Friday, 30 September 2016

An Ode to China's Parks

Taken in Beijing's Ritan Park and Shanghai's People's Square Park

Drop the word “China” and most people’s connotations back home will be something related to: larger-than-life factories, pollution, sprawling cities, sky scrapers and most likely roast duck pancakes… This is not an incorrect interpretation of China (I myself have managed to consume three roast duck sittings while in Beijing for four weeks), but it is by no means representative. One of my favourite and most memorable parts of visits to China has actually been - in between the sprawling city and neck-craning skyscrapers - its local parks. In fact, that they are nestled between all the urban mania makes them all the more likeable. Usually you walk through a grand old gate painted in red, blues and greens, and you feel like you’ve stepped out of the city and into a picture book depicting a Utopian “Chinese culture” scene. Except it’s not a picture book, you're walking through it not knowing where to look first.

As you walk around the flower beds and ancient trees, you take in locals - usually elderly people with their grandchildren - taking part in all kinds of outdoor activities. This morning I made the brilliant decision to visit Ritan Park in East Beijing, and came across, in no particular order, mostly retired people taking part in the following: 
  • Meditation
  • Tai chi
  • Badminton
  • Diablo practise
  • Chinese instrument playing (both wind and percussion - I don’t know their names)
  • Gym practise
  • Jogging
  • Sword tai chi
  • Fan tai chi
  • An elderly man animatedly teaching his friends tai chi with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth
  • Badminton acrobatics
  • Ball room dancing
  • Coordinated dance routines
  • Kite flying
  • Card playing
  • Stretching
  • Chinese medicinal exercise

After walking around and exchanging curious looks with locals, as well as asking for photos and videos which they were more than happy to agree to, I had to leave for work. Just as I was about to walk back out through the colourful gate, I came across an elderly man painting calligraphy into the floor using a large sponge attached to a long handle and water. Not only were his poems beautifully written in water but perfectly spaced in four rows of seven characters each. As I chatted in Mandarin to a fellow onlooker about where I was from and my love for calligraphy, this elderly man expelled any misconceptions I might have had of him by enquiring in minimally accented English “British? What part?” and engaging in a conversation explaining where he had learnt his high level of English, what the characters in the poem meant, that this water calligraphy had become his obsession which he practised for over four hours a day. At my response that this was a very good addiction to have, he laughed heartily and continued to tell me a little about his life. When the conversation was turned over to me and I mentioned I was born in Spain, this elderly Chinese man immediately switched to minimally accented Spanish to tell me about how he had been taught by a very famous Spanish communist teacher who had fled Franco’s Spain to teach Spanish in China. Wow. 

I left the park feeling so light, so educated, so grateful to have had that experience - and it wasn’t even 10 o’clock in the morning. Despite the lows I’ve encountered in China, I will without a doubt miss these chance encounters with wise strangers and these organic, but nevertheless impossibly picturesque, local scenes. 

Photos taken on an iPhone 6

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  1. Only downsides here was that I’m not sure if they were expecting such a crowd as they did not have nearly enough servers and sometimes it would take a really long time for service guy to come. But at event space they tried to keep a smiles on their face.


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