This summer gone I had the rare chance to spend almost two months in China with Sonya – mostly in Beijing, but with some travel towards the south.
We arrived in Beijing exhausted but not exactly sleepy. While we waited for our sleep deprivation to catch up with the difference in time zones, we went for a walk in the local park, Xitucheng (literally ‘Western Earth City’, more or less). It’s a long thin park that runs along a canal, incorporating an embankment that was once a city wall. When we visited it was around 9 at night, but it was busier than most British parks get even during the day time – the only times I’ve seen that kind of concentration of people in parks there would be things like Festival fireworks or New Year, but this was just an ordinary Saturday in June.
Still, most of the park wasn’t exactly crowded, just… busy. Most of the people seemed to be congregating for the purpose of public mass-dancing, with groups of about thirty to fifty locals assembling around small sound systems, moving with varying degrees of synchrony. Once I’d ruled out that they were doing Tai Chi, I first assumed they must be actual classes, but they don’t seem to have anyone leading them; it’s more like everyone just copies everyone else in a seemingly self-organised fashion.
They were dancing in a range of styles, but nothing I could really pin down – one group seemed to be doing ceilidh dancing with elements of ballroom thrown in, while others were arguably doing line-dancing, but probably only by the broadest definition, ‘standing in lines, dancing’. We suspect that anyone who turns up in a park with their own music and just starts dancing will soon attract a crowd of people trying to learn their moves, but we haven’t put this hypothesis to the test yet. It may be that it would only work with bad Chinese pop music. Further research is required.
Besides the dancers there were also an impressively large number of bats; at least two choirs, one of them singing a selection of well-known revolutionary hymns; several groups of people playing Chinese hackey sack, which uses a shuttlecock rather than just a weighted bag; one group practising percussion; and just one old guy doing Tai Chi on his own.
We returned to the park on our very last afternoon, which is why the photographs here are all taken in daylight. It was less busy than on that first night, perhaps mainly because public mass-dancing is a night time activity. With the benefit of sunlight it became clear what a carefully sculpted and generally well-maintained park it is, and I also had the opportunity to read more of its fascinatingly odd signs.