On the Beach in Qingdao: Face-kinis and Giant Jellies

Style trends in China feature facial protective gear.

One thing I love about my jellyfish work is the twisty path research often follows, a path that often ends in a place I could have never predicted.

Last week my jellyfish Google alert, which notifies me of articles with the word “jellyfish” every afternoon, sent me to a story in the Huffington Post on a new trend for women in the Chinese resort town of Qingdao. It’s sure to catch on with fashion-conscious bank robbers: the face-kini.

These masks made from neon swimsuit material are meant to preserve the fair skin that’s said to be a sign of beauty, and a signal you haven’t spent days working the fields. But they come with one other benefit too, according to the article. They protect against jellyfish stings.

Just how bad are the jellies in China? Getting worse. A 2010 paper in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, reported over 2,000 instances of jellyfish stings on popular beaches in China since 1983, including 13 fatalities. Eighty percent of those reports occurred in the last decade of the study, and the authors admit the real numbers are probably higher. In the spring of 2004, one species of sea nettle accounted for over 98% of the catch in fishers’ nets in the Yangtze Estuary, south of Qingdao.

Coincidentally, over the weekend, a Canadian blogger, Joel who writes about life in Qingdao, posted a shot of the “biggest honking jellyfish” he’d ever seen. The photo, which he graciously sent me for reposting, shows his size 13 foot dwarfed by a giant jellyfish, also known as echizen kurage in Japanese and Nemopilema nomurai in scientific Latin. It’s the same species I chased from Japan nearly to Korea last October.

Nemopilema nomurai in Qingdao
Don’t step on the giant jellyfish! Credit: http://chinahopelive.net

This mammoth jelly is born in the Yellow Sea, north of Qingdao, and some, like the one Joel saw, stay in Chinese seas their whole life, which lasts about a year. Others are swept in currents south around the peninsula of Korea and into the Japan Sea.

During last century, giant jellies were only spotted about once a generation and had a sort of “remember that crazy winter that the lake froze solid” mystique. Fishermen would tell their sons legends of the giant jellies. Most only saw them once or twice during their entire careers at sea.

But since 2000, these giant jellies have bloomed nearly every year. The 2005 bloom is thought to be the biggest jellyfish bloom on record with half a million gooey Godzillas passing between Korea and Japan each day. In 2009, the weighty animals capsized a fishing boat that snagged too many in its net. (No one was hurt.)

Joel linked to a story in Chinese about an even larger giant jellyfish that washed up on a nearby Qingdao beach. Dubbed the Jellyfish King by locals, this beast had a 6 foot diameter and attracted quite a crowd. Someone eventually showed up with a kitchen knife and started slicing. One man, carrying away his portion, gloated, “Tonight, it’s tapas!” (Giant jellyfish aren’t typically eaten. Their bells are watery and hard to pickle, which is the way that jellyfish are usually prepared.)

Official length of the Jellyfish King: 1.9 meters!

By email, Joel told me that word has spread about jellies in Qingdao, and warning signs are posted on beaches. Until he saw the giant jelly he was more worried about garbage in the murky water than jellies. Now he stays closer to shore, and packs Benadryl just in case.

Joel hasn’t personally seen any face-kinis, but his family tends to shy away from the more crowded beaches where they are popular. He added that despite the western media just now stumbling on the face-kini fad, they aren’t news in Qingdao, where ladies have been wearing them for years.

For me, the photos of fluorescent-headed women walking the waves are jarring in a way that I initially couldn’t identify. There’s certainly something burka-like in the facial obscurity, but that doesn’t hit the mark, really. With the immodesty of bare arms and legs or skin-tight wetsuits, the comparison falls apart. Face-kinis are so Cirq de Soleil.

After looking at the photos for a while, it hit me. I’d seen the face-kini before. Pussy Riot, the brave punk collective of Russian women who have been trying to tell us just how oppressive Putin is for years, wear nearly the same vivacious headgear.

Pussy riot's vibrant masks look lil face-kinks.
Russian band Pussy Riot’s vibrant masks look like a lot like face-kinis. Photograph: Denis Sinyakov/Reuters

I doubt the Chinese resort women took their cue from Pussy Riot or vice versa (though I can’t be sure), but this seems more similar to a biological process called convergent evolution in which unrelated organisms develop the same adaptation. Textbook examples are the wings on birds and butterflies, which function differently and sprout from different parts of the animals’ bodies, but get the same job done.

Similarly, regardless of who’s wearing them, the first function of a neon ski mask is protection. For the Russians, they offer anonymity to face off against a terrorist and repressive regime. For the Chinese, they guard against assault from the environment, be it UV rays or jellyfish.

And the blinding technicolor? Well, that’s just women saying, “Though I might shield myself, I am irrepressible.”

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