Combating Stress in Today’s China

Chatting with the world’s first monk robot and the zen of dancing

Lijiang, Yunnan, China. Photo: Andy Brandl/Stocksy

“One shall not be pleased by external gains, or be saddened by personal losses,” Confucian scholar Fan Zhongyan of Song dynasty wrote. In today’s hectic life, many Chinese are eager to go back to their traditional roots to liberate their mind and body.

Leon Zhang was on a path to burnout more than a decade ago, when he decided to quit his well-paid job from an Internet company in Shanghai and embark on a journey of soul searching.

“My biggest stress came from the uncertainty of my future,” he said. “Things changed rapidly in the Internet sector. I was anxious and lost.”

I can relate to his feelings, because I happened to work in the same company with Leon. But what happened next is new to me.

Leon ended up moving to Lijiang, an attractive tourism destination in the southwestern province of Yunnan. He managed a café and teahouse in Lijiang’s quaint Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, before moving to Wuhu in Anhui province to open six chain wellness salons incorporating traditional Chinese medicine.

“As tranquil and picturesque as Lijiang was, I still wasn’t entirely contented,” Leon told me. But by practicing traditional Chinese philosophy and faith, he started to understand that work-stress and life-satisfaction had more to do with one’s mind than the external world. “You need to have inner strength to start with,” he said. “The practices of insight meditation, Buddhism and Wang Yangming’s School of Mind have been helping me reduce stress and thrive. I have been a vegetarian for six years.”

Leon felt inspired to introduce the same philosophy into his company’s staff development, helping them transform negative emotions into positive stress, and improve productivity. At the monthly all-hands meeting, his staff now hash out their best ways to deal with interpersonal relationships, and tackle work problems. “Chinese people feel stressed mainly because they are confused,” he said. “They work hard to make a living, but they don’t know their motivations. I want my employees to know that whatever they do today is to better themselves and to improve the lives of their families. This way everyone has a purposeful and motivated life.”

Spiritual quest

After hearing Leon’s story, I had a strong desire to add more purpose and well-being to my life, too.

Chatting with Xian’er on WeChat was also a soul-searching experience.

Xian’er, how do we find inner peace?

Work is part of our lives, not our enemy. Remember ‘Not everything goes the way you desire, but you can try your best and hold your head high.

It’s easier said than done.

My Master says: ‘It’s actually good to know that it’s difficult. That means you have started to check your body and mind. Practice is to change your habits. Of course that’s difficult. But it will be invaluable, and be worth the effort. If no efforts are made, we will end up with more pain. Practice aims to bring an end to suffering. Little pains today will prevent big pains tomorrow.”

Then, what is ‘success’?

Everyone has his or her own definition of success. Buddhist teachings believe that ‘success’ means to achieve virtues — broad-mindedness, kindness, flexibility, and wisdom. The light and strength in your heart have no limit. Success is about what your heart pursues. It is the hope and help that you bring to others, not what you achieve in the outside world.

I was chatting with Xian’er, the world’s first monk robot, on China’s most popular social messaging app, WeChat.

Xian’er, whose name means Virtuous Fool in Chinese, lives at Longquan (Dragon Spring) Temple on the outskirts of Beijing. He is a leading character in a Buddhist comic strip Troubles Are Self-Made, published by the Temple a couple of years ago. Master Xianfan, the creator of Xian’er said that they wanted to “use more modern ways to spread Buddhist teachings.” It’s certainly paid off.

Xian’er, the world’s first monk robot, has built a strong following on China’s social media.

More than one million people are following Xian’er on WeChat — far surpassing the target of 100,000 set by Longquan Temple. And less than a month ago, the news portal of Phoenix New Media appointed him as its chief wisdom officer.

A renaissance of Zen (or Chan in Chinese) practice has swept the whole of China, where fast-paced workers and anxious souls desperately search for answers to their everyday worries or seek peace of mind. Chinese monasteries are running after-work meditation programs, multi-day spiritual retreats, and even summer camps for individuals and enterprises. These include Jade Budda Temple in Shanghai, Xianghai (Fragrant Sea) Temple in Zhejiang province, Western Garden Temple in Suzhou, Shaolin Temple in Henan province, and Great Buddha Temple in Guangzhou, to name just a few. A large number of the participants are office workers, executives and entrepreneurs, between 30 and 50 years-old.

“I’m more open-minded and feel calmer now,” Bai Yi, who attended an after-work Zen Buddhist class, told the local media. “I no longer run away from difficult situations, but face them with confidence.”

