I just returned last week from a three week whirlwind trip to China (five cities in four weeks!), and did some thinking there about the martial arts in general, in connection with some of the unique features of Chinese culture I observed in my time there.  One common theme in the four cities I stayed in (Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, Shanghai) was the popularity of morning exercise.  The morning exercises I observed were much different than the kind of thing one normally sees in the U.S., however.  As a martial artist, I was particularly intrigued by the ubiquity of Taijiquan forms as exercise.  Yang style slow Taijiquan seemed to be the most popular form of this exercise, and people were doing it everywhere.  In parks, on college campuses, and anywhere else with enough space.  (mostly in loose, casual clothing, but sometimes in traditional garb, as shown in this picture I snapped in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing).

A peculiarity of this form of exercise, however, is that its appeal seemed limited mainly to older people.  I saw very few people younger than 40 or so doing morning Taiji exercises.  I wonder if this has to do with the declining of the popularity of the art, or instead with the association of Taijiquan with the aged.  In my last week in China, when I stayed on the campus of Shanghai Normal University, I noticed that the exercises of choice for younger people seemed to be walking, running, soccer, or (for a few, exclusively male) weightlifting.

One very interesting difference from what I observe in the U.S. was the popularity of stretching in Chinese exercise.  There were people stretching everywhere, and many of them (from the young to the old) had impressive flexibility.  I have to admit, I was totally shamed when I saw 60 year old men stretch further than I can, as a 32 year old martial artist…

This got me thinking about the situation back home in the U.S.  We often completely neglect stretching as part of an exercise regimen, especially in the case of males.  When I’m at the gym in the stretching room going through a routine, I hardly ever see other men in the room, and when I do, they’re rarely stretching, instead doing pushups or situps.  I do sometimes see women in there stretching.  It’s a weird cultural phenomenon, much like the strange gender-segregation in the gym based on the placement of the weights and the cardio machines.  Go into any gym in the U.S., and I guarantee you will find the following demographic breakdown:  the free weight area will be almost 100% male occupied.  If there are pully weight machines mixed in, you may find the occasional female presence.  This generalization, however, only holds for upper body weights.  On the leg pully weight machines, you will hardly ever see a male, and the squat rack is maybe 50-50 between male and female.  Move to the cardio section of the gym, and you’ll find a different breakdown:  about 75-80% of the people on the treadmills, steppers, bikes, etc. will be female, and the remaining 20-25% will be older men (generally 45 and older).  These regularities have held stable for every gym I’ve ever attended in the U.S. for my entire life, and I’ve attended gyms across the country for almost two decades.

Having attended gyms in China and India as well, I notice major cultural differences between the three societies.  My own demeanor concerning exercise, I think, is much closer to that of the Chinese than the Indians or the Americans, even though I am an American.  Let me explain:

American exercise culture for the most part seems aimed at an aesthetic goal, rather than an athletic or health goal.  Of course, there are segments of the society in which non-aesthetic aims take priority (professional sports, for example), but even in these places, aesthetic considerations are highly valued.  The vast majority of people one will find in a gym, however, will be following an exercise regimen with the goal of losing or keeping off fat, or shaping their body in some other way (gaining muscle, defining abs, etc), for aesthetic rather than health purposes.  While in some cases losing fat might be a boon for one’s overall health, it’s probably never relevant to one’s health whether or not one has six-pack abs.  While Americans in general exercise mainly for aesthetic purposes (the term ‘health’ has even become a euphemism for ‘beauty’ in our culture it seems!), there are clear gender differences concerning the physical aesthetic “ideal”, and this is revealed in the very different way men and women exercise.  As one could tell from the demographic breakdown in gyms I note above, American men exercise to look like He-Man, and our women do it to look like Barbie.

The kind of regimen most men pursue is likely to create a large, muscular upper body.  The heavy weight lifting and general lack of cardio lends itself to this.  As one will quickly learn, the more cardio one does, the harder it is to build muscle, as the energy consumed in food goes to power one’s exertions rather than build up torn muscle tissue.  One can, of course, still build muscle while following a rigorous cardio program (I’ve done it), but one’s muscle growth will necessarily be relatively limited.  It would be impossible to gain the musculature of a competitive bodybuilder, for example, while maintaining a decent cardio program.

