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Beijing park is alive with song

Chinese lift their spirits by belting out everything from opera to revolutionary tunes.

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TO WANDER the neatly landscaped groves of sprawling Tiantan Park in Beijing, also called the Temple of Heaven, is a rare auditory experience – an outdoor college of amateur vocalizing where singing is a native therapy for what ails you and a way to stir the soul. Different breezes might carry anything from the Chinese folk song "Beautiful Girl of Ali Mountain," to a Chinese rendition of "Home on the Range."

For Chinese, who greatly value "face," who shy from standing out in the crowd, and for whom self-censorship is a survival instinct, the park is a place to let down their hair and belt out the lyrics.

"I sing to whatever passes my way, whatever I see," says Li Guo, a government worker who comes three times a week to a grove of the oldest trees in Tiantan. "I sing to the birds; I sing to my friends; I sing until I'm happy."

Seeking sanctuary from urban life, some sing revolutionary songs, some practice the lilting tones of Beijing opera. Impromptu groups harmonize with Russian and American folk tunes, and others improvise melodies while they perform tai chi.

They sing in groups. And some sing alone – letting their solitary voices rise into the cathedral of trees that surround one of Beijing's most majestic landmarks, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, topped by a huge golden knob, which the emperor visited several times a year to solicit help from the corn and wheat gods.

For Guo Yan, singing is transformative. Her doctor told her she had a life-threatening heart condition. She remembered how much she loved singing as a young girl. So Ms. Yan joined friends at the park, singing two hours a day – until she felt her heart was fine. Now she hikes every morning and sings at Tiantan.

"I wanted to live in my own way, not in someone else's style," says the early retiree. "I wanted to find value in life," Yan says. "Singing is what helped me. It started to make life more beautiful."

Don't expect to hear Britney Spears lyrics or a Bob Dylan ballad. But some songs are a-changing with the times.

For example, a crowd that gathers at 8 a.m. in a cyprus grove regularly shifts from revolutionary songs of the 1940s to what are called "new mainstream melodies." Penned in the 1990s, patriotic odes like "Today is Your Birthday, My Motherland" were designed to be mellower alternatives to zesty Mao-era favorites like "The Guns Move Ahead Toward the Enemy," and "Have High Morals."


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