Not Old, Really, Really Old

by Jeanine Adinaro on April 22, 2010

in Chinese Culture, General Health

What does that sign say?

What does that sign say?

Qing Cheng Mountain, about 40 miles west of Chengdu, China, stands as one of the ancient cradles of Taoism for the world. It’s green, tranquil, and kind of exhausting to climb.

In 2005, I took this picture on my trek to the summit. You’re probably thinking, “OK, it’s a tree. Big deal.” But that tree is symbolically a really big deal, and I’ll tell you why.

I asked my friend to translate that sign in the picture, and she said, “This tree is important, please do not climb on the tree and so on.” It’s a really old tree, dating back about 3000 years. Sure, there are 300o year old trees in the United States, but here’s the difference. This tree was purposefully planted in this spot by a Taoist monk, and the the date and who planted it was recorded and is still known today.

That tree is a symbol of one of the fundamental cultural differences between China and the West. In China, tremendous value is placed on where people have come from and what they have done in the past. For example, one of my herbal instructors at my acupuncture school often spoke with great regard for his “herbal master”, a man who roughly served the role of his dissertation advisor. My teacher once showed us a picture of his master’s granddaughter, who had just started her formal herbal training in China, explaining proudly, “She is the 14th generation in their family to become an herbalist.” 14 generations- do you think maybe her parents and grandparents might have mentioned a few things about herbs to her, you know, before her first day of school? Maybe she started a little ahead of the curve.

Sure, there’s the occasional flavor of that lineage in the United States. The herb importer we buy our raw ingredients from, NuHerbs, has a their third generation at the helm. But when he goes to China to buy the herbs from the farmers, the lineage he’s dealing with is often in the double digits. If there was ever an appropriate place to use the phrase, “Not his first day on the farm,” I’m guessing this is it.

Issac Newton is credited for having written, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It nicely encapsulates the beauty of the human condition- our ability to communicate our experience and knowledge to others, so that each new generation does not start from scratch. But I think no people on Earth do a finer job of acknowledging those giants, sometimes by name, than the Chinese.

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