Beijing's Parks: Get Up and Go

Sword wielders practice their craft at the Temple of Heaven, an expansive public park in central Beijing.
Sword wielders practice their craft at the Temple of Heaven, an expansive public park in central Beijing. (By Caroline Cooper)
By Caroline Cooper
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 7, 2005

The sweet strains of high-volume Chinese poetry should always be cause for further investigation. On a recent visit to Beijing's Ditan Park, I found Zhang Liwei, 66, a retired accountant, standing inches from a stone wall, belting ancient Chinese poems with his nose to the mortar. His voice was a deep baritone with good range. Zhang favors Tang dynasty classics as well as selections from the Beijing Opera.

"I come here most mornings to open up the lungs," he said in Chinese. "And to get ready for the day ahead." Dressed casually in gray pants, a windbreaker and the canvas Chinese sports shoes favored by the People's Liberation Army, he followed his private recital with some deep lunges and a few windmill circles of the arms. "If you don't come out in the morning to wake up, how will you be alive? What kind of life is that?"

It's a question much of Beijing's growing elderly population asks itself every morning. With a growth rate of 5.3 percent per year in a city of nearly 15 million, Beijingers 65 and older are in good company, and in good shape. And they're finding each other in early-morning visits to the capital's many public parks, where they turn out in droves to exercise and socialize.

Amid rapid redevelopment and the increasingly frenzied preparations for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese capital is undergoing a process of urbanization that threatens, many say, to erase much of what has made the capital distinctive. As Beijing continues to reinvent itself and traditional neighborhoods disappear, a stroll through one of the city's parks reveals sides of a lively public life that may otherwise go unnoticed.

There is no better time to see the action than between 6 and 8 a.m., when residents of a particularly plucky stripe take to the city's many parks and green spaces to stretch, walk, run, walk backward, slap their faces, pull their earlobes, or clap and chant in groups. People are generally out in the hundreds, and their ranks swell more in summer.

For a fine morning in the Chinese capital, spend an hour or two walking through any of the parks outlined here, then tuck into a breakfast of steamed buns, dumplings or rice porridge at any of the small eateries clustered around the main park entrances. Though most park-goers, like most of Beijing, speak only Mandarin Chinese, non-Chinese speakers can get by fine simply strolling through the parks and observing the scene.

Ditan Park

Just north of the Lama Temple outside Beijing's Second Ring Road, Ditan Park (Temple of Earth) is a 40-acre square of towering pine and cypress trees. It was built in 1530 during the Ming dynasty as a place where emperors of both the Ming and subsequent Qing dynasties could perform sacrifices to the gods for good harvests, auspicious weather and a stable nation.

Ditan Park is one of Beijing's most diverse morning venues. Not far from the southern entrance, Li Xiuping regularly takes a small group of followers through a series of high kicks and deep lunges. She gave me her card. "Member of the Chinese Kungfu Academician. First Class of Social Sports Trainer. Fourth Sect of Chinese Kungfu," it reads in both Chinese and English. The sixtysomething Li proceeded to kick a nearby tree several times to emphasize her point.

In another section of Ditan Park, Mr. Wu, a retired general who preferred to be identified only by his surname, stood with three of his friends. Wu said they come to this spot every morning to practice their wushu martial art moves, sip from thermoses of tea and chat. He demonstrated some twirling wushu, best practiced with a long sword or baton. "I don't have the traditional gun used to execute these steps," he acknowledged with a grin, referring to the traditional Chinese martial arts baton. "Just this old thing."

The silver rod glinted in the early-morning light as Wu and his friends took turns whipping and twirling. Closer inspection of the forbidding weapon revealed it to be a shower curtain rod.

"This thing has many uses, yes," Wu commented. "Here, you have a try." A morning visit to the park should be undertaken with the understanding that your own skills may be called upon at any moment.

In Ditan Park's officially designated exercise area, yellow and blue devices stand ready to be pulled, pushed, hoisted and leaned upon as people go through their morning routines. Liu Mingli, 67, pulls himself up and over a 6 1/2 -foot bar "about 30 times" every morning. "It's my way of waking up," he said, adding that he has been coming to the park every morning for seven years. 76,440 would be a modest estimate of the number of times he has swung up and over that bar to date.

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