Thursday, April 17, 2014

Traditional Chinese Funerary Customs in Northern China

A few weeks ago the students who could, went home for the weekend Tomb Sweeping holiday. Cindy is a sharp sophomore student this year. When I last talked to her she was getting ready to take a test for acceptance into the Communist Party. Funny how students will tell me that they're trying to gain such acceptance but when & if they are accepted….Silence. Sometime later I'll ask how they did and get a sheepish look; and we part ways politely.   Anyway, she gave an interesting presentation that tied  nicely with the recent holiday.

        "Traditional Chinese funerary customs actually seem even far from most Chinese townspeople now, not to mention the foreigners.  While in rural ares, there are still traditions left from old Chinese society; a society mainly supported by families, not persons.
         "Since the old society is based on families, when a member of the family went away, the whole family, here I'm not talking about a small family with 3 or 5 people, what I'm talking about is the very big family with hundreds of people will hold the ceremony all together.  So it is quite a spectacle when holding a funerary ceremony. The ceremony is not only grand but lasts long. For example, in my hometown, we count 7 days as a unit, and we have many units. So the whole ceremony would go for more than one month. Because it is too much for me to tell you and the time is too limited, I will just tell one detail very unique, interesting and representative in the ceremony. This part is called the dinner for the dead.
        "Before buried, the dead's closest relative, like brothers or sons or daughters, will prepare a dinner for him or her, so he or she wouldn't starve.  When the dinner is ready, the family would open the door, burn some paper coins, call the dead's name for dinner, switch down the lights, and wait half an hour on bended knees in the darkness for the dead to finish his or her meal.  Then here comes the paper carriage with a paper boy, a paper girl to to drive it and some paper golden ingots for the dead to spend. All these things, except the golden ingots which are made of yellow paper, are made of white paper. People burn this carriage to send the dead's soul back to where he should be.  And there is an interesting and real story about this staff. A man in my hometown loves to joke. And one day one of his best friends went away. He was sad and attended the funerary ceremony. When burning the paper carriage, the man couldn't help to joke again, saying, "It would be great for you to take me in your carriage to my home." While after he got home, he fell asleep and didn't wake up until three days later. People say that his friend did take his soul in the carriage with him. But who knows?
        "The second part I would like to share with you is the burial customs. More accurate, is how to choose the best site to set the grave. The principles are based on geomantic theory, using the Eight Diagrams. According to geomantic theory, the dead should 'have mountain beneath his head, and have water under his feet.' It would be great if there's really a mountain. But in the plains, there's no mountain, so people use Kan, one of the Eight Diagrams that represents mountain. So when the coffin was set, its head should be towards the direction of Kan. As for the water, it's not so difficult to find a river in the region. Just be sure that if we draw a line from the foot of the coffin, it can intersect with the river."

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Hanging the Family Painting - an important rite of ancestors

Family History is an important part of family of John & Roslyn Kuzmich. It is much more than a mere hobby and proved to be a chord of unity in our family through the years. We are not isolated in the moment but profoundly connected to the generations who preceded us and sacrificed for our good. This legacy is worth living up to and passing on.

Family History is an honored aspect of families in China. Tracy gave a presentation that should not have surprised me, but it did. Americans have family reunions all the time, mostly in the summer at
fun gathering spots. Tracy's report gave a new perspective to the tradition of family reunions.

During Spring Festival, every district of China have rites to heaven and ancestors. For sacrifice offering to heaven, the rite has become simple nowadays. However, as time passed, the rites to commemorate ancestors persisted. I'd like to introduce a very important rite in Shandong Province to commemorate ancestors during Spring Festival.

The rite includes a series of activities and the core of it is hanging the Family Painting on the North wall of the central room.

The Family Painting is a very big painting on which is a big Siheyuan quadrangle with house on the four sides is painted. It is a precious and holy thing for every family. It is past down by a family's earliest ancestor generation by generation, and only the family's oldest son has the right to keep it.

On the top of the painting there paints the main hall of Siheyuan, where an elder couple sit sedately, waiting for their descendants to pay a visit to them.

On the bottom of the painting, there are two doors. Out of the door stand a group of guests who are descendants of the family and they are all high ranking government officials.

