Tom Herbert

China post: the mysterious art of ear cleaning

Ear cleaning 2

Twaaaaaaaang! Twaaaaaaaang! The metallic clanging that can be heard reverberating around any Sichuanese tourist trap worth its salt is not the sound of blacksmiths, trinket pedallers or musicians. It is actually the sound of the province’s famous ‘ear doctors’, who make a living clearing the canals of strangers and advertise their services with a quick flick of the large metal tongs that form part of their formidable-looking tool kit.

To the outside world the ancient art of ear cleaning appears a little intimidating, and few foreign tourists are brave enough to give this most ‘Sichuan’ of pastimes a whirl. However, there are those who feel that it is one of those ‘lost in translation’ activities, which given time, experience and the right ‘doctor’ people learn to love – an acquired taste, if you will.

Even the translation of the English name into ear cleaning is a little misleading, as most customers who regularly consult with the ear doctors don’t seem overly fussed about their aural hygiene. Judging by the look of serenity on the faces of those undergoing treatment, ‘ear massage’ seems to be the best description, and many residents here extol the relaxing, almost addictive qualities of a good ear massage.

Ear cleaning 3Many of the city’s ear doctors are rural migrants, many of whom came to provincial capital Chengdu when the government relaxed their previously strict controls on places of residence in the 1980s. There was a time not too long ago when ear doctors roved the streets of Chengdu searching for business, but they are now largely confined to parks, teahouses or tourist areas. This is partially due to the city’s wider crackdown on hawkers, and also because ear doctors now need to be certified to ply their trade, risking large fines if they are caught doing any unlicensed cochlea-cleansing. However, in the newly restored ‘old-new’ tourist towns around the city like Huanglongxi or Luodai, other cities in Sichuan Province, or even in the more outlying counties one can find any number of ear doctors roaming free, clanging away to their hearts content.

Ear cleaning 1

Tools of the trade (bottom to top): goose down cleaning brush , large brush, scraping and cleaning spoon, spring spoon for deep canal cleaning, ear hair shaver, tweezers to open and dig, vibration massage. Photo by Julien Rideller

Having done a bit of research on the subject I decided in the interest of journalism to make the ultimate sacrifice, put aside my concerns and on a recent outing to the recently refurbished Jin Li tourist street I took the plunge with a full ear cleaning session. Helping me through my first experience was Mr Li, who has been working for seven years in Chengdu’s parks and public spaces after training in his native town of Nanchong, north east Sichuan. As an ear doctor has been able to pull in around 2000 RMB a month from his profession and, in one particularly memorable sitting, he pulled a large bug from a customer’s inner ear.

The experience itself was certainly not what I had expected. The first few minutes were a combination of discomfort and mild anxiety, particularly when Mr Li started off with his goose down cleaning brush to ensure my ear canals were spotless. After that, however, came the massage section with a smaller, less tickly brush and those feelings were replaced by an odd, calming sensation and an overwhelming desire to sleep. I may have even nodded off at one point, and had to be reluctantly roused by a round of vibration massage from a set of large tongs (pictured).

Although not for the feint-hearted and mildly disconcerting at first, as a method of relaxation ear-cleaning certainly hits the spot, and thanks to Mr Li’s sterling work I for one will definitely be coming back for a second hearing. Although the doctors are now confined to specific areas of the city, the local appetite for their wares seems undimmed – one thing is for sure, Sichuan’s doctors will certainly not be ear today, gone tomorrow…

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