SHANGHAI. “That’s so Chinese!” foreigners here often remark among themselves, about aspects of Chinese life that we cannot imagine encountering back home.

Live eels in writhing tubs in the wet markets, and dignified customers plucking them out by hand, nonchalant in pajamas.

The migrant worker drilling through concrete on a summer day, his dialect obscure to the urbanites diverting themselves around his poorly cordoned off worksite, his safety goggles non-existent, his tee shirt furled up to expose the belly of the Laughing Buddha.

And then, there are the evening dancers.

These evening dancers are not the solitary masters of Tai Chi in the quiet corners of an early morning hour, balancing on one leg like a flamingo, mirroring a turning face with a facing palm, swaying like seaweed in a gentle swell.

They are not the sinewy youths bobbing wooden poles under the papier-mâché head and undulating silk body of the Lion Dance — that frequent cliché of global action films that signals to the audience that Bond or Bourne has now arrived in the Orient.

Certainly theirs is not the exotic performance that a century ago entranced the poet Yeats: When Loie Fuller’s Chinese dancers enwound/A shining web, a floating ribbon of cloth/It seemed that a dragon of air/Had fallen among dancers, had whirled them round.

These days in China, the evening dancers (and there are two kinds) are different from all of these. When the weather is mild, in almost any open space, whether park or courtyard or just an exceptionally wide area of sidewalk, you see them.

First there are the “dancing grannies.” For the most part they are women past the state enterprise retirement age of 50, most likely with just one grown child who has now moved away. After dinner hour, they escape their cramped and lonely apartments to congregate at the appointed place and time. There is always an amplifier, which blares Asian pop or Indian dance numbers or patriotic Chinese songs.

They always form, without any overt coordination, two parallel lines, some ten feet apart. And they simply shuffle forward. They shuffle until they reach the boundary of their open space, and then they double back, like giant strands of DNA. In unstudied unison, they will raise both arms above their heads, or wave to one side or the other. Sometimes they hold both arms straight out in front as they shuffle, like zombies. More people silently join, sometimes more than a hundred. When I first saw this, I remembered visiting the First Emperor’s tomb in Xian years ago and seeing the two lines of terra cotta soldiers silently rising out of the earth again after twenty centuries of stony sleep.



The central party government, uncomfortable with any form of organized civil society, drafted “guidance regulations,” in an awkward attempt to corral this spontaneous movement into a national “dance sport” with unified rules. This was widely mocked by Chinese bloggers.

Then there are the ballroom dancers in the public parks. Amplifiers perched on a bench nearby create a non government–approved acoustic space, filled with the rhythm of cha-cha and foxtrot and waltz and rhumba. Here the dancers are roughly split between men and women, usually above retirement age. Men dance with women, women with women, and men with men.

Though this cannot be the case, it seems, from the non-committal, somewhat abstracted demeanor of most of them, to be a dance among strangers. The dancers seem intent on their footwork, and not on each other. They do not seem to be furtive paramours, and their partners are held at a polite distance. Some few, though, do appear to be acquainted, especially when two women are dancing. It is hard to read their faces. Blithe joy is not among the revealed emotions. Yet surely they must fiercely enjoy this self-created space and time, or they wouldn’t return, night after night. They are, indeed, inscrutable, at least to this foreigner.

Within the memory of these people dancing, this city has known years of political madness, and afternoons when books of music, and vinyl records, and gramophones, and radios and pianos, and even the teachers of piano, were hurled out of windows by Maoist mobs. At present, a suppressive shadow is lengthening once again. And so, to observe these evening dancers — these older survivors of China’s political storms, so resolute and so eccentric, gathered in private social ceremony in such public places, brave in front of strangers, unwilling to conform to government directives about when and where and how they may dance — is to form, or half form, an inarticulate hope. And to remark later, perhaps over drinks among foreigners: “so Chinese.”