Hundreds of teenagers stood quietly in the massive school courtyard on a chilly spring morning, in perfectly straight rows, evenly spaced.
The voice over the loudspeaker bellowed out a command, and all the students brought their hands up to cover their faces. It looked like some form of supplication—or the beginning of a communal game of hide-and-seek.
We waited, and gradually, we could make out the slightest signs of movement: All the boys and girls were slowly squeezing with both hands, massaging their foreheads and cheekbones.
From our perch in a third-floor classroom at the Beijing Fourth Secondary School, we were receiving an introduction to what is a routine part of the school day across China: mandatory daily exercises, which in this case began with eye exercises.
In American high schools, where students can sometimes opt out of physical education classes, and pretty much everyone is free to do as much or as little strenuous activity as they care to, many would surely recoil at the idea of mandatory group-fitness activities. But the physical exercises we saw during our April 4 visit to the school seemed as routine and inconsequential to Chinese students as when they stand to address teachers whenever they are called on to answer a question in class.
After several minutes of eye exercises, another directive echoed across the courtyard. The students, males and females dressed in blue and white uniforms, brought their arms back down to their sides and began a series of sharp turns. “Stand straight!” the voice said in Chinese. “Turn to the right!”
And they did, with great precision.
‘Walk In Place! High Knees!’
Beijing Fourth Secondary School, a public institution, is one of the most elite schools in China. Admission to its campus—a series of white, multistory buildings in a bustling neighborhood—is highly selective. Its graduates go on to attend China’s top universities and include top Chinese government leaders and financial executives, as well as some of the country’s best-known artists.
Education Week Director of Photography Sarah Evans and I were waiting for a series of interviews with school officials at the secondary school when we saw the morning physical education routine. We opened a window that looked down to the courtyard, about the size of a couple football fields lined side-by-side, so we could hear better. We were joined by our translator, Fan Li, who goes by the name Flora, who told us what the voice on the loudspeaker was saying.
Flora, a 23-year-old student at Beijing Foreign Studies University, knew some of the exercises by heart. Growing up in the city of Chengdu, in the southwestern Sichuan province, she was also required to go through similar routines in school, with some variations. She and her classmates went through eye exercises, which are designed to strengthen the muscles around the eye and help students relax later while in class. (An online medical journal says Chinese eye exercises are based on acupuncture points, and are regarded in the country as a way of preventing myopia.) Flora remembers her school having a contest to see which student could do the eye exercises the best.
Below us, the students continued in their turns, marching in place to the steps called out over the loudspeaker. “One-two-one!” the speaker called out. “Walk in place! High knees!”
Then the students were stationary again. They moved their arms in tight circles, then stretched them high overhead, leaning to one side and another in unison.
Occasionally, the spell of watching the morning routine was broken by horns and city noise from the street just outside the high walls that surround the school. Mostly, though, we just heard what was directly below us. Music poured in over the speakers, alternating between soaring, patriotic-sounding recordings and songs that many Westerners would recognize. Sarah was able to identify one tune from “The Sound of Music.” I knew another by its melody—I can still hum it—though I can’t name it.
‘Adjust Your Breath … Relax’
The courtyard included several basketball courts and areas for playing soccer. Its walls were decorated with several large signs, which Flora translated. “Cooperation,” one said, alongside “Interaction,” “Civilization,” and “Self-Discipline.” Farther along the wall: “Say Goodbye to Bad Habits.” Then: “Good Health, Good Study, Good Work.”
Flora has proved to be a skilled translator, but some Chinese expressions, she conceded, simply do not translate well into English. One of the schoolyard signs, for instance, said something like “Shake Hands with the Basketball.” It perplexed even her.
Eventually, the morning exercises became more intense as students began doing jumping jacks to a “one-two” series of commands. Then they went through what appeared to be various martial-arts moves, sharp and efficient.
After the more vigorous exercises were completed, the pace of the morning routine slowed, and the voice over the loudspeaker seemed quieter. “Adjust your breath,” the adult male voice told the students. “Relax.”
Not long after those commands, the students were dismissed. They dispersed with a clamor, some jogging back toward the academic buildings, others lagging a bit, laughing and talking.
Our hosts arrived, and the interviews began. As we went to work, new groups of students entered the courtyard, going through the same exercises as those we had just been watching.
Throughout the morning, I could hear them, even with the window closed. After a while, it became as natural as the background noise you’d hear at an American school such as a bell ringing to start a new period or sneakers squeaking on a gym floor.
The voice on the loudspeaker outside in the courtyard called out, and the students responded back, several hundred strong.