China’s rooftoppers face death – and taunts from countrymen for being ‘unfilial’

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/30 18:43:39

Chinese society still frowns upon extreme sports or other forms of self-exploration


Death of a star rooftopper in China failed to stop others from engaging in the dangerous sport

Though still not accepted by the Chinese public, extreme sports are gaining ground with youth

The ethics and legality of rule-breaking sports like rooftopping continue to be debated

The feet of Russian rooftopper Vitaly Raskalov dangle from the top of a skyscraper in Shanghai. Photo: IC

On China's social media, many young Chinese share their rooftopping photos and videos under the hashtag "China rooftopping alliance," with stunning bird's eye views of big cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou and feet dangling dangerously over landmark buildings, bridges or cranes.

It seems that the recent tragedy of Wu Yongning, a star rooftopper in China, did not cast much of a shadow on their enthusiasm of this sport. Wu, who claimed to be the best rooftopper in China, fell off a building during his last rooftopping challenge in Changsha, Hunan Province. His death stirred fierce discussions about the dangers, ethics and legality of rooftopping and extreme sports in China.

While it is human instinct to pursue safety, an increasing number of young people in China are deriving joy from dangerous activities like rooftopping, skateboarding and rafting as a gesture against traditional views and an expression of their thirst for freedom and "coolness."

"It [extreme sports] is a mode of life to me. You can enjoy quite a different scene [from what ordinary people see] after climbing up there," said Baal.Kiy, a 21-year-old from Shanghai. A college student, the young man added that many of his friends "play" rooftopping. He has managed to climb to the top of more than 30 buildings over the past two years.

But it is a group that has yet to be understood by Chinese society. Regarding the tragedy of Wu, some expressed sympathy for the brave young man, but many netizens showed bewilderment, saying that people like Wu are actually "asking for death."

"Why don't they just play ping pong?" some asked.

"More and more young Chinese play extreme sports, which shows that the living standard of many has reached a certain level and thus they have time and money to pursue spiritual enjoyment," said Luo Le, an expert in sports sociology at Beijing Sport University.

But he added that, in Chinese society where people value social identification, pursuing personal freedom, which includes playing extreme sports, is bound to face more challenges here than in foreign countries.

Wu Yongning hangs off the edge of a cliff in Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, during a live-streaming broadcast.

Dangerous pursuit

As a fan of rooftopping, Baal.Kiy told the Global Times that he was shocked to learn about Wu's tragedy. "It serves as a warning to people like us," said Baal.Kiy, a major in advertising design, who started rooftopping about two years ago.

After Wu's death, many rooftoppers expressed their sympathy on social media, with some kindly reminding the general public of the dangers of this sport. But Baal.Kiy added that such accidents are a risk that they have to shoulder. "You must prepare yourself for this kind of thing psychologically before you start it," he said.

Wu left behind hundreds of videos of his rooftopping excursions. In these videos, Wu was climbing without any proper safety measures. Many netizens exclaimed that they "dare not even finish watching such videos," which made them sweat or feel dizzy. It is reported that Wu had experienced several near life-or-death moments before fate eventually caught up with him.

Rooftopping in China originally only attracted photographers, who climbed atop skyscrapers for unique views. Now this group includes people who simply wish to challenge themselves. There are no statistics about the number of rooftoppers in China, but if social media is any indication, their numbers are growing by the day.

Extreme sports began developing rapidly in China around 1999, with parkour, rock climbing and rafting becoming popular among Chinese youth. Wingsuit flying, a sport reportedly with a 30-percent death rate, has also been trending in China recently. The more people who died while pursuing such gravity defying sports, the more popular the sports became.

"It is quite normal that people die [in extreme sports], but the danger is not a problem for the young because they are eager to try new things that are not popularized at a large scale in China," said Luo.

But Baal.Kiy suggests that, even in extreme sports, one should be fully clear about his or her limits and well prepared physically and mentally.



