The Contemporary Fitness Lifestyle Concept in China. A Cultural Transfer from the United States?

Bachelor Thesis 2016 44 Pages

Sociology - Culture, Technology, Peoples / Nations



1. Introduction

2. Definitions and Framework
2.1. The Framework: Cultural Transfer
2.2. Lifestyle – A Definition

3. The Contemporary American Fitness Culture

4. Analysis of the Contemporary Chinese Fitness Culture
4.1. Life Chances and Life Choices: Who is participating in the culture?
4.2. The Motives for Fitness in China: Why are people participating?
4.3. Fitness in Practice: How is fitness carried out in China?
4.4. Approaching Fitness in China from a Political Point of View
4.5. The Chinese Cultural Concept of Contemporary Fitness Culture

5. Conclusion – A Cultural Transfer (?)

Works Cited


Declaration of Authorship

1. Introduction

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten Figure 1: B Active logo

B Active Fitness. Beijing, Chaoyang District, China. 2016-04-25, 19:45.

Entering the densely populated, yet comfortably air-conditioned gym, the environment is triggering a familiar feeling in me. I feel like I already know this place and have been at this exact gym with all its different areas and facilities for several times – yet it is the first time for me to ever be here. Even though on the surface the place feels so familiar, I deep down sense that things are so disparate, but it is not possible for me to name them straightaway. Yes, there is a terrifying armada of service personnel – but isn’t that just how it is here in China? They probably are just too many people… Or is it a cultural thing? So many questions…

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten Figure 2: Olympic fireworks

Beijing, China. Winter of 2022.

The capital of the People’s Republic of China is going to be the first city ever to have hosted both, the Summer as well as the Winter Olympic Games. The world’s most massive sports spectacle once again is coming to the most populated country in the world and will attract the global elite across all popular disciplines. In the Olympic Summer Games in Rio of 2016, the United States was on top of the medal count with 121 medals in total – China with its 70 medals was taking the third place by comparison with other countries (“Olympic Medal Count”). In both countries top-class sport is on the highest quality level in the world, but what about popular sports practiced by the broad population? In people’s perception, the United States is the country where most people in the world are hitting the gym, running and cycling from the East to the West coast besides ranging on the 12th rank of the world’s most corpulent population ("29 Most Obese Countries in the World"). Thinking of China, there should be some people in the park doing their Tai Chi – but running or hitting the gym? No way! Right? One can assume wrong.

Let us be serious: The Chinese sports industry is suggested to amount over 2 trillion yuan (€ 265 billion) by the end of 2020. Out of this amount, 30 percent of the overall industry will be taken up by the added value of sports service, that also consists of personal training offered by fitness gyms ("Fitness Industry in China"), that are still in the middle of a cultural transfer process to China. The stream of consciousness in a contemporary fitness facility in China’s capital presented at the beginning illustrates the first impression Western people can encounter on site. The second episode about the Olympic games in Beijing is supposed to draw attention to prejudices and a cultural bias in the context of fitness and popular sport.

Along with the spirit of the Olympic games coming to China for the second time, more and more appetite for doing all kinds of leisure sport is being aroused among the vast population: Already by the end of 2014 34% of the country’s population exercise at least three times per week with medium intensity, which has been an increase of around 6% since 2007 (Xiaochen). The contemporary fitness culture originated from the United States and has already spilled successfully into many parts of the world, thus establishing itself into a more and more global phenomenon. Not long ago this phenomenon arrived in China as well and is on a path of gaining popularity with an increasing number of followers as well as facilities. Regarding this sports development in China from a cultural perspective, it is crucial to have a close look at the various characteristics of the contemporary Chinese fitness culture and compare them with the characteristics of fitness in its original culture: the United States.

This paper is focused on the cultural transfer of contemporary American fitness culture into the Chinese environment. In what respect does the current state of the contemporary Chinese fitness culture reflect this process? Furthermore, cultural implications will be analyzed as well as the question about the shape of the cultural transfer is going to be answered: What part of the transfer is “literally” adopted from the United States, what parts of the culture are reinterpreted, what is distinctly Chinese?

