Watch our documentary about China's female bodyguards here.
Wearing a form-fitting black leather jacket with studded shoulders, leather pants, and two-inch-high platform boots, Li Wenjing looked more like a B-movie assassin than an undercover bodyguard. The 24-year-old former kickboxing champion was patrolling her home base, a five-star resort run by her employer in the eastern suburbs of Beijing. As I approached her, bathrobe-clad patrons shuffled from their rooms to the sauna, and a muzak rendition of Simon & Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" echoed on loop through the marble lobby.
"When I'm with my client at home, I can dress a little more casual," she remarked of her cyberpunk get-up, her hair pulled into a high ponytail. "Out at galas or other functions, I dress more feminine. I present myself as a secretary so no one realizes I'm a bodyguard."
After I met Li I found myself looking through photos of the all-female Amazonian Guards of flamboyant Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi. The group served as the late leader's protectors as well as his captive harem and garnered attention worldwide. In China today, newspaper spreads and click-bait blog posts featuring images of bikini-clad local bodyguards-in-training have caused a similar reaction.
But it isn't the sex factor that's made female bodyguards so popular. With more than 2 million millionaires in China—the second-highest concentration of millionaires behind the US—new-moneyed entrepreneurs, actors, and other members of the elite have begun to seek out private bodyguard services since private security firms became legalized in 2010. Valued as secret weapons, female bodyguards are regarded as innocuous protectors who can disguise themselves as assistants or dance partners. Even more so, wealthy female clients prize these defenders for their ability to keep close by at all hours of the day without provoking salacious rumors.
Ms. Guo, who hosts an antique-collecting show on China Central Television, shares this sentiment. She employs bodyguards from Yunhai Elite Security, a training center in Beijing, on a part-time basis. "A bodyguard is indispensable—even more so than a makeup artist or assistant," she said. In the condo complex where Guo lives in Beijing's northern suburbs, vacant storefronts still await occupants, but the mock-up signage for a "Jamay Choo" footwear boutique and "Y-Eleven" convenience store attest to the property developer's Westernized aspirations. "This is the best time in China's history, but it's also the worst time," Guo told me. "I want to believe that every person is beautiful and good, but I'm not that naive."
In response to the rising demand, a young crop of female bodyguards, many barely out of college, have flocked to training schools like Yunhai to perfect their fighting skills and etiquette. They're enticed by high salaries and the opportunity to establish a future removed from the instability of martial arts competitions and the tedium of underpaid office work.
Li, the bodyguard, first came to Yunhai in 2010 as a veteran martial arts competitor looking for a way to put her college-level fight training to use. "I wanted to achieve my full potential," she told me. "If I were just a regular white-collar worker, I'd have no platform for that. And the money turned out to be good." After completing her training, Li started working for Yunhai, which also serves as a private security firm catering to wealthy Chinese and visiting dignitaries. Today, she makes about 40,000 yuan ($6,500) a month, an enviable wage roughly ten times the average monthly urban salary in China.
The Yunhai training school is a small compound not far from the Beijing airport. When I visited, I was greeted by Xin Yang, the school's president and a former Chinese military martial arts instructor, who'd agreed to give me a tour. With 20-odd fresh-faced students, three of them girls, living in dorms on site, it reminded me of a high school retreat. The padded training area was flanked by computer-generated images of G.I. Joe characters and buxom video-game heroines. Stacks of Chinese cabbage were drying outside in the cold air, to be turned into traditional northeastern-style pickles served as a condiment at mealtime.
Students at Yunhai apply to the school and must be selected to join the bodyguard program. They're responsible for paying for room and board, but the instruction comes for free. Regular training consists of an early-morning three-mile run followed by punching drills, kickboxing, and wushu sparring. In the afternoon, trainees practice drills such as how to safely lead a client into and out of a car.
The group goes through instruction together, though there's a wide range of skill levels. For this reason, the duration of the training program varies from student to student. Many have only recently arrived at Yunhai and will continue practicing for one year.
On the day that I visited Yunhai, trainees were being taught how to subdue and immobilize attackers armed with everything from prop daggers to AK-47 assault rifles. An instructor, Lu Qingxin, demonstrated the necessary technique to take control of a cleaver-wielding aggressor and force him to slit his own throat.
Later, the sparring area partially cleared of mats, I watched two of the school's female trainees teeter in three-inch heels as Ding Jia, an etiquette teacher, instructed them in how to maintain a poised, upright posture. "Learning to walk like this is a necessary part of the job," reasoned Ma Zeng, a 20-year-old, rail-thin, rosy-cheeked trainee who used to work in a textile factory. "It's about showing basic respect to the client."
Violent crime is comparatively rare in China, in part because access to guns is so difficult. "In Chinese law, no person is allowed to carry weapons, especially not bodyguards," Xin told me. "Without weapons, you need to have good kung fu, observational skills, defense techniques, and fast reaction times in the face of danger."
But some Yunhai bodyguards do carry one weapon, a "self-defense pen" designed by Xin himself. Made out of black aluminum with a sculpted point at one end, the tool is a glorified shank and looks like it could easily puncture vital organs. "It's also a massager!" Xin enthused, prodding the end of the pen into a stress-release pressure point on my hand to demonstrate.
As training continued, I watched Ma practice unrelenting punches on a male teammate, releasing a terse shout with each blow as her adversary struggled to keep his padded hands up. The days are long, the training exhausting, and I asked Ma why anyone would choose this as a career. "I feel very proud when I can protect my client and make her feel safe, because it's a demonstration of my abilities," she told me. "It means my sweat, my effort, was not in vain."