There’s Tai Chi, and then there’s Ballroom Tennis…

Our evening food forrage takes us past a small concrete clearing, where various unfamiliar exercise devices are bolted into the ground – like spinning wheels for limbering up wrists and poles for dangling off. Despite all its changes in the last decade, not to mention the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, China is stills rich in traditions that I really admire. Daily exercise, in some form or other, seems built into the psyche, as well as the body. We often see large groups of elderly men and women engaged in Tai Chi at sunrise or in the early evening, in town squares or parks. The graceful lilt as they bob backwards and forwards, stepping lightly this way and that, is wonderfully peaceful to watch. Not least because my mum and I have tried it ourselves and know how hard it is to make it look so easy. As our teacher said: Tai Chi can take a year to learn, a year to consolidate, and a lifetime to master. In fact, their concentration runs so deep that even the jarring ‘music’ from nearby Karaoke halls, the ear bleeding blast of a truck horn or incessantly barking dogs can’t hope to break it. And that’s saying something.

But China is never short of surprises too. In Jinghong, people walked barefoot on crazy paving stones in a park to massage their feet. We tried, and it hurt, a lot. There’re groups of dancers boogying to techno tracks in the squares at nighttime. There’re rows of girls doing musical exercises in the street. Come sunrise and the badmington brigade are out, as shuttle cox flit above the heads of moped riders.

What we hadn’t expected was the curious dance we saw tonight, set to music, that uses bats and balls as props. Think of it as tennis meets ballroom dancing, if you can imagine that. Everyone moved in perfect syncronicity, waving bats balanced with balls, turning and arching their bodies elegantly. They twirled round partners in their evening slippers, and vollyed the balls to each other like a Wimbledon final.

Yes, like so much in China, undoubtedly weird, but certainly captivating…


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