I've only been in Xie Shuiping's disconcertingly spotless and almost completely unfurnished apartment for ten minutes and he is already preparing to whip it out. After pouring me some green tea he suddenly stands up, lifts his shirt and arches his back, thrusting his stomach forward as he slaps it loudly with both hands. This abdomen is slightly famous: the source of Xie's power and income. He looks down at it and pats it fondly.
A T-shirt hanging up in his living room in the city of Anlu, in China's east central Hubei province, bears a slogan in Chinese characters: "Xie Shuiping: King of being beaten." It summarises his job description pretty accurately. For the past 16 years, Xie, 49, has been making serious money charging people all over China to punch his stomach as hard as they can, claiming that he feels no pain there. "Some people are just curious and want to make friends with me through punching," he says, pulling his shirt back down over his gut. "Others want to challenge me."
Xie's bizarre career path has brought him a modest amount of fame in the country, with news reports about his unique "skill" and videos of various people pummelling his torso being shared a lot on social media. He started his career as a "human punchbag", as he's been dubbed in the press, in the year 2000, letting audience members at a supermarket's promotional dance and singing performances in China's southern Guangdong province whack him for small change. Having moved to Guangdong to work as a construction labourer, he soon found that these performances were more lucrative.
Over the years, as news of his ability spread, he performed (i.e. got punched on stage) in bars for cash and was enlisted by various companies to promote them by doing endurance stunts. One particularly daring stunt involved him having a truck driven over his chest. "That was for a ceramic tile company in Inner Mongolia," he says. "I've never done anything more dangerous than that, though. I also let the company's staff punch me."
Sat in his home in Anlu, he explains that his stomach's resilience allowed him to haul himself up from a tough existence of labouring in Guangdong, where he struggled to make rent and was regularly threatened with eviction. He has said that he can usually earn around 20,000 Yuan (£2,260) a month from his stomach punch antics, but can command up to 40,000 Yuan (£4,500) for a big performance series.
Xie says that the extraordinary resilience of his gut is the result of genetics plus practicing kung fu and qigong, a set of ancient Chinese breathing, posture and meditation techniques. His grandfather's brother, he explains, also practiced kung fu and made money by challenging people to punch him. Xie himself became aware that he was special – or at least that a particular part of his body was – when he was around 16. "I realised that I could always win when fighting with other kids. I never felt any pain."
He claims that he hasn't felt pain from punches any time since that life-changing realisation. "I have been challenged by many martial arts masters and boxers and have never experienced any injuries. I was once on [state TV network] CCTV and got punched by a boxer – they took me to the hospital afterwards for a physical test and the results showed I was in perfect condition. Even from the boxer's punch I didn't feel any pain at all, just a shock of pressure and a warm and comfortable feeling inside."
Xie only feels uncomfortable during his challenges when punters go rogue and aim for his mush instead of his stomach. "There were some challengers who punched me in the face, trying to embarrass me, which made me decide to place my arms in front of my body to defend," he says. He adds that he didn't punch back, despite the obvious temptation. "Normally I react to these kinds of people by just giving them a hug."
Although Xie claims that 16 years of being heavily beaten for a living has not affected him physically, the lifestyle seems to have taken its toll on his personal life. His wife and two grown-up daughters have tried to convince him to get a more conventional job to no avail. His wife, along with one of his daughters, now lives in Guangdong and it is unclear if she and Xie are in a marital relationship beyond the paperwork.
I ask if he feels he is sacrificing his dignity by making such a spectacle of himself, and he reacts with friendly nonchalance. "No. I get more excited as I receive more punches. Before my family thought my job had no dignity, but their attitude changed. Now they neither support nor oppose it."
He may not currently have anyone to share it with in Anlu, but Xie's job has allowed him the chance to buy the shiny new apartment we meet in today. However, as he is paid gig by gig (and often punch by punch), his is not a job with a reliable pension plan. With Xie set to edge into his fifties soon, I ask him if he is considering how long he can keep on being a human punchbag for.
Turns out he's just getting started. "Eighty years old would not be a limit for me," he says with a laugh. "Actually, as I get older I am getting better. If the market is good, I will keep going."
I'd like to think that in 30 years time there would be few people in China willing to land a punch on an 80-year-old man, although I admire Xie's optimism about the long-term resilience of his body. But immediate, relative financial security aside, does all this make him happy and fulfilled?
If his claim of feeling no pain is true, zipping around the country doing performances is surely more fun that working all hours of the day on a construction site for pitiful wages, as he did before. Xie's own social media feeds are filled with photos of him on stage, stomach out, suggesting a strong sense of pride.
Does he enjoy the lifestyle as much as his photo exhibiting suggests? "Not really," he shrugs. "I just say my life is OK. There's no sense of achievement. Singers get paid better than I do, have more respect and no risk." Turns out that social media photo feeds may not be accurate indicators of happiness levels after all. Who knew?
Before I head off I consider asking Xie if he minds me giving his stomach a little whack, just so I can find out what all the fuss is about. But, frankly, the day has been weird enough already, so I decide to leave it.
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