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Sunday, 22 July, 2001, 08:55 GMT 09:55 UK
The dying art of ear-cleaning
By Fuchsia Dunlop

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in China, is famous for its vibrant streetlife - for the noodle vendors, knife-sharpeners, toy-makers and flower-sellers who ply their trades in the old parts of town.


If you sit for a while in a Chengdu teahouse, you will hear, above the clatter of Mah Jong tiles and the idle chatter, an occasional metallic twang.

This is the sound of the ear-cleaner, announcing his presence with a quick flick of the long tuning fork tongs which are part of his equipment.

His shirt pocket is filled with a terrifying array of implements: little knives, copper spikes and tiny scoops, and a few delicate goose feather brushes.

Ever since I first went to study in the city, I've been intrigued by this extraordinary phenomenon.

I've watched, fascinated, as the ear-cleaner probes and scrapes, strokes and tickles, his customer lying back in a creaking bamboo chair, with a serene, even blissful, expression on his or her face.


Silent and concentrated, he then began to scrape and probe inside my ear with his little scoops and copper prongs

Several years ago I struck up a friendship with one such ear-cleaner, Xiao Chang'an, who works in one of my favourite teahouses, a sprawling collection of tables and chairs in a riverside park.

He would stop for a chat whenever I visited, and never failed to remember my name when I returned from a long absence abroad.

But although I let Mr Xiao give me the occasional massage, hammering my neck and shoulders in that invigorating Chinese way, I was always far too scared to allow him anywhere near my eardrums.

Dangerous addiction

On my last visit to Chengdu, though, I decided that the time had come.

As I sat in the teahouse, Mr Xiao came to join me and we began to talk about his craft.


And if you like it what will you do when you get home to England?

Mr Xiao
He explained to me the names and functions of all his tools, most of which he makes himself from pieces of wire and copper, sticks and feathers.

He showed me how to twang the tuning fork tongs with a snap of the fingers, and, crucially, showed me how he sterilised his implements after every client.

He told me how he'd learnt from his grandfather how to stimulate the acupressure points in the ear, bringing comfort and healing to every part of the body.

And as we talked, and I sipped my jasmine tea in the sunlight, my resistance began to crumble.

As he sensed a change in my attitude, Mr Xiao warned me very seriously that ear-cleaning was addictive.

"And if you like it," he said, "what will you do when you get home to England?"

The pleasure zone

I decided it was worth running the risk of addiction, so I settled back nervously in my bamboo chair, and put myself in the hands of Mr Xiao.


The most intriguing sensations came when he placed a brush in my ear and then touched its handle several times with his humming tuning fork

He began by gently drawing back my hair, and stroking the skin around my ear with a small blunt knife, sending shivers of pleasure all over my body.

Silent and concentrated, he then began to scrape and probe inside my ear with his little scoops and copper prongs, and to twirl around a series of feather brushes.

The most intriguing sensations came when he placed a brush in my ear and then touched its handle several times with his humming tuning fork.

The vibrations sent a rhythmic sound like the buzz of a grasshopper into the depths of my ear.

Prostitute cover

Ear-cleaning was originally just one of the services offered by Sichuan's itinerant barbers, who you still see occasionally on the streets of Chengdu, but it's now mostly a specialist trade.

Some ear-cleaners, like Mr Xiao, have their own regular territories, others prowl the city looking for work.

And in recent years, ear-cleaning has become a notorious cover for female prostitutes, who carry the right tools, but have no idea how to clean an ear.

Many of the ear-cleaners, like Mr Xiao, are rural migrants, who have come to Chengdu since the government relaxed controls on places of residence in the 1980s.

Wandering vendors selling goods and services are part of the old Sichuan of popular imagination, and until a few years ago they were a common sight on the streets of Chengdu. Nowadays, though, as the city hurtles pell-mell towards the goal of modernisation, they're becoming harder to find.

In the Shunxing teahouse, an expensive, glamorous recreation of an old-fashioned teahouse on the third floor of the international trade centre, ear-cleaners have been imported specially to evoke a little of that old Sichuan magic.

Clearing out the old

But, outside, their traditional habitat is disappearing.

Almost all of Chengdu's old lanes have been demolished in the last 10 years.


As Mr Xiao finishes my ear treatment with a gentle massage of my temples and head, I wonder what will become of the other rural migrants and the laid-off workers who make their meagre living on the streets

And the wide streets which have replaced them are no place for an itinerant ear-cleaner.

At least, that's what the municipal leadership seems to think.

All over the city, on the walls which surround construction sites and scenes of demolition, are painted slogans exhorting citizens to build a new city which is "modern, civilised and clean".

And Chengdu's new mayor has made it a point of policy to clear the streets of peddlers and other riff-raff.

Bustling street markets are being relocated in concrete shops and market halls, and the remaining street vendors play a constant game of cat and mouse with the police.

It's a curious blend of cultural revolution and nostalgia: the rapid destruction of the old Sichuanese way of life, even as it is being evoked in replica for the urban nouveaux riches.

But while many of my Chinese friends may like to pay for fancy reproductions of traditional Sichuan at new venues like the Shunxing Teahouse, I still prefer the authentic version which lingers on in a few pockets of Chengdu which have so far escaped the demolition teams.

And as Mr Xiao finishes my ear treatment with a gentle massage of my temples and head, I wonder what will become of the other rural migrants and the laid-off workers who make their meagre living on the streets.

I've always admired their spirit and their enterprise, but it seems they are not part of the official vision of a modern Chinese city.

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