Discipline and Distinction in the Age of the Internet

The New Face of Fitness in China

In China, sports were initially seen as a way to strengthen the nation politically. Schools back then focused on getting students fit to show off the country’s power. When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, physical fitness became a national duty, symbolizing the strength of the nation.

Things changed in the late 90s, and after the 2008 and 2022 Beijing Olympic Games, sports became really popular in China. The internet and mobile apps played a big role in this shift, bringing workouts from gyms to our phones and reflecting Western culture’s influence. To understand this change, the article uses theories from famous thinkers like Foucault, Elias, and Baudrillard. It also talks about a popular fitness app called Keep as an example.

Breaking the Boundaries

Foucault, a famous thinker, believed that space plays a huge role in how power and knowledge interact. In his view, closed spaces, like classrooms, were important to control people and ensure discipline. But fitness apps like Keep have shaken things up. With Keep, people can work out anywhere they want, like at home or in a park, instead of being stuck in a gym. This “liquidity” of space makes exercising more flexible and accessible.

Keep also changes how we see and interact with each other when it comes to fitness. Instead of a few people (like teachers or guards) watching over many people, the app creates a community where everyone can see and support each other (the many watching the many). There’s also an “experts” section, where fitness pros share articles, videos, and advice, and users can follow them (the many watching the few). This new way of watching and being watched changes the power dynamics in the world of fitness. Time strategy in fitness apps like Keep is all about organization and structure. Keep’s approach is inspired by the way schools break down learning into stages and grades.

The app has a “Movement repertoire” section that ranks 55 types of exercises from simple to complex. Each exercise has a difficulty rating and is categorized for beginners or experts. This setup creates a sense of structure and progress, making fitness more standardized and less casual.Keep also uses a “rhythmic” time strategy, encouraging users to rest and recover while following a routine. This mirrors Western ideas of “modern time” and makes everyone’s fitness journey more uniform. The app even suggests using small chunks of free time for quick workouts, leaving little room for leisure and further standardizing how we use our time.

The Knowledge Strategy

Foucault and Descartes had different views on knowledge and rationality. Foucault challenged Descartes’ idea that people are inherently rational and that science is the ultimate form of rationality. Fitness apps like Keep lean more towards Descartes’ rationalist perspective.

Keep stores tons of fitness info and expertise, centralizing knowledge within the app. Users might feel like they have a lot of freedom to choose their workouts and nutrition plans, but in reality, the experts behind the app set the limits. This shift highlights a move towards a more modern, rationalist way of thinking in the fitness world.

The Secret of Self-discipline

Self-discipline and social distinction play a big role in the growing fitness trend among the Chinese middle class. Elias, a thinker, noticed that as society becomes more modern, people pay more attention to their bodies and how they’re perceived by others. They’re afraid of losing social status, so they work on their appearance to stand out and improve their position.

The commercial side of fitness also feeds this trend. Society has shifted from focusing on producing things to consuming them. Fitness apps like Keep offer users tons of products and choices, from protein powders to workout programs. This makes fitness not just about physical improvement, but also about consuming the latest and greatest fitness products to stay on top of the game.

Code Manipulation

In the past, social status was all about having fancy things to show off. But as society has changed, we now value function more. This means that to gain status, people need to buy and display products that have a purpose, or “use-value.”

Our bodies have become a kind of product in this consumer-driven world. Health and beauty are super important, so taking part in fitness activities and buying related products (like workout clothes, supplements, and diets) can help boost our social status. Basically, looking fit and healthy, and using the right fitness gear, shows others that we’re keeping up with modern trends and expectations.

Time Consumption

The push to consume more, including in fitness, often comes from concerns about identity and social status. The middle class is especially motivated to stand out, including when it comes to their bodies. Studies show that students and white-collar workers are the main users of online fitness services.

What sets fitness apart from other types of consumption is the need for “time currency.” Transforming your body takes dedication and persistence over months or even years. Time doesn’t discriminate, making it a unique factor in the world of fitness.

This “time currency” aspect makes fitness more appealing to the middle class. Working class folks might not have enough free time to focus on fitness, while the upper class might have a more relaxed attitude and not worry as much about what others think. So, it’s the middle class who are most drawn to the fitness industry.

Moral display and Self-writing

The Keep app tries to add intrinsic value to fitness by showing users motivational quotes and slogans. For instance, users see “Self-discipline gives me freedom!” when they open the app, and other quotes when they pause a workout. These messages help justify the time spent on fitness and promote individual growth, aligning with the values of an individualistic society.

Users can also write about their fitness journey in the “community” and “fitness diary” sections. Writing has a dual purpose: it shares information but can also hide or replace info based on what’s left out. Foucault saw writing as a way to control people, like prison guards or doctors documenting their subjects. The internet expands this power even more. The Keep app collects data on users’ fitness habits, locations, and purchases, feeding it to big tech companies that can then use it to encourage more engagement and consumption within the app.


The transition from a traditional Eastern society to a modern, internet-driven, and consumer-oriented society influenced by Western values has created a new way of disciplining the body. External discipline strategies, like those described by Foucault, have evolved into spatial strategies that focus on flexibility and visibility, a linear and rhythmic understanding of time, and a centralized approach to knowledge. The fitness industry is unique in that it involves self-discipline through code manipulation, time investment, moral displays, and self-expression, shaping the way people engage with their bodies and fitness.

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