Exercise culture in China

In Shanghai, stumbling across a group of people doing Taiji at 7 in the morning, or couples attempting to ballroom dance to 1970's Chinese music in small little enclaves near the road is pretty common. I've always enjoyed watching people do their exercise routines in China, even in the small exercise park in my apartment complex. However, I never really gave it much thought. While in Hangzhou, I was able to see some really great examples of the physical activity culture in China, and talking with other Fulbrighters allowed me to think about this exercise culture much more thoroughly.

My first encounter with this in Hangzhou, which I have seen previously in China (specifically in Zengcheng), was a sort of line dancing or jazzercise group in park. It is usually a group of people from ages 35-60 who get together, play older cheesy Chinese music, and dance simple steps in a group. We stumbled across this our first night in Hangzhou walking around the lake and decided to join in. All four of us danced one dance that we assume was from a movie or something because everyone seemed to know it; we enjoyed it a lot because it involved a little bit of hip shaking. :) (you can see the couples dancing together

The next morning, Melissa and I climbed Wushan where we got to see much more of this physical activity culture. We saw groups of people doing Taiji and sword dances. There were people playing badminton, and others were ballroom dancing (the cheers and music overlapped in a kind of funny way). And there were individuals exercising too; I saw many people walking up the mountain backwards, some of them carrying birds (such as the man on the right), which Melissa explained to me was a "bird culture," where people with birds hang their cages up in one location so they can chirp and spend time outdoors together. Others were stretching, like one man who looked over 60 years old and was doing the splits, or a woman who was repeatedly touching her toes. And we saw all of this, hundreds of people participating in these activities, before 6:30 AM on a Wednesday. Most of them were in their 40s or 50s, but I would estimate the age bracket to be 35-70.

This caused Melissa and I to talk about the exercise culture in China and how it compares to our exercise culture in America, especially among older Americans. We certainly have a very active gym culture in America, and even among older (from 35-70) Americans there are a variety of physical activities in which one can participate. Some of these include aerobics classes (my mom really likes Jazzercise), synchronized swimming, or more unusual ones like my 85 year old grandmother's cheer leading squad (not kidding...) Of course, many Americans also participate in outdoor activities; in Colorado, many people have mountain bikes worth more than their cars, people come from all over the world to teach snowboarding in the Colorado Rockies, and I know many others who complete their daily workout routine at Red Rocks.

But this is not true of the average American. There is not a huge culture surrounding our exercise routine. Melissa, I think, hit upon the main difference between the exercise culture in American and in China. In America, almost all of our physical activity culture for older Americans is based around membership, thus bringing an issue of class into our exercise culture. Most group activities involved paid memberships; the main fads now are yoga, kickboxing, gym membership. Many retirement communities offer such activities, but again, there is the issue of membership. Most Americans of lower classes can't afford to be a part of this physical activity culture; in fact, oftentimes obesity is a mark of a lower class rather than a higher class.

This is not the case in China. One does not need to go to smaller cities like Hangzhou (with its population of 7 million...) to see this kind of exercise culture; older Chinese people do Taiji in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong every morning (there are Hangzhou people doing Taiji on the right). Furthermore, much of their physical activity includes people of all classes (however, those who frequent Western gyms are often of a higher class and education level). There is a very strong group dynamic, be it Taiji in the morning or dancing at night. Another distinction is age; while many people my age in America are found at the gym, most people participating in these activities are of an older generation. A final interesting point to make is the more traditional nature of these activities; while some play badminton or just go jogging, plenty others prefer Taiji, sword dancing, fan dancing (which another Fulbrighter has taken up) and other activities with a base in Chinese medicine (see the sword dancing to the left).

It would be interesting to find out why this is. The concept of health for the wealthy in America is a common topic (whether you look at the current presidential election or Law and Order SVU). I admit, I know too little about the concept to make a good argument for why that is (but if I get a stroke of brilliance, I will post it; in the meantime, I welcome ideas from others). Could it be that in America we don't have the same traditions that the Chinese have when it comes to physical activity? The American upper classes certainly love Taiji, yoga, and kickboxing, none of which are American, or even Western, in origin. But I feel like that is not a legitimate answer.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to look at the differences between our physical activity culture and China's. Another interesting topic to bring up is the younger generation. Very rarely do we see people our age up at 6 in the morning doing Taiji or jogging (like the man to the right). There are gyms on college campuses, but they are not as built up or as busy as our American gyms are. All Chinese children are trained, however, in physical activities from the communist era. Over the loudspeakers on college campuses, and in elementary and secondary schools, we can hear the "yi, er, san, si..." (1,2,3,4...) set to the inspirational revolutionary music. All children learn these exercises in school, and are given the option to continue them in college. However, while I have often heard these exercises between 9 and 10 AM, I have never actually seen anyone DO them. Perhaps this is because it is reminiscent of a very structured education; perhaps it is because no college student wants to get up at 9 AM to do high school exercises.

But it makes one wonder what will happen to this generation. Will they, as they grow older, inherit their parent's exercise habits? Has the fact that children are now exclusively taught in school this communist exercise regime forced them to abandon physical activity altogether? And even when we look at this older generation, where did they learn these traditional activities, which were mostly crushed during the Mao era and are now making a return? Certainly the communists, and the nationalists before them emphasized the importance of physical fitness. In fact, some of Mao's earliest writings are about the importance of physical education, and how a nation of physically strong bodies creates a strong nation (this was in the 1920s). In fact, in the 1920s, physical education teachers were in high demand simply because there was such an emphasis on strong bodies = strong nation. Many authors, such as Wang Zheng and Susan Brownell, demonstrate the government's strong emphasis on physical fitness; this seemed to be exacerbated by the recent Beijing Olympics. Therefore, all of these people now getting up early to exercise were taught with this patriotic mindset. Could this be why they all focus on it now? Maybe these people too, as 20 year olds, did not start to worry about physical fitness until they grew older.

There is still a lot unanswered, and a lot assumed. I would love to hear what more people have to say, since these are just my observations. As for those who know just as much as I do, I hope this gives a bit of insight into the differences between our physical activity culture and China's.

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