The most important part is on the middle of the painting. There is a set of grid. From top to the bottom , all family ancestors' names are put into those cells. 

There is a pair of couplet on both sides of the painting. The content of the couplet is varied from family to family. They are domestic instructions which are passed down by ancestors.

Before hanging the family painting, a lot of preparations should be done; such as sweeping the dust, pasting Spring Couplets and laying a table and putting fruits, chicken, fish, and decorated cakes on it.

On the last day of the lunar year, all the males of a family must drive to the graveyard to invite those past ancestors back home to celebrate the Spring Festival together.

Back from the graveyard, there comes the most important part -- getting the painting hanged on our central room. After that done, it is believed that all our ancestors have been back home, sitting around the table, watching us, smiling.

Everyone has to stay up late on New Years' Eve. During that time, al the males have to go to patriarch's house where a super big Family Painting with thousands ancestors names on it is hanged there to worship and kowtow to our ancestors.

On the first day of Chinese lunar year, we set off firecrackers to send our ancestors away. Then the family painting is taken down carefully.

Then we have to wait another one year to have a reunion with those great and kind ancestors.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Imperial Harem System in Qing Dynasty

       John & I were enlisted to teach a class of professional adults in preparation for their government test to apply for grants to work abroad. We taught them Oral English for 2 hours a week while another teacher taught them Written English for 2 more hours on the same day. There were doctors, engineers, teachers, marine biologists and surgeons among this class. During one lesson we asked them to discuss in English the characteristics Chinese adults looked for in prospective mates. With a straight face one articulate gentleman said that the first wife should be pretty and the second wife should be a hard worker. I nearly fell over in shock & laughter. But he was dead serious. There are a lot of unwritten rules of relationships in China, and I learned that it was not that long ago that polygamy was acceptable and respectable in China; the modern version of which includes an acceptable arrangement of mistresses.
        Thus, I was interested to hear Maggie's report on the Imperial Harem System. It is a popular theme in TV entertainment today.

"As we all know, sexual discrimination had existed for a long time. And in ancient China, the system of imperial harem was just one of the reflections of the sexual discrimination. 

"This system mainly describes the wives and concubines of the emperor. There was a Chinese idiom which describes this system quite well:  3,000 beauties live in the Inner Court. The Qing Dynasty's system was among one of the simpler systems in Chinese history. There were 8 classes:

1.  Empress (Huang Hou), only one in the imperial harem. Of all these Harem concubines, the empress was on the highest status. In fact, this system was a system of monogamy with several concubines; and the empress was the principal wife of the emperor. She had more power than any other concubines because she could have 10 palace maids.
The Empress
2.  Imperial Noble Consort (Huang Guifei). There was only one such position in the imperial harem and she ranked only second to the empress. The number of the palace maids she could have was 8. But the emperor always shared more love to her than to the empress.
Imperial Noble Consort
3.  Noble Consorts (Guifei) Only 2 in the imperial harem. And each of them could have 8 palace maids.
Noble Consorts
4.  Consorts (Fei). Only 4 in the imperial harem. They are respectively, Gui  means noble, Xian means virtuous, Shu means kind & gentle, and De means moral. They could command at most 6 palace maids.
5.  Imperial Concubines (Pin). Only 6 in the imperial harem. They could have 6 palace maps, too.
Imperial Concubines
The above 5 categories in the Imperial Harem all had their own palaces. [That accounts for all those many, extra buildings that everyone wonders about in the Forbidden City.]  The following three categories of women all lived together.

6.  Noble Ladies (Guiren), unlimited number in the imperial harem. They can have at most 4 palace maids.
Noble Ladies
7.  First Class Female Attendant (Changzai), unlimited number in the imperial harem. And they can have at most 3 palace maids.
First Class Female Attendant

8.  Second Class Female Attendant (Daying), the number of it was unlimited in the imperial harem, too; and they can have 2 palace maids.
Second Class Female Attendant

"Above all, the center of the life in the imperial harem is the emperor. All of the consorts, which were the wives and concubines of the emperor, all tried their best to entertain the emperor. Every day they had nothing to do but strive for the emperor's love, which was really a Chinese tragedy.

