This is Li Zhanchun. He is holding up a tower made of baoding balls in his home of Baoding, a city in the Hebei province in China. There, he is part of the Sunset Red Iron Ball Group, and he is very well known.
Li counts up the layers, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. 11 layers. That’s 45 balls! This is a performing tower, not my best one. My best one is 65!”. When asked if the balls are heavy, he says it weighs about 10 kilograms. That is about 22 pounds. While he holds and spins the tower with one hand, Li Zhanchun sings a song he created about iron balls. “The iron balls spin both forward and in reverse. They can spin around the center, but you have to persist to spin several!”. It takes a lot of skill to rotate such a tall tower so Li is famous throughout Baoding and is well known as “King Li Tower Holder”. How did Li come to be such a famous baoding ball person?
Li says “When I put on performances in the park, people ask me if I’m in my 60’s or 70’s? I say no, my zodiac animal is the rabbit. I’m 87 years old this year! Haha, 87 years old! They don’t believe me!”
His performance lasts several minutes while he sings his iron ball song. For an 87 year old, he has quite an amazing show of arm strength. He often boasts if you don’t believe his strength, you can compete with him. Another feat he likes to show is spinning dual towers. It’s one of his tricks he likes to demonstrate. “Dual towers. One mind can’t focus on many things, right? This is really difficult. I’ve practiced with iron balls since 1984 for almost 30 years to this day. Neither wind nor rain stop me”, Li says.
His journey began in 1984. Li Zhanchun was suffering from health problems and would get sick often. He needed a way to exercise that was not so strenuous. After searching he discovered the iron fitness balls.
In Li’s words, “The iron balls are great because regardless of where you are, at what occasion, whatever time, or whatever environment you are in, this isn’t very strenuous for an elderly person and it won’t make people too tired.”
Li practiced for 4 years and became very good at them. He joined a iron ball group in 1989 where they went to do performances. But one day while performing he had an accident and his tower of balls fell apart. His coach took him off the state and Li felt very embarrassed. Not letting the incident put him down, Li secretly became more determined. He wanted to show his friends and group that it would never happen again.
“Ten years off stage for one minute on stage. I still hadn’t practiced for 10 years, so I felt like I had to become more skilled, to make my group or to make other groups see that this old guy Li wasn’t a wimp!”, Li said.
Li Zhanchun practiced and practiced. He was always holding baoding balls. According to Li’s wife, Li would always be holding the iron balls and it really drover her up the walls because he would never stop and it bothered her while watching TV. “My wife grew tired of it. I said that they were noisy. How could I watch TV since they were noisy? It wasn’t easy to fix, but I couldn’t stop! So I said I would just stop watching TV!”, said Li.
Li could give up his TV, but could not give up practicing baoding balls. He had to bring his balls everywhere with him. At night, he would put two iron balls by his bed and the first thing he would do is spin them when he woke.
“He never stopped spinning them. In the morning, they would clank, and when he finished with breakfast, he would still clank them together. He wouldn’t do anything after he ate, just go sit in the room and play with his balls.”, said Li’s wife.
Even when Li went outside his home, he would bring the iron balls with him. His philosophy was constant effort will surely lead to success. He took the balls with him everywhere while shopping. If he didn’t have time to practice at home, this was his solution.
“He would stretch his neck out like this, and say he wanted two cucumbers. They would give him two cucumbers and a plastic bag. He would pick them out with his hands and the balls still in his hands! To pay, he would have them reach into his pocket and get however much he owed. They would take the money and then leave the rest in his pocket. He did that all the time! He wouldn’t put the iron balls down.”, said Li’s wife.
His efforts were paying off as his skill using the iron balls greatly increased. As Li demonstrated his many tricks, he says “You can spin to the balls forward, then reverse, and around the center. You spin them around like this. There’s jumping, which also has a reverse. Rotate them horizontally, and quickly. 120 rotations in one minute. You have to reach this point with two balls in order to be up to the standard. And then after that come three balls. You can spin them forwards and jump them horizontally or vertically. And then there are four balls, which you can spin forward, backwards, and then with three on the bottom spinning one in the middle. And then there are five balls.”
Li even demonstrated using 7 balls with one hand. He would place one ball in the center while rotating 6 balls around the center ball. This trick he calls the “big dipper”. There was no stopping to Li practicing and becoming better with new tricks.
“The balls either hit my foot or the ground. If they hit my foot, it swelled up. This floor was hit. My wife wasn’t pleased, she got angry with me. “Your’re ruining the floor with your iron balls! What could be done?” I said it was like tuition. Students have to pay tuition, right? The floor will be fine, if it gets ruined, we can fix it. There was no other way. If I hit my feet, I would mend them, put some medicine on them, and then get back to practicing!”, said Li.
“It didn’t matter what you said, he was set on those iron balls. He didn’t want to stop practicing. He wanted to keep getting better, with no turning back.”, said Li’s wife. When traveling, the iron balls went with him. “I carry dozens of them in a basket. I went to Jilin, to the Century Plaza, because I practiced everywhere.”, said Li.
Then one day Li saw on TV a person holding a tower of iron balls. Li thought it was amazing and had to see if he could do it as well. He found someone to custom make his materials and tools.
“I put four balls on it and then spin it, and see if I can stack another. They gave me a “plate” and I tried at first, and with the plate it was fine just spinning like that. I spun it with great practice and stability so I thought that since I could spin one plate, could I spin two? Could I spin three?”, said Li.
