A Tai Chi sweep? China bids for UNESCO cultural heritage status.

In the birthplace of tai chi, hopes are high for later this year, when UNESCO will decide whether to add tai chi to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. Advocates want to make sure that Japan or South Korea doesn't beat China out. 

Michael Holtz/The Christian Science Monitor
Students practice tai chi at at Chenjiagou Tai Chi School on Wednesday. Chenjiagou, a village in Henan province, is the birthplace of the Chinese martial art.

The clamoring of a jackhammer and shrill barks of two golden retrievers make a jarring soundtrack for Yan Ziteng’s afternoon tai chi class, but neither he nor his students seem to notice.

Instead, they concentrate on moving through a series of slow, sweeping motions while Mr. Yan looks on with a quiet intensity. Every few minutes he stops to demonstrate a pose or to suggest adjustments.

“Tai chi isn’t something you can learn from reading books,” he tells his students at Chenjiagou Thai Chi School. “I’ve been practicing for 15 years, and I still have much to learn.” 

Yan appears wholly undisturbed by the din of construction that is a regular accompaniment to life here in Chenjiagou, the birthplace of tai chi. That may be because it signals the anticipated tourism boom that could transform this village into a global center for Chinese martial arts.

Later this year, UNESCO will decide whether to add tai chi to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. China’s Ministry of Culture recently submitted its nomination to UNESCO, after tai chi advocates had warned that time was running out. They worried another country could beat China to the list with its own version of tai chi.

“Japan and South Korea are also trying to apply,” Yan says about the list, which was established by UNESCO in 2008 to celebrate and protect cultural diversity. “Tai chi is a treasure of Chinese culture. If we succeed, it would be good for our village and for the promotion of Chinese martial arts to the world.”

But there are other issues at stake here, too. For one, yoga, which won UNESCO designation in India last year, has emerged as a trendy alternative. Then there's simple fact that the ancient martial art isn't as popular among young Chinese, many of whom think of it as a low-intensity exercise better suited for their grandparents.

“The first impression I have of tai chi is that it’s something old people do in parks,” says Yin Haolong, a 29-year-old freelance graphic designer and photographer in Beijing.

Birthplace of tai chi

Chenjiagou sits just north of the Yellow River in the central province of Henan, about 350 miles south of Beijing. It was here where Chen Wangting, a Ming Dynasty general, is believed to have developed tai chi toward the end of the 16th century. What became known as Chen-style tai chi soon spread across China and became the foundation for four main offshoots.  

Tai chi's links to promoting physical and mental wellness have boosted its following, even though its origins are in self-defense. It’s practiced by millions of people across the world. Huang Kanghui, a tai chi coach at Beijing Sport University, estimates about 100 million people practice tai chi in China alone.

Chen Baobei, a shopkeeper in Chenjiagou, says she hopes the growing interest in tai chi will lead more people to explore its birthplace. She says a UNESCO designation could only help, even if the only award is recognition. 

A near lifelong resident of Chenjiagou, Chen expresses deep pride in her village's connection to tai chi. She practices for 30 minutes every morning, and estimates that 80 percent of the villagers are regular practitioners.  

“Maybe someday as many people who go to Shaolin Temple will come here,” Chen says, referring to the fabled home of kung fu that’s visited by millions of tourists every year and located 50 miles away.

The local government is also anticipating a rise in tourism. Chen’s storefront is one of dozens that it helped renovate over the past year. It built a new tree-lined walkway through the center of the village and reconstructed the former home of Yang Luchan, a revered tai chi master who lived here in the 19th century.

Chen’s store sits across the road from Chenjiagou Tai Chi School, one of the oldest in the village. Founded in 1980, the school is a series of drab concrete buildings that encircle a large courtyard. Every afternoon some 200 students meet outside for three hours of training, weightlifting, and more creative forms of conditioning, such as climbing over the top of a 5-foot-tall tractor tire.

Chenjiagou Tai Chi School has enrolled students as young as three and older than 70. On a recent afternoon, a young girl practices with a group of middle-aged women near a gray brick wall. Still, the majority of students are teenage boys and men in their 20s. Some come for week-long courses; others have been studying there for more than a decade.

As tai chi’s popularity continues to grow, the school has opened more than 140 branches across China and dozens of branches in cities as far away as Buenos Aires, Warsaw, and Seattle.

“[Chinese] people who live in cities are often in poor health and poor spirits,” says Ren Mingming, a tai chi master who runs two branches in Beijing. “Tai chi is not only a martial art, it’s also a philosophy.” He says that philosophy, with its emphasis on moderation and balance – yin and yang – can help relieve the stresses of modern life.

Experts say such promises have made tai chi popular among China’s increasingly health-conscious middle class, even as it competes with yoga.  

A report by the market research firm Daxue Consulting estimates that 10 million Chinese practiced yoga in 2014, up from 4 million in 2009. Mr. Yin started doing yoga five years and says more and more of his friends have taken an interest in it too. 

Yet there could be room for compromise and even crossover between yoga and tai chi. In May 2015, a group of 400 practitioners from both disciplines performed in Beijing for Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi during his first state visit to China. Then came Jackie Chan’s comedy-action film “Kung Fu Yoga,” which topped the Chinese box office earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the next generation of tai chi masters is coming of age in Chenjiagou. Jin Saifei, a 13-year-old boy from Anhui province, enrolled in Chenjiagou Tai Chi School two months ago after studying for several years at Shaolin Temple. Poised and deliberate in his practice, he says he plans to dedicate his life to tai chi.  

“I want to start my own tai chi school someday,” he says. “My dream is to become a tai chi master.”

Xie Yujuan contributed reporting.

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