To achieve this rather ambitious goal in this fairly limited scope, it is going to be explored what makes the fitness lifestyle as culture unambiguously American by looking at its historical roots and cultural features, before a snapshot of the adaption on Chinese soil including the determining cultural idiosyncrasies will be analyzed in depth. As the thesis is working with the framework of cultural transfer as well as it is exploring a concept of lifestyle, these two concepts will be initially defined to clarify what is going to be discussed subsequently.

The paper is based on four different qualitative interviews of participators in the culture conducted via the application WeChat, male as well as female, coming from the client side as well as from trainer side. On account of time and scope restraints of a bachelor thesis, the findings do not claim ultimate reliability and validity, as for to claim this an extended sample would be required. Nevertheless, this thesis can be classified as a detailed case study of the cultural transfer of contemporary fitness culture from America to China, which delivers valuable insights and encourages further research and future studies.

2. Definitions and Framework

2.1 The Framework: Cultural Transfer

The key concept of this thesis is the concept of cultural transfer that is going to be examined by reference to the example of the contemporary fitness culture transferred from the U.S. to China.

In this concept, the underlying hypothesis is that social systems not only are liable to internal change, as for example change of values, but to a special degree also succumb to external influences and the cultural import from other social systems (Barmeyer 112). The paradigm of the concept of culture has shifted from a local to a mobile one, so in modern times the term “world in motion” describes the global exchange of ideas and ideologies, people and goods, images and media messages, software and hardware (Schmale 13). The process is of dynamic nature and in the center of it is an asymmetrical process, whereby cultural artifacts and practices of a cultural system are transferred and adjusted. The focus of research is especially on three different grades of adoption (Barmeyer 112): Are the transfer and the integration happening willingly? Are there any processes of cultural adaption or productive reception arising? Or even is utter opposition and denial – in other words resistance – to be found in the target culture? All along with integration, at least during the transition period, important elements of identity of the origin culture survive, e.g. language, rituals and dress code (Lüsebrink 146).

A cultural transfer can be divided into several structural elements: Firstly, the selection defines what objects and practices of culture in the origin are going to be transferred and for what interests (148). This can be due to ideological interests expressed in norms and values that are embodied in the transferred culture. In the middle of the intercultural process of transfer are different types of vehicles or brokers, that can range from actual persons (personal broker), broker institutions to media that serve as an agent (149). In the third place, processes of adaption and integration can be explored. The integration has a variety of forms that range from forms that solely can be applied to literary studies, such as comments, e.g. music criticism, or the so-called productive adoption, wherein texts are adopted in creative ways (152). More relevant for cultural practices, as e.g. fitness, is the concept of transfer, which keeps the source culture as original as possible, the concept of imitation, where its own in- and output become obvious in the transferred culture and the concept of cultural adaption, which emphasizes shifts regarding the specifics of the target culture (150).

The cultural transfer has distinct phases in which cultures of certain countries become overly influential and affect other cultures specifically. In this context Americanization, that is defined by Merriam-Webster as the “act or process of Americanizing” (“Definition of Americanization”), that is to “make something American” (“Definition of Americanizing”), have become predominant in many places since the 20th century (Schmale 34). The term is often used synonymously with Westernization, that is a “conversion to or adoption of western traditions and techniques” (“Definition of Westernization”). Closely linked to and detailing the practice of Americanization, the concept of McDonaldization specifies how certain cultural practices are spreading on a global level by using the example of the restaurant chain McDonald’s: The constant characteristic of the restaurant proving itself in every single branch is, that it is a highly predictable and controlled space that is satisfying many different needs just in time (Andreason, Johansson 106). However, the concept of McDonaldization is not only applicable to cuisine but to any cultural concept, which has American roots and is going global, as the contemporary fitness culture right now is.

2.2 Lifestyle – A Definition

As the cultural concept of lifestyle is relatively vague at first glance, it has to be clearly defined before focusing on the actualization of it in the main part of the analysis. What is problematic regarding the term is that there is no agreement on what lifestyle actually means. According to Antonides and Van Raaij, it is a mental construct that forms a person’s attributes: A lifestyle is “(…) the entire set of values, interests, opinions and behavior (…)” (377) and thus reflects the culture of a person or nation. The historical distinction between Eastern and Western lifestyle seems to be a commonly used dichotomy, that only in part depicts the entire truth: In fact, lifestyles are country specific and differences even show among countries in Asia that seem to be superficially similar as Singapore and Hong Kong (Mooij, 124-125). This example illustrates the continuing impact of local culture on lifestyles in their specific manifestations.

