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Public Baths: the intersection of history, leisure, culture, and entertainment in northeastern China

Public bathhouses have long been a part of the culture of northeastern China. The bathing culture of the northeast has its roots in both history and geology. Due to the special geographical distribution of the northeast, there are many natural hot springs. Thus, thousands of years ago people encountered these warm locations and used them to take refuge from the severe cold of the region in winter. Over time, the use of hot springs developed and evolved into a distinctive bathing culture throughout all of northeast China.

Back in the early 90's, before saunas and massage parlors became associated with public bathhouses, the original bathhouses were much more simple, offering a place for people to bathe and clean themselves. People would call their friends to take a bath together. First, they would enter a warm shower to allow their bodies to reach the temperature of the bathing tubs, and then they would submerge themselves in the hot water and soak with their friends. Adults would usually sit around the perimeter of the bathing pools and their children would play and splash water in the middle area.

In addition to being a good place to socialize and get clean, bathhouses were often arenas where men were able to show off their masculinity. When the water pipes pumped hot water into the pools, northeastern men made a point not to show reluctance or fear. Thus, the baths were like a battle field for men to display their bravery and strength. Real northeast men did not just tolerate the scalding heat; they were also able to hold animated conversations and sing songs while bathing. They would even go as far as to mock the blistering water by asserting “this water is not hot at all!” Even if the water was hot enough to burn people, they would still yell “how terrific is the hot water! It feels so nice!” As the water would get hotter, they would yell even louder, once again showing their bravery and mettle.

As for the children, they were able to play freely in the hot water pools. They could go underwater or dive, as well as chase after their friends in the water. Occasionally, the children would even bump elbows and end up fighting right in the middle of the bathhouse. Now that time has gone by, almost every northeastern Chinese man has vivid memories of their time in the bathhouse as a child. Their memory might even be as simple as their towel-covered hands gently massaging their necks red, as this too was a part of the bathhouse ritual.

After their bodies were heated up, the rub bath would start. At that time, people from the lower and middle classes often chose to exchange massages amongst themselves. As for intimate friends, they would directly pass around the rubbing towel and give each other a massage, being careful to match the strength of the other men when paying back the favor. Even if someone did not have and close friends around them, it was still possible to find someone to exchange with. Through rubbing and chatting, it was normal for strangers to become friends at the bathhouse.

As for the upper class guests, they tended to find professional masseurs. They would lie on the long table covered with a disposable cloth covering and a masseur wearing red lingerie would start give them a massage. The sight of the mud peels used in these massages brought about an immediate feeling of rebirth among the clientele. The whole process would usually take about 30 minutes. If the masseur had incredible skill, people would not feel any pain even when the mud was being peeled off. However, if people happened to meet a new masseur, they often felt uncomfortable during this part of the rub. Thus, in northeast China, the way to rank a bathhouse depended on the skill of the masseurs and the water quality of the establishment. An excellent masseur not only needed to have a good rubbing skill but also needed a brilliant chatting skill. It would not be unfair to even compare their chatting prowess to that of Beijing taxi drivers! When the masseur saw the results of their work in the clean and radiant bodies of their customers, they would feel proud for themselves.

With the improvement of living conditions, solar and electric heaters have become more and more widespread. Thus, many young people in the Northeast prefer to bathe at home nowadays. Because of this, the public bathhouse culture has been affected in some ways, but it still continues into the present. People who bathe at home are simply seeking convenience, while those who take baths at public bathhouses are seeking the social and cultural sentiment that is traditionally associated with the activity.

Rather than saying that taking a bath is only for cleaning, it is better to describe the public bathhouse as a place that unites leisure, social issues and entertainment. The public bathhouses of the past are now replaced by modern bathing centers. They are located in the same places, but the services offered are more abundant. People need to purchase a full-package ticket to take a shower first and then soak and steam in the bathroom. Later, they will have their bodies rubbed and then totally cleaned. At the end, they can comfortably lie on the lounge and smoke or flirt with a good-looking waiter or waitress. They can order food at any time when they feel hungry; they can rest anywhere when they feel tired. The bath centers normally have performances for entertainment. People can drink beer while watching Errenzhuanm, a two-person dance opera popular in northeast China. If they stay too late at night, they can sleep in the lounge on the heated floor and take a shower again the next morning and then head to work. This type of recreational entertainment can not only intensify communication between friends but also help people's bodies become completely relaxed. Although now it is hard to see strangers exchange rubbing massages or children who play in the bathing pool, the public bathhouse is still the same place as before. The hot water represents the brave personality of northeastern macho men and the respect between people in a friendly atmosphere. Even if we can take a shower at home, people in the Northeast still think that the essence of taking a bath is to go to the public bathhouse; even if the traditional public bathhouse withers in the modern society, the culture of bathing has already become an irreplaceable and intense mainstay among northeastern Chinese. It also developed an unique culture in the eyes of people from other regions.

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