XIONG Huan 熊欢

A man practices tai chi in the morning on the grounds of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

Foreign visitors to the Beijing Olympics, and visitors to China at any time who wake up early in the morning and go out to explore, will see people in China’s city parks engaging in unfamiliar physical activities. They might ask themselves, “Is that a sport?” The answer is, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” Some of these activities — such as Chinese folk dance, yangge 秧歌, and shuttlecock kicking, ti jian zi 踢毽 — are traditional, while others such as disco dancing are modern; all have special Chinese characteristics. Some include a degree of competition — a feature of all Western sports — and all require skill, though not necessarily strength.

Since the 1990s Chinese people have begun to pay more attention to the health and fitness of their bodies. To meet people’s demands for sports and exercise at the grassroots level, the Chinese government in 1995 established the National Fitness Program (NFP) 全民健身计划, which aims to promote mass sports activities on an extensive scale, improve the people’s health, and spur the socialist modernization of China.

The government has established fitness programs, built fitness paths in neighborhoods, and conducted fitness tests and surveys nationwide. As a result fitness exercising has boomed in Chinese cities. The most popular and lively spaces to exercise are city parks in the morning.

Parks Are Popular

Chinese parks are mostly located in the inner city, where the transportation system makes travel convenient. Entrance tickets to parks are cheap; some are even free. Chinese people believe the air in the early morning is freshest in parks. The relatively larger spaces and natural environments that parks offer are attractive factors to exercisers. The sports and exercise activities in parks are diverse and substantially based on people’s own preferences and requirements. People can exercise alone or play games with partners or join in group exercises. Qigong, tai chi, disco dancing, yangge, and shuttlecock kicking are the main forms of exercise available to urban Chinese in parks.

Qigong 气功 is a unique Chinese individual exercise. Through their efforts practitioners build up their health and prevent illness by combining disciplines of the mind, the body, and the body’s vital force (qi). There are currently more than 3,300 different styles and schools of qigong. The practice relies on the traditional Chinese belief that the body has something that might be described as an “energy field” generated and maintained by the natural respiration of the body, known as qi, which means “breath” 息 or “gas” 气 in Chinese. The energy produced by breathing keeps us alive. Gong signifies work applied to a discipline or the resultant level of technique. Qigong is then “breath work” or the art of managing one’s breathing in order to achieve and maintain good health, and (especially in the martial arts) to enhance the energy mobilization and stamina of the body in coordination with the physical process of respiration. Qigong is mostly taught for health maintenance purposes, but there are also some who teach it as a therapeutic intervention. Various forms of traditional qigong are also widely taught in conjunction with Chinese martial arts.

The World of Asian Dance

Styles of dance vary from culture to culture. Around the globe, identifiable characteristics may be associated with individual cultures. Traditional Asian dance, for example, has remained closely linked with worship, and generally has adhered to ancient forms and legends in its choreography, costumes, and musical accompaniment. Characteristics of Asian dance movement include a fluid body stance, with a flexible use of the spine. The hips, rib cage, head, and shoulders shift from side to side, while the legs glide in a low level over the ground. The overall movement quality is multi-focused, with a bound (or controlled) flow and a light use of weight. The arms, fingers, hands, and eyes perform subtle and expressive movements, while stylized facial expressions are utilized. In most Asian dance forms, one finds a distinction between more vigorous and athletic dancing for males, and more confined and subtle dancing for females.


Since the sixteenth century Chinese people have performed tai chi to keep their bodies in good condition and to prevent or heal diseases. Tai chi 太极 is also known as tai chi chuan 太极拳, a Chinese form of exercise derived from Daoism 道教, one of China’s oldest belief systems. The practice of tai chi chuan is beneficial to health and it is also a subtle, sophisticated, and scientific method of self-defense. Since this system of exercise is suitable for people of all ages and requires little or no special equipment, it has gained an enthusiastic reception nationwide. Tai chi’s training forms are well known as the slow motion routines that groups of people practice together every morning in parks in Chinese cities.

The movements of both qigong and tai chi are slow and floating in a continuous way. The main goal of both is to keep the body in peace and harmony.

Compared with these traditional exercises, disco dancing, being more vigorous, exciting, and simple, emerged in the 1980s as a new fitness activity. Unlike qigong and tai chi, it features music and requires no special skill. Disco resembles aerobic dance or jazz using hip-swiveling and shoulder-rolling movements, with -hand–clapping and cross steps included. Because disco dancing originated in the West, it is also perceived as having a modern rhythm, an alternative to traditional consciousness.

Starting as a craze among intellectuals, it became popular among workers and peasants, especially people age sixty and older. “Old people’s disco” 老年迪斯科 is said to be one of the “three hots” 三大热潮 or biggest crazes in China along with tai chi and qigong. It was reported that in Shanghai over 100,000 people participate in disco dancing, and in almost every Beijing park in the early morning hours people gathering around cassette players, sometimes wearing heavy coats during the cold winter months.

The Chinese folk dance yangge 秧歌 also is popular in Chinese cities. In the past people danced yangge when celebrating festivals, triumphs, or marriages. Yangge involves dancing slowly in a circle to the accompaniment of a large drum and cymbals. Typically, most dancers are women, and the drummers are men. Women dance in -pastel–colored gauze dresses and wave matching silk scarves or fans. Today, yangge is more a physical exercise than an art performance. It can help people to exercise their arms, legs, and waists. It is also a form of entertainment. In contrast to disco, it also stresses Chinese traditional culture and national identity.

Dating back as far as the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), shuttlecock kicking, ti jian zi, 踢毽子 remains a popular folk sport. It can be seen as a precursor of the modern Western sport of footbag, and is related to the southeast Asian takraw. Whether played as a solitary sport or between two people, shuttlecock kicking builds concentration and strength. The constant movement of the sport makes it an excellent aerobic workout.

To combine Chinese traditional sports with modern elements, some new forms of exercise and sports have been created. For example, taiji dancing combines the rules of taiji with dance. It not only meets the goals of exercise but also brings aesthetic perceptions to those practicing it.

On the Move

With the development of cities, Chinese people’s participation in sports and exercise has merged with new spaces, forms, content, and concepts. Chinese people have begun to regard sports as a way to be entertained and to make their lives richer and more varied. Although elite sports are still tightly controlled by the state, sports at the grassroots level have become individual and social activities and new elements in Chinese urban life.

Source: Xiong Huan. (2008). Tai chi in the park: is it a sport? In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. 78–80. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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