When I asked Shen how she first got into boxing, her answer was simple: She wanted more defined abs. As for why she stuck with it, her response was more conflicted.
The ideal boxing body runs counter to traditional Chinese aesthetics, in which women are expected to be delicate, dainty, and slender. Although Shen took up the hobby in an effort to build muscle definition, she still felt torn about the way her boxing classes were changing her appearance. “I was afraid of developing my muscles,” she said. “I didn’t really like that feeling.”
With the rise of China’s market reforms beginning in the 1980s, Chinese women began paying renewed attention to their health and bodies. More recently, pro-physical fitness attitudes calling on women to achieve “freedom” by cultivating self-discipline have taken root among the country’s growing cohort of urban, white-collar female professionals. At first, members of this group preferred more stereotypically “feminine” activities like aerobics and yoga, but over the past decade, non-traditionally feminine activities like boxing and taekwondo have become increasingly popular pursuits.
Shanghai’s first all-women’s boxing club was founded in 2010, and it was quickly followed by similar gyms in other major cities like Beijing and Guangzhou. A decade later, in 2020, the e-commerce platform Tmall reported the number of women purchasing boxing gloves on its site had doubled compared to the year before, and several major athletic brands now sell gear designed with women in mind.
The rise of boxing has taken place within the context of broader trends like urbanization and increased access to education, cultural resources, and public services, especially for women. Not only are more Chinese women realizing the importance of a healthy lifestyle, but they also increasingly possess both the financial means and knowledge needed to remake their bodies, and by extension, their lives.
Of course, this isn’t a simple narrative of female empowerment. The popularity of fitness hobbies reflects the global neoliberal economy’s focus on beauty and how increased consumption power has introduced new forms and norms of physical discipline. As another boxer, Yu, once put it, “I started working out to get back in shape and feel good again after giving birth. A better body makes me confident, and I need to get myself together before I can return to work.”
As our bodies have become a key form of capital, women find themselves forced to conform their figures and physical capabilities to the demands of employers, prospective partners, and society as a whole, or risk losing social resources and status. Nor is this simply a matter of appearance. A fit figure is implicitly associated with internal traits like self-discipline — a valuable commodity in the country’s cutthroat job market.
Meanwhile, for white-collar workers groaning under the stress of mandatory overtime, contact sports like boxing can seem particularly appealing. Many female boxers told me they saw the hobby as a way to vent some of the enormous stress and negative energy that had built up at their jobs and in life.
In other words, many Chinese women started boxing, not out of passion, but out of practical necessity. A major motif in the over 20 interviews I conducted was the need to slim down and sculpt a better body shape. This was the primary reason both Shen and Yu started boxing. And while boxing may not produce the kind of body valued by traditional Chinese aesthetics, it still reflects the influence of those aesthetics: The Chinese female boxers I interviewed had exacting standards for their body shapes and appearances, and Shen and her female colleagues talked more about weight loss than anything else. Gyms, too, often advertise boxing as a form of exercise, rather than a combat sport.
Interestingly, however, after lacing up their gloves, many women’s understandings and perceptions of the ideal female body undergo a shift, as their experiences in the ring lead them to re-examine their own physical needs and femininity.
On a basic level, this shift reflects the globalization of fitness, as contemporary Western aesthetics — which prize strong, sexy, yet slim builds — have merged with the traditional Chinese preference for delicate, dainty, and slender women. As a result, Chinese women are styling and modernizing their bodies through Western sports, even as they still feel pressure to ultimately conform to traditional Chinese concepts regarding gender and the value of women’s bodies. Many interviewees expressed fear of being seen as too “strong and violent,” a pressure that came primarily from external sources. “When it’s my turn to box boys, I can’t hit someone I don’t know, and even more so when it’s girls,” Shen told me. Eventually, Shen quit boxing in favor of the more relaxed yoga.
A woman laces up a pair of boxing gloves in Haikou, Hainan province, 2015. VCG
Yet, boxing is also a space where femininity is renegotiated and where women can redefine themselves. Li, a 22-year-old who works at a new media company, started boxing for reasons similar to Shen and Yu, but unlike the more conflicted Shen, Li found the feeling of being in the ring “energizing.” Embracing the way boxing was reshaping her body, Li’s emphasizes strength and endurance in her workouts, and she accepts how her muscles have changed her appearance. Her improvement has earned her praise from her coach, who compares her punches favorably to those of his male students, as well as her classmates, who frequently praise her for being “cool,” and having a “good body.”
All of this has encouraged her to stick with the sport. On social media, Li carefully but proudly presents her non-traditional femininity. “Men and women are equal in boxing, and women can also be fearless in pursuing high-level boxing skills,” she said. “I care more about the joy boxing brings me.”
Li’s pursuit of a more muscular body type goes against China’s mainstream feminine aesthetics and reflects the way young Chinese women today are resisting traditional social gender norms through bodily practices.
The rise of boxing among urban Chinese women did not start as an effort to overturn or subvert traditional aesthetics. Rather, it was the product of neoliberal demands for body discipline and the needs of the capitalist market. But as women begin boxing, their respective journeys offer them new opportunities for self-awareness and self-discovery, as they reflect on who they are, what they need, and how their bodies are consumed.
This awakening of body consciousness is an essential part of contemporary Chinese women’s drive toward increased bodily autonomy and freedom. Although their participation in boxing is still quintessentially a form of self-regulation in an unequal society, it nevertheless challenges their understandings of their own femininity and the bodies, awakening their subjectivity and undermining the dominance of the male gaze.
To protect the identities of her research participants, the author has given them pseudonyms.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A young woman trains inside a boxing ring in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, 2019. Feng Lin/VCG)