Experience in China shows value of elders, time


Adam Schoelz

Photo by Asa Lory

There is a certain flavor to Beijing, China, a taste in the air, that is wrought with age. Granted, it’s also wrought with smog and cigarette smoke — smoking is far more common in China than here, especially in Beijing, but transcending the pollution is the age of the thing, and it infects the air. There is so much history that it runs together — a building younger than 500 years old is of no special significance, and a decade is nothing. So when I was in China, moving about the city and the country, a question sprang to mind: how does something so overrun with history deal with the advent of modern technology?

China is a country recovering from war with itself. Not a typical war with blood and guts and valor, but a cultural clash between the forces of surging modernism and three thousand years of history. It’s quite a sight. Like I said, there are the ancient temples and fast food restaurants in a rather classic juxtaposition, but the conflict goes beyond what can be physically seen. One could boil it down to something as simple as technology versus culture, but that far oversimplifies. China, over the last two decades, has thawed out in terms of culture, government and industry. Today, it is struggling to come to terms with that thaw — to grip its past firmly in hand while also trying to adapt to globalization of pretty much everything. The Temple of Heaven, for instance, once a private and sacred sanctum of the gods, now is a park for all to enjoy. While the government of China struggled to embrace past and present simultaneously, I found that the people of the country readily accepted both.

So when I boarded the flight from Beijing to Detroit to leave the country on a sunny Saturday morning, I stared out across the tarmac at Beijing International and turned the idea over in my head. After that I settled in for the journey. The flight is 12 hours, which could be painfully long, but this was alleviated by the fact that our plane was quite new and had quite a few movies to enjoy individually.

I found myself drawn to one movie in particular: “The Artist.” If you don’t know the premise, “The Artist” tells the story of (fictional) silent movie actor George Valentin, at the end of his era. As new ‘talkies’ begin to take over the film industry, Valentin begins to lose his sense of place. At the same time, young actress Peppy Miller begins to rise through the ranks to become a star in movies with sound. It’s a movie about transitions, about passing the baton and forgetting to remember who passed it.

Naturally, after my week in China watching old and new conflict, the movie’s themes resonated with me. In one scene reporters are interviewing Miller, and she says something to the effect of old actors hold back young ones. At this Valentin stands and leaves, saying, “I’ve gotten out of your way.” It struck me this was not what I had observed in China. In China time was not discrete. The old had not moved out of the way because there was simply too much of it to move. The government of China tried in the ‘60s and failed. So they learned instead, and they began to live with the past. The United States does not accept the past as readily. Here, we tend to argue over the past, fighting over who was right and wrong, and instead of taking away the lessons of history, we enter mortal combat over the honor of our ancestors. Over time, history splits groups, when they should be knit together.

I do not condemn those to whom the gaps created by time are frightening. What I do condemn is devaluing the experiences of the past. While freedom of information is nonexistent in China, and the government still restricts access to political viewpoints beyond its control, the population at large seems at peace with the past. The Forbidden City is a tourist destination and the Temple of Heaven a public park. Perhaps because there is so much of it, the past in China is nothing unusual or exotic. Sure, there are some sore spots, such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre or the Opium Wars, but all in all, the Chinese have learned to live with the past. There is so much past in China that they have found it easier to simply deal then fight it. Here, in this young country, we go with the second option.

People seek to bury the past when what they should seek is synthesis. The past, like anything else, cannot be ignored, nor can it be changed. It is useless to try. What it can be is accepted, and a la “The Artist,” a la China, it is evident that this is the best option. Without an acceptance of the past, we will be consumed by it.
By Adam Schoelz