Beijing’s Temple of Heaven
As the years go by, the inevitably of age becomes a fear for many people. It wearies, slows and cripples even the most active souls of yesteryear. Growing old is as timeless as the world from which we must one day pass from. Yet a denial of the undeniable has seen stories for generations of a ‘fountain of youth’ or, to many people, ‘the holy grail’.
In Beijing, a group of elderly residents has found a holy grail of sorts. In the shadow of the city’s Temple of Heaven, they gather each morning to drink (figuratively-speaking) from the elixir of life. It’s not some mythical potion or ancient relic they’ve found, though. It’s a simple dose of exercise and fun.
From the early hours every day, until the sun gets too hot in late morning, hundreds of senior citizens come to the large Beijing park that encircles the temple itself. And together, in community, they release their youth.
Walking through the grounds of the Temple of Heaven (which are about 3km2 in total), you find all sorts of activities going on. Dozens of people are having a ballroom dancing lesson on one walkway, on another a group is practising a performance with flags. An old woman sings to a crowd under a group of trees; an old man shows off his bird collection; some play cards and others discuss calligraphy. Small groups of people play badminton or hacky-sack. And near the centre of the park a large gathering of more than a hundred people chant and clap together in time to a song someone is leading, although everyone clearly knows the words already.
Visiting the Temple of Heaven’s park
It’s fascinating to watch – and not just because there is such a variety of activity that every corner reveals another entertaining sight. No, it’s mainly fascinating because of the energy with which these ageing Beijing residents throw themselves into the games and groups. There’s an image, often, of old people taking it easy in their later years, spending more time inside than out and not being overtly active. A trip to the Temple of Heaven Park contradicts all of this and puts many a young person to shame.
I’m sure it’s not a uniquely Chinese thing but there are aspects of the culture that make this much more common than in many Western countries. Firstly, the family homes these people live in are often small or crowded and encourage the residents to go outdoors. Secondly, with less retirement homes and similar institutions, there isn’t a ready-made sense of community for these people and this is one of the best ways to socialise. And, finally, this idea of group participation in cultural and sports demonstrations has always been much more ingrained in the Chinese culture.
There may be no such thing as eternal life – or even a silver bullet to slow down the ageing process. But a visit to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing does prove that you don’t have to let old age get the better of you.