Beijing park is alive with song

Chinese lift their spirits by belting out everything from opera to revolutionary tunes.

TO WANDER the neatly landscaped groves of sprawling Tiantan Park in Beijing, also called the Temple of Heaven, is a rare auditory experience – an outdoor college of amateur vocalizing where singing is a native therapy for what ails you and a way to stir the soul. Different breezes might carry anything from the Chinese folk song "Beautiful Girl of Ali Mountain," to a Chinese rendition of "Home on the Range."

For Chinese, who greatly value "face," who shy from standing out in the crowd, and for whom self-censorship is a survival instinct, the park is a place to let down their hair and belt out the lyrics.

"I sing to whatever passes my way, whatever I see," says Li Guo, a government worker who comes three times a week to a grove of the oldest trees in Tiantan. "I sing to the birds; I sing to my friends; I sing until I'm happy."

Seeking sanctuary from urban life, some sing revolutionary songs, some practice the lilting tones of Beijing opera. Impromptu groups harmonize with Russian and American folk tunes, and others improvise melodies while they perform tai chi.

They sing in groups. And some sing alone – letting their solitary voices rise into the cathedral of trees that surround one of Beijing's most majestic landmarks, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, topped by a huge golden knob, which the emperor visited several times a year to solicit help from the corn and wheat gods.

For Guo Yan, singing is transformative. Her doctor told her she had a life-threatening heart condition. She remembered how much she loved singing as a young girl. So Ms. Yan joined friends at the park, singing two hours a day – until she felt her heart was fine. Now she hikes every morning and sings at Tiantan.

"I wanted to live in my own way, not in someone else's style," says the early retiree. "I wanted to find value in life," Yan says. "Singing is what helped me. It started to make life more beautiful."

Don't expect to hear Britney Spears lyrics or a Bob Dylan ballad. But some songs are a-changing with the times.

For example, a crowd that gathers at 8 a.m. in a cyprus grove regularly shifts from revolutionary songs of the 1940s to what are called "new mainstream melodies." Penned in the 1990s, patriotic odes like "Today is Your Birthday, My Motherland" were designed to be mellower alternatives to zesty Mao-era favorites like "The Guns Move Ahead Toward the Enemy," and "Have High Morals."

"I sing loudly by myself, but I sing really loud when I sing with others," offers Xiao Shan, after a high-decibel rendition of "China, My Mother" that got the park's bird life fluttering.

During China's Cultural Revolution, traditional opera art forms were discouraged – and, says one park denizen, no one "would dare" sing anything but revolutionary songs. One woman who arrives at 6 a.m. sings Beijing opera tunes at a special tree each morning. Mrs. Liu, as she gives her name, had been a performer in the Hebei Clapper Opera until the 1960s, when Red Guards disbanded the group. The regional opera, performed in Hebei Province, combines singing and clapping wooden blocks. When Liu's husband died two years ago, she remembered "the joy I felt in those days when we sang, and now I am singing again."

Some park dwellers almost live here. They leave small apartments in the morning, carry plastic bags of buns and fruit, and stay the entire day. Many of the informal choirs act as support groups – and the "members" plan travel to other cities.

Urban parks like Tiantan, or Jingshan, a wooded man-made hill behind the Forbidden City famous for group sings, are important getaways for Chinese, experts say. "When so many people have the freedom to express themselves in one place, they feel safe doing so," says Wei Wenjie, a sociologist at Nankai University in Beijing. "Besides, in a crowded city, there aren't so many places to go."

Indeed, one reason for the rise of organized singing here is to counter the erstwhile popularity of the Falun Gong spiritual-exercise movement in China. The group took hold strongly among working-class people in park settings. Falun Gong activity was banned three years ago and it was described as an "evil cult," and the government has attempted to stamp out its presence. Two years ago, as part of a nationwide effort, Beijing instituted a policy to improve the lives of working people and retirees, so they are not lured down the kind of "antisocial" pathways represented by the Falun Gong.

"The Falun Gong problem forced the government to emphasize activities for people – singing and dancing – to give them more organization, and to pay attention to their needs," says a researcher contacted at the Beijing Center for Aging, who would not give her name.

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