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Courtesy of Lindsey Dawson.
When you’re a tourist it’s hard to get in amongst the lives of people in other countries. You see them hurrying about on their daily round but there are few glimpses of their quieter times.
It’s different in Chinese cities, possibly because their living spaces are so small that they need to get outside to stretch and socialise.
One of your classic tourist experiences is to go out walking early in the morning when the locals are working at keeping mind and body in tip-top shape.
In parks and tree-shaded streets they settle in the daily tai chi routine, sometimes with swords in hand. Sometimes there’s music, delivered by battery-driven boom-boxes. There’s line-dancing of a sort, and couples fox-trotting with style. When the music tracks clash, nobody cares. A hacky-sack type of kicking game called Jianzi is popular too, using a shuttlecock made of feathers and disks.
Most are retirees. Women can retire in China at 55, men at 60. The one-child policy is creating a country top-heavy with seniors and it looks to the visitor’s eye as if the oldies are working very hard to stay in good nick, mentally and physically.
They don’t need gyms as we know them because they’re adept at solitary calisthenics, slapping chests, backs and arms to promote good circulation and using trees for resistance exercises.
Tai chi has a 500-year-old history and just watching people perform its slow stretches and balancing poses has the power to remind you to stop and breathe.
I hungered to know some Mandarin so I could talk to some of them. Such lives they’ve had! They’ve survived the Cultural Revolution in the ‘60s, ridden China’s push for more prosperity in recent times, and have got used to knowing that maybe one precious grandchild is all they’ll ever have.
The one-child policy is being changed in some places. A pilot programme is allowing young parents who are themselves singletons to have a second baby. It turns out the pressure on lone young Chinese to look after so many elders has proved too much. Few oldies want to live in nursing homes, with only 11-12% in a recent urban survey saying they would be willing to move and could afford the average fee of about $NZ200 a month.
I chatted with one young woman who had a brother – but only because her parents could afford to pay the big fee required. In country districts the ban still holds firm and international outrage erupted recently over a provincial mother forced to have her seven-month unborn baby aborted because she hadn’t handed over the $8000 needed for official approval of a second child.
The fuss only died down when she was granted compensation from the local government of around $NZ14,120 – a fortune for the average Chinese and enough to buy a car.
It’s easy for us to criticize the one-child policy but you have to go there to get a sense of the immensity of the population. My only slightly scary moments in China happened at the Forbidden City in the centre of Beijing. It took being caught up in a crush of thousands of local tourists to make me realize the mammoth challenge China has in governing, feeding and leading its vast community of souls.
Meanwhile the seniors, who’ve had to cope with so much change and turmoil, keep going out each morning to move, talk and laugh, and to take care of themselves and each other.
The most moving moment of my few days in Beijing was stumbling upon a choir singing in a grove of ancient cypress trees. A conductor on a box cajoled and encouraged hundreds of singers, young and old, as they raised their voices in a communal outpouring of energy. See the video for a little taste of an everyday morning spent in song…
Air New Zealand flies direct to Shanghai five times weekly.
Fares start from $1662 return including taxes.
For further information and to book visit www.airnewzealand.co.nz
By Lindsey Dawson