Since then, Li would practice with iron ball towers. Every time Li would add a layer of iron balls, the weight would increase. For a 70 year old at the time, it was really straining his arm strength. His arm would hurt so much after practicing that he couldn’t spin them or pick up the balls anymore.
When asked if he thought about quitting, Li said “I thought about it, but that would mean that my determination had failed, and I couldn’t let my own determination fail. I just had to practice with towers. From that point on I continued to practice for 4 hours a day.”
Li never gave up and on his 80th birthday, Li performed a iron tower demonstration with 80 balls as a present for himself.
At 87 years old his tallest tower he can do comfortably is 65 balls. He is the only elderly person in China that can perform such a feat which earned him the title “King Li the Tower-holder”.
When talking about how the iron balls helped his health, Li said “I used to have coronary heart disease and high blood pressure. I also often caught colds. In the past, whenever I got sick, my whole body would hurt, and I would be clogged and panicked. It would be hard to breathe, and my whole body would sweat. After I started using iron balls, my energy gradually relaxed, and I used to get sick once every week, but afterwards, I only got sick once and then it disappeared. When I had my yearly physical, everything was normal! With iron balls, all fingers are connected with the heart. There’s the three Yin and Yang points of the hand, and the movements of the balls stimulate the acupoints, and then the nerves from the brain go to the organs, and when that happens, the iron balls can stimulate the brain, clear and invigorate the meridians, relax the muscles, and invigorate the blood. And then that connects with… If you move every day, your blood and meridians will be clear. If your fingers move, your blood will be free and clear.”
The healthy aspect of using iron balls is widely known in the area. From a medical perspective, when we talk about coronary heart disease, today we typically believe that it is related to stagnation in the Qi and the blood. Rotating balls in the hand is actually and exercise for the entire hand, because while the balls are being rotated, all five fingers are actually moving, including the backs of the hands and the wrists. It is actually a complete exercise for the hand. We talk about how half of the 12 meridians are in the hands. They are connected by the hands, and half are connected by the feet. The hand, then, is the starting point or ending point of the foot meridian, so it is actually the connection point for the hand meridian. At this point of connection, communication is essential. Here, all sorts of meridians connect, and it is a channel of free-flowing Qi and blood. So by exercising the hand, not only is he exercising the hand alone, he is actually opening the flow for the Qi and blood in all of the meridians in the hand and the acupoints of the meridians’ endpoints. This sort of stimulation can stably make the Qi and blood flow, and will actually help the treatment for coronary heart disease.
Li explains that he no longer has to worry about hypertension, “Every year the veteran cadres have a physical. When I had mine done, everything was normal. My hypertension was gone, My blood pressure was 80 and 120, which is normal. Sometimes it was 85.”
This sort of long-term exercise is beneficial to the sympathetic nerves’ balance and stability, so in that respect, it definitely helps the blood pressure. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, the heart governs the spirit and blood vessels. If his blood is flowing clearly, then his spirit will be at ease, and so the fire element in his heart will be easily reduced. When that happens, the fire element in his liver is also reduced, and so his blood pressure stabilizes.
Not only has the iron ball exercises improved his health, Li believes his mental health has improved. “In the past, I would visit a friend’s home, and just what unit was it? What floor was it? I forgot! I couldn’t remember! Sometimes I would go to the market and my wife would tell me to buy some celery, but when I returned home, I found that I’d forgotten! That happened. But that doesn’t happen much anymore. I don’t forget. I can even recite the Three Character Classic and the Book of Family Names.”, says Li.
You would have to hear if for yourself, but Li could recite many poems and songs making you doubt he was really an 87 year old man.
Traditional Chinese Medicine believes that the ten fingers connect to the heart. Actually, ancient Chinese people discovered very early on that hand exercises where beneficial to improving the brain. Not only did this include iron balls, there were many other hand exercises that the ancient Chinese discovered could help prevent senility, and aging of the brain by keeping them fit. Fine motor movement has a receptor in the brain, especially for the hands. The finer the movement is, the larger the receptor’s area is in the brain. So fine motor movement, especially at the tips of the fingers, will actually act to stimulate the corresponding region in the cortex of the brain.
Li Zhanchun, is not the only evidence of these health improvements. In his Sunset Red Iron Ball Group, there are many elderly members where they come to share techniques and practice. They have all expressed improvements to their health when exercising with baoding balls.
As one women in his group said, “In the past, my fingertips couldn’t touch could water, but after this, the water doesn’t seem so cold. My hands used to be really cold, but after using these balls, well, they used to be tight, but they aren’t now. My hands seem to be more flexible.”
Another woman also expressed her health improvements, “In the past when I worked I used a pen, so my wrists would get really sore. After I started playing with these, my wrists relaxed a great deal, and the Qi and blood flowed freely, so they don’t hurt anymore.”
As we end this story about Li Zhanchun, He shares his love for his iron balls which he calls his treasure. His poem is called “Honest Words from an Elderly Man”.
“Why be upset that an old man’s hair is white? I’m happy to have iron balls to accompany my golden years. My ball skill will never fade, throughout my golden years, the singing and laughter never ends. I want to sing and I’m happy to practice. I will continue to persist in my exercises, like an old tree growing green in the spring again, with cheerfulness and optimism to aid my glory.”