First of all, what you saw was real alright. You may
think that these old-timers were behaving strangely,
but you witnessed the ancient practice of generating
communal flow of what we Chinese call qi. It's the secret
behind Ayi's eternal good looks (that and a steady supply
of erguotou and embalming fluid). A full understanding
of these odd rituals and their underlying philosophy
requires many years of study and diligent practice.
But the basics are quite simple.
When Ayi and her friends exercise
in the park, we are in fact practicing the graceful
movements of taijiquan. Literally translated as 'supreme
fighting fist. It was developed more than a millennium
ago, a mix of martial arts and the mystical philosophical
principles of yin and yang. Taiji is at once a soft
and graceful style of movement, as well as a set of
highly effective combat skills. It is still one of the
staple forms of fighting that Hong Kong's silver screen
heroes learn at an early age.
Stemming from the ancient Taoist
quest for immortality, taijiquan started out as a series
of physical exercises that helped those who practiced
regularly resist illness and prolong life. Its main
function now among the laobaixing (masses) is to improve
health. It does this by clearing the channels (jingluo)
of the body, and promoting the flow of inner energy
We Chinese have long recognized qi
(translated as 'energy', 'pneuma', or 'vital force')
as an omnipresent force in our lives. You will find
that Mandarin is rich in references to it: a room's
ambience is its qifen; getting angry is shengqi, or
'giving rise to too much qi; and the word for weather,
tianqi, translates literally as Heaven's qi, or the
qi of the sky.
Now for a Chinese cosmology lesson.
Qi flows through all forms of life. It infuses the elements
of nature with their various forms, shapes, colors,
odors and tastes. It is the unifying principle of energy,
linking everything from a grain of sand to a tear on
a baby's cheek. In accordance with the contrasting elements
yin and yang, qi always flows in opposite forms: it
is both hot and cold, dark and light, moves fast and
slow, up and down, deep and shallow. It rises, falls,
inflates and deflates, carried by the waves and currents
of natural forces.
The ebb-and-flow cycle of qi can
be compared to filling a balloon with air. The first
phase is rich and strong, like the first push of breath
forcing air into a balloon and giving it form. The second
phase is not as strong, but it can be compared to the
still, steady push of more air into the balloon. The
third step is the last and most challenging, making
the balloon completely full so it reaches its potential.
The final phase marks the end of the cycle. The balloon
eventually deflates or bursts.
Taoist priests who used to venture
to mountaintops and practice deep-breathing exercises
and circular movements in pursuit of eternal youth were
trying to keep the balloon as full of air as possible.
Centuries later, this could also be said of those of
us who continue these activities every dawn in the parks
of China, albeit on a more modest level.
The exercises of taiji stimulate
the various points of the body which qi flows through.
In practicing shadow boxing, stress is laid on erect
posture, straight back, relaxed abdomen and light footwork.
Animal movements such as shaking, stretching, jumping,
and looking around are practiced with qigong (breathing
exercises) and neigong (internal exercises), variations
of taiji. Although each one of us has our own qi, all
qi is ultimately connected. The same vital force that
flows through the energy channels of the human body
is also believed to be found in trees and brick walls.
It may look like we're 'hugging trees, but we're actually
fusing our internal energy with these rich sources of
So next time you're recovering from
a hard night out, don't just reach for the Tylenol.
Join Ayi and her friends down at the park for a good
dose of qi and you'll feel much better.