Friday, May 30, 2014

Kingdom of Women -- Mysterious Culture of the Mosuo People

While feminism has been bandied about in western society for 50 years, the women of a mountain-dwelling minority in China  would make hardened feminists blush…or drool.


The Mosuo (moe-sua) people live in go cabins in the middle of which there is a kitchen range where first keeps burning forever. They put food beside the kitchens for worshipping their ancestors.

When boys and girls are 13 years old, a ceremony shall be held to celebrate their growing-up. In the ceremony, standing on pork under a column (the upper end being the column of women and the lower end that of men), boys put on leather boots and wear red guimp lace on the waist; girls put on top-knots from ancestors and white pleated skirts. Afterwards, both sides can begin social contacts. Young men are allowed to pursue girls publicly. He can co-habitat with a girl on condition that the girl approves. In the morning, lots of men come and go. They all come out of their lovers' houses. The relation is not steady when they are young. Sons and daughters all live with their mothers; and their fathers have no duty to take care of them. When men become old, their nephews support them.

Marriage free - Azhu Lovers

Mosuo people are marriage-free. When the Mosuo girls reach 15 years of age and the boys reach 17, they are allowed to start their love affairs. The lovers (called Female Azhu and Male Azhu) find each other freely. Mosuo people are good in singing and dancing. The young people dance together and singing in Musou language to express their love.

The Musou girl has a special Azhu house to meet her lover. Her lover visits her during night and leaves at morning. If the girl wishes to stop the love affair, she closes the door of her Azhu House to the man. Then the man will not come again. The love affair is finished. The lovers have no economic or any legal relationship. It is based on mutual love and affection only. The willingness of the females is very respected.

Single Mothers

The children will grow up with their mother and uncles. They inherit their surnames from their mothers. They even don't know who is their father. Woman is the head of the family. Women are in charge of most activities in the society.

These single mothers are happy. The uncles play the male part in the family and look after the boys. Such blood connection may be more stable than the love-based marriage & duty. A unique and perhaps wise arrangement?

Adult Ceremony

When the Mosuo children grow to 13 years old, they will go through a special Adult Ceremony to become the adults.  The Adult Ceremony always be held on the New Year's Day.  The mother helps the girls to wear beautiful new dresses and jewels. The uncle helps the boys to wear new clothes and waist knifes.

On the Adult Ceremony, the girls stand in the Female Rank, the boys stand in the Male Rank. They keep one foot on the pork meat and one foot on the rice bag…the symbol of a rich life.  After the Adult Ceremony, they are allowed to attend all adult activities. After age 15 they can beet their lovers.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Marriage Customs in Southern China

With all the brouhaha about marriage in the West, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that marriage has been around for thousands of years and during that time there's bound to be a custom or two that raises a few eyebrows. While the Han Chinese are the ruling majority of China, they are certainly not the most colorful when it comes to marriage. That distinction can be more readily found among the 50+ minorities that China colonized. Amy gave a short presentation on a few marriage customs found among the minorities in southern China.

        "In China there are some incredibly amazing marriage customs in some particular areas or minorities. Today I want to share some marriage customs in southern China with you.

        "First, let's pay attention to Raoping located in GuangDong province. In Raoping whether the boy is accepted by the girl's family is shown through a kind of sweetmeats called tangyuan which in English is rice dumpling. There will be five rice dumplings in the bowl. And the boy should eat them one by one. If all of them are made of sweetened bean and sugar it means that the boy is accepted. If three of them are made up of sweetened bean and sugar it means that the girl hesitates to make a decision. The worst result is that none of the rice dumplings have stuffing. Of course, that means the boy can go home now. So when the boy eats the rice dumplings he may feel like he is eating some bombs.

        "In Shuangjiang of YunNan province the girls will have their scalp completely shaved on the day of the wedding. These girls belong to a minority called La Hu Zu. They think a bear headed woman is quite pretty. And they will be very happy to attend to all the feast with their husbands. I guess what they say is true 'different strokes for different folks.'

        "Finally, let's look at another minority called Yi Zu. The girls must fast before the wedding ceremony otherwise it would be inauspicious. And they usually begin to fast 10 days before the wedding. If they are thirsty they can keep water in their mouth for a while and then spit the water out. The girl who can fast the longest time will be considered the most adamant. But, in fact, the purpose of the fast is to avoid urination or defecation on the way to the wedding ceremony or in the first 3 days of her marriage. Otherwise people of 
Yi Zu would laugh at her. [Note: all squat toilets are public]

        "What I have told is only a small part of the crazy marriage customs in China. If you are interested in this you can search on the Internet for more information. That's all. Thank for your listening."

