LINK:  University of Chicago Magazine
About the Magazine | Advertising | Archives | Contact
 LINK:  IssueLINK:  featuresLINK:  chicago journalLINK:  investigationsLINK:  peer reviewLINK:  in every issue

:: By Laura Stuart

:: Photography by Dan Dry

link:  e-mail this to a friend

Investigations ::

Health of a nation

In Beijing retirees’ self-health routines, anthropologist Judith Farquhar
finds traces of the Maoist collective and ancient Chinese traditions

In droves, Beijing’s older citizens meet the sunrise in city parks. They gather with friends for myriad activities: tai chi and chi kung; ballroom, disco, or folk dancing; hacky sack; choral singing; dog walking; jogging; handicrafts; board games; water calligraphy (water, unlike ink, leaves paving stones unmarked). The participants exchange advice about health, diet, and daily routines. In China the name for these “enjoyments,” explains anthropology professor Judith Farquhar, AM’75, AM’79, PhD’86, is yangsheng. Translated, the term means “nurturing life.”


To research Beijing residents’ “bodily life,” Farquhar interviewed citizens about daily life-nurturing activities such as singing, painting, and tai chi.

Although the concept of life-nurturing arts appears in the earliest Chinese archaeological finds, as a modern movement it began in the 1980s and exploded in the 1990s, says Farquhar, an expert in traditional Chinese medicine, popular culture, and everyday life in contemporary Beijing. She spent part of a July trip there gathering “self-health” books in the “nurturing life and protecting health” sections that have sprouted in family bookstores. Many yangshengers, she says, are women over 45 and men over 50—the ages at which Chinese workers are encouraged to retire—who have time to devote to exercise, hobbies, and diet. It is this population that Farquhar and Qicheng Zhang, a Beijing University professor of Chinese medicine, are studying for a book they plan to write in the coming year.

Farquhar is part of a recent trend in anthropology. Her research focuses on “how we continue to live in our bodies every day.” During the 19th and early-20th centuries, anthropology was a “study of universals in human nature,” she explains. But as researchers compared cultures and societies, they delved deeper into specificities of each people, place, and time, discovering important uniquenesses among presumed universals. In her 2002 book Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China (Duke University Press), Farquhar argues that “the specificity of desires for food and sex” in China are “deeply formed by historically particular circumstances.” For example, she says, passion in Maoist China was steeped in the collective. “Everyone had been told that their greatest passion should be directed toward building socialism, and that they were at their most human” when they were part of the collective. Romance was forbidden, personal feelings sublimated. Popular writers began exploring individual desires in the late 1970s, a process “essential” to the explosion of references to sexuality in early-1990s China. When people started expressing their sexuality more freely, “they were doing it partly,” Farquhar says, “against a memory of a very different formation of erotic feeling,” one that was “about a passion for the collective.” 

In anthropology and other social sciences, “the various ways in which physical existence is lived” has become a topic ripe for discussion, Farquhar says, and one she embarked on recently with McGill University anthropologist Margaret Lock. The two edited Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life (Duke University Press, 2007), a collection of historical and anthropological essays tracing the development of modern social theory regarding bodily experience. Among the authors they included were Karl Marx, French sociologist Marcel Mauss, and Berkeley philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler.

To investigate the idea of the “lived body” in modern Beijing, Farquhar and Zhang turned to yangshengers. “We thought that talking to people who engage in life-nurturing activities,” Farquhar says, “might be a way of getting people to talk more explicitly and articulately than people normally do about their bodily life.”

Their hunch proved correct, she says. Farquhar and Zhang devised a survey asking open-ended questions about, for example, what yangsheng includes and reasons to do it. From a pool of 200 respondents, Farquhar, who speaks fluent Mandarin, and Zhang identified 36 people “who were very good at talking” and conducted longer interviews. Those respondents consistently reported practicing the life-nurturing arts “for health,” although yangsheng activities like painting or singing are unrelated to Western ideas of physical health. Says Farquhar, “Many people told me they found relief from their worries—about family, chronic illness, economic limitations—in doing yangsheng.”

A social element also comes into play: getting out, doing things with others, and making friends is considered “health advice” for retired Beijing residents. Yangsheng is “about pleasure,” says Farquhar. “It’s not the hermetic, personal exercise regime in which you’re worrying about aerobic efficiency and weighing yourself compulsively. People are enjoying themselves.”

The yansheng phenomenon reflects a long tradition of “self-cultivation” in Chinese cultural history, she says. And doing so in public spaces shows continuity with Maoist China’s more recent collectivism. (Farquhar notes, however, that yangsheng is different from the group calisthenics of the Maoist period.) Yangshengers’ noncommercial, collectivist activities stand in contrast to consumerism and the bourgeois lifestyle that occupies the city’s younger generation.

Beyond reviewing yangsheng’s cultural and philosophical history and interpreting the results of their interviews, Farquhar and Zhang will tackle their findings’ anthropological implications. They intend to explore, for example, whether these “ordinary people in the parks” painting and exercising and walking their dogs at sunrise find moments of individual creativity outside of “the powers of language and history” that inform everyday experience. “To what extent does this kind of activity find a space beyond social determination?” she asks. “To what extent are people going somewhere with this practice that is really entirely their own? ... We think there ought to be this domain of the free, in which we are creative, original.” Zhang believes such a domain exists; Farquhar leans toward the opposite opinion. “My coauthor tends to think of this in individualistic terms,” she says, “which is funny, because here I am, the American who is committed to the idea of collectivism, and he’s the Chinese who had his fill of collectivism and is committed to the idea of the individual.” The discrepancy doesn’t worry her. “Together,” she says, “we will work it out.”