China 2006

Working Out in Shanghai

Julie Small Dec 8, 2005

The closer this project gets to deadline the more I have to work out, preferably every day to relieve the stress. So I joined my ambitious boyfriend for a run around the reservoir near our apartment at 6:30 this morning. Ears throbbing and lungs heaving, I started daydreaming of a more tranquil and mentally engaging fitness routine I’d be able to do in China.

In China young, wealthy urbanites go to gyms, just like we do, but the generation that preceded China’s economic boom learned calisthenics at collective farms Chairman Mao sent them to during the Cultural Revolution. They also learned tai chi, fan dancing, badminton and ballroom. The “old people,” as the young people like to call them, congregate at city parks and just about any public square or sidewalk to exercise early in the morning—and I mean early.

The first time I went to Shanghai (back in 1999) my friend Stephen took me to this park to look for his old tai chi teacher. I was pretty cranky about having to get up at 5:30 in the morning to get there, thinking who in their right mind would get up that early for anything? But my crankiness evaporated into awe when we arrived at the park and I saw thousands of people doing their morning exercise routine not just tai chi, but martial arts, fan dancing, rhythmic exercise, ballroom.

I thought this crowd was unique to that park, in that city–maybe an anomaly. So on our scouting trip this year I woke up early to test the theory. I headed toward the riverfront area the Shanghaiese call the Bund. To keep from getting lost I walked along Nanjing Road, a famous pedestrian shopping street that’s hard to miss. Right in the middle of that commercial artery I found them. A group of roughly forty middle aged women in t-shirts, tights and character shoes perfected their cha-cha and rumba dance moves to the blare of a boom box playing Asian pop. The women shuffled their feet to the beat and turned and posed with draped fingers and hands on hips and then burst into giggling.

Further down the street right in front of McDonalds’ golden arches a much larger group of men and women snapped red flags and sliced the air with decorative swords in syncopated movements.

We may think of the Chinese as smart business people, but they are also smart about life. The Chinese believe you should do something for the body and spirit every day and it doesn’t matter where you are. Any open space will do.

The “older people” rise at 5 am, exercise at 6. Next they go shopping and then they go to work.

So by the time most Americans are rolling out of bed, or stuck in traffic (listening to public radio of course) the average Chinese has unified the whole and didn’t even pay a gym fee to do it.

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