Square Dancing Chinese Style and Other Exercise

Taiji is a popular traditional Chinese exercise but not everyone does taiji. How do people in China stay fit? Why do people choose to exercise and how does it fit into their schedule? I asked GoEast teacher Ellie Liu about her personal exercise habits and Chinese attitudes toward exercise in general.

Ellie Liu 刘晓丹 is passionate about teaching and helping people explore Chinese. She graduated from Fudan University with a Master's Degree in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language. Ellie spent one year in the United Kingdom teaching Chinese and joined GoEast as a Senior Instructor and Curriculum Designer in 2016. She enjoys teaching most of all and also likes to travel.


What do you do for exercise? Why do you exercise?

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I do quick walking on my way to and from work. It's a twenty minute walk, maybe 2km. On Sundays, I go eat hot pot first and then feel guilty and then run. I run to keep my body shape and also because I think it releases pressure (stress).

My parents also run cause they are middle aged and they got some extra fat. They told me that they run 5km every morning, so that encouraged me. They run 4 times a week at least. They get up very early, always at 6, and run before work. It's my nightmare. When I was at home they always woke me up at 6. They said, "Go, go, go! Join us!" I said, "No, it's my holidays."

What is the current trendy exercise in China?

I think yoga was popular during my university years. I think now it's running cause they have a lot of running activities every season, like color run, bubble run, marathons, everything. It's just for fun, and you can post photos on your timeline. I think it's kind of showing off so people will tend to organize these kind of showing off activities.

A lot of people run by themselves. They wear big headphones and run. That's very cool. There are two universities around our area so it's convenient to go to their yard to run (on a track). They also have some running activities every week, it's called night run (ye pao 夜跑). It's not a class, it's just a small group and they get together and you join them and run together around the track. Sometimes they have some small, like, celebrations, and you can get a small prize. Not very formal, it's just for fun but you can always make friends. If you run alone you will feel lonely and bored so I think a partner is the most important thing.

Have you ever joined a gym? They seem to open late, like 10am, and they're very expensive.

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In China, I think going to the gym is a trend and becoming more and more popular. I tried to find some gyms to do exercise as well but their time doesn't match my time so I gave up. And the price is also very high, around 5,000RMB for one year. Paying monthly I can accept but they always promote their yearly or two years, three years packages.

I was in the UK and I joined a gym cause the price is much lower than China. I think the environment is good I just did running and rowing. Some exercises I was interested in but I didn't know how so I didn't try (the machines).

What kind of exercise did you have at school? What did you do in gym class?

A lot, like playing football, volleyball, basketball and badminton. Badminton is my favorite. In gym class, sometimes we were just chatting cause the teacher was not that serious. At school, after each session, we have a ten minute break. During that time we play games that are very short and easy to organize like tiaopijin (Chinese jump rope 跳皮筋), it's a girl's game, and jianzi (shuttlecock 毽子), I think it's very Chinese.

From primary school Year 1 until middle school Year 9 we have morning exercises. They put every student in the playground and they play some background music and do the physical exercises like stretching. We wear the school uniform and stand in line. I think most of us will do it carelessly but (the leader) they were always very excited.

There are sports teams but I didn't join them. They have requirements. For example, if you want to join the volleyball team you have to be very tall, basketball as well. Football, maybe you started playing football from primary school so you must be very skillful. At the high school or middle school entrance, they will choose those students because they have some sports talent or skills. The common students, they don't have a lot of chances to join the team.

I see a lot of middle age and older people doing exercise in the park. What kind of exercises are those?

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Square dancing... I think it comes from middle school, it's similar. My mother did that as well cause she thought "I can learn how to dance and at the same time I can lose some weight." It's not a bad idea. And it's free. Sometimes it's not free cause some of the square dancing groups, they start charging to support their music players and maybe they need to rent the area.

Doing taiji (tai chi 太极) and also that taiji jian (tai chi sword太极剑) and taiji shan (tai chi fan 太极扇), they are always the old people. Walking backwards... I am very curious about that as well. I think people heard that it's good for their health and they started doing it. My grandparents they told me that "Oh you should do this cause it's good for your health." And I asked them why? how? and they cannot answer. It's just a saying they heard. They believe everything very easily.

How have attitudes toward exercise changed in China?

I think it's because in China we started eating more fat and sugar and people started to gain a lot more weight than before. You can imagine, in China 30 years ago you rarely see a fat person in the street but right now you can see more and more fat people.

My parents also tell me you should do some exercise cause your work maybe gives you a lot of pressure and you need to take some vitamins. They are getting to know more than me and they tell me how to keep healthy. 20 years ago my parents didn't do a lot of sports and my grandparents as well. I think because they are getting older they started doing exercise every morning, like riding bicycles and running. Their thoughts are changing.

Where do you find information about exercising and staying healthy?

I am always influenced by social media. The first way is some of my friends they share their moments on WeChat. For example their running records, their gym time, and I think, maybe I can join that as well. Also I'll get professional information from some apps and videos. You can get yoga information and also some general physical information about different body parts, ways to lose weight, and your diet as well.