Sunday, February 26, 2012

heavenly games

By the time we got to the Temple of Heaven, I was beginning to suffer from temple overload.

You know the feeling.  If you see one more cathedral, you will convert to Druidism.

But the Temple of Heaven complex turned out to be a well come relief.

The temple itself is beautiful.  It once served a very important function in Chinese society.  This is the place where the emperor earned his fortune cookies.

Like most pre-modern rulers, the emperor was a god in the eyes of his people.  And because he was part of the god family, his people held him responsible for keeping everything running properly.  Including the weather.

If the rains failed to fall, the emperor was responsible.  If the harvests failed, the emperor was responsible.  If his people starved from famine, the emperor was responsible.

And if he did not keep order in nature, he could (and often did) pay with his life.  After all, what good is an emperor if he can’t do his job?  Almost as inconsequential as the Queen of Great Britain.
To keep the harvest rolling along (and to prevent his own head from doing the same), the emperor would come to the Temple of Heaven each year to offer sacrifices to appease the ever-so-fickle gods.

Like most things imperial Chinese, the ceremonies were quite intricate.  After all, we are talking about getting it Just Right to control the gods for human purposes.  The genie must be appeased.

The temple was built for the architecturally-ambitious Yongle Emperor in the early 1400s.  But the gods must have grown restless in 1889.  That year, lightning burned down the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.  The current building was rebuilt at the end of the 1800s.

Even though it is effectively a modern reproduction, the hall (and the surrounding buildings) are well worth a visit.  The purposes of each building are described in Chinese and English.

But the temple complex was not the best part of our visit.  The temple area was opened to the public in 1918 -- following the republican revolution.  As was the surrounding park.  And it proved to be most interesting.

The park is the meeting place for current and former residents of the area.  When we were there, the place was alive with activity.

Young people playing a form of hacky sack with a shuttlecock.  Couples practicing ballroom dances.  And lots of seniors.

Most the seniors come to the park every day.  Many of them lived in the neighborhood before their homes were seized and destroyed to build high-rise apartments.  They now spend an hour or two each day traveling from their new homes on the outskirts of Beijing.

And come they do.  To chat.  To exercise on outside equipment.  To participate in group exercise.  To play head ring toss games.  Or simply to gather around a pack of cards, a stack of dominoes, or tiles for Mah Jong.

What struck me was how healthy most of the seniors looked.  Not only because of the exercise.  But also from the joy of their social networks.   This is what Facebook should look like.

In a few more years, I may be booking for a similar park.  Or maybe this one will do.


Jsnoble said...

I enjoyed this post a great deal. Thank you. Amid the rest of your interesting observations, it is also heartening to read about the seniors and how exercise and social networking have such a positive effect on their complete health. 

Steve Cotton said...

 What struck me most s how dedicate the seniors were to congregating in the ark.  It was just above freezing when we visited.  But everyone was having a great time.

Nita said...

I have enjoyed every read of your China trip. I have to say it is not on my list of travel places. I'm sure many structures are beautiful, but I still love the Mayan and other ruins of Mexico.

Steve Cotton said...

 I am a big fan of Mesoamerican cultures.  But China's is equally as amazing -- and once again ready to emerge as a world economic power.