Amish people in Chinese eyes

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Written by XIE Gang  Translation by WANG Jiaquan

I was amazed when I first visited the Amish community four or five years ago. I couldn’t believe what I had seen was true: Dressed in Medieval garments and leading an autarkic life, the Amish are still living in the old days amid the modern hustle and bustle in the United States.

The scene, however, is a reminiscent of a legendary idyll penned by ancient Chinese poet Tao Yuanming.

The Amish people are very much like the hermits in Tao’s “A Tale of the Peach Blossom Spring,” who fled turmoil during the Qin Dynasty (221-206BC)and settled in a legendary seclusion, where “beautiful ponds, mulberry trees and bamboo groves stud the fertile fields, and roosters’ crow echo dogs’ barks, with crisscrossing footpaths extending to all directions.”

In reality, the Amish community are descendants of Swiss Christians who immigrated to the States four centuries ago in hope of preserving their belief and tradition.

The Amish people have always been leading a plain and austere life. They do not smoke or drink, they do not play musical instruments or set up extravagant churches, and they refuse auto vehicles and electric equipment, including televisions and radios. There is no tap water supply at their homes, where they posses only simple and useful furniture.

All that they have serves the only need for subsistence. They use oil lamps, plough with horses, and may choose coaches or trains, but never planes, for long distance tours. Today, the Amish people still maintain their traditional way of dressing. An Amish man wears a broad-brimmed straw hat, a suspender pant and a white shirt. He is not allowed to wear a beard if he is not married, while he must after he ties the knot. Amish women wear long dresses, scarves and white calottes, but have no jewelries and do not put on makeup.

The Amish refuse brand name clothing, and seek no eye-catching colors or tailor design because they believe any exterior showoff may become root of corruption. They would like to put all things in their simplest form, believing that happiness will spontaneously fall upon them if they throw off unnecessary concerns. Thus, there are no churches in Amish communities, as they pray at home together with their neighbors.

The Amish people cultivate inner humbleness and modesty all their life, keeping away from arrogance. They are not attracted by vain glory, and are obedient to the God and to the community. They value cooperation and coordination and have no idea of competition as they believe the community weighs much more than an individual, and spiritual gains are more valuable than material possessions.

Usually, the Amish do not educate their children past the eighth grade, because they believe too much booklore may result in complication and contamination of human nature. They say high school curriculums may tempt a kind of material desire and encourage vanity, and are useless for personal growth.

An Amish school teaches only the German version of the Bible, English and elementary arithmetic. Amish children are expected to learn more from labor and daily life: farming, carpentry, herding, weaving, sewing and cooking. Survival ability and the meaning of life are what the Amish consider the most important for them to learn.

They think that competition, which is encouraged by the American high school education, might undermine good interpersonal relationship. No competition means no play of politics. In the Amish community, a churchwarden or priest is selected by way of lot-drawing: You’re the God’s choice and please do your best.

As the self-disciplined Amish seek voluntarily to keep away from filth and avoid clamor, they are in great harmony with nature, though environmental protection or air pollution prevention might not be their instinct concern.

Outsiders may imagine that Amish people are deprived of the right of choosing their own way of life, but actually it is not the case. The Amish will have an opportunity to decide their future when they are 18 years old. They are allowed to leave their own community and stay elsewhere for a year in an aim of trying to get to know about the outside world and thinking about if the Amish belief and life are what they like. Then they can make a decision on whether to return.

Over the past four centuries, the Amish survived religious persecution and outlived natural disasters, but now outsiders are wondering if the hermits can keep intact and preserve their culture amid formidable siege of modern civilization, especially when young people are under great temptation from the outside world.

Actually this kind of worry is all unnecessary as long as we consider the Amish community as the normal existence of a different way of life instead of traces of an ended age.

Intrusion and interference are not the Amish philosophy, and there are no such words as resistance and contention in their vocabulary. They are absolute pacifists. They’re serene, passive and gentle. Their strength lies in their peace, compromise and tolerance.

The world was shocked in 2006 by a shooting spree at an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster, which left five children dead and five others injured. The gunman, an outsider, killed himself. The Amish people did not blame or express hate towards the killer and his family. Instead, the grandfather of a killed girl forgave the man the same day when the tragedy happened. Also on the same day, representatives of the Amish community went to the gunman’s family to console his widow and bereft children. They also established a foundation to help his family. Several days later, the killer’s family were invited to the funeral of a killed student, standing together with the victim’s community people.

The Amish people’s adherence to tradition over the past centuries has attracted curious eyes from the outside world. Their abodes have become a hot tourist destination, a result that the isolated and low-key community would not like to see. The tourists pay their visits to Lancaster with different purposes, and their inspirations from the Amish are also varied. I took no photos during my tours to the place, but each time I was there, I felt my soul was purified by the Amish people I saw. Compared with their plain and austere living, ours are too sumptuous.

Some tourists I met said they came to Lancaster just to have a look at what is the life that they would never want to live. Surely, such people were followers of the doctrine that color and flavor mean success while simplicity and austerity mean humiliation. Material gains are what they rely on to judge what is right and wrong. In their spiritual world, I guess, there have never been a “peach blossom spring”.

Had they tried to answer these questions from the Amish people, the modern world elites would not have overestimated themselves: Does technology progress bring you any benefit, more happiness, more feeling of content or more love?



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