Tai chi encourages calm. So why are its Chinese fans stressing out?

Although the discipline may have its roots in self-defence, in recent years it has gained broad popularity as a therapeutic exercise

Image Credit: The New York Times
Zhang Jian (left) a tai chi master, leads his students through the motions in the Temple of Earth park in Beijing.
Gulf News

Beijing: Last year, Indian yoga made Unesco’s list. In 2011, South Korea’s taekkyeon became the first martial art so honoured.

So why can’t Chinese tai chi win similar international recognition?

That is the question on Yan Shuangjun’s mind as the annual deadline approaches for nominations to Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, established by the United Nations agency to celebrate and protect the world’s cultural diversity. For the past decade, Yan has lobbied for the inclusion of tai chi, a centuries-old martial art that combines flowing movements with deep breathing and meditation.

“Through tai chi, one can understand Chinese culture, from medicine to literature, from philosophy to art,” said Yan, who heads the Tai Chi Unesco Heritage Application Group in Wen County, Henan province, widely thought to be the martial art’s birthplace.

As much as tai chi advocates and fans insist that it embodies unique aspects of Chinese culture, they fear that if China does not secure it a Unesco listing, other countries might move ahead with their own variants. It would not be the first time, they say.

Although tai chi may have its roots in self-defence, in recent years it has gained broad popularity as a therapeutic exercise, promoting physical fitness while reducing stress. Across China and beyond, its practitioners can be seen gathered in parks and other public spaces, moving slowing in unison through prescribed routines.

But that very popularity is adding to its advocates’ concerns. During the recently concluded session of the National People’s Congress, a delegate from Henan, Zhang Liyong, stressed the urgency of the matter.

“Both South Korea and Japan are competing with us to get tai chi registered,” Zhang told reporters. “Especially South Korea. Some people there are claiming tai chi was invented by Koreans. And since South Korea has already registered the Dragon Boat Festival as theirs, we should be alarmed.”

China’s Dragon Boat Festival commemorates the ancient poet Qu Yuan with boat races and a public holiday. When Unesco added South Korea’s Gangneung Danoje Festival to its list in 2008, some Chinese objected that it was derived from the Dragon Boat Festival and accused the UN of endorsing Koreans’ appropriation of Chinese culture. The Chinese festival was accepted in 2009.

Recognition confers prestige rather than a monetary prize. But that prestige means a lot to Yan. So far, he has not heard whether the Chinese government will nominate tai chi, and he says he is getting anxious. The deadline is March 31.

“No news is bad news,” he said.

When China drew up its own national intangible cultural heritage list in 2006, tai chi was on it. And in 2008, tai chi was among China’s 35 nominations to Unesco. But Yan and his associates were told that Unesco found the application “too vague.” They were asked to revise and resubmit it.

They withdrew it, hoping to offer it for consideration the next year. But then the rules changed. No country could submit more than two candidates. Tai chi was shut out when China nominated Peking opera and acupuncture, both of which won Unesco recognition.

“Since then,” Yan lamented, “tai chi has never stood out on the long list of Chinese heritage items waiting for inclusion.”

Among the items that have won Unesco recognition for China in recent years are shadow puppetry and mathematical calculations based on the abacus.

The nominations are submitted to Unesco by the Ministry of Culture’s intangible cultural heritage Centre. Reached by telephone, a researcher at the centre, who declined to give her name, said it would not be convenient to discuss which candidates would be put forward this year.

Zhang Jian, a 57-year-old tai chi master in Beijing, said it would be a shame if tai chi failed again to be nominated.

“When people talk about kung fu, they usually think of the Shaolin Temple,” Zhang said, referring to the temple and its monks in Dengfeng County, Henan province, popularised in martial arts movies. “But Shaolin kung fu is more about performance. Tai chi is different. It’s all about personal practice and deserves more attention.”

Yan said he would keep up the campaign to win wider global recognition for Chinese tai chi.

“Compared with many other aspects of Chinese culture, tai chi is relatively practical and could help China expand its soft power,” he said. “Even our astronauts practised tai chi, so we’ve already made it into outer space!”

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