In a white paper on China’s wellness tourism industry published last year, Healing Hotels of the World surveyed around 1,000 Chinese travelers. Zen meditation tours was the second most popular option, after jogging and eco-walk.

Studies have shown that Chinese perceive happiness as something that comes out of one’s relationship with others, including with their surroundings. Measures of success in the past decade or so have ranged from earning an MBA degree for professionals to owning property in big cities for migrant workers. However, with the drastic social and economic changes in the country, people are pushed to reshape their identities in cities, at work, or at home. The quest for emotional well-being and life purpose are now on the rise. More Chinese are eager to draw wisdom from traditional Chinese cultures again. So it’s not surprising that Zen practice and meditation have become tools that people are reaching for.

One of the other reasons that Buddhist practice — and the broader spiritual cultivation it represents — can improve one’s satisfaction with life, is that people often donate money and time. And positive actions bring positive consequences, according to the Buddha. As the U.N.’s 2016 World Happiness Report points out, “freedom (to make life choices) and generosity (donating to charities) have a large impact on positive affect, which in turn has an impact on life evaluations.”

Body-mind connection

Traditional Chinese culture also believes that one’s mental well-being can be cultivated by body movement. Tai chi, the eight-sectioned exercise, and five-animal play follow this philosophy. For instance, both eight-sectioned exercise and five-animal play are popular styles of Qigong. The latter is inspired from the movements of tiger, deer, bear, monkey, and crane. And the Chinese classified website Ganji.com recently found that 7.6% of the blue-collar workers in their early 20s in Shenzhen and 4.8% in Beijing go to dance classes to shake off the stress.

This doesn’t surprise Shi Delei, who runs a dance studio in Beijing. The majority of her students are office workers, who come for classes at least every weekend. “Many of them work in the finance sector, so dancing is an outlet for stress reduction and emotional expression, she said. “Looking into the mirror at the dance sessions, they are learning to appreciate themselves. I’ve seen the improvement of their temperament and figure, so have they.”

The feelings of doing something for oneself, or “freeing,” as Shi called it, have drawn many to dancing as a stress reliever. “Some white-collar workers reduce stress by learning new skills outside workplace,” Shi explained. “Constantly learning new dancing movements ideally quench their thirst. There is also a sense of belonging when you dance in a group of people with the same passion. We feel rejuvenated every time.”

The social and health benefits of dancing have created somewhat of a nationwide craze for dancing in parks and public plazas with other people. These dance lovers, mainly retired women and housewives over the age of 50, are known as “dancing grannies,” or dama in Chinese. The enthusiasm was greatly boosted around 2005 when the Chinese government was supportive of the public recreation activity as part of its national fitness campaign to welcome the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Dancing grannies at the Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing. Photograph by Daniel Case, distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.

And not only are the Chinese dancing grannies ubiquitous, they’re also devoted and loud. In 2015 the music was so roaring that the Chinese authorities had to step in: “dancing grannies” would only be permitted to perform 12 government-approved routines.

One major side effect of China’s brisk economic development is its shift to a “stranger society,” especially in urban areas. There are a growing number of cases of people distrusting one another and getting indifferent to social issues. China’s “square” dancing was born to fill the emotional void, as dancing grannies felt nostalgia for “the good old days” of socializing with and helping neighbors, coworkers, and other community members. And it’s an added bonus that dancing comes with a whole heap of health benefits.

A recent study by Guangzhou Institute of Physical Education found that dancing had improved the mental health of participants. “The dancers scored well in tests that determine factors such as interpersonal sensitivity, depression, anxiety and hostility,” Wang Junfa, professor in physical studies of Qufu Normal University, said in an op-ed in China Daily.

Another study by Western Sydney University and the University of Sydney concluded that people over the age of 40 who participate in dancing almost halved their risk of cardiovascular death.

Popular Medicine, China’s oldest medical magazine, once surveyed more than 100 mental health experts and found the top 10 methods to reduce stress for Chinese people are:

1. Talking to family members or friends.

2. Distracting yourself.

3. Relax and go with the flow.

4. Close to nature.

5. Devoting yourself to one thing.

6. Examining your own thoughts and feelings.

7. Doing your favorite things.

8. Write down your worries.

9. Exercising.

10. Sleeping.

China’s “square” dancing ticks a few boxes, so does spiritual search.

“Ancients already told us that the highest level of state of mind was to lead a peaceful and happy life in hustle and bustle of cities,” Leon said. “After many years of search, I’ve finally come to understand what this means.”

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