandpa Shoulder Steers a Cart" is a rear view of a bicycle-cart driver whose pants, fortunately, aren't sagging. Most unsettling is a sweaty man emptying a wok at a streetside food stall. "Grandpa Shoulder Stir-Fries," it enthuses.

"We kindly remind Grandpa Shoulder: Before you go out, put that shirt on!" the newspaper urged one particularly jelly-torsoed specimen.

Nearly 30 photos have been published so far. The first came from China's official Xinhua News Agency, Yang said; the second was taken by a Beijing Youth Daily photographer.

Since then, readers have been deluging the paper with photos - more than 500 mailed in, dropped off in person or e-mailed. "We certainly have a great many photos of Beijing's men without the clothing that most men usually wear," Yang deadpanned.

In the past, poor men traditionally shed shirts in summer to keep cool. Rising living standards and electric fans and air conditioners have rendered that less acceptable — but still ubiquitous, especially in Beijing's alley communities at night, where bare-belly gantlets are common.

"They really should wear shirts," said Zhang Yaling, a young saleswoman with a vested interest. She runs a T-shirt kiosk. "All these bulging bellies sticking out, it makes us look silly. It will damage our reputation as a city."

Indeed, now that Beijing is the front window of China's campaign to impress the world — and the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics - such trifles can collide with politics.

On Tuesday, Xinhua's English-language service ran an article about shirtlessness, slipping in boilerplate from a social scientist about "the importance of image-building for Beijing as the city prepared to host the 2008 Olympic Games."

Beijing occasionally tries to legislate such practices. An anti-spitting campaign several years ago landed with a plop, and tissueless public nose-blowing has also drawn official scorn. But that probably wouldn't work with shirtlessness — certainly not on Tuesday, under a blistering sun in 91-degree weather.

"Sure, it's better for Beijing's image to wear clothes. But it's so uncomfortable," said a shirtless Qiu Licheng, renovating a plumbing store on Tuesday.

In China, shame is a time-tested tool, honed during the ugly dunce-cap-criticism days of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. And the Beijing Youth Daily has devised a more palatable analogue for a media-savvy generation.

Though Beijing's shirtless knights aren't identified in the photos, the newspaper has printed free T-shirts for those who turn themselves in. The catch: They're supposed to wear it.

On the front is the Beijing Youth Daily logo and a slogan. Its rough translation: "A beautiful Beijing? Hey — I'm helping."

By Ted Anthony