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Why the Chinese Hang Their Blankets in the Sun

On sunny days cities in China become blanketed in . . . blankets. Here’s why.

The blankets and bed sheets come out on sunny days in China. They cover swing sets, pull up bars, bench backs, railings on bridges, and entire lawns. At first you think that everybody must have decided to wash their bed stuff at the same time and hung it all out to dry, but then you realize that it is simply not probable for so many people to go through the arduous task of washing so many blankets altogether. Then you ask someone, and have your suspicions confirmed: nope, most of the blankets that are laid out in the sun are not drying, they’re disinfecting.

Solar cleansing is an old custom that many, many cultures in the world had or still have. In El Salvador, people disinfect their drinking water by putting it in plastic soda bottles and setting them out in the sun. The premise here is simple: ultraviolet light kills bacteria, fungi, parasites, and all that other potentially pernicious fugly stuff that grows in water, on skin, blankets, and bed sheets. Hanging bed stuff out in the sun is a simple, cheap, chemical free way of disinfecting it.

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This practice hasn’t worn off in modern China. In fact, it’s almost too common. This is a country that has no use for the clothes dryer — the very concept seems overtly stupid to most Chinese — as they don’t only hang their laundry out to dry but to be solar cleansed as well (anyway, why would anybody buy a machine to do something that the sun does for free?). It gets interesting when thousands and thousands of people who follow this custom are crammed in together in high-density housing structures, as on sunny days just about every outdoor surface that a piece of linen can be hung upon, laid upon, or spread over is covered.

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I never observed this custom taken to such an extent before as when I walked into Duchang, in Jiangxi province. I cut into town after walking along the banks of Poyang Lake, crossed a bridge, and looked up to find a city completely hidden beneath a layer of blankets, sheets, long underwear, and pillow cases. Everything was decorated, the entire town that was a rolling sea of plaids, blues, reds, and off-whites. Trees sprouted underwear and t-shirts, the ground was turfed in bed sheets, railings wore colorful quilts, bushes were suited up with pajamas, and the sides of apartment buildings were almost fully blanketed. Sticks and poles were even haphazardly set up to hold even more quilts and sheets. Walking through this place was like stomping down a street that was decked out for some kind of parade. Though I was well aware of the solar disinfecting custom here, I had never seen it so extensively displayed. I thought for a moment that maybe this town had some kind of pre-Lunar New Year cleansing ritual or something, and I made a couple of school girls recoil in laughter when I asked them about it.

No, stupid, it’s not a festival, it’s just our laundry.

It was just a sunny day.

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Everybody in the developing world/ tropics/ cultures that have retained their folk knowledge knows that things can be disinfected by the sun. It is interesting how this ancient concept has virtually been lost — or is now novel — in over-developed countries. Today, this extremely simple practice has being packaged up into complex electronic devices and sold to Westerners for wads of cash. Steripens do the exact same thing to a glass of water as the sun. The Chinese disinfect their blankets by laying them outside. It really doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.

I don’t really feel like showering today, maybe I will go lay outside in the sun instead. Would that work?

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solar-disinfecting-china-laundry

Filed under: Asia, China, Culture and Society, Solar

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3396 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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4 comments… add one

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  • steve57 January 30, 2014, 7:01 am

    After living in China for a long time I’ve realized why this is a good idea. In the humid southern and eastern parts of China, even in winter, blankets will start to smell of mold if you don’t cook them with sunshine once in a while. Same is true of pillows. After sitting in the sun all day, blankets usually smell pretty good. Another thing is that the sunshine seems to keep dust mites under control and you’re less likely to get get skin irritation from a blanket that goes in the sun regularly. I have a south facing window with a big windowsill, putting blankets there during the day achieves this.

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    • Wade Shepard January 30, 2014, 8:29 pm

      That’s true, it does leave clothes and blankets smelling and feeling good. There’s nothing like sun dried sheets.

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  • frankr February 2, 2014, 12:51 am

    UV won’t kill worm eggs (roundworms, hydatid and other tapeworms, toxoplasma gondii, etc). These eggs are specifically designed to sit dormant on grass or other vegetation in full sunshine for years until an intermediate host eats them. Nor will most chemicals. Filtering is the only thing that works. The filter can be fairly coarse however, since these eggs are fairly large (like 10 microns or larger, versus .2 microns for bacteria). The steripen prefilter, for example, at 4 microns, is specifically designed to screen worm eggs. Perhaps a moot point, since in practice, most worm eggs are ingested from uncooked food rather than water.

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  • Gar February 5, 2014, 11:20 pm

    In the Ozarks where I was born, this used to be a common practice. Not only did it “air out” the bedding and make it smell better, it got rid of bedbugs.

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