From time to time: longevity in China.
Just watching her, the movement of her arms and her legs, soft and slow, determined and confident, is hypnotic. Bearing cameras and foreign curiosity, we’re at first concerned that we may be disturbing her. We soon realise she hasn’t registered our presence at all. Such is the power of tai chi – a centuries old Chinese martial art that not only teaches defence, but a kind of inner peace. The benefit of which, they say, is longevity.
The idea of longevity and the quest for its attainment has a long tradition in Chinese history. Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China (220BC) was supposedly desperate for immortality, consuming elixirs made from mercury, jade and gold. He believed they would slowly replace his organs with immortal materials.
In Journey to the West, the Monkey King, after causing no small amount of trouble is given the Jade Emperor’s heavenly peach gardens to look after. After eating one of the sacred fruits, he gains immortality. Written in the 16th century, this popular piece of Chinese classical literature has been translated into English and adapted for stage, film and television – such as Monkey Magic – so that the tale itself has been immortalised around the world.
Wandering through parks so beautiful they’re almost enough to drown out the bustling city that surrounds them, we come across turtles milling about beside a pond. The Black Turtle is one of The Four Symbols – mythical animals that make up the Chinese constellation tradition. While each one is imbued with individual meaning – prosperity, strength, virtue, grace – throughout Chinese history the Black Turtle has remained a symbol of longevity.