Body nourishment as recreation of elder Chinese – socialist China meets neoliberal modernity
Note: Gil Hizi is Ministry of Tofu’s contributor. He is also the chief editor of website Thinking Chinese.
Numerous elder Chinese have a desire to remain fit and to nurture health. Some of them even fulfill this need by swimming in icy lakes and pushing the body to efforts that it had doubtfully met even in its younger years. Yet the recreational activities of retired Chinese are not merely a personal hobby but a social gathering and 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 muscle 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, that liberates both parents (or grandparents) and children. A deeper observation into the cultural meanings of these activities can provide even more reasons to this choice of action. Most elder Chinese refer to this type of activities as yangsheng, which means ‘body nourishment’ or ‘taking care of one’s health’.
Methods of yangsheng have been instructed by ancient Chinese traditions long ago, through body balancing techniques of Chinese medicine or by the self-cultivation customs of Confucianism. 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, accordingly with the Confucian tradition, it can even have moral implications as a ritual that negotiates with important social customs.
Another dimension of the yangshen activities stems from the socialist background of the participants. On one hand, these individuals experienced the intense social structure of the work unit, where privacy was a forbidden concept and at the same time social support was quite rewarding, and they now have a social void that needs to be filled. 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 Beijingers practicing yangsheng, 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) is what brings them 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 in any aspect.
Other factors that relate to the yangsheng activities are 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 mostly prolonging life in a race against time, yet it also has a financial value that one cannot disregard. While the elderly 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, unlike what many would assume.
The preoccupation of elders with health is by no means a new phenomenon, yet some of its 21st century manifestations reflect modern culture. 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.