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October 23, 2009

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Elderly find joy in simple activities

GAO Mingyuan has found joy at age 66.

Joy, in his case, consists of bending himself double and hooking his legs around a pole that runs behind his shoulders in a Chinese meditative martial arts tradition.

Gao is one of many Chinese seniors, freed from the rigors of work and raising children, who are turning to martial arts such as tai chi, bopping to trendy beats or singing songs as they seek health and friends in parks across the country.

"We forget all our troubles when we practice," he said as he contorted himself at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, where seniors exercise beneath the gnarled trees at dawn.

China has over 140 million people over the age of 60. Many lost out on an education due to the "cultural revolution" and have retired early as state-owned factories went bust or to help care for grandchildren.

About 54 million engage in some sort of physical activity to enliven their golden years.

The elderly Chinese who swarm to the Temple of Heaven practice a treasure-trove of traditional folk arts, martial arts and Chinese opera, sung in cracked voices that are still in tune.

Crowds of other seniors bop to a trendy beat, try their hand at Indian dance, waltz or join a chorus of patriotic songs rarely heard any more.

"In India, seniors pass on traditions and social norms. In China, they're an untapped resource, because so many young people want to turn toward what's modern," said Kunal Sinha, who studies the aging demographic for Ogilvy & Mather in Shanghai.

"On the other hand, because China is so in flux, we see a lot of old people picking up customs from young people. For instance, the phenomenon of the hip-hop granny - you don't see that in India."

For 63-year-old Wang Yongzhen, a grandmother who swing-dances, retirement is a time to indulge.

"I liked singing and dancing when I was young but never had a chance, because work was busy and the kids were little. Now when I dance, my heart opens," Wang said.


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