Photo by user Thomas Fischler
Asia-Pacific / Outdoor Activities

Will Outdoor Activities Ever Be Popular in China?

Exhaustion, excitement, nostalgia, fatigue, hope, apprehension…

Mixed feelings fill our chests when we start our college lives. To ease this especially hard transition, colleges design orientation programs. At as early as five in the morning, Bowdoin College students start off their journeys to Maine locations that range from Indian Pond to Vinalhaven Island. For many of them, these pre-orientation trips are the first time they camp, mountain bike, hike, or swim in quarry ponds.

Through orientation trips like Bowdoin’s, college freshmen throughout the Western Hemisphere experience a close connection with nature as they enter their twenties. Now, let’s cross the Pacific Ocean and imagine the scenario in the opposite part of the globe—China.

At 8 A.M., students gather at the entrance of a stadium which can hold up to five thousand people. A special speaker, usually an accomplished educator or scientist, is invited to give a speech. Then, high-achieving graduates are awarded for their academic performance or distinguished research achievements in front of everyone, and share their experiences at school. Lectures fill the following days, from school history to program introductions, from the school’s educational philosophy to career planning. Students get to know each other through group games, craft-making, and campus tours. However, due to safety concerns and resource limitations, off-campus trips are impossible.

While both orientation designs familiarize students with their peers, schools, and surroundings, the Western model is nevertheless more light-hearted. By getting close to nature and unplugging from digital devices, students temporarily release their mental pressure as they start college life. Having experienced the two types of orientation and two different cultures, I have begun to wonder if outdoor activities, which commonly feature a sporty and rural lifestyle, will ever become a fashion in countries that are highly industrialized, culturally “inward,” and still striving for economic development.

Outdooring emerged in Western countries (including the U.K., the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Outdoor activities are those which only depend on natural resources with few or no artificial facilities. Typical sports include hiking, camping, and canoeing. In the U.S., outdooring is well-established and has a high involvement rate. According to the 2017 Outdoor Participation Report conducted by Outdoor Foundation, 144.4 million Americans, or 48.8 percent of the U.S. population, participated in an outdoor activity at least once in 2016. Among outdoor participants in the U.S. above age six, white people overwhelm other races with a participation rate of seventy-three percent, while that of Hispanic Americans is ten percent, Asian Americans six percent, and Black Americans nine percent. This huge demographic difference in the domestic U.S. might imply that a discrepancy in outdoor participation exists among countries, especially across developing and developed countries.

China’s natural environment largely limits opportunities for outdooring. Skyscrapers and public transportation infrastructure have replaced lawns and plants. Trails are poorly maintained, making mountain biking and hiking difficult. Only a few clean rivers are available for fishing. Unlike the U.S., which lies between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean, China is only adjacent to the Pacific Ocean on one side, with a mountainous and uninhabited western border on the other. What’s more, the northern part of China is arid and now gets water from the South-North Water Diversion Project. This lack of water renders outdoor water sports, including boating and surfing, extremely inaccessible.

Furthermore, financial difficulties and a lack of professional training systems retard China’s outdoor development. Most outdoor trip leaders do not have not systematic training, nor do they receive the equivalent of Wilderness First Responders (WFR) certificate to prepare them for emergencies. Most outdoor clubs in China, established in the 1990s, are relatively young, immature, and disorganized. Additionally, gear and outdoor clothing are sometimes beyond people’s financial capacity. The price of a pair of L. L. Bean boots amounts to twenty percent of the average monthly income in Beijing, which, at $1,040 per month, has the highest average income of any Chinese city. Outdoor equipment and preparation are simply too expensive for even middle-class families. From the same report mentioned above, we see the participation rate of people with an annual income above $100,000 is thirty-two percent, while that of people with income under $25,000 is only fourteen percent. This great difference between the have and the have-nots in the U.S. helps us understand how monetary factors contribute to people’s decision to join outdoor sports. Unlike American campuses, where outing clubs like the Bowdoin Outing Club (BOC) train students to develop outdoor skills, universities in China have not established this training system, partially due to financial deficiency.