Irrespective of the exact configuration of a lifestyle, it is undoubted that in the course of the globalization of lifestyles certain communities have evolved. The assumption behind this concept is that national and cultural influences are less significant than modern lifestyle patterns. There are certain lifestyle groups assumed to be so similar between countries, “that their behavior is more similar to the same group across borders than to other groups within borders” (125). Due to the impact of distinct cultures on lifestyles, these similarities nevertheless can only be called pseudo-similarities. This also accounts for similar products, brands or services across countries, that provide a sense of community. After dealing with the concept and framework of the paper, in the following paragraph, the focus will be on the contemporary American fitness culture.

3. The Contemporary American Fitness Culture

In the United States, the highly individualized notion of fitness is more prevalent than in other countries and accounts for one of the fastest-growing industries in the sector of the U.S. labor market. Regarding the fact that worldwide 60 % of the total number of members of fitness and health clubs - that reached above 150 million in 2015 – are located in North America, it is obvious that fitness nowadays is more like a global movement, yet still very present in its roots ("Health/Fitness Clubs Worldwide 2009-2015 | Statistic").

Of course, fitness has played an essential role since the beginning of man’s existence: In former times fitness was a requirement for subsistence. As times are changing this is no longer the case, but fitness “remains paramount to health and well-being” (Dalleck, Kravitz). Throughout history, the precondition of being fit and healthy has been connected to different themes such as religion or warfare, the latter imposingly presented by the totalitarian regimes in Europe in the 20th century. However, the roots of the contemporary individual fitness culture are to be found in the physical culture or body subculture, that is techniques and methods to improve health and strength, located in the United States of the late 19th century (Andreasson, Johansson, Revolution 95). European immigrants in the United States like Eugene Sandow and Charles Atlas played a key role in the initial development. Sandow, who is assessed to be the founder of bodybuilding, is even referred to as the first fitness entrepreneur who was spreading a weight-lifting and fitness kind of lifestyle while traveling around the world. Thus he acted as a cultural colonizer[1], promoting the idea of a “universal possibility of improvement of the human body” (97). In the aftermath of two world wars that were putting the idea of fitness as self-purpose on ice, the next biggest landmark in fitness evolution is the movie and book “Pumping Iron” of 1978 portraying Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno working out at Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, California, that nowadays is often referred to as the “Mekka” of fitness and bodybuilding. “Jane Fonda’s Workout” (1982) and “Pumping Iron 2” (1985) not only marked the beginning of female participation in contemporary fitness, but also the starting point for the development of a new, modern fitness culture.

Characteristic for this development is the shift from a typically masculine activity into a mass leisure activity for both sexes. Nevertheless, contemporary fitness culture is largely founded on a basic system of ideas developed within bodybuilding: different conceptions of exercise, diet, lifestyle and the idea of fitness have been spread and franchised by a commercial industry operating on a more and more global scale. Fitness as a concept is promoting the democratization of sports but also entails “narcissist consumption and the advance of a post-modern hedonism” (Sassatelli 4). The originally male-connoted and national muscle culture evolved into a culture in pursuit of health that becomes measurable in a “hard”, well-trained, fat-free, clearly defined and slimmed body (Andreasson, Johansson, Revolution 106). Some scholars would even argue, that actually “health has been mobilized as both the alibi and the sanction for appearance management” (Maguire, Fit & Flexible 386). The interest in bodybuilding, workout techniques, aerobics and fitness in general exploded in the 1980s. But soon bodybuilding as a sport obtained a bad reputation because of an increasing use of performance and image-enhancing drugs (Andreasson, Johansson, Revolution 99, 100). Thus the image suffered and got associated with fragility, weakness, steroids, eating disorders, dependency and relationship disorders. During this time “bodybuilding has been separated from the concept of fitness“ (101) and thereby bodybuilding has become a subculture. The 1990s mark the period of time when fitness was on a genuine upswing: “fitness became a part of an urban, middle-class and single lifestyle” (Andreasson, Johansson, Female 2). Concerning the gym as a field itself, there has been a tendency towards multidimensional fitness gyms that gather different techniques under one roof. Nowadays this is the prevalent type in Europe as well as in Germany. Since then the gym has become a place for everyone to pursue fitness as mass leisure activity connected to the ideals of health, beauty and youth - with an emphasis on health (Andreasson, Johansson, Revolution 105). The promise to the exercising person of “changing one’s body and becoming a different and maybe ‘better’ person” (96) is connected to individual health and happiness and the possibility of looking young and fit. Apart from becoming a universal place for everyone, the gym has been developed into a more and more differentiated and individualized space. In that respect, the contemporary fitness culture is hailing the ideal of individualism, which is deeply rooted in American culture.[2]

