Things To Do in China

AsiaChinaThings To Do in China


Massages are offered all over China, often both high quality and reasonably priced. Professional work costs ¥20-80 per hour.

  • Almost every hairdresser offers a hair wash and head massage for ¥10. This often includes earwax cleaning and a massage of the neck and arms. For a haircut and/or shave, prices range from ¥25 to ¥100, with higher prices in big cities and higher-class or tourist-oriented establishments.
  • Foot massage (足疗 zúliáo) is widely available and is often indicated by a picture of a bare footprint on the sign. Prices range from ¥15 to around ¥60.
  • Full-body massages are also common, at prices from ¥15 per hour upwards. There are two variants: ànmó (按摩) is a general massage; tuīná (推拿) focuses on the meridians used in acupuncture.

These three types of massage are often mixed; many places offer all three.

  • Massage is a traditional trade for the blind, and it is often cheapest in small, remote places that have some blind workers (盲人按摩 mángrén ànmó).
  • The most expert massages are available at massage clinics or general Chinese medicine clinics, usually for around ¥50 per hour.

Some massage places are actually brothels. Prostitution is illegal in China, but quite common and often disguised as massage. Most hot-spring or sauna facilities offer all the services a businessman could want to relax. Many hotels offer in-room massages, and additional services are almost always available once in the room. As for the smaller establishments, if you see pink lighting or lots of girls in short skirts, they probably offer a lot more than just massage (and quite often they can’t do a good massage either). The same is true in many hair salons that are also massage parlours/brothels.

The non-pink-lit places usually give good massages and do not usually offer sex. If the establishment advertises blind massage, it is almost certainly legitimate.

In many massage places it is possible to take a nap for a few hours and in some even spend the night. Hairdressers usually do not have facilities for this, but you can sleep on the table in a body massage place or (much better) on the couch used for foot massage. The fees are moderate; this is probably the cheapest way to sleep in China. Note, however, that except in high-end saunas with private rooms, you will have to share the staff toilet and there may be no way to lock up luggage.

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Language for massage:

  • tòng (痛) and bú tòng (不痛) are “pain” and “no pain” respectively
  • hǎo (好) and bù hǎo (不好) are “good” and “not good”; hěn hǎo (很好) is “very good” or “great”.
  • yào (要) is “to want”, bú yào (不要) “not to want”.
  • yǎng (痒) is “that tickles”.

There are several ways a masseur or masseuse can ask a question. For example, the question “Does this hurt?” can be asked as tòng bú tòng? or tòng ma? For both, answer tòng or bú tòng.

Traditional Arts

If you are planning an extended stay in China, you may want to consider learning some of the traditional arts. After all, a trip to China is a unique chance to learn the basics or hone skills already acquired, directly from masters in the home country of the arts. Many cities have academies that accept beginners, and if you don’t know Chinese, it’s usually not a problem as you can learn by example and imitation. Calligraphy (书法 shūfǎ), a term that encompasses both writing characters and painting scrolls (i.e. classical landscapes and the like), remains a popular national hobby. Many calligraphers practice by writing with water on walkways in city parks. Other traditional arts for which courses are available include learning to play traditional Chinese instruments (check with shops that sell these, as many offer courses), cooking Chinese cuisine or even singing Peking Opera (京剧 jīngjù). The fees are usually very modest, and the materials you need won’t exactly break the bank. The only requirement is to be in the same place long enough and show enough respect; it’s better not to take these courses as a tourist attraction.

Martial arts

As with traditional cultural arts, those who have the time and inclination may be interested in studying China’s famous martial arts. Some, such as Tai Chi (太极拳 tàijíquán) can be studied at a basic level simply by visiting any city park in the early morning and joining in. You are likely to find many eager teachers. However, learning martial arts at a level that allows one to use them competently in an actual fight requires years of study and training under a master, often starting in childhood.

In English, Chinese martial arts are often referred to as “Kung Fu” and we follow this usage below. However, in Chinese the general term for martial arts is “Wu Shu”, while “Kung Fu” is the term for the skill or power that practitioners acquire.

A traditional classification divides the Chinese martial arts into two groups named after two mountainous regions with monasteries that are centres of Kung Fu – the Shaolin Temple on Mount Song and the Wudang Temple in the Wudang Mountains. Shaolin are the hard or external styles that emphasise speed and power, while Wudang are the soft or internal styles that emphasise breath control and gentle movements. Other well-known kung fu centres are Southern Shaolin in Fujian and the Wu Wei Temple near Dali.

In Shanghai, there is a martial arts museum at a university of physical education.

Square Dance

In public parks, squares or plazas, or indeed anywhere in the city that is not fenced off and large enough (e.g. a car park), it is increasingly common in the early morning and late evening to find groups of (mostly) older women doing what looks like light aerobics to music with a dance beat coming from a nearby portable speaker. This activity is called guangchangwu (广场舞), roughly translated into English as “square dancing” because of the place where it takes place (not to be confused with the traditional American folk dance of the same name).

It originated in the mid-1990s among women (known as dama (大妈), or “dancing grannies” in English) who had just been forced into retirement to keep fit, socialise and reminisce about their own youth during the Cultural Revolution (indeed, many of the songs used are propaganda from that period or current Chinese pop hits). In 2015, noise and space problems had led to violent clashes in some cities, prompting the government to introduce and then hastily withdraw standard dance routines. It is interesting to observe, at least as a modern folk phenomenon, and indeed some groups don costumes and props for their performances. Some tourists, especially Russians visiting Manchurian towns, have joined in. If you are tempted, go to the back row, where beginners follow the leader and learn the moves (but be wary of several groups dancing in a space that is barely big enough for all of them – brawls have been known to break out).

In some parks there are also groups that do ballroom dancing.

Traditional pastimes

In China, there are several traditional games that are often played in tea gardens, public parks or even on the street. The players often attract crowds of onlookers. Two famous strategy board games that originated in China are Go (围棋 wéiqí) and Chinese Chess (象棋 xiàngqí). Mahjong (麻将 májiàng), a game played with tiles, is very popular and is often (almost always) played for money, although its large regional variations mean you have to learn new rules everywhere. The best-known variants of this game include the Cantonese, Taiwanese and Japanese versions. Chinese checkers (跳棋 tiàoqí ), despite its name, did not originate in China but can be found there. Many Chinese are skilled card players (扑克牌 pūkèpái); Deng Xiaoping’s love of bridge (桥牌 qiáopái) was particularly well known.