The Chinese work hard, but they also take their leisure seriously, and have a range of traditional and modern entertainment. The vast tradition of performing arts reflects China’s rich cultural heritage, and includes Chinese opera, theater, shadow puppetry, and the circus. Many types of dance and music derive from ethnic cultures, adding to the diversity of entertainment. As China has opened to the West, young people in particular have been able to enjoy contemporary films, and classical and rock concerts. Karaoke is hugely popular, and most towns and cities have numerous bars, where visitors can sing along to popular Chinese and Western songs, accompanied by the latest videos. The popularity and increasing availability of the internet has opened up new avenues for on-line entertainment, and China’s youth now spend many hours at internet cafes.
Playing games in public parks is a timeworn Chinese custom, and though visitors may feel too inhibited to challenge locals to a game, they are great fun to watch. Some Chinese games date back thousands of years. The most well-known game is mahjong, which uses plastic tiles, originally made of bamboo or ivory. The rules are similar to rummy, with players trying to create identical, or consecutively numbered, sets. More advanced versions of the game have special tiles representing the four winds, four dragons, seasons, and flowers. When a game is in full swing, the quick movements of the participants make the tiles click and clatter – a popular translation of mahjong is “chattering sparrows.”
Chinese checkers (xiangqi) is another popular game. Here, there are two opposing sets of round counters. The board is divided into squares by nine vertical and ten horizontal lines. The board game Go (weiqi) dates back more than 4,000 years. Also known as encirclement chess, it involves two opposing sides, each with a set of circular stones, struggling for territory.
The most popular sports at schools and colleges are basketball, badminton, and table tennis (ping pong), and the Chinese excel internationally in the latter two. The top European clubs have a strong fan-base in China, and Chinese soccer players are now being recruited by them. Fitness centers and gyms are becoming increasingly popular in cities. Traditional martial arts such as tai ji quan are popular amongst the older generation, and people practice early in the morning in parks, squares, and gardens.
TRADITIONAL FORMS OF THEATER
Beijing opera(jingju) is a world famous traditional art form unique to China. It is highly stylized, and characters wear elaborate costumes with special makeup and masks. Performances usually take place on a simple stage with few props.
The Chinese circus has a worldwide reputation for its highly-trained gymnasts who perform breathtaking routines that showcase their unnerving flexibility. Displays of balance often involve household props, such as brooms, plates, and chairs, with one of the most popular tricks being performed by 20 or so acrobats piled precariously on a bicycle. These routines are often combined with acts involving caged and tame animals, but the current trend is toward a purer display of acrobatics.
Some forms of traditional dance still exist, especially among China’s ethnic groups. Some relate to shamanistic or other religious rituals, and often involve the wearing of special masks.
SHADOW PLAYS & PUPPET THEATER
Shadow plays (piyingxi) are popular. These are manipulated close to a white sheet and lit from behind, throwing their shadows on to the sheet. The performance is accompanied by singing and music. Plays with wooden puppets (mu’ouxi) involve elaborate and colorfully dressed marionettes, glove puppets, or puppets on the end of rods.
Chinese music can be traced back as far as the Shang era. Ancient sets of 65 bells from the 5th
century BC have been unearthed. During the Tang dynasty, the traditional musical forms began to take root and music was also an important part of Confucian education.
Traditional instruments include strings, winds, and percussion. String instruments played with the fingers, plectrum, or bow are the Chinese violin, horizontal harp, and many-stringed zithers, such as the zheng. The lute-like pipa is one of the most important stringed instruments. The most common bamboo flutes are the vertical (xiao) and horizontal (di). The hulusu made from a gourd and bamboo is popularly used in folk music. The sheng, one of the oldest Chinese instruments, has up to 17 bamboo pipes and a vibrating reed. Another ancient instrument is the earthenware xun. Dating back 8,000 years, and sometimes made of bone or ivory, it has a mouthpiece and a series of holes for varying the tones. Percussion instruments include gongs, chimes, drums, woodblocks, and xylophones.
Kite flying is a major hobby in China, especially on public holidays when parks, gardens, and even city squares are crowded with displays of colorful and fantastically-shaped kites, soaring to considerable heights. Birds and dragons are the most common kite designs.
BARS, DISCOS & KARAOKE
In recent years, bars, discos, and karaoke lounges have sprung up all over China, especially in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Some bars specialize in live bands, and these are very popular with expats, foreign visitors, and urban Chinese. Coffee bars are also increasingly popular with young people, although the older generation remain faithful to their green tea and traditional teahouses
China has traditionally produced many good films, based mainly on folk tales, romantic love stories, or strong patriotic themes. More recently, Chinese cinema has opened up to embrace international tastes. Apart from Hong Kong, there are few places in China that show movies in English or with subtitles.