Above all, the American lifestyle concept of fitness is shaped by the ideas of modernity: rationalization, asceticism, authenticity and hedonism (Sassatelli 1). The gym as an “integrated center for physical exercise” symbolizes a place free of any political control and thus freedom. It responds “to a multiplicity of complex and even conflicting demands” (4) that circle around personal motivations as e.g. the deliberately stimulated and exploited desire of individuals to keep fit, have fun, improve themselves, relaxing or aesthetic development. The apolitical gym puts individuals in a position, where they are no longer at the mercy of a hostile environment, but solely efficient administrators of their own resources (10). Thereby the individual is able to live out individualism in an area without any restrictions and can regain control by fitness activities and nutrition intake (Maguire, Fit & Flexible 386). For the participator the whole act of taking part in the culture is on a voluntary basis (Sassatelli 6). Furthermore, contemporary fitness is free from outdated concepts as the connection of recreational and physical activities to social values like faith in progress or loyalty to a nation. The concept is increasingly gaining popularity concerning the consumption of all goods and services aimed at the maintenance, improvement, and transformation of the body (3).

But what exactly separates fitness as it is practiced now from sports? Fitness is actually contrary or subsidiary to the concept of regular sports. First of all, fitness, unlike sports, appeals to both sexes and to people of all generations. Fitness becomes an everyday concern, an everyday activity that is complementing the execution of other sports, thus the American approach makes fitness habitual and an ordinary action (Maguire 383). Moreover, fitness is not practiced for its own sake, as e.g. team sport, but to produce effects on the body and self: Fitness can be translated into an investment for the future and for the psychosomatic well-being. The focus hereby is solely on oneself and gives people the opportunity to test their particular physical limits in a controlled matter (7). In this manner, fitness can help people acquire confidence and trust in themselves.

In the following chapters the term contemporary fitness culture refers to the fitness concept described above with its roots in American culture: fitness as a mass leisure activity for both sexes, that is closely linked to consumption, health and the value of individualism. It presents itself as being particularly apolitical and a field of freedom offered to the participants.

Subsequently, the fitness lifestyle concept of China will be analyzed in-depth, put into its distinct cultural context and closely looked at standing in front of its original background to figure out and conclude what the cultural transfer of the fitness lifestyle concept from America to China is like in detail.

4. Analysis of the Contemporary Chinese Fitness Culture

4.1 Life Chances and Life Choices: Who is participating in the culture?

A lifestyle seen from a sociological perspective is determined by the dialectical interplay between life choices and life chances (Abel, Cockerham, Rüttel 332). Based on this paradigm, choices are shaped by an individual’s life chances, which are grounded in a particular reality, i.e. influenced by gender, age, race and socioeconomic conditions. At present old certainties have been destabilized and vanished in the course of modernization, thus individuals are now confronted with a growing variety of choices (333). As China is a country in development, new social conditions and principles are brought about by this process. Even though China is relatively stable in its politics since the middle of the 20th century, the country is experiencing huge transformations in society, culture, economics and communication (332). In this kind of environment cultural styles become more and more mixed, interwoven and flexible. This external uncertainty leads to a greater internal locus of control and consequently provides the fitness and health lifestyle with growing momentum. The upper and middle-class is experiencing greater life chances, hence acquires a stronger sense of control over life situations as health and fitness.