"There were two ways of being a consort of the emperor. The first one is by showing herself in the palace (xuanxiu). That means the daughters of some insisters and officers have the chance to go into the palace to show themselves in front of the emperor to attract his attention. Besides, the maids in the palace also have the chance to get close to the emperor to attract tim, which was the second way. Once being selected, the maid could be promoted step by step from Second Class Female Attendant. The number of the palace maids is limited to 2000.  

"The consorts above the Imperial Concubines can live in their own palace. And there are 12 Eastern Palaces. Consorts below the Noble Ladies all live together. The system was solid, but the number of consorts an emperor actually had during the Qing Dynasty was subject to wild variations. The Kangxi Emperor holds the record for having the most consorts with 79, while the Guangxu Emperor holds the record for having the least consorts, with one empress and two consorts, a total of just three consorts. 

"The tradition of ranking concubines ended as the Qing Dynasty was overthrown. However, the practice of giving rank to people who 'unofficially' (lives with, but never marry) have more than one wife is still widespread. In addition, the term Madame is still used, albeit rarely and only in very formal setting, as an honorable title towards another person's wife in China.

"Finally, with the sexual discrimination being eliminated, this system was also abolished."

Monday, March 10, 2014

Chinese Hairpin

        One of the things that catches a western visitor's attention is all the heads of jet black, straight hair. My own curly brown locks bring never-ending stares among Han Chinese students. The hair of students from ethnic minorities sometimes have a little wave or curls. Hair dressings such as hairpins, bows, bands and bling are popular across all Chinese cultures and throughout Chinese history. Ann, an oral English student, gave an interesting presentation that I will share with you here. Then I'll add something I was told about how hairpins changed history.

        "Hairpin is very common ornament in the ancient China. In recent years, the retro stuffs like clothes and ornaments are very popular among Chinese women. If you travel to some CHinese cities, you will find that some women use hairpin to bind their hair which looks beautiful.
        "Way back in the Neolithic Age, women began to use jewelries like hairpins. In the feudal society, wearing a hairpin would symbolize a girl's coming of age. And a hair-pinning ceremony would e held to mark the occasion. In ancient times, a hairpin was also a symbol of personal dignity. Criminals were not allowed to wear hairpins. Hairpins and his clasps were basically similar to each other, but a hairpin was a one-strand fastener while a hair clasp was a two-strand one.
        "In ancient China, the use of hairpins was a important part of the life of a girl in her life. There would commonly be a rite of passage when any girl reached fifteen years of age. Before fifteen they were just girls or children but at fifteen years old they could be treated as adults. This was called the Hairpin Initiation. Before the age of fifteen, girls did not use hairpins but rather wore their hair in braids. When they were over fifteen years old they were considered women and comes their hair into a bun, secured by hairpins. The symbolic meaning of this was that she could now enter into marriage. This is much earlier than the males in that who underwent a Hat Ceremony. Thus, hairpins played an important role in the rite of passage from child to woman. They were also connected closely with marriage. Hair has always been important in Chinese psychology. The Chinese had special name for a married couple which means the relationship between husband and wife is just like they tie their hair together. Clearly, the matrimonial ceremony always focused a great deal on the hair of the two sexes and hairpins played a very important role in the lives of women in classical Chinese society.
        "Hairpins were often fashioned into flower shaped of gold, silver and jade, with two or more pins to attach them to the hair."

Here is a link showing remarkable examples of Chinese hairpin culture:

One of the stories students tell is how chopsticks came to be. Anciently, and even today in many cultures, the Chinese ate food directly with their fingers sans utensils of any kind. Legend tells that an ancient Chinese Emperor was impatient to eat his meal because it was so steaming hot. His quick-thinking Empress took 2 hairpins from her coif and gave them to him so he could eat his very hot food without burning his fingers. The rest is history….and a challenge to western diners today in China. Because I was pretty good using chopsticks to eat, I was occasionally asked how long I had been in China; since this skill takes quite a while to master. They assumed that my mastery meant I had been in China for a long time. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Spring Festival Gala

The only time we could watch TV in China was in our hotel room when we traveled. The Tube in our apartment…dead. Fine. Too much else to do than watch it anyway. But while we were traveling in Viet Nam during the high holy days of Spring Festival, every Chinese TV channel was carrying the same super variety show; of which I knew nothing until one of my students gave an information presentation. Folks, this is the biggest…I mean BIGGEST TV production on planet Earth with the largest viewing audience on the planet, as well. CCTV goes to the mat for this baby. I included a link to a review of the 2014 Gala, but you can find any number of links to see the glitz 'n glamor. The Oscar's got nothing on these folks.

