One hundred steps and you live to be ninety-nine. This simple Chinese proverb, to be carried out after a meal, has extraordinary repercussions. I do not refer to one’s digestion, in contrast to the habit in so many other places to plonk oneself on a lounge after a massive meal. I mean what happens on the streets. So I set out, after my evening meal, to walk my one hundred steps or more.
On the edge of a park by a small pavilion, I pass by a group of middle-aged women, dancing in rows. One woman shows the moves of new dance. A leg stretched to a point here, a gentle arm movement there, a turn of the hips and tilt of the head elsewhere. The music begins, with eastern harmonies and rhythms. Some know the dance better, some not so much. The latter are always a step behind, waiting to see what a neighbour is doing before attempting to copy her moves. Past thirty you must be for this evening escapade, whether independent single woman, mother or grandmother. The grey ones move less energetically, but the dance itself requires quiet moves, keeping a mature body flexible and supple.
I walk deeper into the park, and encounter young couples who take the opportunity to meet and talk and hold hands well into the evening. Given that few people here have that strange modern invention of a ‘room of one’s own’, let alone a quiet corner inside, couples find space in the open. The day may be long in the waiting, at school or at work or at university, but the evening eventually comes and one can run to meet a boyfriend or girlfriend. Now of course the minutes and hours fly by, but the evening gives space for quiet talk, touching, arguments and plans. And if a dark, quiet corner can be found …
In winter, the walk may be briefer, especially in the north. But in summer, the cool of the evening keeps one out long and late. Now it is possible to exercise more vigorously, to swish a badminton racquet, to weave and feint and shoot at a basketball ring, to seek relief in a swimming pool, or to walk or run on an exercise track. Young men vie with one another at the outdoor collection of weights. Ping Pong balls fly at incredible speeds across tiny tables. Young women stretch and flex and toss themselves around parallel bars and rings. I stop by an old man, lithe and grey, who effortlessly manages a dozen chin-ups on a bar. But that is merely the warm-up, for he flips himself upside-down and then turns on his midriff more times than I can count.
For a visitor, a laowai, all this is strange enough. It may be an unremarkable and everyday reality for locals, but it is precisely at this level that cultural difference shows itself sharply. Or rather, these activities are merely a taste, for in small corners I find truly unique evening pastimes. Still watching the thin grey man twisting on the bars, I am almost knocked unconscious by blurring nunchakus. I stumble into three boys practising their skills. Holding the nunchakus by their chains, they twirl them at arm’s length. High over the head goes one set, through the legs goes another, all while their operators engage in a small dance of sweaty limbs and silver blurs.
After my lucky escape, I walk gingerly by some stairs, upon which a young boy is trapped in an impossibly tiny metal ring. Or at least, he looks trapped, with his head, an arm and a leg poking out one side of the ring, and the rest of his body dangling out the other. Mesmerised, I stop to watch, along with a score of others. Music blares, while he seems to dislocate one limb at a time and even his neck. Slowly, inexorably, he squeezes his whole body through. All applaud his feat, which encourages him to begin it yet again.
Now I return to what seems like normality. Old fogeys sit and chat under some trees, or perhaps totter along with the assistance of sticks and frames. Children zip about on roller blades or scooters. A parent or grandparent (for grandparents are often primary carers in place of busy parents) picks up a crying child who has fallen over. A man walks by rubbing his hands vigorously on a piece of paper. Doctor’s orders, I wonder, or perhaps a traditional remedy for stiff shoulders.
But in the distance I hear singing. I am drawn to the sound. Illuminated by no more than a couple of globes are fifty or so people, songbooks in hand, singing lustily. They are a mixed group, some older, some younger. A soundbox plays the tune, while a song director tells them the next item for the evening. I join the edge of the crowd and a songbook is passed to me. Not being able to read the characters, I quietly ask a neighbour what type of songs they are.
‘Revolutionary songs’, he says.
So they still sing them, of an evening, when one is out for the one hundred steps.