Running vs Tai Chi

For centuries, exercise in China has been defined by Taoist principles, but such notions are losing traction, especially among the young. Can traditions such as Tai Chi keep pace with newer Western forms of fitness?

This multi-media feature by Stephy Chung, Robin Fall and Stephen George highlights the recent boom in marathons and running related activities across China.

Running Against The Grain
By Stephen George
Additional reporting by Stephy Chung

At the start-line of the inaugural Qiandongnan Ultra Marathon – a formidable three-day 60-mile stage race through some of southern China’s most far-flung tribal enclaves, competitors huddled together, waving and smiling to the assembled media. But amid the playfulness, one runner stood out. With his back turned to the crowd, 23-year old Owen Li began to shirk away, as if gripped by a sudden bout of nervousness.

It was only after the race that Li revealed the real reason behind his apparent unwillingness to be captured on camera: nobody knew he was there, and if possible, he’d prefer it to stay that way. Despite being able to run a regular marathon in under 2-hours and 45 minutes, an impressive time by anyone’s standards, Li had chosen to keep his involvement in competitive running secret, especially from his family. “My mother doesn’t approve,” he explained. “It’s better if she doesn’t know.”

Clandestine runners such as Owen Li are by no means uncommon in China, a country where running is often regarded as a dangerous Western activity, likely to cause significant and lasting injury. But times are changing. Although not as fashionable as soccer and basketball, running is witnessing a surge in popularity, especially among China’s young fitness conscious urban inhabitants.

Last year alone, the country hosted over 20 competitive long distance marathon style races, up from a mere handful a decade ago, each of which can generate anything from several thousand to upward of several million dollars in accumulated revenue. This is in addition to the countless running clubs, fun runs and sponsored events that are now commonplace in most major Chinese cities.

So what’s behind the growth?

“In some respects, running is the perfect Chinese sport, unlike other activities, it requires no major outlay and there are few real barriers, just about anyone can participate,” explained 28-year old Beijing based Nike running coach Linus Holmsäter, founder of the popular Beijing based runners club HeyRunning, “The potential for expansion is enormous.”

Another significant factor has been the rapid growth of China’s cities. Last year saw the country’s urban population reach a total of 691 million, or 51.3 percent of the overall population, surpassing the country’s rural population for the first time in history. As society moves from agrarian to metropolitan, and toil in the fields is replaced by ten-hour shifts in front of a computer screen, perhaps it’s only natural that people should want to burn off some steam.

Guo Feng is the Executive Director of the Great Wall Marathon, one of the country’s most popular and well-established international races. The annual event, held in May in the northeastern province of Tianjin, attracts runners from across the world. Founded by a Danish running enthusiast in the late 90s, the event’s original participants consisted exclusively of foreign nationals, many of whom would fly in especially for the race. According to Guo, however, a major change is now underway.

“The number of Chinese participants is rising exponentially. In 2011, we had over 300 hundred Chinese runners, equivalent to around 15 percent of the total number. This year we are likely to double that figure.” Pressed as to why this might be, Guo linked the upturn to a rise in prosperity. “Running is becoming increasingly popular among affluent young white-collar workers. They like to keep fit, but they also like a challenge. Running allows people to escape all the stresses of city life, it’s a release.”

This surge in participant numbers has been aided in no small part by the arrival of large Western sports brands keen to claim a slice of a growing market. A recent heavily branded Nike sponsored fun run in Beijing drew over 10,000 mostly young participants, more than twice the anticipated turnout, while this year’s China North Face Challenge sold out in record time.

“Running is everywhere now,” explained Guo. “It’s an uncomplicated activity that can be organized on a mass scale. I think marathons will continue to grow in China in line with Chinese people’s quality of life.”

Such ubiquity, however, has given rise to another more interesting phenomena, namely that of State-sponsored races. From Guizhou to Xinjiang, local municipal governments across the country have been quick to react to running’s apparent upswing in popularity, with many viewing it as an ideal opportunity to increase tourism revenue.

This convergence of community and corporate, of big money and big ideas has resulted in a sudden boom in long-distance races. Lavishly-funded and highly organized, such events are the Olympics in miniature, marshalling scores of track-suited volunteers and enthusiastic low-ranking government officials, with some even going so-far as to fly in foreign runners on all-expenses paid tickets, in order to lend credibility to organizers claims that races are “international.” Although government race organizers refused to disclose figures concerning expenditure or revenue, entry to events typically ranges from the equivalent of $20, to as much as $3,500 for more exclusive travel packages.

Nevertheless, in second-tier cities such as Xiamen, Dalian and Chongqing, where road-races can attract as many as 20,000 participants, organizers seem just as interested in the image a modern marathon can help project as the tourist dollars it might bring in. “Local governments like to present their city as modern, clean and healthy, what better way to do it, than by hosting a large Western-style race?” commented one Shanghai government race organizer, who asked not to be named. “It’s good for investment, and it boosts a city’s reputation. You’re not a world city unless you have a marathon.”

But in the rush to create dynamic “world cities,” some feel China’s unique traditions are in danger of being lost. According to Beijing based Tai Chi instructor Tang Haitao, a fourth generation practitioner of the Yang-style of the ancient martial art, young Chinese are abandoning “difficult Chinese traditions such as Tai Chi,” and opting instead for more “quick-fix Western style activities.” This, the genial 43-year old Mr. Tang claims, is leading to something of a “generational divide.”

Such a view would appear to be borne out during an early morning visit to any one of Beijing’s numerous public parks, where amid the relative solitude of well-manicured hedgerows and ornate timber housing, small groups of nimble seniors routinely gather to perform the controlled ritualized movements associated with varying forms of Tai Chi. Young people are nowhere to be seen.

“It only takes three generations for a tradition to be forgotten altogether,” opined a concerned Tang. “If China grows in strength, then perhaps foreigners will also want to learn Chinese traditions, maybe then our own young people will follow suit. But for now, there is too great a Western influence.”

More from the producer / writers:
Stephy Chung: China news packages
Stephy Chung & Stephen George: Part I: Culture Shock: Chinese Americans in China, Part II: Culture Shock: Chinese Americans in China
Robin Fall: Multimedia Journalism

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