Here is my student's presentation:

     The first CCTV New Year's Gala was held in 1982, with performers in the arts, drama, dance, and song from all over the country. Research commissioned by China Television Research (CTR) in 2007 indicated that an estimated 93.3% of Chinese families watched the Gala on television. 
     It is an evening gala of the drama, dance, and song, which is broadcast on the eve of Chinese New Year; live on CCTV-1 by satellite on CCTV-4, CCTV-E and CCTV-F and more recently on CCTV-HD. Because it is viewed by an estimated 700 million people on New Year's Eve every year, the Spring Festival Gala has become a cultural phenomenon beginning in the early 1980s in mainland China, and since then has become a necessity of New Year's nights.
     Harmony and reunion are the two themes of the Gala. With a cheerful atmosphere, laughter and applause permeate from start to finish. The Gala usually starts at 8 p.m. on New Year's Eve and lasts about four hours. The program's TV ratings have ranked first among China's variety show programs over the past two decades.
     Its importance has reached over to political, economic, and ethnic areas. As the Eve of Chinese New Year is a time where the family gathers, the typical situation involves a large 3-generation family gathered in front of their TV set while making dumplings for the first New Year's meal. The Gala adds a mood of celebration in the house as people laugh, discuss and enjoy the performance. It has become an ingrained tradition on Mainland CHina to watch the New Year's Gala on New Year's Eve. But it is difficult to cater to all audience's tastes. Each year the gala hope to incorporate new ideas and surprise people. Both director and performers rack their brains during writing and rehearsals.  It has become a big challenge for CCTV and its creative staff. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Holiday Paper Decor

Christmas decorations are ubiquitous in Jinan, China; not restricted to the traditional western holiday season. 'Twas interesting to see fully decorated Xmas trees year-round in restaurants and hotel lobbies.  Colorful paper Santa's often decorated walls and windows all year.  Red paper and silk lanterns are ever-present though out China.  Speaking of paper…intricate, beautiful red paper cuttings are hung on walls and windows all over during China during the high holiday Spring Festival/Chinese New Year season. And unlike Xmas lights in the West, they don't necessarily come down right after the festival season are over.

One of my students gave an interesting report on Chinese Paper Cutting. The intricacy of these creations is absolutely amazing. And the designs are just random creations; there is lots of meaning and tradition in the images. I'll let Silver tell you more about it:
          Chinese paper cutting or Jianzhi is the first type of paper cutting design, since paper was invented by Cai Lun in the Easter Han Dynasty in China. It has a history of more than 1500 years and it represent cultural values of the people throughout China.
           The oldest surviving paper cut out is a symmetrical circle from the 6th century found in Xinjiang, China. The art spread to the rest of the world in the 14th century.  Throughout the Qing Dynasty many paper cutting skills were developed including drafting and the use of smoked papers. By the end of the Qing rule however, new art forms were being introduced. The Republic of China later tried to revive the art in the 1980's.  
          In the rural countryside in mainland China, paper cutting is a traditionally female activity. In the past, every girl was expected to master it and brides were often judged by their skill.

          There are basic cut outs that are a single image And there are symmetrical designs that are usually created by some folding over a proportioned crease, and then cutting some shape.  WHen unfolded, it forms a symmetrical design. Chinese paper cuttings are normally symmetrical.
          Because the cut outs are also used to decorate does and windows, they are sometimes referred to as "chuang hua" meaning Window Flower. Today, paper cuttings are chiefly decorative. They ornament walls, windows, doors, columns, mirrors, lamps and lanterns in homes and are also used on presents or are given as gifts themselves. Entrances decorated with paper cutouts are supposed to bring good luck. Paper cuttings used to be used as patterns, especially for embroidery and lacquer work.

