BEIJING — Nearly 10,000 demonstrators converged Thursday on Tiananmen Square in one of the biggest rallies since the prodemocracy protests of 1989. But there wasn't a dissident in sight.
Instead, the masses were participating in a huge display of China's graceful art of tai chi.
The demonstration was part of an official celebration of wushu, the generic Chinese term for the country's more than 100 styles of indigenous martial arts, which the government has reconstituted as a sport for the masses.
But while officials congratulate themselves, other Chinese mourn the gradual decline that wushu has suffered for decades. Like Peking Opera and other traditional art forms that represented a philosophy and way of life in earlier times, martial arts have become a casualty of more comfortable modern lifestyles.
"That stuff is useless. It's a lot of flowery postures," Beijing middle school student Xiao Tian said of wushu. His opinion is common among many Chinese who believe that the competition sport has largely stripped wushu of its value as a method of self-defense.
With compulsory movements grouped into routines written by committees, sport wushu is more akin to gymnastics or dance than to combat.
That's just fine with China's government, always mindful that, for centuries, martial arts have been a rallying point for religious cults and in peasant revolts such as the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. China's estimated 80 million wushu practitioners would be a force to reckon with if they ever got up in arms about anything.
In the meantime, more practical martial-arts training is reserved for the military and police, who hire martial-arts masters to drill their riot-shield-and-baton-wielding phalanxes.
Also demoralizing to martial artists is the corruption that has permeated a field once known for its code of chivalry. In China's state sports machine, coaches' pay depends on their meeting quotas for how many of their athletes win in competition.
As a result, referees say that they are commonly bribed to inflate scores and that the outcome of some competitions is decided in advance according to which athletes are to be groomed for stardom.
"There is rampant corruption, but I am encouraged that people are trying to clean it up. . . . They want it to be fair," said Eric Chen, president of the Huntington Beach-based National Wushu Training Center.
Last week, Chen brought eight U.S. fighters to Beijing to compete against Chinese athletes in a martial-arts sparring match that was the talk of the town. Chen invited actor Charlie Sheen to lend his support to the match and Thursday's tai chi demonstration.
"Something this unique shouldn't be hidden from the world," Sheen, who has trained in martial arts for movie roles, said of wushu.
Insiders at the match allege that Chinese coaches, fearful that their fighters would be overwhelmed, asked the American side to consider throwing a bout in China's favor. The American side reportedly refused. China ended up winning seven of eight matches.