Our team arrived to the ‘Middle Kingdom,’ after more than 30 hours in transit, to the city of Chengdu. This city is the capital of Sichuan, where our project is located, and one of the most important centers for economic activity in Southwestern China. It is also one of the oldest cities, and has served as the capital of six separate reigns over its more than two thousand years of inhabitation. One of the most famous of these reigns was the Shu Kingdom of the Warring States period (Three Kingdoms). It was the home to two of the most famous Chinese poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, the birthplace of the first widely used paper money in the word (~960 AD), and the last stronghold of the Chinese National Party (KMT) before Chaing Kai-shek fled mainland China for Taiwan.
Chengdu has become known as the ‘City of Leisure,’ and its more than 14 million inhabitants value good food, especially the famous Hot Pot and Mapo doufu above all else. Our team was quite eager to enjoy the culinary culture of Chengdu, and gorged ourselves on an extremely spicy Hot Pot the first day we arrived.
Among the many famous sights and sounds that bring tourists flocking to the city is Jinli Street. It first became famous during the Three Kingdoms (220-280 BC) as a trading place for high quality cloths. It continued as one of the busiest commercial streets during the Shu Kingdom. In 2004, the street was restored with traditional style buildings, snacks, and littered with the iconic red lanterns.
As we strolled through the crowded streets bathed in the red glow we heard a strange trilling metallic sound. We saw a crowd gathered and went to investigate. There in front of the mass was a line of five or six chairs, attended by people in white coats sticking things into peoples ears. The strangeness of the sight captured our attention. A sign over the chairs read “Royal Ear Massage;” we couldn’t resist. Without waiting for caution to dissuade us, Matt, Nick and I went over and sat down.
“What’s this about?” I asked the lady who stood by my chair. She laughed, turned my head to the side and carefully pushed a long thin set of tweezers deep into my ear. The feeling was absolutely bizarre (as Nicks face clearly conveys), and the scrapping sound that it made was even more peculiar. I have to admit however, it was not at all unpleasant. The lady worked for two or three minutes in each of my ears, first picking them, then swabbing them with a cotton tipped bamboo stick, and finally used some metal tongs to produce an utterly indescribable sound deep in the canal (which I’m not sure had any effect other than to run shivers up my spine). All the while, a growing crowd of onlookers, including the other members of our team snapped pictures, pointed and laughed at the spectacle we were making.
I later did a bit of research and found that the custom of ‘Ear Scrapping’ is actually quite popular throughout Southwest China. Practitioners are licensed after training for two years, and can be found roaming the streets and tea houses looking for waxy ears. The Chinese find the practice relaxing, and after having tried it twice now, I happen to agree.