Walking through neighborhood parks in Shanghai at any time of day, I see people doing exercises together. There are clusters of people wearing what looks like pajamas, slowly shifting their weight, doing Tai Chi (太极, tàijí). In other parts of the park, people walk in a line, one synchronized step at a time, wearing matching shirts and white pants, following a leader wearing white gloves.
These traditional Chinese exercises are popular with the 50+ age group. But what about the younger generations?
In recent years, the most common exercise is running. In 2010, the Beijing Marathon organizers spent months convincing people to register for the race. Less than ten years later in 2017, the marathon sold out in less than half a day. "I waited for the whole week and failed to get the entrance ticket because it's so crowed online. It was crazy," said Emily, a marathon runner and native of Zhejiang Province. As with recent economic and urban growth in China, the popularity of running continues to grow exponentially each year.
Running is popular all over the world, thanks in part to the low barrier to entry: a pair of shoes. And even the shoes are optional in some cases, such as barefoot running. It's also the quintessential individual sport. Many people run on their own time, clearing their mind after a stressful day at work. So why is such an independent sport popular in a country that traditionally values the group over the individual? Perhaps because running as a sport is adapting to Chinese preferences, focusing on the social side.
The number of running races held in China has nearly doubled every year since 2015. It's not only marathons and road races but also fun runs, obstacles courses, and destination races. On May 19th, there is a marathon at the most iconic Chinese tourist site: The Great Wall. What better way to see this world heritage site? "My wife and I love to run and we love adventure," says GoEast student Kevin Kirksey. They'll travel to Beijing for the weekend with thousands of other runners to spend a morning running and climbing the giant stairs of the wall. Why not just visit as a tourist? It's a great way to "challenge yourself, to release pressure and to connect with other people and places," says Kevin.
While the race on May 19th is called "The Great Wall Marathon," it is not the only one. Just like the wall, with its varied material, style and people along its 21,000 kilometers, there are many versions of "The Great Wall Marathon" held in different towns and seasons. Whatever the races are called and however many copies spring up along The Wall, the fact remains that the popularity of running is growing in China.
As I walk through the parks this Summer, I now notice runners circling the parks on tracks with lanes and kilometer markers. Some runners have the latest most high-tech gear while others wear just a t-shirt and shorts. Whatever their fashion, age, or ability, they are all joining the global community of runners. "Maybe I'm being overly idealistic," Kevin admits, "but people who run care about themselves, about others and about the world around them." All of which leads to a positive and healthy future for China and its runners.