Beijing, the capital of China and home to more than 21 million people, does not immediately come to mind when thinking of a typically healthy or caring city. Instead, Beijing readily conjures the all-familiar images of heavy smog due to industrial emissions, vehicle exhaust, and coal-burning power plants. On a daily basis, residents of the city deal with the mental and physical stresses of traffic congestion and an unprecedented, increasingly tightening national surveillance system. Beijing is increasingly also a smart city, employing clever digital solutions to improve the everyday life of its residents, as well as to surveil and control. Xiong’An New Area, just 100 km southwest of Beijing, serves as an incubator to develop a template for an intelligent and happy city paired with an eco-friendly environment and high-level digitalization. Beijing’s highly condensed and planned cityscape is fertile ground for imaginations of a dystopian city, just picking up steam for a high-tech authoritarian future—the consequences of which we cannot yet see.
At the same time, the creative enthusiasm of Beijingers, the possibilities for upward mobility, and the rich imperial style make Beijing an attractive city to live in for many. Perhaps most of all, the spectacular speed at which Beijing has transformed itself in the post-Mao era plays a part in the imagination of Beijing as a dystopic city. It ties in with larger ideas of China’s alleged “global rise.” Large architectural icons—Herzog and de Meuron’s national stadium, ‘the Bird’s Nest’; Zaha Hadid’s Galaxy Soho Beijing; the National Grand Theater by Paul Andreu; and the CCTV tower designed by Rem Koolhaas—further feed and structure a global vision of the capital as the zenith of China’s global power. These buildings signify a sanitized and hypermodern Beijing. Together with their antithetical images of an “old Beijing” produced by a prolific nostalgia industry—paraphernalia, tourist tours, and restaurants with authentic-looking and picturesque imagery, lamenting the loss of the traditional hutong alleys and their way of life to high rise and shopping malls—Beijing captures our imagination in full with the grandeur of a dynastic capital in aesthetic co-existence with hypermodernity.
Now, I want to zoom out and away from these antithetical imageries that seem to walk the tightrope between dystopian and techno-utopian fantasy and consider what often remains unseen, or rather, what we often uncritically pass by. Located in vacant lots, inside public parks, small plazas, and even under highway overpasses, we find the humble machines that might offer insights into how the city cares for its residents despite its size, authoritarianism, or smog. As this issue invites us to explore care as something that can be interwoven into the fabric of the city, I consider Beijing’s outdoor fitness equipment as a design of care combined with neoliberal ethics.
In the late 1990s, the Beijing Commission on Physical Education decided to install public fitness equipment in the small empty spaces alongside roads, alleys, and highways based on the advice of urban planners from Singapore on high-density city planning.1Judith Farquhar and Zhang Qicheng, Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing (New York: Zone Books, 2012); Christoph Szubi, “Singapore: Fitness Zones,” Sportify Cities, July 7, 2016, https://sportifycities.com/singapore-fitness-zones/ The Olympic Games in 2008, hosted by Beijing, further fueled the construction of more outdoor fitness machines, and in 2017, there were more than 600,000 pieces of outdoor equipment scattered throughout China’s parks and plazas.2Yucheng Guo, Haiyang Shi, Dinghai Yu, and Pixiang Qiu, “Health benefits of traditional Chinese sports and physical activity for older adults: A systematic review of evidence,” Journal of Sport and Health Science 5 (2016): 270–280. By now, they have become well-known fixtures in the urban landscape. The exact number of fitness machines placed in Beijing, or China, is unknown. However, it is safe to assume that the number is still growing steadily; the Chinese government recently announced its ambitions to increase its urban fitness plan and to renovate 3,000 pieces of outdoor fitness equipment in 2023.3“Positive Measures Taken to Improve Elderly Care,” The State Council, The People’s Republic of China, n.d. http://english.www.gov.cn/policies/policywatch/202111/26/content_WS61a03255c6d0df57f98e5909.html The all-weather fitness machines are typically painted in bright colors and placed in clusters—they do not look exactly like the high-end fitness machines you find at the local gym. The stainless-steel constructions are sturdy and unbreakable. They come with no instructions but are intuitive and simple to use and do not require electricity or technology, as the machine’s user completely powers them. The machines focus on one part of the body, and typically, you see a variety of them clustered together: leg press, air walker, shoulder flexor, lateral pull-down machine, body twister, balancing beam, sky runner, and back massager. They provide the user with gentle and repetitive cardio exercises and are aimed at improving the flexibility of joints and muscles, balance, and building core muscle strength. A typical user walks to the outside gym area, which is typically close to their house. This is a result of the Chinese National Fitness Plan of 2016, which set out to incorporate regular physical exercise into the routine of over one billion citizens by 2020, and mandated access to fitness spaces for both rural and urban Chinese within fifteen minutes of their homes. Users can complete a workout routine using each machine for about ten minutes. It is often also a social undertaking; people get out of the house, socialize, and exercise with grandchildren, family members, or neighbors in the fresh air. The outdoor exercise spaces are also used for rehabilitation and play. After using all the fitness machines, the entire body has been moved, massaged, and stretched.
