Walking Backwards

While learning Chinese I was puzzled to learn that one of the words used to indicate past events is also the word for describing forwards (Qian). Similarly, for events in the future the word used means behind or back (Hou). My teacher explained that the past is what we can see, so it is in front of us, while the future cannot be seen and is therefore not in front of us. This of course implies that we are moving through time facing backwards.

After several visits to the local park I have realized that walking backwards is a very popular pastime in China. It is practiced by many older Chinese people at all times of the day, sometimes while walking the dog (I have yet to see a dog participating in the backward walk). I am told that there are health benefits to it, although I would think whatever these are they would be outweighed by the increased likelihood of stumbling and breaking your hip. Whatever the consequences, now that I have tried it I can vouch that it is certainly difficult to do for an extended length of time.

Now I find myself wondering which of these two things came first. Did the analogies built into the language predispose the Chinese culture to arriving at the belief that walking backwards is healthy, or did the ancient practice of walking backwards influence the evolution of the language. Or is it just a perverse coincidence?

I find it interesting that languages all have grammatical structures that imply abstract analogies between location in space and time. Yet they do not agree on something as simple as the orientation of our bodies as we move.

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