Chinese pensioner Ren Qian’s passion for table tennis keeps him playing outside all year round, even in the depths of Beijing’s brutally cold winters.
The 73-year-old has been coming to Qingfeng Park in the city’s east with his wife for the past two years, in a bid to stay fit. “When I was in school, you could see students play table tennis almost everywhere,” he remembers.
“We had ping-pong school teams, and almost all the schools held ping-pong competitions every year – that’s why many people in my age play very well.”
His own interest was piqued in 1959 when, 10 years after the founding of communist China, Rong Guotuan became the country’s first world champion not just in table tennis, but in any sport.
“That’s how it became popular. Almost all the Chinese started to play ping-pong since then,” he said.
The skyscrapers of Beijing’s business district tower over the tables, tucked away in a quiet corner in Qingfeng Park.
Even as temperatures plunge to freezing, Ren and his wife have to compete for a table with fellow ping-pong lovers.
The park’s 10 public tables are usually packed from 8:00am to 10:00pm.
People come bundled up against the cold in hats and gloves, wearing face masks because of the ever-present threat of the coronavirus –but as they heat up, bouncing around the court, the layers gradually start coming off.
It’s a scene replicated in parks across the city. Anyone can play here without booking, but must bring their own bats and balls.
Some even come on their own to practise, hitting balls repeatedly over the net – by the end, dozens lie scattered on the ground.
Most of the players are older men but there are women too, also usually retirees. For many, ping-pong harks back to their childhood and is a way to remain active even as they enter late life.
Ren and his wife live nearby and play for about an hour each day.
Many of those playing in the park also see China’s enduring success in the sport as a source of national pride – at the 2016 Rio Olympics, China won all four gold medals.
“China wins almost every international ping-pong competition nowadays,” said Ren’s wife Bi Jinglan, 70.
“So for the Chinese, we are very proud and delighted to play ping-pong.”