Since its inception in Singapore and China, the often lovingly called “senior playgrounds” format has taken flight worldwide, and similar outdoor fitness set-ups can now be found in most large cities. The term senior playground does indeed seem to describe the phenomenon, as the majority of citizens in China and elsewhere using fitness machines are retired people.4 Hsueh-wen Chow and Chia-Hua Ho, “Does the Use of Outdoor Fitness Equipment by Older Adults Qualify as Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity?,” PLOS ONE 13, no. 4 (2018); Elias Hernandez Aparicio, Rodríguez, Emilio Francesco Minguet, and Jose Luis Chinchilla, “Analysis of the public geriatric parks for elderly people in Málaga (Spain),” Retos Nuevas tendencias en Educación Física, Deporte y Recreación, (2010):99-102. And the number of retired people is steadily growing as we have come to a pivotal moment where two major demographic shifts are coming together and are cause for worry, especially in China: an aging population and rapid urbanization. More than 28 percent of the total population in China will be over 60 years old by 2040 due to a longer life expectancy and lower fertility rates.5“Ageing and Health – China,” World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/china/health-topics/ageing And although the problem of aging is more pronounced in the countryside as large amounts of young people have moved to the city, China is at the same time rapidly urbanizing. Now, 60 percent of China’s population is living in cities, but this number is estimated to rise to 80 percent in 2050. Older people, Angela McRobbie argued in 2016, “fade out of view” in urban scholarly literature, as it tends to focus on the potential of the young, the productive, and the creative to contribute to city development.6Angela McRobbie, Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries (Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity, 2016), 454. But as China’s population both shrinks and ages, urban policymakers no longer have the luxury to obscure retirees out of view. Voices calling for a more inclusive and age-friendly agenda are getting louder and louder.
The World Health Organization has laid out a template for an aging-friendly city: the toolkit stresses very concrete and practical interventions in the urban landscape, such as the importance of green spaces, somewhere to rest, age-friendly pavements, safe pedestrian crossings, practical non-slip roads, and plenty of public toilets.7World Health Organization, “Global age-friendly cities: a guide,” 2007. All should ensure, of course, that the city remains a safe and inclusive space where everyone’s needs are being met. But healthy and active aging is also necessary from an economic point of view; raising the retirement age, labor reskilling, and a better-working healthcare system should help cities around the world cope with a growing elderly population. In China specifically, increasing amounts of elderly people live in cities, but fewer young taxpayers fund the older generations’ pensions.
When you walk around in the city centers of Beijing, you notice that the streetscapes are filled with the spaces urban scholar Richard Florida had in mind when he conjured up the blueprint for a productive and creative city: cafés, start-ups, and hipster joints where knowledge workers, intellectuals and artists congregate, carrying shiny laptops and drinking green tea lattes. Their place in the city is firmly built into the urban design. Now, we should consider more urgently how public fitness equipment has become an alternative but equally important “site of production,” as well as a site of belonging. Written into the design of a productive city, exercising and caring for aging bodies is increasingly a neoliberal tactic performed by the responsible senior citizen. The right to be present in the city, but also to use, play, and exercise in the city, fundamentally shapes and alters the processes of urbanization. This idea is at the heart of Henri Lefebvre’s invitation to critically consider the complexity and social negotiations inherent in the city-making project.8Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996). As the municipality exerts control and governs their inhabitants, it shapes at the same time the behavior of both the individual and the collective and defines what constitutes a healthy or productive life. It does so by encouraging individuals to actively participate in the management of their own lives.
