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How a German tradition from 1803 affects the massage parlors of China today


Whether you find them amusing, annoying or confusing, “broadcast exercises” (广播体操), or radio exercises, are ubiquitous throughout China, and, surprisingly, they are now more prevalent than ever. If you walk past a hair salon, a massage parlor, or a hotel at 9:30 in the morning you can see staff members outside the entrance on the sidewalk, dancing to the music of “My Little Apple” or some other hideous pop song, following a lead dancer of course. After the dance, they finish up by yelling slogans at the top of their lungs, startling passersby, and, according to some news reports, attracting flying objects from residential buildings overhead. To the uninitiated, it can seem either innocently charming or terrifyingly totalitarian. However, this odd show of worker solidarity dates back at least 100 years.

Such exercises are usually done for the singular purpose of boosting staff morale, enthusiasm, and solidarity. For those who make a habit of visiting such establishments, the overall experience would seem to suggest that this menagerie of dancing and camaraderie may be in vain; however, the core value of this behavior, rather than taking joy in one’s work, would appear to be a sense of collectivism, loyalty, and, in some people’s opinions, “brainwashing”. And although places like Japan are still famous for this sort of worker exercise, its roots can be found in Germany.

Students practice their broadcast exercises in the 1970s in Jiangsu Province

Students practice their broadcast exercises in the 1970s in Jiangsu Province

This exercise experienced its primitive beginnings in 1803 via Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the “Father of Gymnastics”, who associated patriotism and unity with his popular workout, well before the invention of the radio. His methods were widely applied to armies and factories for much the same purpose they are used today in China. It wasn’t until the 1880s when, bitterly humiliated by the Opium Wars, China’s intellectuals and educators were looking to Western solutions to reform, strengthen, and heal the country. Their answer came in the form of gymnastics at private schools to boost the young citizens’ spirits and keep them in good health. As it was a variation of the German military calisthenics, it was called “soldiers’ exercise” (兵操), and was done very much in the military style.

In 1925, this practice truly became a “broadcast exercise” when the United States married the concept with radio broadcasts for the first time. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company sponsored a well-received radio exercise program that was practiced by millions. Then, the Japanese government, enthralled by the massive scale of the exercise in the US, embraced it. The Japanese armies spread it wherever they went and took it to regions they occupied during World War II, including Taiwan and Northeastern China under the Manchurian puppet state of Manchukuo.

However, broadcast exercises, with their ingrained value of collectivism, were not welcomed with open arms after their short-lived peak. While in the US it fell to more individualized sports like baseball, the concept was also confronted in China after the New Culture Movement (新文化运动) in 1919 during the Republic of China period. Hu Shi (胡适), an influential scholar and educator, campaigned for “naturalist education” and boycotted the cultivation of loyalty to the Kuomingtang Party in schools. Radio exercises were the opposite of what Hu and his academic colleagues wanted to uphold: it was directed, controlled, and could easily be coupled with political sloganeering and propaganda. In Hu Shi’s words, an ideal young person should, “be free of heart and independent of mind”. As a result of the liberal tendencies and reformed education ideas, in 1919, the China Education Association released a new regulation that suggested “the soldiers’ exercise” should be replaced with a variety of sports. In 1922, the Chinese government issued another paper that aborted radio exercises in schools altogether.

Toward the end of Republic of China, as far as physical education was concerned, mass broadcast exercises were already on the brink of extinction, while traditional martial arts and the more competitive Western sports were on the rise. In Japan they met with a more sudden death; after Japan’s defeat in 1945, the victorious countries banned the exercise because it was too militaristic in nature…


“Lights out! Radio Exercise!” is a story from our latest issue, “Startup Kingdom”. To continue reading, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

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