The Park Pass: Peopling and Civilizing a New Old Beijing
The gates of Beijing’s famous parks open at daybreak. The largest crowds of park visitors stream through them between 5:00 and 8:00 a.m., a bit later in the coldest winter months. Though the gatehouses where admission tickets are collected are usually staffed at these hours, ticket sellers and ticket takers have little to do. Almost everyone going through the gates at these early hours has an annual park pass. In any case, no one bothers to check passes or tickets until later, when Chinese tourists and foreigners start showing up. The large numbers of Beijing residents who arrive at the parks so early are only partly from the surrounding neighborhoods; the earliest runs of buses serving the parks also bring numerous park visitors, some of them from remote suburbs.1
Inside the parks at these hours, all is motion. Walkers, joggers, practitioners of taiji quan (tai chi), dancers, dog walkers, and calisthenics enthusiasts stake out their spaces and fill them to overflowing. Usually the only islands of stillness are small groups of stationary qigong adepts, focused on a more interior dynamic but active nevertheless. Later in the day these spaces will be shared by strollers enjoying the beauties of the park as well as by singing groups, dancing classes, handicraft makers, water calligraphers, kite flyers, amateur opera performers, and photographers using the park as a well-groomed backdrop.
Foreign visitors to China’s cities are unfailingly impressed with the particular charm of this form of public life. But the exact nature of this “charm” has proven hard to articulate. Pankaj Mishra, commenting in the London Review of Books, notes the phenomenon in a useful way, since he contextualizes it within a broad historical vision:
There are reminders throughout the country, often far from the glittering malls, of a complex relationship between the revolutionary past and aggressively capitalist present. This is evident not only in the commemoration of Mao on T-shirts and posters, or the reverence with which villagers hoping to meet with justice at central government headquarters in Beijing speak of their departed leader. The signs are also there in the still widely prevalent “culture of the masses,” reflected in the sight of the middle-aged and elderly dancing unselfconsciously in public parks and on pavements, or the groups of old people singing revolutionary songs at memorial museums everywhere.2
Mishra’s comments suggest why these uses of public space are particularly intriguing: first, park life offers “reminders” of a revolutionary past despite the “aggressively capitalist” changes of the reform period. Second, we get the impression that China “still” has “masses” and that they might have a particular culture of their own. And third, more intimately but no less significantly, Mishra believes that the “middle-aged and elderly” who fill the parks dance “unselfconsciously,” not embarrassed to display their sometimes inept, markedly aging, not particularly exemplary bodies enjoying themselves in a public place.3
Mishra’s observations invite reflection on the class or social movement character of these gatherings of people engaged in apparently private enjoyments. Is exercising and pursuing hobbies in the public parks a continuation of the collective mobilizations of Maoism?4 Does it still make the personal political? Or does it privatize and personalize the culture of the masses to the point of a thorough depoliticization? Do these gatherings in public speak of something like revolution; or are they, in their disciplined docility, indicative of permanently silenced popular voices?
Middle-aged and elderly park users, with whom I have spoken often in the course of my ethnographic research on “life-nurturing” practices,5 do not consider themselves to be politically resistant or rebellious. They do, however, assert the value of the collective (even if in this market-centered age it comes together only for calisthenics) and lament the decline of Maoist morality and selflessness (fig. 1). The informal choral groups noticed by Mishra sing revolutionary songs with a fervor that both recalls and gives new life to the collective action of decades ago. Neighborhood organizers of dance lessons and calligraphy clubs refer to themselves as activists and use a Maoist language of service to the people to explain their efforts. This mobilization is usually referred to as a “fad” or “fever” for life nurturance, and it has been noticed as a feature of public life since the early 1990s.6 The inner-city population of Beijing’s aging residents may be on the move just for fun,7 but we should not forget that this generation, veterans of the continuing revolution of Maoism, are experts at making politics out of the personal, and vice versa. Nationalism and the socialist collective are, as it were, in their bones.
In this discussion I examine the uses and meanings of the park pass, an identity card that in its very form and ubiquity recalls the highly politicized personal paperwork (shenfen) in which inherited class identity, the fundamental element of Maoist class struggle, was once recorded for all to see. The park pass, a mark of the individual citizen bearing rights accorded by the polity, seems to be an innocent repository of pure market value in the context of China’s capitalist reforms. But in practice it condenses a number of attitudes and habits characteristic of this city and its population. As such, this humble object opens a window onto a continuation of “commitment politics” in Chinese postsocialism,8 signaling both resistance to consumer regimes and acceptance of the broad national goals posited by the socialist state. One of these goals, of course, has been the successful and creditable hosting of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Perhaps especially in this first decade of the new millennium, then, the city of Beijing is a highly charged space. The life that fills its outdoor spaces, the people who assert their collective claims over its parks and vacant lots, is nurtured and deliberate. Like much that is practical, however, it is not theorized.
It is not even presented as a spectacle. The unselfconsciousness Mishra found in the dancers he described invites a certain reflection for the foreign observer. If this is a performance, where is the audience, and who is passing the hat? Where is that sense of physical embarrassment we have come to see as proper to the elderly? What happens to the tendency of the aged to stand on dignity, given that so many of them don’t know the dance step and are always just practicing? Above all, tourists strolling through Beijing’s parks have a feeling that some rather personal, markedly bodily activities have here been made public and collectively pursued in a very deliberate way, without embarrassment. The personal is made public: the most natural and simple pleasures claim, en masse, the city’s space and time and give it cultural form.9
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- This discussion centers on parks in central Beijing and is based on field research in Beihai Park, Coal Hill Park, and Purple Bamboo Park and around the Houhai and Xihai lakes. Suburban parks such as the Summer Palace, the Yuanming Yuan, and Fragrant Hills Park are also important to city dwellers.
- Pankaj Mishra, “Getting Rich: Pankaj Mishra Reports from Shanghai,” London Review of Books, November 30, 2006, 3, 5 – 7.
- Park users often give enjoyment (zhaole) and happiness (kuaile) as reasons for their exercise and self-cultivation routines. This observation opens a large issue explored more fully in a book I am writing with Qicheng Zhang.
- Kang Liu, Globalization and Cultural Trends in China (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006), 86 – 94.
- Observations and quotations from interviews and conversations in this article are drawn from a research project on “life-nurturing” practices in modern Beijing. Qicheng Zhang of the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine is coinvestigator in this project. In 2003 we and a small group of graduate students performed a survey of two hundred residents of Beijing’s West City District, then conducted thirty-six intensive interviews with a selection of those surveyed. Special thanks are due to Qiu Hao, Luo Hao, Wang Minghao, Yu Hong, and Lai Lili.
- Nancy Chen, Breathing Spaces: Qigong, Psychiatry, and Healing in China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); David A. Palmer, Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
- A 1993 film directed by Ning Ying, For Fun (Zhao Le), provides an analysis of the micropolitics of space and place in contemporary Beijing that is quite parallel to that developed in this article.
- Michael Dutton, Policing Chinese Politics: A History (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005).
- This article originated in a 2006 American Anthropological Association panel organized in tribute to Nancy Munn. The influence of Munn’s recent work on the history of Manhattan and Central Park, her concern with spatiotemporalization, and her respect for the powers of objects all inform my argument here. See Munn, The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992); and Munn, “The ‘Becoming-Past’ of Places: Spacetime and Memory in Nineteenth-Century, Pre – Civil War New York,” Finnish Journal of Anthropology 29 (2004): 2 – 19.