The parks of China often start filling at 6AM. By eight, they are a fury of elderly people doing tai-chi, calisthenics, dancing, and walking backwards.
I met a group of old men who were whipping spinning tops in the big, spacious, and nearly deserted central park of Xinyang’s Shanyang new area. All around us were empty exhibition centers, vacant public entertainment houses, and the skeletons of uncompleted high-rises stretching out into the smoggy horizon. This place was still in the process of being built, but not even this new city netherworld was devoid of old folks and morning exercises.
I came upon a group of three old guys who were spread out in a circle. Each had a long, leather whip with which they were spinning a large, stone top. They would get the top spinning by wrapping the whip around it, placing it upon the pavement, and then pulling the whip like a rip cord. The top would then start spinning madly, and they would crack it with their whips at intervals to keep it going.
Noticing my curiosity, one of the old men called me over and handed me his whip. His top was still spinning and it was up to me to keep it that way. I spun the whip once over my head like I’d observed the men doing, and awkwardly flung the business end of down in the direction of the rotating stone. Miss. I tried again. Nothing but air. I couldn’t hit the damn thing. I’d started out this interaction being the observer but now I was the show. Apparently, it was a comedy, as I was providing good fodder for the other old guys to chuckle over.
I finally made contact with the top, but this just knocked it off-kilter. It flopped instead of spun, and then petered out on the pavement. But the old guys would not let me quit. The top was again cued up, and I was given instruction. You need to strike below the top, right where the small point meets the pavement to keep it spinning. I eventually got the hang of it.
As an exercise, top whipping seemed to meet the Chinese criteria — soft, full range of motion movements, hand/ eye coordination, rhythmic and peaceful in essence — and pretty much had the same idea as the other morning workouts that were going on nearby.
Whipping tops is an old Chinese activity, but I’ve only rarely observed it first hand. Even in the belly of a new city, the ancient arts, games, and activities of this culture live on.
This is one of the sights of China.