Making a breakthrough

Many rooftoppers are actually from well-off families and choose the sport simply because they enjoy it. "Only rooftopping and disco dancing help me forget troubles in life," netizen maiky7001 wrote on Weibo, followed by a video showing her walking on the brink of a high building in Shanghai.

"The whole process of rooftopping is very interesting," said Baal.Kiy, "you will see and gain different things after you climb to the top." He added that extreme sports are so charming that people can easily get addicted to the pleasant sensation brought about by the rising adrenaline. "Such a hormone makes people even more excited than when they make love."

Baal.Kiy shares thrilling videos and photos of his extreme hobbies, be it skateboarding or rooftopping, on his Weibo account. "As I understand, it is exactly because I cherish life. I cherish [life] so I play extreme sports," Baal.Kiy said, shrugging off criticism that they don't cherish life. "I think it is better than staying in an office your whole life, or wandering between bars and KTV."

Behind these dangerous sports, which require supreme balancing capabilities and tremendous physical capacity, are a group of bored, middle-class youngsters who just want to have fun. As reported, Chinese rooftoppers were mostly born in the 1990s and 2000s, with males taking up 80 percent of the group. Many of them first learned about rooftopping through foreign videos online.

These kids feel the need to conquer their fears, including acrophobia, and most of the time they also need to figure out a means to gain access, often illegally, to places not open to the public, including subway tunnels, abandoned air-raid shelter, deserted factories and the tops of skyscrapers. They might be making personal breakthroughs, but in many instances they are also breaking the rules.

Baal.Kiy agreed that the breakthroughs these youth are making are actually "breaking away from the existing order or rule." Some rooftoppers say they feel like they have "conquered the city" when standing on a roof that required them to sneak past guards and break locks. The occasional near life-or-death moments and the risk of getting caught by security guards only encourages them to further pursue this sense of achievement.

"You feel a strong sense of accomplishment the moment you eventually open the last door [to the roof]," said Baal.Kiy. "In a word, it is enjoyment."

Hostile surroundings

However much he loves rooftopping, it is a topic that Baal.Kiy avoids discussing with his parents. His parents learned about his hobby one day sheerly by chance; a quarrel ensued. "After all, it is dangerous. So I lie to them. It is useless explaining it to them," said Baal.Kiy. "They never understand the young generation's ideas."

According to Luo Le, old-school sports fail to satisfy millennials, who prefer extreme activities instead of traditional hobbies like table tennis or even basketball. Extreme sports, at one point, are also considered inconceivable among the Chinese.

"Just imagine, 10 years ago in this country, people thought running enthusiasts were weird," Luo laughed.

After the news about Wu's death spread online, some claimed that sports like rooftopping could help innovate society. "There are always people who try to explore new borders in the world, which eventually makes the world progress. We salute people who are brave enough to face a challenge!" a netizen wrote on Weibo.

But a larger number of netizens expressed their confusion about this unusual and very dangerous sport. "This is a sport? This is just asking for death! Buildings are not built for climbing!"

Mentioning extreme sports on Chinese social media always provokes harsh criticism, with extreme sports lovers described as shallow, selfish and irresponsible people who "not only ask for death but who are also troublemakers."

Li Huacan, an explorer in China better known as Semitt, wrote in response to the question "Why are there mostly foreigners in extreme sports videos?" on Q&A forum zhihu.com that he often receives negative feedback from those who fail to understand his passion.

"You deserve to die for being so unfilial," "You are an idiot," "Your poor wife will fetch your body one day," are among the many insults Li has heard about his rafting trip along China's Yellow River.

"To sum up, in China only single orphans (without parents or wife or children) are qualified for playing extreme sports," Li wrote, adding that he hopes more people will eventually identify with extreme sports and expeditions, or at the very least not curse those who do.

Baal.Kiy said he is fine with dissenting opinions, agreeing that in a relatively conservative culture like China extreme sports are still a kind of heresy. "People who like to keep on the rails can't see what I have found about the world," said Baal.Kiy.

"Young people are changing, and society is progressing. In the end, it will be our world!"


Newspaper headline: Vertiginous adventures


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