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Home  /  Inside China  /  Yangsheng recreation for the old – socialist China meets neoliberal modernity
Yangsheng recreation for the old – socialist China meets neoliberal modernity print version
tiantan_old_1544Visitors in Chinese parks, early in the morning or late afternoon, encounter a vibrant scene of retired Chinese engaging in all sorts of recreational activities. What lies under this passion and how these activities represent new sociocultural developments in Chinese society?
Numerous elder Chinese have a desire to remain fit and to nurture their health. Some of them even fulfill this need by swimming in icy lakes and pushing their  bodies to efforts that they had not met even in its younger years. Yet the recreational activities of retired Chinese are not merely a personal hobby but rather a social gathering, perhaps the most lively hours in one's social routine.

The double objective of taking care of the body while enjoying social encounters is partially attributed to the fact that the outdoors is in fact the best place to meet, and no 'party' can offer more excitement for these veterans than a sunny bodily stretch. The fact that many old Chinese live in small apartments or become a burden on the shoulders of their children makes the outdoors an ideal choice, liberating both parents (or grandparents) and children.

Most elder Chinese refer to this type of activities as yangshen, which means 'body nourishment' or 'taking care of one's health'. Methods of yangsheng have been instructed by ancient Chinese traditions long ago, through bodily balancing techniques of Chinese medicine or by Confucian practices of self-cultivation. It is therefore not surprising that yangsheng carries a holistic meaning, referring not necessarily only to physical exercise but possibly to any recreation that nurtures the body and soul (calligraphy, singing, dancing, etc.). For some participants, it can even have moral implications as a ritual that negotiates with important social customs.

Another dimension of the yangsheng activities stems from the socialist background of the participants. On the one hand, these individuals experienced the intense social structure of the work unit, where privacy was inhibited yet social support was ubiquitos. On the other hand, the Maoist years also presented uncertainties, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, when no one was immune of becoming a target of political criticism, losing social status and even worse... Judith Farquhar and Zhang Qicheng, in their ethnographic report of yangsheng Beijingers, suggest that the combination of the social needs of these people (according to the authors these 'meetings' even carry a sense of patriotism) and their awareness of a 'potential human violence' (violence that can range from inner group hostility to more threatening persecution) brings these elders to choose the harmless spaces of recreational yangsheng. In this atmosphere, they can both enjoy time spent with friends yet remain in an 'airy' social framework, without stepping on each other's toes.

Elder taiji fanatics exercising under Mao, longing the past but also breaking free from its shadow
(photo by gil hizi)

Other factors that relate to the yangsheng activities have to do with more objectives conditions of the modern society. Neoliberal structural developments that reduce welfare, increase the cost of medical services and emphasize 'personal responsibility' lead individuals of all ages to cater their own bodies more wisely. Taking care of the body is prolonging life in a race against time, yet it also has a financial value that one cannot disregard.

While these elders embody traditional values and knowledge which derive, for example from the legacy of Chinese medicine or Confucianism, as mentioned earlier, they also vividly respond to sociocultural changes. The preoccupation of elders with health is by no means a new phenomenon, yet some of its 21st century manifestations reflect recent sociocultural changes. Many of the active veterans consume self-help books, read health magazines and listen attentively to the voice of experts in a manner that strongly corresponds to the image of the 'self-responsible' citizen that modern society is producing. Yangsheng is therefore not only a natural choice for these people in terms of their past life development, but also in the manner it correlates to the modern sociocultural landscape.

                                           cheerful football skills in Beijing's Tiantan Gongyuan
                                                                      (photo by gil hizi)

When analyzing the habits and activities of the 'old', we cannot only regard them as agents of the past but must also consider their encounter with present conditions. Yangsheng recreation is a lively spectacle that all observers can enjoy, while it also displays, to some extent, an outcome of historical events, socioeconomic transformations and an unfolding culture that we are all still trying to comprehend.

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