People practice yoga in Xuyong County, southwest China's Sichuan Province, Aug. 8, 2018, the National Fitness Day. (Xinhua/Li Xin)
by Xinhua writers Yao Yuan, Zhang Yizhi, Yao Yulin and Liu Bo
BEIJING, Feb. 4 (Xinhua) -- Like many Chinese ahead of the Lunar New Year, Zhu Da's resolution for the Year of the Pig is to stop "pigging out" and to finally get thin.
The 24-year-old office worker is determined to hit the gym and lower his body fat rate to 18 percent. For him, the upcoming Spring Festival, usually a time to overindulge, is no warrant for a truce with fat cells.
"I always gain some pounds after a festival or holiday, so I have decided to keep exercising during this holiday," said Zhu, a resident of Haikou city in south China.
The pig has long been a symbol of wealth in many parts of China, but for a growing number of Chinese now flush with higher disposable incomes, images of chubby pigs used to celebrate the new year only serve as a reminder to watch waistlines.
China's per capita disposable income in 2018 reached 28,228 yuan (4,165 U.S. dollars). By 2020, the figure is expected to double from 2010 levels as China becomes more prosperous.
As memories of hunger and malnutrition fade, a richer Chinese population faces a spike in obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases in the coming decades.
On China's popular social media platforms such as Sina Weibo and WeChat, "losing pounds in the Pig Year" is trending, but for industries from sports to catering, greater attention to health and fitness is the order of the day.
RUN, PIGGY RUN
On the first Sunday of the year, Li Jingyi, wearing her pink workout clothes, finished her first marathon, in five hours and 44 minutes, in the coastal city of Xiamen in southeast China's Fujian Province.
Li is one of China's health-savvy middle class that is taking up running. According to the Chinese Athletics Association, China hosted 22 running events in 2011, but the number soared to 1,102 in 2017 and is estimated to reach 1,300 in 2018.
Li started running in 2016, initially to lose weight. "As time went by I began to love running, and I've completed half-marathons in many cities," she said.
As many as 435 million Chinese will regularly engage in sports and physical exercise by 2020, with the country's sports and fitness consumption estimated to exceed 1.5 trillion yuan (223 billion U.S. dollars), according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
One beneficiary is the many gyms and fitness studios popping up throughout China. Despite the mismanagement and blind expansion that brought many gyms to their knees in 2018, industry observers predict a long-term boom, as a lack of leisure time drives Chinese urbanites to opt for gyms that offer more targeted and efficient exercise.
Wang Bei, a 25-year-old mother hoping to get back in shape after childbirth, has just paid 5,400 yuan (806 U.S. dollars) for 18 gym classes with one-on-one instruction. "It's easier for me to stick to exercises under supervision," Wang said, at a Haikou gym specializing in the latest fitness trends.
"In the past, people saw beer bellies as a sign of being a boss, but nowadays people want a standard figure to demonstrate their strong self-discipline and positive attitude towards life," said Zhang Chuangxin, a regular gym goer in Haikou. "Physical exercise not only improves my physical and mental health, but also reduces stress so I can go back to work in a better state."
Bian Guangming, chairman of Nirvana Sports Co. Ltd., believes a golden age is beckoning in China's fitness industry. "The number of gym-goers born in the 1980s and the 1990s has seen rapid growth, indicating soaring fitness demands among young Chinese," Bian said.
According to a 2017 report on China's fitness industry, physical exercise has become the second favorite hobby of young Chinese, after photography. Gym lovers spend an average of 10,000 yuan (1,492 U.S. dollars) a year shaping their bodies, challenging amateur photographers in money spent.
NO PIGGING OUT
Products associated with the year's animal zodiac usually sell well, and Chinese pig farmers are hoping to boost sales of pork despite a market that is sending mixed messages.
Pigs figure prominently in the culinary and cultural history of China, now the world's largest consumer of pork. Even the Chinese character for "home" and "family" include a pig particle.
Chinese chefs, in a battle with pork's greasy taste, have invented classic dishes from "fish-flavored shredded pork" in Sichuan to sweet-and-sour "coo-lao meat" in Guangdong.
"Chinese chefs have come up with many ways to remove pork's unwanted taste, including quick boiling or sousing with ginger and rice wine before cooking," said Qiang Zhentao, who runs a Fujian restaurant whose best-seller is "lychee pork" that is fried and seasoned to resemble the tropical fruit in both shape and taste.
Last month, a short video showing a Sichuan family hanging nearly 1,000 pork sausages on their balcony went viral, revealing the Sichuanese love for pickled pork.
But official statistics suggest that the enthusiasm for pork is fading. China's per capita pork consumption dropped for two straight years after peaking in 2014, with Chinese consumers shifting from a pork-rich diet in pursuit of leaner sources of protein like lamb, beef and seafood.
"Pork is falling as a proportion of China's total meat consumption, partly because many young Chinese are embracing a more Western diet and increasing their chicken, beef and mutton consumption in line with the global trend," said Liang Xuewu, a professor with Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University.
But as the Chinese eat less pork, demand for high-quality pork is surging, opening up new opportunities for pig farmers like Liu Yongchun from Huanxi Town in Fujian Province.
Sensing a growing demand for organic pork among China's high-income earners, 10 years ago Liu started a sophisticated pig farm featuring cleaner pens, healthier fodder and, most importantly, a local breed that grows more slowly but tastes better. The pigs on the farm are even allowed to wander in tea gardens to help them keep fit and produce healthier pork.
Liu's "Wuzhuangyuan" pork sells for twice as much as ordinary pork in the nearby city of Fuzhou, and robust sales have prompted Liu's farm to increase production to 8,000 pigs this year, up from 6,000 in 2018.
"Across China, demand for quality pork far outreaches supply. For us it means vast business opportunities," Liu said.
And for some rural residents in China, pork promises wealth in a different way. Photos have recently become popular on the Internet, showing primary pupils from impoverished villages in Guangxi cheerfully holding slabs of pork awarded to them at school to subsidize their meager diets at home.
The 71 students, who are fighting to shake off poverty through education, believe they have brought home the best present for the Year of the Pig.