American women, on the other hand, don’t want to be muscular, and instead focus on cardio and leg shaping, thus they’re always on the treadmill or stepper, and lift light weights on leg pully-weight machines.  This cultural tendency leads sometimes to bogus claims about the natural upper body weakness of women and comparative lower body strength.  This claim is simply false–women have the same proportionate strength men do, they just focus much more on lower body strength for cultural/aesthetic reasons.

Chinese exercise culture seems to me very different.  First and foremost, there doesn’t seem to be the same obsession with aesthetics at the core of exercise that one sees in the U.S.  Exercise is taken in China for seemingly different reasons.  First, health and enjoyment seems to be a goal.  I saw many more happy people during exercise in China than I see in the U.S.  Exercise there seems leisurely, whereas in the U.S. it’s strenuous.  I rarely see someone on the treadmill or under the weights with a smile on their face.  For us, it’s like a fight or torture, whereas for the Chinese it’s enjoyable.  Of course, this also means that it is rare to see hard exercise, something often seen in the U.S.

A second, possibly more important, aspect of Chinese exercise culture seems to be community.  I hardly saw anyone exercising alone.  From the large groups performing Taijiquan together to the young couple jogging a couple of laps on the track, exercise, as I saw it, was mainly a group activity, rather than the very solitary pursuit it is in the U.S.

Exercise as I see it in India is different still.  I have rarely seen a woman lifting weights at a gym (although maybe this is a function of the kind of gyms I frequent when I’m in India), even on leg machines.  The only time I ever see women at gyms there is on cardio equipment.  In addition, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone exercising outside, as is common in China.  No running or stretching and certainly not martial arts.  Exercise culture seems limited to the gyms, and these tend to be mainly weightlifting based, and overwhelmingly male.  I’ve seen some rise in the number of women attending gyms in the 10 years or so I’ve been going to India, but not much.

As far as purpose, I’d say the general Indian attitude to exercise is completely aesthetic.  The aesthetic goal is the main aim for most Americans, but for Indians who frequent the gym it seems to be the sole aim.  Chinese exercise culture definitely seems to be the least concerned of the three with physical aesthetics, which might strike one as surprising given the highly aesthetic quality of arts like Taijiquan.

I think there is another explanation for the popularity of Taiji in China, though, that has nothing to do with aesthetics.  As I mentioned above, communal activity seems to be an important consideration in Chinese exercise, and slow-movement Yang style Taijiquan is perfect for this.  I hardly ever saw people practicing Taiji forms alone, rather they were done in groups, with each member of the group synchronizing (or attempting to synchronize) with the other members in their motions.  The practitioners seemed to pay less attention to beautifying and putting frills on the motions then they did in harmonizing with the movements of others in the group.  It appeared to me that it wasn’t the aesthetics of the form that guided the practitioners, but creating harmony with each other.

My own attitude toward exercise is kind of like a fusion of the Chinese and American attitudes.  My main goal has to do with performance (in martial arts), but I train extremely hard for peak performance (my training sessions are rarely anything close to “leisurely”…).  Physical aesthetics aren’t a major concern of mine, but I’d be lying if I said they were no concern at all.  I, like most of the rest of my countrymen, prefer being thin to being fat in part because it just looks better, and having six pack abs definitely makes me feel great for more than just the fact that it means I have a powerful core for taekwondo (although that is essential in my book).  I would not, however, train for aesthetics alone.  If it wasn’t for my martial arts goals, I probably wouldn’t bother with exercise at all (beside the occasional jog just to stay healthy).

On a slightly different note, my training in China was excellent!  I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to find either a gym for lifting and running or enough space to do some basic technique, forms, combinations, etc.  It turns out, though, that every hotel I stayed in (and the university I stayed at on the final leg of the trip in Shanghai) had facilities with at least a treadmill and pully weight machines.  The 5 star hotel I stayed at in Nanjing, in fact, had the best hotel gym I’ve ever seen (better than a lot of single purpose gyms I’ve seen!), complete with free weights (barbell and dumbbell), pully machines, treadmills, steppers, tennis courts, and even rowing ergometers! (been a long time since I used one of those torture devices…)

The highlight of the trip for me as far as training goes, however, was in Suzhou, where the hotel gym had a ground-weighted heavy bag, perfect for practicing technique and combinations.  I pounded on this thing for about an hour, after hitting the weights.  Suzhou was my favorite city on the trip, and this gym, even though not the largest or the best, was also my favorite.  I had to get a shot with my good buddy Mr. Heavy Bag, after going toe to toe with him for countless rounds….