Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing, Saturday morning, 8am. Jetlag has us up and about early, and in plenty of time to witness an extraordinary aspect of Chinese culture: Parklife.
The large park is packed with Beijingers. Individuals, small groups, large groups; young people, old people; some in tatty old tracksuits, some immaculately turned-out and made-up. It seems every corner of Beijing society has turned out.
A group of four kicks a large shuttlecock between themselves in a game of keepy-uppies, a little old lady pulling off trick shots any young boy would be proud of.
A group of fifty or so congregates under a tree, belting out patriotic songs at the top of their voices. People wander past, stop and sing a verse with them, then carry on.
Under a colonnade a middle-aged man belts out Peking opera in a piercing falsetto, accompanied by a group of musicians and egged on by a group of admirers.
A hundred or so people are standing under the trees, well spread-out, engaged in a call-and-response chant with rythmic clapping. Again people join in as they pass, or stand in a flower bed 50 metres away from the rest, enthusiastically taking part.
A man stands by the side of the path working through his vocal exercises, directing his ode to unselfconsciousness at the trees, as a woman walks past repeatedly slapping her arms and torso.
A ballroom dancing class competes for sound superiority with a line-dancing lesson, performing what looks like a cross between tai chi and the Macarena.
And then there is the ubiquitous hawking and spitting which forms part of the soundtrack to life in China.
It is not just in Temple of Heaven Park – which, by the way, also contains some stunning architecture – nor just in Beijing, nor even just in parks. Everywhere we have been so far in China, if there is an open public space, there is more likely than not someone dancing, rollerblading, singing, doing tai chi, or performing unusual (to our eyes) exercises.
It seems like an overwhelmingly positive use of parks and public places, and probably is. In conversation with a man in Chengdu, however, we discovered that the line dancing is a relatively recent phenomenon, and has become so widespread that it has caused frictions, particularly with respect to the volume of the music. There are reports of classes going on late into the night in residential areas, the music keeping people awake. This has lead to loudspeaker wars (residents aiming high-decibel white noise at the dancers), and even, apparently, literal poo-flinging.
It all ensures, however, that there is never a dull moment walking through urban parks and squares.