In the midst of the Beijing winter, 81 year-old Zhao Jianru starts every day the same way. He gets out of bed at 5am, does some stretches, eats a hearty breakfast, and then pulls on an all-in-one speedskating suit. By 7.30 he has cycled to a frozen river in the northeast of the city and lugged his homemade contraption for polishing the ice off his tricycle.
He and several other similarly-aged friends spend an hour smoothing down their natural icerink, before strapping on their skates and spending a further 60 minutes skating to the sound of Chinese opera on a portable system.
“You’ve got to stay busy when you are old,” the former carpenter told WiC. “If you don’t get out you get sick.”
Zhao is one of the 241 million Chinese over the age of 60 – a number that is expected to grow to 487 million or 35% of the population by 2050.
Zhao and many elderly Chinese like him say they want to make the most of retirement: partly to experience the things they missed out on when they were younger; but also to stay fit and hence avoid becoming a burden to their families.
Another example of the trend are the heavily oversubscribed universities for the elderly which teach everything from conversational English to basic computer repairs. In Hefei in Anhui province the ratio of applicants to spaces is four to one. In Shanghai there are six interested retirees for every slot for study.
Yet the capital city’s local government doesn’t really approve of Zhao’s skating gang: on both sides of the Liangma River are large banners warning people not to go out on the ice.
Like the ‘dama’ ladies – who delight in square-dancing in public in spite of protests from nearby residents – Zhao and friends ignore the notices, saying they know when the ice is thick enough to skate on.
They also like the fact that they are providing a public service: smoothing down a ‘rink’ which others can also use for free.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has promised to get 300 million Chinese on skates or skis by the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2020 but the country only has 400 icerinks, compared to 2,000 in the US and more than 8,000 in Canada.
A visit to a commercial rink in downtown Beijing can cost as much as Rmb50 an hour. Many of the Liangma skaters hope the Olympics will help to boost knowledge of their sport and increase the places to practice it.
Skating has a long history in China with records showing that royal households held winter games on ice as early as the Song Dynasty (960-1276). The peak of the pastime (during imperial times) was arguably in the Qing Dynasty when the ruling Manchus – who hail from China’s far north – kept a battalion of skating soldiers that could cover long distances on ice.
The first glimpses of speed skating and figure skating in the modern era came from the 1950s in Heilongjiang, with the help of Soviet coaches. One of the Liangma River skaters, 72 year-old Zhan Qiansen, began skating at a similar time. “I spent one and half months salary on my first pair of skates,” he remembers fondly. Today he squeezes into the lycra bodysuit of the national speed skating team, secured through connections with the sports authorities, he says proudly. Other enthusiasts buy their outfits online or simply skate in the clothes they already own – there is a fine array of fur hats and heavy duty military issue coats on any given day.
The major anxiety among the group is global warming. Many of the elderly skaters told WiC that Beijing winters used to be longer and colder. They bemoan the fact that skating season is now two months at best. Yet even when the ice starts to melt they continue to gather. As soon as spring comes around they revert to their other hobby – rollerblading.
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