Temple of Heaven: Witnessing the Chinese People’s Love of Life
China was never on my destination wish list but when an opportunity to travel there came knocking, I happily went. I did not know what to expect or what experiences I would have at the various places we planned to go to. We had hired a tour guide for half of our stay, and the other half we planned to explore on our own. In Beijing, we planned to see the Great Wall of China and left the rest for our tour guide to plan. When she suggested that we go to the Temple of Heaven, we had no idea what we would find there.
The Temple of Heaven in the centre of Beijing city was once a forbidden part of the city, only open to the imperial crown, and shrouded in mystery. The area around the temple, which was the tallest building in China at that point, was surrounded by thick forests. In present-day China, this area is a huge recreational park where people come every day to exercise, meet, gossip and socialize.
We were most surprised to find an elderly gentleman hanging upside down on the jungle gym.
The gardens themselves are tranquil and enticing but it’s the people who bring the gardens to life. We reached the Temple of Heaven around nine in the morning and the gardens leading to the temple were bursting with activity. People were exercising on cycles, on jungle bars and doing push ups. There were groups learning ballroom dancing or dancing traditional Chinese dances with ribbons. The most interesting part was that all of these people who were engaged in such robust activities were all 60 or older.
There were groups of people playing a unique game with a feather weighted down by a ball or steel rings. It required some crazy football skills as it needed to be kicked and passed from one person to the next. Each group was a mix of men and women equally enthusiastic about being alive. There were choir groups, people playing Chinese checkers, people knitting, gossiping, and practicing Tai Chi. We were most surprised to find an elderly gentleman hanging upside down on the jungle gym. In the other parts of the world, in my experience, the most an elderly person was expected to do was walk upright with a cane.
The park was predominantly populated by older men and women only because the younger folks were away working as it was a week day. Another striking aspect was that the women were just as involved in playing or exercising as the men. In India, it’s most common to see older people shuffling along on morning walks and participating in religious activities. I have seen older people exercise in the U.S too, but not to this extent.
In the other parts of the world, in my experience, the most an elderly person was expected to do was walk upright with a cane.
This sight of people enjoying themselves in the outdoors in such numbers was truly amazing. The park provided people a chance to be social while being physically active at an age where people in other countries often withdraw themselves from active life.
Each city in China is divided into districts and each district has an exercise area complete with exercise bikes, which are soldered to the ground, making it possible for anyone to use them. Old, young, men, women and children seem to use these spaces in equal numbers. While China’s infrastructure and new buildings are impressive, what impressed me most of all were the spaces created to allow people to breathe.