When I recently visited the Temple of Heaven Park, I was amazed to see so many elderly people working out in the freezing cold, often performing extremely challenging routines on the outdoor exercise machines.
In Beijing, many parks have set up small public gyms that people can use for free, and they’ve become gathering places for retirees. After a year of sporadic lockdowns and social distancing, they cherish the social contact these spaces provide.
But the old folks — known affectionately as dama and daye in Beijing dialect — don’t just come to chat. After warmly greeting each other, they’ll launch into a range of elaborate and often quite unusual exercises.
Wu Baoyin practices his “twisting Kungfu” workout at a park in Beijing, December 2020. Sun Yibing for Sixth Tone
Wu Baoyin, who goes by the nickname Wu Daye, is one of the gym park’s biggest bros. The 79-year-old has become famous for his “twisting kung fu” workout, in which he hangs from a horizontal bar and uses his arm and stomach muscles to shake and rotate his body.
A retired engineer, Wu developed the routine after he was partially paralyzed in 2005. Unsatisfied with his rehabilitation, he found the twisting exercises helped him strengthen his core.
“Muscles are more valuable than money,” Wu told me as he hung in the air, flexing his hips.
The other dama and daye are similarly creative. Many of them have learned how to adjust the gym equipment to suit their needs: adding long elastic straps to the bars to work out their arms, hanging upside-down from sit-up machines, and propping themselves up on others while they do the splits.
I don’t think they’re trying to outdo each other, but they certainly enjoy how impressed the other park visitors are by their performances.
“The world’s eyes are on China; China’s are on Beijing; Beijing’s are on its parks,” Wu said, sharing one of his favorite sayings. “And in the parks, all eyes are on us daye.”
A version of this piece was first published on Lonely Library. The original can be read here.
Translator: Ding Yining; editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A woman swings on a horizontal bar at a park gym in Beijing, December 2020. Sun Yibing for Sixth Tone)