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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Leaping Forward in Time

One of the questions routinely asked of foreign visitors in China is "How old are you?" I usually got amazed looks when I was honest with strangers and cute massage therapists: "Wo liushisan sui." Despite short sage-silver hair that looks like I may have abandoned a nunnery just weeks ago, but with a relatively unlined, unwrinkled, even, moist complexion (which I attribute to living in a mild humid climate, good sun-blocking moisturizers, and retin-A), people always thought I was younger than I am. Chinese femmes du certain age liked to pose for pictures with me. I must look like a sturdy energetic immortal who does not choose to dye her hair black. (I should open a retin-A franchise; it would be more effective for youth-preservation than the ubiquitous Chinese skin-whitening products.)

Still, I am unnerved by the revelation in China Daily that the Bee Taoist is only 76. (I am unnerved that I might think anyone is "only 76".) I would have put him a decade beyond than that. And once, while strolling in a park on the morning of my arrival in Beijing, two women with a little one in a stroller proudly pointed to the bent old ye ye following with a walker. "He is 80!" I would have sworn he was 90 or even pushing 100, although 80 is a respectable age in China.

Then it occurred to me. There is a time warp in China, and it was caused by Mao Zedong. I think Baby Boomers and their parents -- that is to say, everyone still alive and born before 1966 -- have actually physically aged 10 years, if not chronologically. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution cost all those folks decades of their youth, like a debit account; in the effort to move China ahead, the effect was just to make everyone appear older than they really are.

In contrast, it seems that all those coming of age or born post-Mao, after 1976, actually seem younger than their chronological age. I was surprised that the master who taught me Five Animals was 45; he looked mid-30s. Other "young people" well into their 30s seemed to me to be just coming out of their 20s. I credit the Taoist practices for longevity and immortality for the physical youth of the masters and teachers in the mountains; but I suppose the economic revolution since Deng Xiao Ping has served to keep the beneficiary generation young. (I see that in the U.S. as well...the narcissism of the "Me Generation" and material comforts keep one from aging as expected, or as demonstrated by the generation who lived through the Great Depression and the stifling '50s. And then there's cigarettes.)

In the Chinese TV serial drama I just completed, The Shadow of Empress Wu, which featured the Five Animals as a plot point about health, there is a curious bit of philosophy quoted, twice.
"People in their 60s count down their death by years; people in their 70s count down their death by months; people in their 80s will die without any sign." Anything after that is considered immortality. In his weird way, I guess Mao--who was preoccupied with his own longevity-- just pushed people closer to immortality.


YTSL said...

Hi baroness radon --

Very interesting observations re the physical difference between the pre- vs post-Great Leap Forward/Cultural Revolution generations -- and it all definitely makes sense.

For my part, I've often noticed a difference in perceived age between rural vs urban peoples. I think being out in the sun a lot can really age one. Hence a lot of folks into sun-tanning/bathing also ending up looking wrinkly, etc. to me.

baroness radon said...

Thanks, it was just something that came to me after thinking about my hermit (who we want to isolate in time, make him timeless,eternal, immortal, but there is an untold history there.). You can't see people's lives in isolation from the milieu. And yes, the rural/urban distinction is another angle.

The sun as an ageing thing is definitely true in Hawaii. I see a lot of women, white women generally, who have spent a life at the beach, outside, without protection, and their skin shows it. And all you have to do is compare the skin on your arms and your breasts or belly. Asian women who use umbrellas in the sun are on to something.

Genes probably come in there too, somewhere.

Cym said...

I typically don't consider 76 to be very old either, and would have thought "only 76?" too. He looks at least twenty years older. But on the other hand, he does have a genuinely happy look about him, sort of childlike in a way, has a youthful smile and relaxed face, despite the wrinkles.

Not only does excessive exposure to sun damage the skin, but also spending a lot of time outdoors in in very arid and/or windy conditions does so too. A good example of that is Tibet. Tibetans tend to have a really weathered look about them, which seems to be directly related to their climate.

Also if you look at homeless people in general, there seems to be something about living outside, being exposed to the elements all year round without adequate shelter tends to be prematurely aging as well.

This is just a rhetorical question, but I wonder, did thinking he was older than he actually is, make you believe he was wiser? It sort of added to his mystique I bet, but upon finding out he is "only 76", must have been a bit of a slap in the face, right? Even more so if by chance someone you looked up to as being some "Ancient Taoist Immortal", turned out to be even younger than you.

What can we learn from this?

To use a few cliches: Appearances can be deceiving. You can't always judge a book by its cover. And looks aren't everything.

Outwardly he may look very old, but inside could be like a little child. He does have the smile of a child. So who knows, maybe he is a Taoist immortal in disguise.

baroness radon said...

@Cym--Good comment.
Many of us who know him just assumed he was older; many people thought he was pushing 100---there is generally a reluctance in Taoists to reveal actual age (you never ask a Buddhist monk his name; you never ask a Taoist his age) --and so were a little surprised.

But indeed, he does have the Taoist "innocence" that is achieved through cultivation.

My observation was really about recent Chinese history which tends to be swept under the rug by the Chinese themselves; and Americans with no sense of the politics of the past century in China tend to be a little oblivious to it. We like to think the Bee Taoist has been there forever, but I suspect there is more to his story than is revealed.