During our visit to China in 2003, we saw many unforgettable sights in Shanghai, Xian and Beijing but the abiding memory I have is of the elderly people in the gardens of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.
The Temple of Heaven was constructed in the early 15th century on the orders of one of the Ming Emperors . Each year the Emperor would go there in procession and pray for a good harvest. On the advice of our tour guide, we left our hotel early and got to the Temple early before the tourist hordes descended upon it. We got our admission tickets and walked into the huge park that surrounds the temple and saw hundreds even thousands of elderly Chinese busy with a variety of activities. Many were engaged in tai chi exercises led by young volunteers. Some were playing traditional Chinese musical instruments. Others were doing the waltz to music from a beat-up cassette player. One woman, dressed in elaborate period costume, was singing Chinese Opera songs to an appreciative audience of her contemporaries. And there were many many groups of seniors playing cards or Chinese Chess or just sitting together shooting the breeze. Our guide told us that senior citizens are allowed free entrance to the park and are provided free bus transportation there and that paid volunteers are on hand to co-ordinate the various activities.
We passed through the park and saw the Temple buildings which were awesome in scale and in design and when we came back out to the park an hour and a half later the crowd of senior citizens had grown even larger. We spent some time circulating among them and I was struck by how calm and fulfilled they looked, how happily they were engaged in their mundane pursuits.
What usually sustains people in their later years are family ties, children and/or religion.This generation of Chinese got the short end of the stick in every respect. They grew up in the 60’s during the worst excesses of the Red Guards when religion was actively discouraged and life was in turmoil. Because of family planning policies they had one child at most and of course they were too early to take part in China’s economic miracle. Yet even in the absence of religion and family and despite their straitened circumstances they seemed to be enjoying Life. What a lesson for many of us in the West who have so much more but do not seem half as happy…