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.
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 61/2-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.
Temple of Heaven
The grounds of the Temple of Heaven are so expansive that you need to visit several times to see everything. The stone and wood temple was built in 1420 during the Ming dynasty for imperial prayers for good harvests. The northern end of the 660-acre park is semicircular while the southern end is square, reflecting the Chinese belief that heaven is round and the earth is square.
Just after dawn, light filters through the park's thousands of cypress trees. Fields of lavender blooms are in great supply, and the temple structures are resplendent in burgundy and blue tile.
For those interested in seeing who's doing what where, the grounds can be hard to track. Hear the faint strains of a Chinese yodeler, and he'll be gone by the time you arrive. But there are roughly designated exercise areas, as a few early-morning rambles through the park make clear. At that hour, the park's west side hews to more intimate scenes: friends clustered with their bird cages swinging in the trees, both pet and owner out for a bit of fresh air. In other areas, individuals take their exercise alone, while other groups chant and clap.
The park's east side presents a very different population. The southeast hosts the sword wielders. The Chinese words for exercise literally mean "to forge steel with the body," and these words resonate when viewing Temple of Heaven's groups of armed taiqi enthusiasts.
The northeast draws a far more soulful exerciser, where the waltz and fox trot are carried out in grand style. Lu Mei and Xi Rongli graciously dominated the waltzing on a recent morning. "We come almost every morning to practice, for fun," Lu said. The couple was surrounded by dozens of other less light-footed pairs wheeling around the open grounds in casual separates and suit coats.
Farther north, Zhou Xilu held sway over a group eager to learn what looked like a polka. "Most of my students are already retired," Zhou said. "It's a good way for people to get out and see each other."
As these kinds of public spaces continue to change shape and diminish in the modern capital, she added, the city parks remain one of the best ways for people to stretch, fox trot, leap, spin and dance. "I'm very happy here!" she exclaimed before dancing back into the crowd.
A bit to the north, in an alley just east of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, known locally as Bettor's Lane, the shady benches are overrun with card games, Chinese checkers and chess played in big groups. I sat down along one of these benches; I couldn't keep up with Beijing's retirees. Several people laughed, and one commented that if I came to the parks more often, I wouldn't be so tired.
Beihai, the beautiful network of lakes and greenery above the Forbidden City, is perhaps Beijing's most scenic site for a stroll with the exercising masses. The lake dominates the park, whose Chinese name means North Sea. To the southeast of the lake is the White Dagoba, a hill with a Buddhist shrine constructed in 1651 atop the dirt and debris produced from hollowing out the moat around the Forbidden City. The hill provides one of the best panoramic views of Beijing.
There is a slower pace to the activity of Beihai Park, especially along its eastern corridor, where chilled-out taiqi is the order of the day. Elsewhere, exercisers experiment freely in swordplay, taiqi and water calligraphy.
Li Jingsheng has been paying morning visits to Beihai for the past 40 years. He said he had previously been an entertainer at the park's imperial-style Fang Shan restaurant, where he sang and did impersonations. He did an impromptu goat and a dog for me, followed by a motorcar. "And many people even say I look like Jiang Zemin," he commented solemnly, referring to China's previous president.
Li whipped out his water brushes and began slathering Chinese calligraphy on the park's stone walkway. "Welcome American Friend!" he wrote in bold, flowing characters.
North of the park, a stretch of flashy new cafes offers the perfect spots to duck in for coffee and a pastry. But for those who favor mixing with the locals, head to the park's East Gate, where a small lane, She Shan Men Jie, regularly hosts a tightly packed crowd of hollering vendors and their equally loud patrons, starting around 5 a.m. This is the place to stop in for socks, fish, bananas, footwear or the ubiquitous Beijing 2008 Olympics boating hat. By 9 a.m., the entire market will have shut down and disappeared.
For breakfast here, try a xiaobing jia jidan, or small bread stuffed with egg. "Just like your American hamburgers!" one vendor happily noted.
Caroline Cooper is a freelance writer based in Beijing.