A cultural revolution to make London sit up and take notice

Marina Hyde in Beijing
The Guardian, Tuesday 12 August 2008

Jiao Bingcheng is hanging upside down, virtually in a splits position, from a set of monkey bars. Building up his swing, he pivots 180 degrees, draws his legs together, and pushes up into a locked-arm handstand.

If this sounds pretty unremarkable during the Olympics, it should probably be mentioned that Jiao is nowhere near the gymnastic events taking place across Beijing at the National Indoor Stadium. And that he is 76 years old.

Every morning, shortly after sunrise, this former factory worker and up to two thousand mostly retired Chinese descend on Ditan Park in the city’s Dongcheng district, where they spend between one and three hours exercising amongst the trees. “No absence,” says Jiao, “no matter the weather.” The ritual – frankly astonishing to Western eyes – is replicated all over town, as some participate in dance, or the traditional game of ti jian, where a sort of shuttlecock is kicked around like a hacky sack. Others stick to the Chinese tradition of tai chi, and the rest use the simple public exercise contraptions that positively litter Beijing, spread through the parks or fixed in trails down the quieter streets.

Ditan Park was created in the Ming dynasty as a location for the emperors to make sacrifices to the heavens in the pursuit of good weather, bountiful harvests and a stable nation. These days, the preposterous good health of its regulars is enough to make you suspect a pact with the guy downstairs. Not all are as jaw-droppingly youthful as Jiao – though his feats are matched elsewhere – but British ideas about old age suddenly feel like nothing more than faraway local customs. It’s like falling asleep and waking up in Cocoon.

“I come every day for two hours,” says Xie, a woman dressed in workaday trousers and a loose patterned shirt, and quietly engaged in twisting her upper body against a rudimentary but perfectly designed resistance contraption. She tries to do a couple of hundred repetitions each morning, before moving on to other stretches. Xie is 82, and once you’ve picked yourself off the floor, she’s good enough to point out that you could have the same flexibility if you put in the practice.

At least in Cocoon it was all down to some purloined extra-terrestrial life force. The elixir here appears to be nothing more than regular exercise and ingrained self-discipline, and you do not know the meaning of shame until 79-year-old Ma Ruikui has giggled as you fail to come even close to replicating his stretches. Zhou Chunrong, 70, wheels her chair here every day, before spending three hours working to build up her back after an operation.

Most of these people were factory workers until their retirement at 60, when they took up exercise, seeing it in part as a social activity but primarily their responsibility to maintain their health. Mao declared that the Chinese should civilise their spirits and be brutal on their bodies. Between bewildering bouts of contortions, 60-year-old Xiang Xian boasts “I have never had a cold”, and in the interests of prolonging that impressive run, this former security worker does a mountain climb twice a week. Younger Chinese may be seduced by the burgeoning gym culture, but these people believe exercise in the open air attends to both the body’s yin and yang qualities. “I can’t say that you Westerners are wrong,” one Ditan regular explained recently, “but you pursue a different objective. Whereas we aspire to health, you aspire to size, speed and strength.”

Seven years ago, none of Beijing’s exercise stations were there, though the tradition of hitting the parks for dancing, tai chi and ti jian was long established. In 2001 Chinese authorities began commissioning the basic manual machines, and a company called Beijing Shining Star Sports Goods claims to be responsible for most of them. Today they say they “have begun to serve people on each corner of the world”.

Globally exported, relatively inexpensive and a stunningly visible statement of a country’s desire to address its citizens’ health – is there anything in this simple, low-maintenance scheme to pique the interest of London’s 2012 “sporting legacy” planners? Yes, London: that far-off land where the increasingly familiar sight of mobility scooters outside pubs suggests either that late-capitalism is a mixed blessing, or that bold initiatives are called-for in the run-up to the Games. Free swimming for the over 60s is a step in the right direction, but given 2012′s stated commitment to halting society’s slide into obesity, surely it would make sense for Gerry Sutcliffe’s fact-finding tour of Beijing to swing by Ditan Park one of these early mornings?

“We will definitely take a look at it,” the sports minister told the Guardian last night. “I do think it’s about trying to bring about this culture change with 2012, and we’ve certainly got the parks.” (The fact they’re mostly locked at night might assuage the inevitable concerns about vandalism). “In fact,” Sutcliffe continued, “one of the things we’ve certainly noticed over here is people’s willingness to get involved in exercise out in public spaces. It’s very inspiring, isn’t it?” No one who has started a day in Ditan Park could disagree.

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