Giving tourists a genuine eyeful all part of the job for haulers
Will Clem in Shanghai
To bare or not to bare, that is the question facing traditional boat haulers plying the tourist trade along the Three Gorges.
In a clash of modesty against tradition, an online debate has been raging since government officials in Enshi, Hubei, suggested labourers dragging sightseeing boats upriver should strip down to their birthday suits for the sake of authenticity - and to create a 'world-famous tourist attraction'.
In the days before powerful motorised vessels, the only way to move boats upriver in the narrower, more turbulent sections of the Yangtze River was by teams of human traction engines, hauling on ropes against the current.
The work was physically gruelling and often dangerous, and the practice - which dated back thousands of years - was largely abandoned as soon as technology provided an alternative.
Today, however, it has been resurrected for the titillation of tourists keen for a glimpse of the way things used to be.
But the recent controversy stems from the question of just how authentic their experience should be.
Traditionally, the teams worked in the nude to prevent wet clothes restricting their movement or chafing their skin.
Until recently, though, labourers pulling tourist vessels on the Shennong River - a tributary to the Yangtze River near Badong, in Enshi - had been following the modern convention of wearing trousers.
Then late last month, Enshi's deputy party secretary Yao Benchi announced at a meeting of the local people's congress that showing a bit of skin might attract greater numbers of visitors to the district.
'Suggesting on this occasion resurrecting the practice of naked rope handlers has certainly gone through a long period of consideration,' Yao was quoted by local news portal cnhubei.com as saying. 'We want to loudly proclaim: developing the culture of naked rope handlers will turn Shennong River into a world-famous tourist attraction.'
To avoid any suspicion Yao had been at the Lunar New Year baijiu, the website, based in Wuhan , noted he had a 'serious demeanour' when he gave the speech.
The proposal has met with a mixed reaction both locally and among the online community. There were more than 350,000 related posts on a copy of the story on the news site 163.com last night.
While some supported it as a way to protect a local tradition, or noted that it could help generate interest in the attraction, the majority ridiculed Yao's attitude as akin to condoning prostitution.
'Why not resurrect brothel culture,' suggested one anonymous poster. 'You just need someone to offer money and people will be willing to sell their bodies.'
For their part, the workers seem relatively unconcerned about baring their all for the crowds - if the money is right.
'So long as there is a demand for this from tourists, and they are ready to pay, the majority of rope handlers are happy to haul ropes in the nude,' head hauler Zhang Houfang told the Wuhan website. 'Foreign tourists and amateur photographers find it more interesting.'