          In Chinese culture it can reflect many aspects of life such as property, health or harvest. Some cuttings represent stories about the happiness gained from the accomplishment of common goals. 
          There are two methods of manufacture: one uses scissors, the other uses knives. 
          There is a saying in China that means  something left over year after year. The last Chinese symbol of this phrase is homophonic with the word fish in Chinese. When Spring Festival comes, most families buy Chinese paper cutting in the shape of fish and paste it on the door.
          In conclusion, Chinese paper cutting implies the great charm of Chinese culture and it is also a precious possession that should remain forever.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Should China Allow Her People to Have a Second Child?

Recently, a new regulation was added to China's famous One-Child Policy. If the husband is an only child but the wife is not, that couple will be allowed to have two children; or visa versa.  Previously, the new policy was that both husband and wife had to be only children to be allowed to give birth to a second child in China.  

One of my students gave an insightful presentation on this topic under the above title. Here is what she said:

       In the early 1970s, China started to carry out the one-child policy. At that time, the population in China was so large that it brought many problems to our society. We could not provide enough food and education for all the people, so the government needed to control its population. Everyone had to accept that we don't allow one couple to have a second child. The policy on family planning is reasonable and necessary. Though it is a big challenge for the traditional opinion of "More children, more happiness."

       In most of cities, a couple only can have one child, and in most of villages, only two children. You will be punished seriously if you have one more illegal children, like having to pay large amount of money maybe 20,000 or 30,000 yuan. I know that because one of my neighbor paid 30,000 yuan to get a boy as the second child. Or, most cruelly, maybe you are forced to have an abortion. There are many bloody example that I cannot list because saying that is illegal.

       In this way, the growth rate of population declined sharply, from 5.8 percent growth in 1970 to 2.24 percent in 1980, reducing the great stress on economic development. However, some people still fight against this policy, which are from both personal and public point of view.  

       One-child policy is harmful to the development of the kid's character and personality. The first generation won't have siblings, and the send generation won't have siblings or first cousins. Many children will be spoiled, resulting in the "little emperors."  Many parents spoil their children because they give them everything they want, and almost never ask them to do anything at home. All these make them show of basic skills in life and unpopular with the society in the future.

       Furthermore, the lack of brothers or sisters in the family does great harm to their psychological development as they may feel lonely all the time.  "I do not want to be the only child of my family," one of my best friends had told me. "I always feel lonely and helpless." I have discussed it with my classmates who are the only child and they have got the same feeling. When school is over, we go back home and have no one to talk with, for parents are busy with their jobs or house chores. Even when they have leisure time, due to the generation gap, we have nothing in common. On our way to adulthood, we have met a lot of trouble on which they linger and ponder.

       The effect of the policy on the sex rate has received much attention. Women have always been considered the lower sex in China, despite the Chinese Government trying to change it. Because we are deeply influenced by conservative, traditional Chinese thinking pattern, the couples who have a baby girl sometimes they will kill or abandon their child, so they can try again for a boy. Because of the large number of infanticide and abandoned girls, China now has an unbalanced population; with a lot more boys than girls. This results in a high umber of girls going into prostitution.

       When the first generation of law-enforced only children become parents themselves, one adult child was left with having to provide support for his or her two parents and four grandparents. In China, this problem has been named the 
"4:2:1: phenomenon, meaning that increasing numbers of couples will be solely responsible for the care of one and four parents. If the old people are in different places, how can the couple take care well of all these old people?

To conclude, the policy was reasonable in the late 70s. But the time has changed, I think, and the one-child policy should change very soon. Only in this way can we solve these problems and make China become a real harmonious country.

The operative word is IN China regarding one child. Many educated couples leave China to work abroad and have one or two children which they can legally bring back to China. Then they can have their 1 child in China and all is well; so long as they can afford them. And that is the biggest factor today. Regardless of policy easing, it is just too expensive to have more than one child anymore; and in some cases not worth the trouble to have any children.

A popular actor ran afoul of the law when it was discovered that he had a lot a children who are now adults. Outing celebs and officials in China is the latest game in social media….like anywhere else in the world.