Fat in China

By Deborah Fallows

BEIJING, China -- Within 48 hours of arriving in Beijing on this visit, three Chinese women I know opened their greetings to me not with the familiar "Hao jiu bu jian!" or "Long time no see!", but "Wo pang," meaning "I'm fat."


In one case, it looked to be true, although genially pudgy would probably be a more accurate description than simply fat. In another case, it was not at all true; this woman was as birdlike-frail as she had ever looked. As for the third, well, maybe just a little.

The use of the word pang (pronounced pahng) is a real cultural marker in China. Just a few years ago, I often overheard pang used as part of the usual litany of comments like "Nice shoes!" or "New haircut!" It was always a neutral statement among friends that carried no baggage of insult, cattiness, warning, or dismay that might come across in western culture.

But this new self-referential use of pang is different; there is change in the air in China around the word pang.

What's going on here? Paul French, a 14-year veteran of China research, a China historian, and author of his latest book, Fat China, has all the numbers to explain the fast-paced current trend toward fat in this video. The younger, urban, and affluent are leading China toward a heavier (nearly 10% of the population classified as obese) and already more diabetic (10% in urban areas) population.

To the casual observer, these numbers ring true. There seem to be more fat people on the streets and in the subways. And not just "little emperors", those spoiled only-boy children. You see pudgy in all ages and both genders now.

The newspapers report about the vogue of fat camps right next to the stories of internet addiction camps. Also in vogue are fast food places, of course. But McDonald's, KFC, and PIzza Hut are more than just exotic and efficient; they're upscale. Whenever we frequented Pizza Hut, we had to remember to make reservations, as it was one of the places to dress up and go for special family dinners. I'm not sure if McWeddings have moved from Hong Kong to the mainland yet, but they are mentioned with interest in the Chinese press.

What caught my eye this week were the giant posters advertising Fatburger! Coming Soon!, a franchise that improbably boasts Miami, Riyadh, Las Vegas, and many other international venues. This was splashed along the walls inside a high-end new mall, right next to Fendi and Shiseido.

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Change in language follows change in culture, and this move of the meaning of pang toward the negative is, I think, a reflection of a few warning signs I have noticed in the culture.

On Chinese TV, programs often air with not-very-veiled messages of good over evil. I watch one cartoon show (hey, good for language learning!) about a little boy whose parents try to teach him moral lessons. The last episode was about learning that a caged wild bird would be happier being let go to fly away free. I've seen a number of TV shows about parenting, usually featuring pedantic professor-type hosts or nurses in white uniforms, and many geared toward teaching about feeding kids healthy snacks. No more sweets; bring on the apples!

In one of the countless articles about education, usually mentioning the university entrance exam, the gaokao, which Lucia Pierce wrote about here this week, there is talk about the flood of students toward the less academic universities for the arts, including a track in modeling, which requires not the gaokao but rather body measurements as part of the application process. Some girls, even those set on being models, are apparently balking at this.

And my younger sources tell me there is a small but growing awareness of anorexia. It is simply called "yan shi zheng", which means "hate food."

Deborah Fallows, a linguist, is the author of Dreaming in Chinese. Her site is here.