Centuries before Geertz made fieldnotes on the deep play of Balinese cockfights, Michel de Montainge wrote that "children at play are not playing about; their games should be seen as their most serious-minded activity." Famously using the games children play as a window into their developing character, Montaigne was convinced that play was a formative arena within which values were cast, and character could be detected early on. Should there be any value in his observation, what then should we make of the games adults play? I should point out at this point that Montaigne, ironically, was himself was an avid gambler.
When most of us think of the word 'play', children come to mind. Children play in the dirt, they play with their friends, they play with toys. Children play a whole range of games, from the universally popular 'Tag' to the more Irish 'IRA' (a game whereby one team has to chase and beat the other team up until each individual submits and reveals their letter, ultimately making a word). Though we, as adults, may resent children for the freedom they enjoy and the games they can play, we soldier on, leaving playtime behind us, replacing it with more serious pursuits like making money, deciding on insurance providers or folding matching pairs of socks. The idea of play of course is hardly absent from the lives of adults, but has to be recast as 'recreation', 'leisure' or something more palatable or 'appropriate' for our age. But we play. Be it playing an Xbox, playing a sport, or just gambling, we all turn to some form of the recreational other to escape whatever it is that otherwise fills our days.
The aim of this post it to show the Chinese idea of 'play', leisure and recreation. Over the course of my brief trip, it seemed that the Chinese were uninhibited by the boundaries we in the West impose on 'playtime'. Playtime seamlessly blends into bustling social spaces, where we would expect only children to be allowed to kick footballs, play with kites or dance in the street. I should preface this, as usual, by saying this is not an in-depth anthropological project (and reeks of naive exoticism). This is more than anything a convenient net to cast over the photos below. Sitting here writing this, however, I can't help feeling the urge to jump up and run out the door shouting 'I'm going out to play!'
In the middle of the main shopping street in Shanghai on Christmas day, these women burst into a bout of Thai Chi.
The parks of Shanghai are full of people playing cards, and usually attract a small audience of enthusiasts, resulting in arguments and applause.
The parks are immaculately clean and make for a great space for people watching
This guy calmly set down his things, set up his speakers and without looking for donations of any sort, just started dancing. If this was to happen in Ireland, I can imagine he would be ridiculed, or worse still, removed for disturbing the peace.
From 5am and throughout the day, the Bund is home to dozens of men flying kites (they take it quite seriously) and stop to compare their toys as they pass each other.
In my search for Chinese culture, I came across this tourist dressing up in Ming attire. Seconds later he was outside dancing 'Gangman style' for photos
After taking a dip in an icy lake (literally a lake mostly covered in ice), this man then stretched for a while by the road
This is may be the happiest person I have ever met. I stayed for a while watching him in the park, though our interactions were restricted to hand gestures. He was quite old but had the energy of a 12 year old and was clearly delighted to be out in the park on this crispy morning. He excitedly ran over every couple of minutes to see the shots, laughing his head off at his expressions and dance moves!
This shot was taken on the Bund at 6am or so. This man goes there every morning for at least an hour of Thai Chi, ignoring the joggers, kite flyers and speed walkers.
From a hilltop nearby, I heard a saxophone in the distance. I followed the sound to the corner of the park. As I got there, this guy was playing Mozart's Turkish March, which seems incredibly difficult on piano, but surely impossible on sax? He asked me where I was from and when I said Ireland, he played something that resembled Oh Danny Boy. Again, not looking for money, just playing in the park.
These women work on a hilltop station in the park, which left me out of breath after climbing its steep stairs. Once I asked to take a picture, they started fixing each other up, breadcrumbs still clinging to their lips!
Relaxing in the sun. All along this wall, elderly people sat out reading the paper and chatting.
This was one of many intense games of Xiangqi going on in this small park. A small crowd gathered here to watch this particular game.
This guy had the right idea. He had been watching cards for about half an hour, and decided he needed a quick power nap before getting back in the game!