As going regularly to a gym in China still is cost-intensive and geographically only possible within bigger metropolitan areas, it is still perceived as a luxury and merely possible for people with higher disposable incomes living in a place equipped with the chance to go. Similar to fitness that in contrast to China is connoted as being normal or normalized from an American perspective, a study by Lin about values reflected in Chinese and American advertising discovered automobiles have the attached value of necessity in the United States, whereas in China cars are perceived as luxury good. All of the interviewees described the fitness and health lifestyle as typically middle-class and white-collar. In addition to that, people having more points of contact with Western culture, e.g. who studied abroad or work for a multinational company, are more likely to participate, which is illustrated by the vita of the interviewees. Although there has been a big increase in the number of people doing any kind of exercise as shown in the introduction, the penetration rate of fitness facility members in the whole of China is only 0.3% compared to 16% in the U.S. – which still is adding up in absolute numbers to four million people due to the immense population of China (Wang). As the concept only recently was introduced in China, it still is in its infancy and only 3.6 % of Chinese age 20 and over exercised in a contemporary fitness club in 2014 (Xiaochen). On the one hand this is due to the novelty, on the other hand, it is due to a big fraction of the population undergoing life chances with reduced choices, with the poorest 25% households of the country only holding 1% of the country’s total wealth (Wildau, Mitchell).

Therefore, class makes a substantial difference with respect to health and health behavior (Abel, Cockerham, Rüdel 335). Certainly even the poor make lifestyle decisions, but on account of material limitations, this leads to different consumption patterns excluding a gym membership. This shows once again the close connection of fitness to consumption, which is mentioned in the previous chapter. In this context a look at the classic psychological theory of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs gives some further indication: the gym obviously is not a need satisfied first and foremost in trade for other more important ones. Leading a fitness and health lifestyle is a part of self-actualization of a person and thus comes, next to transcendence in adjusted versions, highest in the hierarchy (cf. Appendix Figure 9).

As we can see, chance is an especially strong factor of lifestyle determined by socioeconomic resources and perceptional boundaries derived from socialization and experience in a particular milieu (335). Applying this to the contemporary fitness and health culture in China, this already excludes most of the country’s huge population from participation, which is supported by the findings derived from the qualitative interviews.

As the reasons for who is participating in fitness have been unfolded, to recap and make it more vivid a typical participator in the Chinese fitness culture will be presented on the following page. The illustration shows the most striking characteristics both in keywords and in an iconographic way.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 3: A typical participator in the contemporary fitness culture

4.2 The Motive for Fitness in China: Why are people participating?

Choosing a certain kind of lifestyle gives people the possibility of expressing self-identity and first and foremost provide a relief in a rapidly changing world by reducing its complexity – as long as the life chances allow a person to do so. Thus people are served by the act of choice with more stability and a sense of belonging, that especially in times of uncertainty and diversity as the world in general and China, in particular, is experiencing, becomes a more important factor. Choice on the one hand grants freedom to people, on the other hand, pushes people towards greater individual responsibility in their making of choices. Zooming into the group of people carved out in the previous chapter, this leads to several questions discussed below: What encourages people that actually are equipped with the necessary life chances that make fitness lifestyle an option to actually participate in the culture? What motivates them to train and pursue the contemporary fitness lifestyle? Why did they even make the choice in the first place?