Monday, May 19, 2014

Chinese Funeral

           Perhaps I got a little ahead of myself with an entry about tomb robbers without first posting Sharon's presentation about the funeral. I remember telling my students about western Halloween customs and myths. They were particularly surprised at how jolly we were with our ghost stories and costume parties. There are very few marriages in July because that is a month of superstition and commemoration of the dead in China and one is very careful about what one says out loud lest a spirit should overhear and take offense. They were very nervous talking about ghosts which are looked upon with a degree of negative suspicion in spite of filial ties to ancestors and burning money and offerings, sending these goodies via the smoke to loved ones on the other side to make their after-life more comfortable.  
          I also remember learning on our tour of Southeast Asia about the graves I saw in the middle of the rice fields so the recent dead could be close to family and home. And then, in some cultures, three years later the remains were removed to another, more permanent place.
          Here is what Sharon presented on the subject:

"As sad as it sounds to discuss, funeral customs really do vary significantly from country to country. If you should ever find yourself in a position where you must attend a chinese funeral it will be helpful to understand exactly what the traditions entail as the customs are much different than those found in the west or even in surrounding European countries."

"Many Chinese families recognize the importance of having the deceased's body lie in the home after death. As such, if someone who is older or chronically ill is lying sick in the hospital, the family will likely bring that family member home so that he or she can die peacefully surrounded by loving friend and family members.

"Preparation for the funeral begin immediately after the family realized their loved one is preparing to pass on. Once their loved one passes away they will want to focus most of their time on mourning so it is imperative that most of the preparation are completed in advance.

"Traditionally, the women would begin to sew special outfits for their family members to wear during the deceased's wake. Today these outfits can be purchased in stores, freeing the time of the women so that they can focus on their families. When a family enters the mourning period they are not allowed to take a bath or cut their nails or hair until it is over. They are also forbidden to leave the family compound because doing so is believed to bring bad luck to the family.

"Upon the death of a loved one the body and casket must be prepared for the wake and funeral.  The body is first washed and powdered and is dressed in his or her favorite or best outfit. The color of the clothing is usually dark blue, black, brown and sometime even lighter green or white. Red clothing is never used.

"Before the body is placed inside, the casket is lined with additional clothing. This is traditionally done so that the deceased will have something special to wear as he moves through the afterlife. After the body is placed inside the cast, a black pearl will be placed in between the lips before the entire body is covered with glass to present exposure to air as the bodies are rarely embalmed. From this point forward the family of the deceased is no longer allowed to see the body.

"At the time of death, an urn is lit and placed near the casket. Family members participating in the wake will ensure that the urn continues to burn throughout the wake. They will do so by placing gold prayer papers into the urn, representing a gift of money. The casket will be moved to the front hall of the family complex where all furniture will be removed and all mirrors, statues, and altars will be covered.

"The length of the wake can be anywhere from three to seven days depending on the age of the deceased individual. The longest wake, seven days, is reserved for elder family members who have lived past the age of ninety. During the wake, family members sit and fold prayer papers into replicas of Chinese coins and they believe that the more they fold the more money their loved one will receive in the afterlife.

"The evening prayers during the wake are incredibly important. The Chinese believe that upon death you will immediately go to hell unless your family members pray for you. The deceased's wife and anyone older than the deceased is exempt from prayer.

"On the day of the funeral the family will pray before the casket is loaded on the Hurst  Mourners are not supposed to watch the casket and, as such, will cover and turn their heads. The deceased's son will ride on the Hurst with him and everyone else will follow behind to the funeral site.

"At the grave, the family will again turn their heads as it is considered bad luck to watch the casket as it is lowered into the ground. The paper money folded during the wake will be burnt and the ashes are often collected and scattered on the family altar back home.

"After the funeral, family members are allowed to wash their faces and change into traditional clothing but must attach a small cloth to their arms to signify that they are still in mourning. The family will continue to pray, especially on the 49th and the 100th day after death, and at each prayer they will burn effigies including things they believe their loved one needs.

"In conclusion, a good egg must behave himself in a Chinese funereal and show his respect to the deceased."

Monday, May 12, 2014

Tomb Robbers

Speaking, reading and writing in a second language is hard by any measure; and especially true for our Chinese students. Some of them really struggle to keep up with their smarter peers. I was proud of Fanny's presentation because she chose and interesting topic and did her best to present it in English.
Remember, there is no past or future tense in Chinese, no punctuation, no articles, no prepositions, no plurals, and no pronoun gender distinctions to name just a few obstacles. I admire Chinese who speak English as a second language.

