Photo by Andrea Pistolesi
In Shanghai, the sense of parks as a meeting space makes them a rewarding experience for visitors and locals alike.
Soon after sunrise, people begin to gather in parks across the city for their morning exercise. T’ai chi and other holistic approaches to exercise and health are an integral part of Chinese culture. Although, the t’ai chi in Shanghai’s Parks, influenced by the age of participants, tends towards slower movements, more active variations involving swords or sparring with a partner using the ‘pushing hands’ technique are also seen.
“T’ai chi is part of the Chinese culture of exercise with 400 years of history,” says 70-year-old Yi Jidao after finishing his two-hour morning practice session with a group in Xuhui Park. “Many exercises need strength but t’ai chi is soft. It makes you strengthen yourself, it makes you think, and it helps balance your qi (life force).
Eighty-year-old Song Jinshan spent his days playing cards and mahjong in the parks with other retirees until his doctor recommended he take up t’ai chi. That was over a year ago and he is now at Tianshan Park every morning before 7am for a class. “My knees feel better, my body feels better, I started sleeping better and my digestion is better,” Song says. Despite his happiness with this new lifestyle, Song says he sometimes misses the fun of playing mahjong all day with his friends in the park.
Huaihai Park, while close to the city centre, maintains a highly local feel. Locals chat, knit and read newspapers on every available park bench and every table is taken by card players with large groups gathering round to watch the action. Daguailuzi, a type of poker played with two teams of three people, is the most popular game in the park. The participants and onlookers are engrossed in the game but my simple questions turn into long discussions between them all, with jokes and exaggerations played for laughs. “Women cheat the most,” shouts one man. “The one in the red hat is the worst cheater,” counters the only woman at the table.
“It is mostly retired people who come here to play,” starts one man, genuinely enough. “No, it’s not,” breaks in another. “Look at the guy over there, he is 20 and comes here every day. And this one here, how old do you think he is?”
“This is a unique thing in Chinese society,” says a man across the table, taking a second to look up from his hand of cards. “We eat well and we don’t have anything to do, so we come play cards.” That comment draws a lot of laughs and then the game begins again.
Shanghai’s parks provide the structures and spaces that form the backbone of the daily life and social interactions of many locals. Of course, plenty of young people come too. I met my boyfriend playing Frisbee in the park. Young mother Zhai Jiajia brings her infant son so he can play. “I started coming when I was pregnant,” Zhai said. “The air is better here and it is nice and green. My mood feels better, I am more relaxed and it is good for the baby…. It is good to come talk to the other mothers and babies, it lifts your spirits.”
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