I have many fond memories of my first trip to Beijing back in 2004. After having practised Tai Chi for about 7 years here in the UK I decided I would sample it straight from the horse’s mouth and take a month out to go and study in China. My teacher here had given me the contact details for a couple of reputable Tai Chi masters to be found in Beijing and so I set off from Heathrow one July morning armed with two good bottles of Johnny Walker whiskey as presents for my soon-to-be new teachers.
By the time I managed to check in to my ramshackle hotel in the older eastern or Dongchengqu area of Beijing it was quite late. Exhausted from my long flight and consequent haggling for a taxi at the airport I went straight to bed. Prior to my trip I had put in a fair amount of time learning Mandarin and could manage a basic level of the language. This would prove an absolute godsend during my travels and allowed me to make a lot of friends and save a great deal of money!
The next morning I awoke very early full of excitement (and Jet lag) at finally experiencing China first hand. At about 5am I wondered out onto the street and headed straight for the park to practise before meeting my teacher later that morning. Map in hand I wondered along the myriad winding allyways known as Hutong (not many of these left now). Strange sights and sounds bombarded my senses. Amongst the hubbub I was met with lots of looks of curiosity from the locals. Tall and pale I stood out like a sore thumb. However, a polite ‘Zao shang hao’ (good morning) from me always resulted in beaming smiles all round. Somehow I managed not to get too lost and eventually found myself outside the gates of the Nanguan Park. As I cautiously wondered inside an amazing sight met my eyes. There were hundreds of people practising Tai Chi. I was flabbergasted. Almost every available space in the park was occupied by individuals or groups, both large and small, practising Tai Chi of some kind or another. The eerie sound of people playing the Er Hu, a curious two stringed violin like instrument filled the air. As I looked round wide eyed I noticed that most people were aged between say 40 and 80 years old but some were older or younger than this. I distinctly remember a couple of elderly ladies by the entrance to the park stretching and warming up before their class. One had a foot resting on the top of the five foot fence and the other was in full splits on the ground simply chatting away! It was incredible; so many people engaged in activity to improve their own health and well-being.
The park opened at about 5:30am each morning. Some days if I arrived early there would be a queue of avid Tai Chi fans clamouring to get in and practise. Most people seemed to stay for around an hour and a half and then set off to work for the day refreshed, exercised and energised. Others, often those who were perhaps retired or simply super-keen like me, would practise for longer and then spend a few hours hanging out with friends in the park drinking green tea and catching up. One could get a definite sense of community that is often so lacking in the UK. I would normally finish my early morning practise by about 9am and then head off to one of the many street food sellers for ‘Jiaozi’ (steamed dumplings) and green tea. Delicious! After that I’d go to my teacher’s house for my arduous morning Tai Chi lessons, but that’s another story.
In China the consensus is that each person is primarily responsible for his or her own health and well-being. To take up Tai Chi in order to stay fit and healthy as you get older is absolutely standard practise and the fact that over 150 million people practise daily vouches for its efficacy. A common misconception in the West is that Tai Chi is something only for the elderly while in China it’s considered that the younger one starts the better, as this not only fosters longevity but also makes for a much greater quality of life whatever one’s age.
During this and my subsequent trips to China I gradually became used to the parks in Beijing being full of Tai Chi practitioners every morning year round and in all weathers. However, that image of my first time in the park is something I will never forget. It is a great source of inspiration for my teaching and I hope that one day, sooner rather than later, the parks here will be full too.
Sam Moor is the senior instructor for Sussex Tai Chi and teaches classes across the south of England. Check his website: www.sussextaichi.co.uk