Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A Chinese Metaphor for the Seasons of Life


luò yè guī gēn

“When a leaf falls, it returns to its roots.”

This is a traditional Chinese proverb, which I read recently in reference to the desire of an elderly person to return to the village of his birth, to die and be buried with his ancestors.

Chinese wisdom sayings are both earthy and thought-provoking. For over three thousand years, the Chinese people were perhaps the most "rooted" people in the history of human civilization. They were an ancient people living the seasons of their lives from generation to generation on the ancient land.

In some ways it was a simple, humble, deeply communal life. Perhaps it was also somehow "stuck," tired, overripe, shriveled, diseased, incurable, suffocating...

The explosive upheaval of China over the course of the last century and a half lends itself more to metaphors of apocalypse than to those drawn from "the good earth." So much has changed, and changed, and changed again for this great people who are one-fifth of the human race.

How much have the roots been torn up, and what has become of China's long, grand, courteous, and peculiar heritage with all its patiently cultivated humanism and all its cultural wealth (and all its stubborn old flaws)? How much has remained among the people of the habits and manners, the venerable customs and entrenched corruptions, the wisdom and folly of such a deep past? What unimaginable, monstrous crimes might still be inflicted on China in the future? What rich resources of humanity - both ancient and new - may yet be transformed and fulfilled?

As I walk upon the ground and watch the leaves fall here, from trees native to Chinese soil that have found their way to the other side of the world, I ponder these questions. The future of this world is inexorably bound up with the future of China.