Chinese beauty ideals, with the pursuit of fair skin being front and center, have been worshipped since ancient times. Cracks, however, are starting to emerge in these longstanding standards as a niche tanning community is gradually rising to challenge the status quo.
A growing number of people, made up of more women than men, in first-tier cities are joining the tanning trend and showing their bronzed skin on social media platforms as the Chinese society has embraced more inclusive and diversified beauty standards over the past few years.
On Xiaohongshu, a Chinese lifestyle-sharing platform, there are more than 90,000 posts with the hashtag "SkinTanning", where both male and female bloggers display their glowing tans, offer practical tips and recommend trustworthy salons.
Zhang Ruoting, who was born and works in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, grew up with her relatives telling her "one's whiteness can conceal seven kinds of flaws", which denotes white skin as an important virtue. Zhang used to take a number of measures to lighten her skin to cater to the prevailing beauty standard.
"When I left home in 2015 to pursue postgraduate studies in the United Kingdom, I was a little surprised seeing my classmates bathing in the sun freely and contently on the campus lawn while my Asian friends and I dodged exposure to skin-darkening sunlight," Zhang said.
Inspired by her college classmates' great enthusiasm towards sports, Zhang, who wanted to take advantage of her weekend free time, took to hiking, paddle boarding and gym workouts after she returned home from work, which darkened her skin but made her body look more toned and fit.
"It's the first time I found that tanned skin could also be very attractive," she said, adding that the feeling of breaking the hegemonic beauty standard brought her greater confidence to be who she wanted.
The 28-year-old then moved a step forward and tried her first tanning session in 2017, though it was still viewed by her relatives and colleagues as an odd and unusual decision for a person to go to a tanning studio.
Tanned skin's alignment with fitness, outdoor sports and healthy lifestyles has also been key in driving public interest in sun-kissed skin, and the number of customers has been surging since 2020, said Liu Yongan, manager of a Beijing-based tanning studio.
Men, especially bodybuilders, are among the first to go to tanning salons because the darker skin color accentuates their muscles. Darker skin has become more and more associated with a healthier lifestyle, such as enjoying outdoor hobbies like camping, hiking and cycling, Liu said.
"With the booming demand, I set up another branch at the end of last year," Liu said. "Back when I first began going to the tanning salon in 2009, tanning studios in Beijing were few and far between, and the majority of clients were mostly foreigners, highly paid professionals or students who had recently returned from their studies abroad."
Searches for tanning salons now amount to some 350 in Beijing, and the number came in at about 280 and 470 in Guangzhou and Shanghai, respectively, according to the popular review and rating platform Dianping, the Chinese version of Yelp.
Average spending on a 15-minute tanning session ranges from 200 ($28) yuan to 300 yuan, depending on location and equipment. Beginners need to go tanning every two days in the first month to have a sun-kissed glow, and then once a week to maintain the color, said Chen Jiahui, who owns a tanning studio in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.
The glowing look would cost about 15,000 yuan per year. Though tanning currently remains a niche aesthetic in China, its growing popularity indicates a shift in Chinese beauty standards, Chen said.