Dongyue Zhuang and Hong Li go through a section of tai chi movements at Harborview Park on Tuesday in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Dongyue Zhuang and Hong Li go through a section of tai chi movements at Harborview Park on Tuesday in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

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Tai chi at Harborview Park is a beautiful way to start a day

A retired couple from China practices “the best medicine” most mornings at the Everett park.

With synchronized motion and precise steps, bright-red folding fans and swords that slice the air, Hong Li and Dongyue Zhuang practice their art at Everett’s Harborview Park. They come most every morning to do tai chi.

The couple, both 64, live near the park overlooking Everett’s waterfront. Their daily routine begins with a 2½-mile run followed by a modest breakfast at home. Then, for nearly an hour at the park, they do what a Harvard Medical School publication described as “meditation in motion.”

Along with using their fists and unique hand positions, the couple’s beautiful dance-like moves are enhanced as they move on to different forms of tai chi, taking up bamboo fans and then straight double-edged swords.

Tai chi, also called tai chi chuan, originated hundreds of years ago as a Chinese fighting art based on ancient martial arts. Today, it’s practiced as a graceful form of exercise accompanied by deep breathing and focus, with each posture flowing into the next.

“This is really good exercise. We’re glad to publicize how important it is to exercise,” said Li, who with his wife moved to the United States from China in 1986. Both have medical and academic backgrounds, in the veterinary field.

They retired about a year and a half ago from their work in Pullman. He was a research microbiologist and adjunct associate professor at Washington State University’s Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology. Zhuang conducted animal disease research for the U.S. Department of Agriculture there.

Even while working, they made time to log in miles of walking. Winter and summer, snow or heat, they walked to work daily in Pullman. Round trip, that made for five miles each day.

Li said his sister-in-law in China is a tai chi master. He and his wife are still perfecting their skills.

Dongyue Zhuang does advanced tai chi sword movements at Harborview Park on Tuesday in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Dongyue Zhuang does advanced tai chi sword movements at Harborview Park on Tuesday in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“With retirement, we took a tai chi class at WSU,” Li said Tuesday. These days, their instruction comes largely from watching and imitating tai chi on YouTube. He said they aren’t certified to teach tai chi but have shared their enthusiasm for it with friends.

The sword and fan forms of tai chi are part of the martial art’s long history. Weapons, they are dazzling to see in the ways Zhuang and Li practice their artful movements.

An article by Jeff Patterson on the Portland Tai Chi Academy’s website, titled “The Most Beautiful Self-Defense,” explains how even a fan can be weaponized: “It is used to hide hits, visually confuse one’s opponent, and conceal other weapons.” And a fan can distract with the loud snap it makes as it closes “with the flick of one’s wrist.”

At Harborview Park, the snap of those red fans could be heard from the parking lot, inside a car, with windows rolled up.

Before graduate school brought them to Pullman, Li and Zhuang studied veterinary medicine at a university in southwest China’s Sichuan province. For retirement, family lured them to this area. “My son’s family lives in Bellevue. It’s nice here,” Li said. Staying in tip-top health helps them keep pace with three grandchildren, ages 10, 8 and 3.

Dongyue Zhuang and Hong Li do tai chi fan at Harborview Park on Tuesday in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Dongyue Zhuang and Hong Li do tai chi fan at Harborview Park on Tuesday in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Ajay Mathison, who can see the park from his home, enjoys seeing Li and Zhuang practice tai chi.

“My wife and I are retired now and we love watching what’s going on in the park each day,” Mathison said by email. “There are always regulars who visit the park, but to see these two do their art with the backdrop of Port Gardner and the city each morning is something we look forward to.”

In this time of COVID-19, with anti-Asian violence and hate speech increasingly in the news, Li said they’ve been warmly welcomed here.

“Our neighborhood is really nice,” he said. Both in the park and as they walk, “people wave and say hi,” Li said. And he’s hopeful “the political situation can evolve.”

Zhuang and Li said their parents lived long lives by following a simple recipe: “Exercise, eat healthy and be happy,” Li said.

For this pair, the mind-body connection inherent in tai chi makes it more than just exercise.

“It’s the best medicine,” Li said.

Julie Muhlstein:

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