My bed is like an onion: there are layers of blanketing ranging from thin sheets to thicker winter quilts, ransacked from every available cupboard on the evening I moved into my apartment. These are in place to cushion the blow of a mattress that would make a more fitting kitchen bench. This plank - it does not deserve the name mattress - was not placed on my bed by a particularly cruel landlord but is an inevitable part of living in China. The Chinese love a good, hard mattress. In Chinese thought, sleeping on a firm mattress is good for one’s health. Certainly, it’s not only a matter of cultural difference. According to some Western doctors too, if a person is experiencing lower back pain, he should sleep on a firmer mattress. Still, so great is the divide between Chinese and Western mattress preferences that when you stay in a hotel in China, there’s often a choice between the two kinds.
WHY DO THE CHINESE LOVE HARD MATTRESSES?
While bedding in Western history has tended towards comfort and softness - with feathers, wool, and straw stuffed inside cotton casing or animal hides being quite common across different Western countries and across different periods- bedding throughout Chinese history has tended towards firmness to say the least. The kang (炕) bed stove, a clay sleeping platform with an oven beneath, was particularly common in northern China. After a few hours with a fire beneath, the clay would reach an appropriate temperature and remain warm throughout the night. So, the kang bed had something going for it, but it was probably still a hard surface to sleep on. In the south of the country, bamboo matting and bamboo pillows were commonly used. More than anything it needs to be remembered that for much of Chinese history people actually preferred to sleep while squatting – this wonderful ability is still is evidence on long train rides.
BUYING A WESTERN MATTRESS IN SHANGHAI
Cultural differences aside, it is important to offer your spine the right support. A mattress that is too firm supports only the heaviest areas of your body, while a mattress that is too soft does not allow your spine to maintain alignment. For most people in this country, those thin board-like mattresses are simply the most affordable but these days in China, it is possible to buy mattresses made using the same, or similar, techniques and materials that we are used to in the West. Thicker mattresses made with spring coils and various combinations of foam rubber or the currently popular memory foam can be easily found in department stores though quality may vary significantly. One company that is getting great reviews from its customers is SlumberMAAX (www.slumbermaax.com), a Shanghai based online store. Their mattresses are 30 cm thick and made of a 12cm layer of memory foam and a 5cm layer of ultra soft foam all on top of 13cm of high resilience foam for the base. IKEA also provides decent mattresses in a variety of options for firmness and material.
But, if you are not keen to invest in a mattress for the long term, you might consider buying a “topper,” essentially a very thick comforter on which you sleep that provides extra padding. Again SlumberMAAX makes a very good one, but cheaper, less sophisticated ones are available at IKEA, Carrefour, Trustmart, and local bedding stores.
Peel back the onion layers of blankets and make sure your bed has a good foundation. Your back will thank you for it.