BEIJING — Of all the changes to sweep China since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 — stock markets, private cars, fashion — one prohibition seemed to endure: no hugging.
But now the practice seems common. Relatives are hugging. Friends, too.
In interactions between Chinese and foreigners, the traditionally reserved Chinese now initiate contact, when it had been the foreigners who once foisted affection on their hosts.
At the international-arrival terminal at the Beijing airport recently, a younger Chinese couple greeted an older couple with hugs.
The women embraced first, but the young man followed by squeezing the older man, stiffly, and the gesture was returned with a smile.
In Nanjing, the Liuhe District Experimental Elementary School began a class in emotional intelligence last fall, concerned that children lacked it and would be held back in the world, the local newspaper Modern Express reported.
The third-graders’ homework was to hug their parents. Sixty schools in the district now have emotional-intelligence classes, according to the newspaper.
Many Chinese say exposure to the West has helped them be more comfortable in the arms of another.
An article last month in China Daily, headlined “Students Use Hugs to Ease Tensions,” described how a group of Japanese students studying in Beijing hugged about 200 Chinese passers-by in an effort to promote warm feelings between people whose governments have been sparring recently over disputed territory in the East China Sea.
One of the huggers, Watanabe Kohei, said: “The Chinese were a bit shy in giving hugs,” but friendly.
Not everyone enjoys this new familiarity.
Hugging is still not considered appropriate in a professional context — unless everyone has had a lot to drink.
The website eDiplomat is probably right to advise foreign diplomats not to hug their Chinese counterparts.
“The Chinese dislike being touched by strangers,” it warns. “Do not touch, hug, lock arms, back slap or make any body contact.”
In a post titled “Why We Chinese Don’t Hug,” blogger Zhuhai Ah Long attributed the reluctance to sexual frisson. “What if ripples start undulating in the girl’s heart?”
“We want each time that a touch by the opposite sex to be a thrill,” Zhuhai wrote. “If we’re hugging all day long, hugging people who shouldn’t be hugged, then the thrill will evaporate, and that’s just a waste.”
In 2003, Lu Ming, a Chinese writer based in the United States, wrote a book, “Chinese Lack Hugs.”
“Back then people really hugged very little, even in families,” he wrote recently in an email.
“That’s changed now, and I think it’s good. We can use body culture to overcome Chinese people’s tradition of reserve.”