At a deeper level, the slowness of outdoor development in China implies a lack of attention to its importance, which is closely related to an inward-looking Chinese culture that emphasizes a static lifestyle and self-reflection. China’s love for tea and poetry reflects this culture. It is true that the ancient creatives chose the landscape as their major theme for both ink wash painting and literature; however, Chinese authors use these images to show the insignificance of human existence in the vastness of time and space. Their awe and respect towards nature is quite the opposite of the spirit that outdoor culture advocates by pushing humanity’s potential to conquer nature. This tradition of static lifestyle shapes the perception of outdoor activities. To most of the Chinese people, outdoor activities belong to the wealthy and the sporty. The latter have the time and money to purchase expensive gear and hire personal coaches, while the former would have to sacrifice better job opportunities to get close to nature. The majority of people in China lack the wealth and the passion for the outdoors that underlie the popularity of outdooring in the U.S.

Chinese traditional values have influenced the structure of its educational system. More emphasis is put on academic achievement than extracurricular activities. In fact, the demand for academics is so rigorous and competitive that it does not leave students time to do day-long hikes or go through lengthy outdoor training. Simply transplanting a Western educational system would not solve the problem, because the Chinese merit-based system demands the quantification of academic ability to achieve a relative “educational equality.” “Outdoor ability,” if it even exists, is difficult to quantify and therefore would not fit within the Chinese system. China has strived to achieve relative educational equality. A more dynamic and less quantitative standard for the measurement of a student’s excellence will inevitably benefit students who come from wealthier backgrounds.

So far, we have discussed the obstacles China is facing in propagandizing outdoor activities. Entangled in complicated natural, social, historical, and systematic reasons, is it possible that outdoor activities will ever be popular in China? The answer is promising.

First, outdooring is beneficial for both physical and psychological health. Sitting in front of desk and writing papers for hours easily hurts our backs and eyes. Getting close to nature, canoeing on the Kanabec River, or hiking on the Appalachian trail, are good ways to keep a life-study balance. Exploring nature also helps ease the psychological anxiety caused by countless deadlines and imminent examinations. It breaks the separation and solitude that dominate society today. Students learn how to function as a team and develop leadership skills during outdoor education.

Second, outdoor activities familiarize people with an environment-friendly lifestyle. The seven principles of the outdoor ethics center “Leave no Trace” (LNT)—

Plan ahead and prepare
Travel and camp on durable surfaces
Dispose of waste properly
Leave what you find
Minimize campfire impacts
Respect wildlife
Be considerate of other visitors

—remind outdoor participants that they should minimize their disturbance to ecosystems. Compared to living in civilization, exploring in the wilderness raises our self-awareness and incites us to reflect on behaviors that we are otherwise blind to, such as littering or bringing back souvenirs from nature. Coming back with a desire to befriend nature, participants are likely to adjust their previous lifestyle.

Third, forming an outdooring culture will bridge cultural differences between China and Western countries. Language barriers make it hard to communicate through literature. Military clashes and ideological differences have established mutual mistrust and misunderstanding. For a long time, sports have been a sign of peace—the best example dating back to 776 B.C., when the Olympic games began among the kingdoms of Ancient Greece. Promoting outdoor sports is a good way to foster common memories and to reduce bias owing to a lack of knowledge of other cultures. Participants, regardless of cultural backgrounds, will come to respect nature and realize its power, thus recognizing the insignificance of humanity in general. A common worldview is the first step in shaping a global community with shared values.

Finally, developing an outdoor culture in China will open up commercial opportunities. Since China welcomed an open market in the 1980s, privately-held companies have grown to unprecedented scales. The industrial framework is also always evolving. From the first, second, to third sectors of the economy, China is improving the means of production to better accommodate the people’s increasing material and cultural needs. While American outdoor equipment companies, such as Coleman, the North Face, Patagonia, and others dominate the current global market, this market will expand explosively once more of China’s 1.4 billion citizens get involved in outdoor activities. This enormous marketing potential will spur the development of Chinese domestic outdoor gear corporations and provide more job opportunities accordingly, which is hugely desirable when facing the conundrum of employment and retirement.

Modern and contemporary Chinese history, from 1840 C.E.—the First Opium War—to the present, is a history of studying the West. China has adopted machinery for mass production and has set up higher educational institutions such as Peking and Tsinghua University to impart Enlightenment ideas and knowledge of science and technology. Nowadays, major mainland cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen have ranked among the first-rated cities in the world, teeming with restaurants, schools, theaters, embassies, and central business districts. Young people have cultivated the habit of reading literature in both English and Chinese, studying in cafés, and visiting galleries. (798 is a not-to-miss art district in suburban Beijing with various publications of newborn artists.) The popularity of these forms of adopted cultural entertainment gives us reason to believe that, with more emphasis put on physical training, outdoor sports will also become popular in China, perhaps within just ten years.