“If you don’t come out in the morning to wake up, how will you be alive? What kind of life is that?”

Caroline Cooper’s postcard from Beijing

Overgrown with towering skyscrapers and wide-lane boulevards, Beijing’s quiet street life and old hutong homes are under threat. Preparations for the 2008 Olympics are at the forefront of city planner thoughts, heightening the capital’s urbanization.

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Early morning hours in the city parks reveal a capital’s most gregarious side…

As Beijing continues to reinvent itself nearly every day, and traditional neighborhoods disappear, a stroll through the city’s public parks reveals sides of Beijing’s lively public life that may otherwise go unnoticed. Ditan, Beihai, Hohai and Tiantan are just a few of the major parks that host eager participants every morning.

In the early morning hours, Beijing residents turn out in great numbers to stretch, walk, run, walk backwards, run backwards, slap their faces, pull their earlobes or clap and chant in groups. People are generally out in the thousands and, now that the temperate fall weather is here, even more are joining.

On a recent visit to Beijing’s Ditan Park I found Mr. Zhang Liwei, a retired accountant, standing inches from a stonewall, belting ancient Chinese poems with his nose to the mortar. His voice was a deep baritone with good range. Mr. Zhang favors Tang dynasty classics as well as selections from the Peking Opera “Li Qiu Visiting His Mother.”

“I come here most mornings to open up the lungs,” he said. “And to get ready for the day ahead.” On the morning I visited, he followed his private recital with some deep lunges and a few windmill circles of the arms. “If you don’t come out in the morning to wake up, how will you be alive? What kind of life is that?”

It’s a question much of Beijing’s rising elderly population asks itself every morning. With a growth rate of 5.3 percent per year in a city of nearly 15 million, Beijingers aged 65 and above are in good company. As free public association remains seriously frowned upon by authorities, Beijing’s early morning parks are a place where residents can gather, chat and begin the day. Even as the city undergoes its rapid transformation, the longstanding Chinese tradition of morning exercise in a beautiful park continues unabated.

Caroline Cooper is a freelance writer now living in Indonesia. A shorter version of this postcard case study appeared in the City Talks newsletter in 2005. Hear more of Caroline’s views on RadioMagnetic’s audio postcards.