Written by Tai Pan
If you haven’t read part I and II, I suggest you do so before starting reading the following part III
Part I – The Landing: http://thegoldenscope.com/2013/12/13/story-of-my-life-a-gweilo-in-1980s-china/
Part II – The Awakening: http://thegoldenscope.com/2014/01/11/story-of-my-life-a-gweilo-in-1980s-china-pt-ii/
CHAPTER THREE – TAI CHI CHUAN
On my first night in China I fell into a very deep sleep, so deep I couldn’t even remember what I dreamt of. The morning after I woke up quite early, but not because of the jetlag. Around 6 am, when a pale light started penetrating through my window and I was half asleep half awake, my ears began to capture a voice. For what I could hear, the strange voice seemed to come out of an loudspeaker, and it was alternating small sounds with each other, following a specific rhythm. “What is this noise?” I still couldn’t fully focus on what and why that voice was loudly waking up the entire block, so I decided to leave my warm bed to go check it out. Before heading to the window to see what was happening outside, I first check the clock…it was 6.16 am! People in Italy would still be sleeping at 6 in the morning, and the only sounds at that time of the ‘night’ would be the van that usually comes to collect the trash. So I immediately thought it was that. “A van is collecting the trash around Shanghai, that’s it!”
I looked outside the window and as soon as my eyes adjusted to the light my mouth dropped open and my face turned into an astonished expression. At first I couldn’t really understand what was going on out there, then little by little I began to realise what I was witnessing and I was suddenly overwhelmed by an incredible feeling, which I couldn’t distinguish if it was astonishment or admiration. In the square right in front of the Park International Hotel, where I was staying, there were about a thousand people all dressed with the typical Mao Zedong’s uniform, that were slowly and delicately moving changing position every time the loudspeaker would make a sound. It was all so fascinating that I was convinced I was watching a scene from a film where people were moving so slow and so peacefully, all at 6 in the morning right the centre of Shanghai in 1983.
Because my room was on the 12th floor I couldn’t clearly see the movements and the people that were filling up completely that big square, so I let my curiosity take over control of my rationality and I immediately rushed to get some clothes on without even showering, and I run downstairs. The whole scene was absolutely spectacular, and even today, 30 years after, I still live it inside my mind, recreating every single detail, every single sound and every single feeling that was flowing into my body. It seems like yesterday when I was there standing in front of that human flow, all moving so silently and peacefully following the strange sounds of a man that was instructing them on the movements. There were men and women, all older than 60 years old, moving at the same time creating graceful and elegant positions. The only words that came into my mind were “Incredible, Fascinating, Unique and Special”.
Only later on I was explained exactly what happened in that square. That was the first time I came in contact with the millennial Chinese culture: what I witnessed that morning was the Tai Chi Chuan, more commonly know as Tai Chi, a sort of Chinese martial art that was born after mixing meditation with actual fighting movements. Indeed, Tai Chi is based on principles such as creating tranquillity through movements, using the mind and not the muscles, moving constantly without interrupting it, and empting the mind to be able to blend the outside with the inside, so concrete with abstract.
Those people’s faces were so calm, relaxed and peaceful that made me feel immediately at ease, relaxed and peaceful myself. When they realised I was observing them, they all began to look towards me and smile, and every now and then I could hear them saying a word, a word that accompanied me during the whole 12 years of business relations that I had with that fascinating country: I could hear them all saying “Gweilo”. If literally translated, this term means ‘white devil’, and every single foreigner that had the chance to travel to China in those year, and even now, would have been given that name. I was told that Chinese people usually use that word when referring to everyone who is not from that country, and so Gweilo is not necessarily a negative term.
What I saw in that square was a typical Chinese tradition that was followed especially in the early 80s. Men and women who were older than 50 used to join each other in the streets of Shanghai as soon as the fist morning lights were appearing in the dark sky. What they were doing was practicing Tai Chi to start their days in the most relaxing way possible, and once they were done with that, they would run to the market, still half asleep, to buy bamboo baskets and food. What I saw in that square was something that it is not possible to witness anymore, anywhere in the world. What I saw in that square was something absolutely magical and unique, which dragged me in a timeless atmosphere where past and future were all far gone, and the only thing that mattered was the present.
When I returned into reality I suddenly realised that I was in Shanghai for business, and that I was running late! So I rushed upstairs, showered, had breakfast and I got ready to meet the people from the China National Textiles Import Export Corporation, who were on their way to come pick me up. It was my first day as businessman doing affairs and negotiations in China, and it was also my first day in the fascinating Shanghai of 1983, but I will tell you all about this in the next coming chapter.