One aspect that is deeply linked to the contemporary Western approach to fitness is health. Even the terminology of “keeping fit”, which in reality is training in a gym, and “being fit and healthy”, which means nothing more than the physical state that this training is intended to produce, reflects this fact (Sassatelli 2). But is an active approach towards health actually a Western one? In fact, whereas high uncertainty avoidance cultures, as the U.S. or Germany, have a passive attitude towards health by primarily focusing on the purity of food and using more medication, low uncertainty avoidance cultures, as China, “have a more active attitude to health by focusing on fitness and sports” (Mooij, Hofstede 90). The active approach towards health in China is nothing new: By looking at more organized forms of sport that especially elderly generations are attracted to and engage in, this becomes evident. This includes classic team sports also known in the Western hemisphere as well as more typically Chinese forms of exercise, among them 广场舞 - Guangchangwu (in English: square dancing). Guangchangwu is the most commonly practiced form of collaborated exercise for the women of the parents’ generation of people that actually go to the gym and is practiced by approximately 100 million people, most of whom aged between 40 and 65 that utilize it except for the health aspect as a form of social activity (Qingyun). Due to modern life pressures as spending long hours working at the office or infrastructural problems of the metropolis that people have to face, organized sport becomes more unattractive to the younger generation lifestyles whilst new-style illnesses are on the rise (Interviewee 1).[3] As the desire for good health is persisting, the younger generation in professional jobs is more and more seeking to satisfy their need at a modern institution that is promising to deal with the topical issues and problems: the gym. Some people even would argue the workout sessions and the lifestyle are more like a “(…) treatment rather than enjoyment” and are likely to go to the gym with the primary incentive to keep the symptoms of previous and ongoing diseases down (Interviewee 3). At least a more elementary variation of this incentive is true for all of the interviewees, that regard their regular exercise as a way to improve the body functioning or to balance their lives. People detect the need for this in their environment, marked by external pressures like work and overcrowding, which are giving participators reasons to build up a more robust body. In addition to that, the average particulate matter pollution of Beijing, that excelled in 2015 with 80.4 micrograms per cubic meter of air by far the health-based “National Ambient Air Quality Standard” of 35 micrograms, induces people to relocate outdoor sports into air-purified gymnasiums (“A Summary of the 2015 Annual PM 2.5 City Rankings”). In spite of its obvious importance, the health factor does not appear to be the main motivator, especially not for newcomers freshly adopting the lifestyle. Thus considering contemporary fitness in China mainly as a “collective pattern of health-related behavior” that determines a health lifestyle following the definition by Abel, Cockerham and Rüttel (338), would go too far. As the concept of fitness is not really mature in China, the health aspect of fitness needs more time to sink in – just as it required time in its American place of origin.


Instead, working towards a certain body ideal in order to look better and achieve a certain physical appearance is a key factor in motivating the training community. People who are working out against the backdrop of this motivation do not regard the gym as a solution for social-structural matters yet, but foremost value the enhanced appearance of the body as the crucial outcome of the activity – whether or not that kind of body is actually functionally fit. The body ideal in Chinese fitness culture mainly resembles its American counterpart by constructing a dichotomy of what is beautiful and what is not. In fitness, a fit body symbolizes a strong and vital person that masters himself and becomes fit through his own work by making use of his particular, “authentic” capacities (Sassatelli 9). The antagonistic construct is being fat, which is connoted as being ugly, undesired and of no use in a modern life situation. Consequently, the general idea of exercise as a necessity in order to get in shape, keep in a good shape and the weight down becomes self-evident in the culture. Albeit the male body ideal of China in fitness is largely conforming to the original American idea of being strong, equipped with a significant amount of muscle and a well-proportioned physique, the female ideal in China still differs vastly from its origin:[4] The ideal female figure is way slenderer than its American counterpart, without visible musculature and unquestionably without fat – exaggeratedly put by an interviewed fitness trainer, the goal of the common training female is to “starve and train herself” towards “fitting into the smallest size of dresses” (Interviewee 4). This ideal image is fueled by national social media trends, that reach from women posting pictures measuring their waists with a A4 paper (that equals 8 inches) to a trend that translates into “reaching your belly button from behind to show your good figure”, that has been mentioned more than 130 million times on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter (Chen; Samuels). These trends on social media tend to push women towards an unrealistic physique, that is no longer on the healthy side and thus has drawn different forms of criticism from even outside the country.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthaltenAbbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 4: A4 paper waist challenge Figure 5: Reaching the belly button

Interestingly, the analysis of professional fitness blog entries of the blog “FitTime”, that is published on the multifunctional social platform WeChat, in course of the research for this paper has drawn a different picture: 6 out of the 15 analyzed blog entries worked with female images and present a combination of fit, fat-free bodies but still female curves without excessive leanness. Only one entry solely showed a woman of Asian ethnicity, all other entries worked either with a combination of ethnicities or focused on a rather Western appearance of the images (cf. Appendix, The image of athletes).