     "As the subject name suggests, robbers steal things from tomb. It is a very ancient historical phenomenon in China.  In the Han dynasty, one-third of the national finance was buried with emperor to the underground. So it is huge fortune in tombs. The earliest recorded tomb robbery was more than 3000 years ago. Then it became a profession and the means of getting rich.

     "There were two kinds of tomb robbers. One was the officials, such as Caocao, Sunquan. There robbed for soldier's pay. Another one was civilian steal. Luoyang, Shanxi, Changsha and Guangzhou are the places where tomb robbery was famous.  There most common tomb robbers are two partners, one dig and go into tomb, another one is on the look out. And they are skilled in use of Chinese medicine approach: wang (look), wen (smell), wen (ask), qie (field visit).  Wang is looking at the terrain to find the tomb's location. Wen is smelling the soil to distinguish whether tomb exist or not.  Wen is chatting with the old local man to know their history, Qie is going into tomb.

     "As the saying goes, "there is honor among thieves." There are many guild regulations in tomb robbery. For example, they can't steal all objects in the tomb. They can't damage the dead body. They also can't bring anything after the crow of chicken. Before they open the coffin, they must lit up a candle in the southeast corner of the tomb. If the candle do go out, that means the dead don't allow them to steal things, they had better return with nothing. The fact is that the air in tomb  is too bad for people to stay long.  These rules are very dear to professional tomb robbers.

     "Tomb robbery is illegal, why so many people run after it? The cause is very simple…to gain wealth. In current domestic market, ancient Chinese art's price is very high. People are keen to collect relics.  I don't think it's an absolutely bad thing. Tomb robber's goal is economic interests; collector's goal is meeting their hobby. Their interests are both increased.  Our museum also buy relics from robbers. If so, it's good for cultural protection.

     "In conclusion, tomb robbery is unsavory. It damages the value of cultural relics. But sometimes it brings ancient secret to light and promotes the development of culture and art."

Thursday, May 1, 2014


It is interesting how similar architecture is throughout China, Korea and Japan. And while ancient buildings are distinct and interesting looking, they're not much to look at on the inside. We appreciated this report because it helped us look at older buildings more intelligently.  The entrance for all ancient Chinese homes and temples had nearly foot-high thresholds. Stepping of these over and over was no easy feat. We heard one story that because the spirits of the old dead had stiff knees they couldn't step over the high thresholds which thus kept them out.

"A Siheyuan is a historical type of resident that was commonly found throughout China, most famously in Beijing. In English, siheyuan are sometimes refried to as Chinese quadrangles. The name literally means a courtyard surrounded by four buildings.

"Throughout Chinese history, the siheyuan composition was the basic pattern used for residents, palaces, temple, monasteries, family businesses and government offices. In ancient times, a spacious siheyuan would be occupied by a single, usually large and extended family, signifying wealth and prosperity. Today, many remaining siheyuan are still used as housing complexes.

"Siheyuan dates back as early as the Western Zhou period, and has a history of over 2,000 years. They exhibit outstand ing and fundamental characteristics of Chinese architecture. They exist all across China and are the template for most Chinese architectural styles. Siheyuan also serves as a cultural symbol of Beijing and a window into its old ways of life.

"The layout of a simple courtyard represents traditional Chinese morality and Confucian ethics. The four builds of a siheyuan are normally positioned along the north-south and east-west exist. The building positioned to the north and facing the south is considered a Main House. Four buildings in a single courtyard receive different amounts of sunlight, so the main house receives the most, thus serving as the living room and bedroom of the owner or head of the family. The buildings adjoining the main house and facing east and west are called side houses. They receive less sunlight, and serve as the rooms for children or less important members of the family. The northern, eastern and western buildings are connected by beautifully decorated pathways. These passages serve as shelters from the sunshine during the day, and provide a cool place to appreciate the view of the courtyard at night.  The building that faces north is know as the Opposite House. It receives the least sunlight, and usually functions as a reception room and servants' dwelling or where the family would gather to relax, eat or study.

"Behind the northern building, there would often be a separate backside building, the only pace where two-story building are allowed to be constructed for the traditional siheyuan. The backside building is for unmarried daughters and female servants: because unmarried girls were not allowed direct exposure to the public. They occupied the most secluded building in the siheyuan.

"The entrance gate, usually pained vermillion and with copper door cockers on it, is usually at the southeastern corner. Normally, there is a screen wall inside the gate, for privacy. Superstition holds that it also protects the house from evil spirits. A pair of stone lions are often placed outside the gate. Some large siheyuan compounds would have two or more layers of courtyards and even private gardens attached to them. Such is a sign of wealth and status in ancient times."