Punching and pumping iron, Chinese women go ‘YOLO’

By Thomson Reuters Mar 7, 2024 | 11:38 PM

By Alessandro Diviggiano

BEIJING (Reuters) – Without a job, friends or direction in life, a 30-something woman decides to take up boxing, triggering a physical transformation that is the narrative of the biggest box office for any movie in China this year.

“YOLO”, starring and directed by Jia Ling, has made the equivalent of $475 million since last month in theatres. Critics say this remake of a 2014 Japanese movie hit a nerve with Chinese audiences with its spin on the intense training sequence which echoes Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” film series and is usually reserved for male action stars.

The film has also tapped into a growing trend. From throwing punches to pumping iron, Chinese women with time and money are taking up sports that had once been considered fringe in a challenge to the commercialised ideal that women should aspire to be fair, slim and youthful.

A 35-year-old boxing trainer and owner of a gym in central Beijing who goes by the professional nickname A-Nan says some clients who were inspired by the movie have dropped out quickly when they realized the difficulty of training.

Even so, her gym has been enrolling more women than men to train over the past several years and the proportion of female memberships at her gym is higher. Many of the women looking to train have jobs in finance, law and accounting.

“They have a stronger sense of determination,” she said. “Another crucial factor is competitiveness: to excel in a high efficiency job, you need not only a good education and intelligence but also a healthy body.”

Body building only opened to female professional competition in China in 1996. Even now, female competitors are often widely referred to as “King Kong Barbies”.

“There are indeed cultural changes happening,” said Wu Xiaoying, a China-based sociologist and specialist in gender studies. “I believe the aesthetic preferences of women today are becoming more diverse.”

Xie Tong, a 29-year-old who balances a career in finance with her passion for bodybuilding, says lifting has liberated her. “If I look back, exercise used to be about conforming to others’ aesthetics, about becoming thin, about punishing myself, about doing things I didn’t want to do,” she told Reuters.

Xie, who is training to compete in an amateur contest, however, said she has often faced unwelcome attention during gym sessions and hostile comments from men.

Her social media accounts have also been suspended or posts blocked when she has posted pictures of herself posing or flexing, she added.

“From top to bottom, from platforms to individuals, no matter what you’re doing, as long as it’s related to the female body, it becomes an object of scrutiny,” Xie said.

(Reporting by Alessandro Diviggiano; Additional reporting by Beijing newsroom; Writing by Kevin Krolicki; Editing by Miral Fahmy)