City living in China can be hard. Most people live in high rise apartment buildings (we live in an 18th floor apartment ourselves: see previous posts Finding and Cleaning our New Apartment & Sweet (and Sour) Home) and street walking in many areas is not always pleasant. Pollution can be debilitating and traffic miserable. However, in contrast, Chinese parks provide a sense of space and beauty even on the most crowded of weekends and holidays. There is a pride-of-place in parks in China (I recently noticed a park worker scrubbing the outside of a trash can) and a notion that parks are a place to respect (while I often skirt around gobs of spit on the dusty sidewalks outside our apartment [it’s even grosser than it sounds!], people seem to spit less in parks than they do on the street).
In contrast to parks I’ve visited in some other parts of the world, there are some unique features to Chinese parks:
- At any given point, there are A LOT of group activities occurring (I’ve hardly ever seen anyone alone running, biking, etc.);
- Pleasant music is often played throughout the park through speakers mounted on streetlights (many of the dancing groups bring their own music and instruments are often being played by different groups, so sometimes there’s a bit of a cacophony!);
- Most parks don’t have playgrounds, but, if they do, there’s usually an entrance fee;
- Most parks have free exercise equipment for adults;
- Toy guns are very popular on both boats and kids’ amusement park rides;
- There is absolutely no graffiti;
- There is a lot of “rockery“, which is a combination of limestone rocks from Lake Taihu, near Shanghai, or similar (sometimes the rocks are even artificial), and cement to create anything from small structures to huge monoliths;
- People don’t lie around as much, hanging out on the grass and picnicking (in fact, oftentimes you’re not allowed to walk on the grass);
- Sun is carefully avoided and/or certainly not sought (after all, people use face whitening creams here!).
Since we came to Beijing at the end of January, we’ve visited a lot of parks. During Chinese New Year, when it was still very cold and you could chair skate in parks, we went to three temple fairs (see previous post about temple fairs). We pushed through the dreary, grey-brown winter, finding that even in the cold, people would come out to parks to sing, dance, and play instruments together. Then, as the weather improved and trees began flowering, parks became stunning places (in a recent visit to the Beijing Botanical Garden, for example, Isabel and I saw gorgeous blooming peach trees and tulips rivaling The Netherlands’). In fact, the extent of careful, beautiful landscaping has become apparent this spring, both in parks and elsewhere throughout the city.
One of my favorite things to do with Isabel when the weather is nice and the pollution is low is to walk about ten minutes from our apartment to the lovely Purple Bamboo Park (Ch. 紫竹院公園). Although sometimes I have to gear myself up to go out with her, knowing that I’ll have at least one battle trying to keep her in her stroller or Ergo until we get there and that she will get lots of attention and photos taken of her, which can be extremely exhausting, if I’m not in the right frame of mind, it is worth the effort to actually be in the park. No matter when we go (or, as she says, “doe”), there are always a lot of activities occurring: ballroom dancing; dancing with long silk ribbons; fan dancing; tai chi; slow dance-like movements with racket and ball; groups kicking around a hacky-sack-esque object with feathers; boat riding in summer (chair skating in winter); Peking opera singing; instrument playing; etc. Sometimes the groups are small and sometimes I’ve seen as many as a hundred people dancing together. As we meander through the park, Isabel enjoys being entertained by the many different activities, even as she sometimes gets irritated with all the attention (she always looks happiest when she yells out, “Bye!” at the end of an interaction).
Because people in China retire early (currently, the retirement age is 60 for men, 55 for female civil servants and 50 for other female workers, although there are efforts to change this), getting together in parks during weekdays is the perfect place for retirees to exercise, meet friends, pursue hobbies, and take care of grandchildren while the parents work. In addition to the activities mentioned above, I’ve also seen people in parks playing cards, Chinese chess, and mahjong; taking their birds for a walk (well, technically, the owner walks and the bird stays in the cage, or, sometimes, it’s tied with a string and sitting on its owner’s shoulder); fishing; shopping (snacks, books, plants, etc.); singing patriotic songs in a large group; working out on exercise equipment; and reading the newspapers hung behind glass windows on walls. Many parks have restaurants, tea houses, and snack stands, so there are places to get food and beverages, if you didn’t bring your own.
China may have hugely populated cities, but many of them, including Beijing, have a significant number of parks to give their citizens a chance to relax, socialize, exercise, and play in a beautiful setting, often containing artificial lakes. China has historically had stunningly landscaped gardens (the Summer Palace comes to mind), but not always for the common people. Today in Beijing there are over 300 parks, many of them quite vast. As we’ve moved through winter into spring and now into summer, it’s clear that people use the parks year-round. I feel really fortunate to live so close to Purple Bamboo Park and am looking forward to doing more activities there with the kids. In fact, one of these weekends we’re planning on taking a boat from it through a canal system up to the Summer Palace. In the meantime, when I’m out with Isabel during the weekdays, I’m still trying to figure out what group activity would be my top choice when I retire.