Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Wandering in a City Park


Among many life events we all share across cultural lines is retirement. At a time when more and more people are living longer, healthier and active lives, how to enjoy one’s ‘autumn years’ is a question that people answer in  different ways --  part-time work, volunteer service, education, cultural events, and travel, for example. This is not just a question for retired Europeans and Americans, as we all know from our travels. This is, for example, an increasingly common question in China, especially among urban residents who receive a pension. However, what is different about China compared to the United States is the relatively young age at which many people, especially civil servants, stop working full time -- as young as fifty for women and fifty-five for men. In a society with such an enormous population as China mandatory early retirement frees up work opportunities for youth but what about those who retire? A visit to a city park offers a hint.

This was our experience during a recent Smithsonian Journeys tour of China. During our first stop in Beijing we visited the Temple of Heaven, in Chinese Tiantan. This is not just a UNESCO World Heritage but also a vibrant city park. And in Tiantan Park the early morning hours belong to the city’s retirees. Hundreds of retired citizens fill the park at this time, walking, chatting, relaxing on benches with their favorite pets (usually small house dogs or, for men, caged birds). But they do far more. Various social groups provide an entire spectrum of activities, from traditional opera, folk, and revolutionary singing to mahjong, card playing, calligraphy, exercise clubs, badminton and hackey sack, and most every form of dance (disco, tango, ballroom, folk) you can imagine. Our hearty travelers certainly joined in the fun, dancing and singing with their Chinese counterparts. And of course we did not forget to visit the main attraction, the Temple of Heaven itself, which during the imperial era was visited by the Emperor on an annual basis to pray for good fortune to be bestowed on the Empire.

So the next time you are in China take the time to visit a city park one morning. You will have a great time, I guarantee this.