China’s new obsession with crawling exercises spark controversy

Crawling – the latest “weird” practice of exercising has been rising to become commonplace in China. The activity was reported to have started amongst university students at several of China’s prestigious institutions including the Communication University of China, Tsinghua University, and The University of International Business and Economics earlier in November. It soon spread across other campuses as well as reaching the wider public with some middle-aged and elderly audiences also following suit.  

The activity is regarded as a way of “Yang Sheng”, or keeping fit, citing health benefits including building core strength and shoulder stability as well as treating spine problems, on top of assisting weight loss. Participants also go on to describe that “crawling makes them mentally relaxed while also providing a solution for them to let feelings go”.

The new exercise soon became an Internet sensation, trending on China’s largest lifestyle-sharing platform Xiaohongshu. The Gen Z hub even launched an online campaign called Xiaohongshu Crawling Competition in response to the hype. The campaign page has so far garnered over 381,000 views with content ranging from tutorials of different crawling variations, such as bear crawling, lizard crawling and crocodile crawling, to exercise diaries from individuals practising at home.

While growing in popularity, the crawling exercise is also facing controversy as some view it as “creepy” behaviour which is not acceptable in public places. Zhang Xiangming, author of Kiev 1941, the history of the largest encirclement battle, called it “cult-controlled” and urged “relevant departments to take action to prevent and investigate concerned individuals” in a post on China’s biggest microblogging site Weibo, where he has over 1.5 million followers.

The universities in question have so far responded by saying “it is a spontaneous activity by students” and they are currently looking into the situation but with no comment on whether the activity would be banned. The criticism is coupled with concerns around the mental health of the younger generations with some netizens referring to it as another “strange” activity such as making fake pets using cardboard. The fad was initiated amongst locked-down college students in the North-western province of Shangdong as a remedy for boredom and loneliness.

Some mainstream Western media, including Yahoo and Radio Free Asia, have associated the crawling exercise with public unease over China’s stringent zero-COVID policies, which led to repetitive local lockdowns, and indicated that it is a way for students to protest. Radio Free Asia also reported some universities have been banning crawling on campuses with involved students “invited” to have a private conversation and crawling exercise related university organisations are being censored on Weibo.

Although some major domestic media outlets such as the Paper have taken down an article where it included experts’ caution on crawling, other media reports have so far shown a neutral tone and the topic of crawling exercises does not seem to be limited on social media.   


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