Beijing, 24 August 2013

For several weeks now, as I walk to work in the morning along my piece of canal, I have crossed paths with an old gentleman, a Senior Citizen, who is dressed in casual sporting gear and walking backwards. And clapping as he walks – backwards.

He is exercising.

I’ve been in China nearly four years now, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to some of the odder exercise habits which I’ve seen here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it does the exercisers good, or at least no wrong. For instance, several web-sites I have visited earnestly explain that walking backwards is actually a very good exercise because it uses muscles that would not otherwise get a good workout. I suppose I can buy that, but in addition, to give it a Chinese philosophical twist, they say that walking backwards sort-of rewinds you and rebalances your karma. Don’t ask me how that works, I’m just reporting what I’ve read. As for clapping, yet other web-sites have informed me that this liberates the clapper of his or her stresses. OK, I buy that too. Certainly better to take the stresses out bit by bit through clapping than all at once by punching someone in the nose. These web-sites add yelling to the list of stress-removing exercises. I’m not so sure about this one. There was a moment when some man on the other side of the canal was always declaiming something in a loud – and I mean loud! – voice when I walked by in the morning. It may have been releasing his stresses, but it was surely building up mine. Mercifully, he disappeared after a while. Perhaps the fishermen told him to bugger off.

The Chinese also have a habit of beating and slapping themselves, on the arms, on the legs, on the face. I still remember very clearly the first time I saw this. I had been in China no more than a week, and was on a plane to somewhere. As we were coming in to land, a woman on the other side of the aisle, who up to that moment had looked perfectly normal, started vigorously – and I mean vigorously! – punching herself, first on the face and then on the legs. No-one else seemed phased by this behaviour but I stared at her in a manner that, if it had been my kids doing it, I would have told them that it was rude to stare at people so. I think this muscular self-pummeling has something to do with encouraging the blood’s circulation, rather like the Finns who flagellate themselves with birch twigs after cooking in saunas.

This last point brings us towards TCM – traditional Chinese medicine – where I have also seen some weird and wonderful things, but I won’t go there today. I’ll stay on exercise.

There are also some fairly normal types of exercises which the Chinese indulge in. One set which I rather fancy is the use of these open-air gyms, which public authorities have thoughtfully placed in many city squares and even on the side of many pavements:

exercise machines-1

We’ve tried a number of these machines, especially the following one:

exercise machines-2

I’ve no idea what you call it; a maxi-strider? Because, as the lady to the left is amply demonstrating, that’s what you do, you swing your legs through these huge strides. I felt like I had been at sea for six months when I got off. Very odd effect.

And then, because this is a country where there are people everywhere, everywhere, all the time, and because of lingering attachments to their communist past, where the individual drowned himself in the mass, the Chinese are fond of communal exercise. My favourites in this category are fan dancing:
fan dance-1
ballroom dancing:
ballroom dancing-1
and of course, best of all, Tai Chi:
Tai Chi as the symbol of China is somewhat cheesy now, but I have a magic Tai Chi memory from my very first trip to Beijing. It was 2001 or 2002, we were driving in from the airport early in the morning, and it seemed that every park, every open space was filled with people slowly, silently, smoothly moving through the balletic steps of Tai Chi. And if any of my readers have the chance to see Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Chung Kuo, grab it.

chung kuo

Apart from showing a fascinating picture of China when it was still closed to foreigners – it was filmed in 1972 – there is a breathtaking sequence when the cameraman filmed for what seems an eternity a man doing Tai Chi as he bicycled along without holding the handlebars.

I keep telling my wife we should learn Tai Chi, and she keeps pretending not to hear. But one day, I will prevail! So that when we finally retire, you will find us early in the morning, in some Italian piazza, slowly going through our Tai Chi moves before having our cappuccino and brioche for breakfast.

old couple tai chi


Exercise machines-1: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-ZeBmA8vPHeU/TbHjkv9UmWI/AAAAAAAABkc/BDYunnXTi9A/s400/park%2Bin%2Bhutong.jpg
Exercise machines-2: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2011/9/20/1316525669182/People-exercising-in-a-Ch-005.jpg
Fan dancing: http://justincalderon.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/xujiahui-park-011.jpg
Ballroom dancing: http://www.usa-rom.com/photography/albums/userpics/10004/Shanghai_China_0529.JPG
Tai chi: http://www.pyroenergen.com/articles08/images/tai-chi2.jpg
Old couple doing Tai Chi: http://images.colourbox.com/thumb_COLOURBOX6239057.jpg