Why Women in China Do Not Use Tampons

(And What We Can Learn From Them)

The reason why Chinese women don’t use tampons has to do both with the lack of a tampon ‘culture’ which, in the USA was created by marketing from tampon companies, but also because of the shared cultural context between Chinese culture and Chinese medicine.

The Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui made waves in August 2016 in a post-race interview that she was on her period. She was lauded in the Western press for breaking taboos on periods and for “using her voice to challenge taboos about menstruation”.

Chinese internet users instead focused on the fact that Fu was swimming during her period at all. Many had believed that elite female athletes simply adjusted the timing of their period so as to not have to deal with it during major events. Some users of Weibo (China’s equivalent to Twitter) were genuinely asking how come Fu wasn’t making the pool red.

There’s one big reason for this: tampons are incredibly rare in China – only about 2 % of Chinese women use them; in Europe, the figure is as high as 70%, as compared to about 60 % in the US. Tampons were introduced to China over two decades ago, but they never really caught on and can be hard to find. In Beijing, although tampons have been on sale since the early 90s, there are still only two brands on offer. Perhaps because usage never picked up, many supermarkets and pharmacies still don’t even stock them.

The taboo topic

Periods are still considered unmentionable in Chinese society, where women tend to use euphemisms such as "getting a visit from my aunt" to describe them. There is a general belief in China that tampons are not good for women’s health. There is a traditional taboo – there is a concern it will hurt, or that it will impact their virginity, which still a very serious belief for women who are not married yet.

Chinese medicine is also hugely influential, too, if only subconsciously, and its basis in non-invasive treatment creates unease around putting a foreign object into the body, for hours at a time. It is also seen as potentially harmful for girls who are still “growing”.

It’s all about the Qi

The reason why Chinese women don’t use tampons has to do both with the lack of a tampon ‘culture’ which, in the USA was created by marketing from tampon companies, but also because of the shared cultural context between Chinese culture and Chinese medicine.

Chinese people have basic notions of hot, cold, Qi and Blood, that come from Chinese medicine and philosophy. That is why they want, for example, their food fresh and hot with lots of vegetables.

While many women can appreciate and value how much more convenient tampons must be, on the other hand, there is the simple reality of bacterial overgrowth. Chinese medicine – and not for any sexist reasons – does not recommend keeping a blood and fluid soaked cotton close to delicate mucous membranes for long periods of time.

Waterlogging anywhere in the body obstructs the flow of Qi: whether it is the fatigue that results from the fat of obesity, to the collection of fluids in the ankles that makes it hard to move your legs at first after sitting for 8 hours on a plane, dampness hinders the flow of Qi, and it’s the healthy flow of Qi to any area of the body that makes it healthy.

How it works in the body

Chinese medicine believes that tampons, in addition to creating physical conditions ripe for bacterial and yeast overgrowth, also obstruct the free flow of blood out of the uterus and vaginal canal. It’s a Qi thing.

Qi is not metaphysical. It is life force. Lose too much blood (as in an accident) and your body goes into shock and the temperature drops. You turn cold.  Qi is warm, delicate, and light. This is why our moods can change on a dime.

Qi is fast and light. Qi is the organizational force within the body. Nerves send impulses – that is Qi moving. Neurotransmitters fire in the brain – that is Qi moving. Food moves in the gut–that is Qi moving. Your face turns red with anger – that is Qi, which is warm, rushing upwards. Your child vomits when sick – that is rebellious Qi, because the gut Qi flows down, not up.

Qi at menstruation

As life, in general, is a warm process, Chinese medicine does not recommend swimming in cold water when menstruating, just as it does not recommend drinking cold beverages and eating cold foods when menstruating, or actually for anyone in excess.

The proper place for menstrual discharge is out of the body. Does using a tampon inhibit the flow of Qi and Blood out of the uterus? The answer of traditional Chinese medicine is not positive.

It may well be that tampon use is one of the perfect storm of multiple factors responsible for such high rates of PMS and menstrual disorders in the West, the other two factors being emotional imbalances from our cultural characteristics and the standard American diet high in very cold food from freezing smoothies to excessive amounts of raw food.

It’s your body, your choice. But just to know, there is a third option between a tampon and sanitary napkin. And that option is the menstrual cup. Please see here for more info on the menstrual cup.

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