China stands out as one of the first countries to promote activities for senior citizens at its public parks. Public fitness machines are more often used in Chinese cities than elsewhere in the world.9Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Madeline Brozen, and Lené Levy-Storms, “Placemaking for an aging population: guidelines for senior-friendly parks,” The Ralph and Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, UCLA (June 2014):99. The reason for this is that the message to care for your own aging body finds fertile ground in the Chinese philosophy of self-cultivation, which dovetails with a bio-political discourse focused on self-regulating health care. The machines have, therefore, relatively easily found their way into the already thriving and layered health routines of the elderly. Anyone who has ever walked in a city park in China in the early morning has witnessed how the elderly care for themselves in creative and miscellaneous ways. Every morning, the city parks transform into a temporary playground of sorts; we can find quiet taijiquan practitioners, kite-flyers, chatty crocheting groups, chess or mahjong players, water calligraphy writers, and loud and cheerful groups of vocalists. They all convene in the park with their respective groups and bring with them a tumultuous moment of sound, movement, and color, leaving by lunch hour. The scene as it unfolds in the morning recalls Michal Bakhtin’s notion of the “carnivalesque,” which discloses the potentiality of an entirely different world, of another order, and another way of life. The park activities in the morning seem to subvert or perhaps liberate dominant norms through chaos, humor, and a celebration of social life and the body. The movements of bodies in dance, qigong, or going up and down on a roller back massager done so publicly seem like a liberation of the body. This feeling is perhaps amplified because these bodies on the move are older bodies—the often-perceived frail and dignified, suddenly seem free and empowered.
These routines of self-regulating health care can be subsumed under the term yangsheng, often translated as nurturing life practices. Yangsheng practices are extremely diverse and “hinge almost entirely on the quotidian,” note Farquhar and Zhang.10Judith Farquhar and Qicheng Zhang, Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing (New York: Zone Books, 2012. They are practical, cheap, and concrete habits, meant to be incorporated into a daily routine: eating well, drinking enough tea, keep your body moving, dressing appropriately for the weather, taking walks, being sociable and meeting friends, and simply enjoying yourself are all part of yangsheng. The perceived health benefits of yangsheng practices strike a chord, particularly with the older population, as they promote the idea of longevity. Yangsheng finds its roots in ancient Chinese cosmology and metaphysics and first appeared in the way it is practiced and lived in the Yangsheng lu (Records of Cultivating Life) by Ji Kang, written in the period of the Three Kingdoms (220–265 CE). These practices focus on repairing, balancing, cultivating, and nourishing, not healing. But while yangsheng today is practiced outside the mainstream health system, it is a mistake to think that it also falls outside a capitalist logic. A large yangsheng industry has developed, ranging from self-help books and wellness promotions by gurus, coaches, or online influencers, to special healthy foods, drinks, tinctures, and tonics. The wellness industry has become one of the largest industries in China. It now ranks as the second-largest wellness market in the world.11Qi Wen, “Yangsheng baojian shichang, zhengdai jianguan bumeng chuquan zhengdun,” [Yangsheng market is in serious need of crackdown and regulation], 2012, http://www.138job.com/shtml/Article/18207/71085.shtml; “The Chinese wellness market: A rapidly growing industry,” Marketing China, March 7, 2022, https://marketingtochina.com/the-chinese-wellness-market-rapidly-growing/
While the aging population is traditionally the main consumer, the COVID-19 pandemic has, for many, reiterated the importance of health and fitness. This has given rise to new and much younger groups of yangsheng aficionados who are adhering to an alternative “punk health” or pengke yangsheng, which essentially means following a loose, or “punk” lifestyle of working and playing hard, and afterward using expensive health remedies as a quick fix—think late nights with hard-drinking and a handful of vitamins with a goji-berry infused latte the next morning to cleanse the liver. The idea that one is wise to practice preventive self-care is widely adopted throughout society. After the 1980s, the government withdrew support for national healthcare, and health insurance plans were introduced that proved unaffordable for many. The Ministry of Health began to roll out health propaganda to educate people to care for themselves first.12Judith Farquhar and Zhang Qicheng, Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing (New York: Zone Books, 2012.) After many rounds of far-reaching healthcare reforms, the healthcare system today is characterized by a mix of public and private provision and financing, and there are ongoing debates about the balance between market mechanisms on the one hand and public provision on the other.