These insights into social media show that they act as huge and considerable motivators for the fitness culture in China and as media brokers that promote their inherent ideas of workout and nutrition as well as the body image. Looking at the number of 762 million active users in the first quarter of 2016 (“Wechat: Users 2016 – Statistic”) of the Chinese social networking site WeChat, it becomes obvious that China is a very internet enthusiastic environment giving a lot of prominence to social media. The perceived importance of a person’s appearance is closely linked to this ubiquity of social media in the lives of the younger generation. Retaining the semblance of keeping a healthy and fit life thus is more due to the external influence of a person’s peer group or the desire to live up to an anonymous online audience’s expectations, than any internal reasons (Interviewee 3). This desire of appealing to strangers by showing off one’s own overstated lifestyle is, on the one hand, an attempt to fit into society by finding an ecological niche in an overwhelmingly big as well as competitive marketplace, on the other hand complying with the typical Chinese show-off culture (Interviewee 4).[5] As shown above, fitness in China is still connoted as being a luxury, it falls into a show-worthy category and as stated by Interviewee 3 even ousted the showing-off of luxury goods, as purses or cars. Starting from last year the show-off culture actually reached a new level with a growing popularity of numerous live-streaming applications for smartphones that people are using to stream whatever they are doing right now – as for example working out in a fancy gym or preparing subsidiary food with upscale ingredients from an import supermarket (Yuan). As Chinese people tend to follow the mainstream represented by idols and role models provided by social media offers in plentiful numbers, social media appear to be the number one source and broker in advancing the fitness culture in China and fuel the boom by providing it with a lot of momentum and spreading the ideas and concepts (Interviewee 2, 3, 4).


One of the most compelling questions arising in connection with an eastern culture practicing a paragon of Western culture is, if it is motivated by the wish to appear Western. The interviewees consciously claim to involve in “simply a lifestyle” (Interviewee 2) among other lifestyles resonating modernity without connection to any values. In fact, all of them unconsciously engage in a culture that can be labeled as highly American or originally Western. This new culture has even adopted U.S. values as well as elements of Western identity, e.g. the dress code expressed by wearing Adidas clothes (cf. figure 6) or a New York City cap (cf. figure 5).

To briefly summarize, the motivation of fitness in China consists of several main elements: Clearly, aspiring for a healthy constitution is among them. But an even more significant motivator is an ideal appearance of the body that is less muscular and bulky than its American counterpart, driven by social media pressure and the transformation of the Chinese society. The following passage about fitness in practice will focus on what happens when motivation turns into action.


[1] Translating the idea of Sandow being a cultural colonizer into the terminology of cultural transfers, he can be called the first personal broker of fitness culture.

[2] The promise to the individual to change for the better in fitness is clearly reflecting the American hope for a better quality of life or living standard. Scoring a 91 in Hofstede’s framework on individuality, the United States are on the top spot in comparison with other countries and certainly can be called highly individualistic. (Hofstede)

[3] According to a report by the Wall Street Journal from late 2014 that is citing a researcher from Beijing Normal university, the average Chinese worker works between 2,000 to 2,200 hours every year in China, that is way above the average in Europe and the United States, which was at 1,789 hours in 2014 (Qi; “Average Annual Hours Actually Worked per Worker”).

[4] It should be noted that even the male body ideal correlates a more subdued version of figure. A fit and defined body that is not going beyond by becoming too strong and muscular is the ideal. On the other hand, being overly bulky does not correspond to a fitness goal in China (Interviewee 4).

[5] Evolving from a communist society without individual property and undesired private wealth, the liberalization of the economy in China entailed a new class system depending on how much money a person has or makes. Therein, luxury goods display the level of a person’s wealth. According to Chadha and Husband luxury evolution in Asian countries ranges from “subjugation” to a “way of life” whereas China is stuck in the middle of the “show-off”- stage, that ranks in between the “start of money” and “fitting in”, with the latter being characteristic of Taiwan and South Korea. In the “show-off”-stage consumers militantly attempt to acquire symbols of wealth and consequently show them “in a conspicuous manner” (Zeveloff), as observable on social media with the prime example of fitness.


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University of Passau – Professur für Amerikanistik / Cultural and Media Studies
Fitness China Culture Lifestyle USA Cultural Transfer



Title: The Contemporary Fitness Lifestyle Concept in China. A Cultural Transfer from the United States?