Travel: Get a glimpse of real China in the park

It's living, dancing Taoism in practice - Tom Barber joins the tree-huggers and tai chi experts in one of Beijing's communal green spaces
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The Independent Culture
TO THE uninitiated, visiting a Chinese park is like inadvertently stumbling on to the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In the sprawling grounds of Peking's Tiantan Park, the first people I spotted were two old women chatting animatedly while jogging around the perimeter. Backwards.

Nearby, several old men were performing synchronised, slow-motion sword- fighting routines, and in a glade of ancient thuja trees there was a more reclusive pastime going on - tree hugging. Spend half-an-hour standing in front of a tree, eyes closed, hands raised in an arboreal embrace, and it seems you're ready to face a day's work. Next up were the many tai chi practitioners, each closeted in their own private spiritual world, moving with expert fluidity through the various exercises.

Just watching these sublime exercises has an immensely soothing effect, but the serenity of the tai chi area was incongruously set beside the ballroom dancing class. If you've heard Chinese classical music, you'll know that to a "big nose" (local slang for Westerners) it's grating at the best of times, but nigh on unbearable at 6.30am. Hundreds of middle- aged couples embrace each other awkwardly and waltz as a tape machine screeches "music" over antiquated loud speakers. Crackling distortion adds to the undesired effect.

The concept of yin and yang is a central premise of Taoism, stressing the essential and complimentary relationship between opposing forces - male and female, light and dark, noise and silence. The municipal park is living, dancing, Taoism in practice. It bears true testament to the mental introspection that tai chi can induce that a noise equivalent to the inmates of an entire cattery being simultaneously strangled doesn't seem to put the dancers off their stride.

The municipal park plays an integral role in urban Chinese life. In a nation where the cities make Dickensian London seem as serene as Camberwick Green, the communal park - one of the Communist Party's more laudable implementations - often acts as a sanctuary for sanity. But it also provides a window through which Westerners can glimpse the soul of this fascinating country and its people.

Any visitor to the People's Republic needs a couple of weeks to fathom even the most basic cultural conventions, many of which make an British person's sensibilities seem excessively mannered. The streets of Peking are so overcrowded that people barge past each other without a second glance. Say "xie xie" (thank you) to a waitress or hotel maid, and she will dissolve into fits of giggles - Chinese set no store by what they view as superficial politeness. Queues are non-existent: every window at a railway ticket office resembles an enormous rugby scrum. But in the maelstrom of everyday life, every conurbation contains a People's Park. This eye of the hurricane for the local populous allows them to perform all manner of rituals and therapeutic meditations designed to see them through another working day. Incidentally, that work starts at precisely the same time, whether you're in Shanghai on the east coast or the most westerly province of Xinjiang, as the whole county runs on Peking time. This means that inhabitants of Kashgar, China's most westerly city, are often effectively getting up in the middle of the night to go to work.

Parks also provide a telling reminder of some of the more traumatic periods from Chinese history. The Cultural Revolution of the Sixties caused untold damage to the spiritual wellbeing of the nation, when hundreds of thousands of temples were desecrated, and often the park acts as a latter-day substitute to organised religion. But while many ordinary Chinese gain spiritual release in the open spaces, some municipal parks also contain temples, where citizens indulge in their complex amalgam of Taoist-Confucian-Buddhist worship.

In the expansive parkland of Peking's Summer Palace, sumptuous hangout for bygone emperors and now yet another public park, the grim evidence of Chairman Mao's upheaval remains literally set in stone. The facade of one temple is inlaid with hundreds of ornately carved stone Bodhisattvas, and as a frightening example of the misdirected diligence that fanaticism can inspire, soldiers of the Red Army set about chipping off the heads of every single one, only stopping when their step ladders wouldn't allow them to reach any higher up the temple walls.

As I was leaving the gardens of the Summer Palace, a Frisbee landed at my feet. I turned to throw back this most Western of symbols to what I imagined would be a pair of young boys, but instead found a man who must have been at least 60, with a shaved head; tanned, muscular body; and a skimpy pair of shorts, gesticulating to me. I watched in amazement as he and his equally sprightly friend of pensionable age performed the most acrobatic display of Frisbee throwing I've over seen. I figure two cultures' dissimilarities are non-reconcilable when they even view the merits of the humble Frisbee so differently.

The Chinese park is a part of daily life that every visitor should experience. However short your stay, make sure you take time early in the morning to visit one, and if you're staying for a while, you - like the rest of the urban population - will find it's a necessary daily antidote to the rigours of life in China.