From what I laid out, this constellation seems like nothing but a happy marriage: people want to care for themselves through yangsheng practices, and they step in at the point where the government wishes to retreat. It almost reads like a textbook explanation of the Foucauldian idea of governmentality, which Michel Foucault conceptualizes as “the continuity between the government of a state and the governed.”13Michel Foucault, “Governmentality,” in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, ed. Graham Burchell, Gordon Colin, and Peter Miller (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 87-104. “With government,” Foucault explains, “it is a question not of imposing law on men, but of disposing things: that is to say, of employing tactics rather than laws, and even of using laws themselves as tactics—to arrange things in such a way that, through a certain number of means, such and such ends may be achieved.”14Ibid., 59. These tactics are subtle, multifaceted, and, importantly, unrecognizable, making them effective. The result is a highly delicate and effective form of government, governmentality: individuals guide the conduct of others and their own and act in such a way the state desires. While disciplinary power is addressed to and directed at the body and the individual, Foucault further observed how disciplinary power is brought to an even greater level of intensity through biopower.
While disciplinary power requires the body of one individual—for example, the Chinese National Fitness Plan of 2016, a strategy that was put in place to encourage people to incorporate regular physical exercise into their daily routines—biopower does not work through the individual. Instead, it targets the person-as-being and is exercised at the level of life. It aims to control mass populations on the levels of life and death and attempts to control how life is led, both by discipline and regulation. Biopower does not replace disciplinary power but functions on another scale and “dovetail[s] into it, integrate[s] it, modif[ies] it to some extent, and above all, use[s] it by sort of infiltrating it, embedding itself in existing disciplinary techniques.”15Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976 (London: Allen Lane, 2003), 24.
As we can see, this happy marriage might be functional, but imbalanced relationships are not happy ones, and they rarely survive in the long term. The neoliberal restructuring of the Chinese healthcare system has given ample space for an ancient philosophy of self-care to thrive, resulting in savvy citizens responsible for their health. And increasingly, as Wilfred Wang observed on the e-commerce social media platform Xiaohongshu, the aging population is not made solely responsible for their health anymore.16Wilfred Yang Wang, “Looking after the elderly, looking after the nation: Red (Xiao Hongshu) and China’s biopolitical governance of ageing,” Asian Journal of Communication 31, no. 5 (2021):404–420. A narrative of concern, fed and nurtured through social media, is evolving in which younger family members are made responsible for looking after the elderly—usually their parents. Yang explains how the algorithms of Xiaohongshu construct a discourse that links aging directly to healthcare provision. Young people are nudged to buy calcium and other vitamin supplements for their mothers, for example, and yangsheng practices are encouraged through the practice of “gift giving” to elderly parents. Types of filial piety are now at the centre of elderly care, and this type of care has entered mainstream public discourse. The frailty of the aging population is becoming manageable through digital affordances, in which the support of the digitally native younger generations is critical. Another biopolitics of aging in China is evolving.
Let us return to those colorful, sturdy fitness machines placed, we can now tentatively assume, by a city government that puts a large chunk of faith in its responsible elderly population and their children. In a caring city, the needs of city dwellers are made a priority. Spaces are thought of and designed with the needs and desires of the people who live in the city in mind. A caring city takes care of us instead of us adapting to the framework of the city, and it prioritizes our health, safety, and collective well-being at large. What, then, does the caring city ask from its citizens? Any city designed, governed, and regulated within a capitalist framework is essentially wary of unproductivity, and it is telling that the only power needed to use the free fitness machines comes from the people who decide to take a moment in their day to use them. A caring city, perhaps, simply asks its citizens to play along and recognize and grasp the pockets of care that have been built into the design of the city. Caring, then, includes health protection, pleasure, play, safety, and individual agency. Yangsheng practices seem to fit the bill and beautifully mirror another idea put forward by Michel Foucault. He speaks of an “art of existence,” which are all those things we do by our own volition, by which we set rules of conduct for ourselves, but are also attempting to transform ourselves and make ourselves better and healthier and make our life, in Foucault’s words, “into an oeuvre”—a life that carries aesthetic value.17Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure, trans. R. Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1985), 10–11. Lefebvre’s proposal to see the city also as “an oeuvre,” as a place of “movement, complexity, conflicts, and contradictions” ties this aesthetic, personal life to the communal life of the city.18Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996), 53.
Now how to read the daily flexing, stretching, and building muscle strength performed by a group of retirees so as not to become a burden to one’s children or the put-upon healthcare system? It is, at times, too easy to be cynical, especially when it comes to neoliberalist tendencies. Instead, we could celebrate those who understand how to navigate the city and have found a way out of a seemingly uncaring municipality while remaining embedded in the urban condition. It is a testimony to how individuals are motivated by hope for themselves and for the city that increasingly builds an infrastructure capable of delivering conditions of care.
Laura Vermeeren is a lecturer of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam and sinologist. She is interested in, and has published on Chinese creativity, urban calligraphy, youth cultures in China and digital Chinese writing practices. A finalized monograph on contemporary practices of Chinese calligraphy is currently being peer-reviewed by Hawaii University Press.
|↑1||Judith Farquhar and Zhang Qicheng, Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing (New York: Zone Books, 2012); Christoph Szubi, “Singapore: Fitness Zones,” Sportify Cities, July 7, 2016, https://sportifycities.com/singapore-fitness-zones/|
|↑2||Yucheng Guo, Haiyang Shi, Dinghai Yu, and Pixiang Qiu, “Health benefits of traditional Chinese sports and physical activity for older adults: A systematic review of evidence,” Journal of Sport and Health Science 5 (2016): 270–280.|
|↑3||“Positive Measures Taken to Improve Elderly Care,” The State Council, The People’s Republic of China, n.d. http://english.www.gov.cn/policies/policywatch/202111/26/content_WS61a03255c6d0df57f98e5909.html|
|↑4||Hsueh-wen Chow and Chia-Hua Ho, “Does the Use of Outdoor Fitness Equipment by Older Adults Qualify as Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity?,” PLOS ONE 13, no. 4 (2018); Elias Hernandez Aparicio, Rodríguez, Emilio Francesco Minguet, and Jose Luis Chinchilla, “Analysis of the public geriatric parks for elderly people in Málaga (Spain),” Retos Nuevas tendencias en Educación Física, Deporte y Recreación, (2010):99-102.|
|↑5||“Ageing and Health – China,” World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/china/health-topics/ageing|
|↑6||Angela McRobbie, Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries (Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity, 2016), 454.|
|↑7||World Health Organization, “Global age-friendly cities: a guide,” 2007.|
|↑8||Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996).|
|↑9||Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Madeline Brozen, and Lené Levy-Storms, “Placemaking for an aging population: guidelines for senior-friendly parks,” The Ralph and Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, UCLA (June 2014):99.|
|↑10||Judith Farquhar and Qicheng Zhang, Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing (New York: Zone Books, 2012.|
|↑11||Qi Wen, “Yangsheng baojian shichang, zhengdai jianguan bumeng chuquan zhengdun,” [Yangsheng market is in serious need of crackdown and regulation], 2012, http://www.138job.com/shtml/Article/18207/71085.shtml; “The Chinese wellness market: A rapidly growing industry,” Marketing China, March 7, 2022, https://marketingtochina.com/the-chinese-wellness-market-rapidly-growing/|
|↑12||Judith Farquhar and Zhang Qicheng, Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing (New York: Zone Books, 2012.|
|↑13||Michel Foucault, “Governmentality,” in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, ed. Graham Burchell, Gordon Colin, and Peter Miller (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 87-104.|
|↑15||Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976 (London: Allen Lane, 2003), 24.|
|↑16||Wilfred Yang Wang, “Looking after the elderly, looking after the nation: Red (Xiao Hongshu) and China’s biopolitical governance of ageing,” Asian Journal of Communication 31, no. 5 (2021):404–420.|
|↑17||Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure, trans. R. Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1985), 10–11.|
|↑18||Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996), 53.|