In looking though pictures I took in China some time ago, I found this picture which reminded me of the unbreakable tie between the living and dead within a Chinese family. It is reflected in what we commonly refer to as ancestor worship.
Regard for one’s family and one’s ancestors has a long, long tradition in China. It goes back to the Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BC) and remains strong among many Chinese today. This regard—with its ritual and prominently placed table—is, as we said, sometimes called ancestor worship.
The table or altar holds pictures and/or plaques with the names of the family’s male line, for China has been a patrilineal system for thousands of years. A patrilineal system means that people count only the male side of the family as important in determining who is an ancestor and who isn’t. Your father’s side are your ancestors. Your mother’s side are not considered your ancestors, that is, they are outside your direct lineage. However, your mother–having given birth to you–will be included on your family altar, just not the rest of her lineage. Therefore, your obligations for showing reverence is only for your father’s side of the family. The latter are the people who will appear on your family altar.
Showing respect and honoring your ancestors is not a one-way street. By properly caring for your ancestors, they will, in turn, watch over and care for you. In other words, familial ties are not broken at death. Your ancestors and you are forever linked. This interconnection has been consistently supported and reinforced throughout history by both Confucian and Taoist traditions and beliefs.
Venerating your ancestors is a primary filial duty. It is because of your ancestors that you exist–that you were born and nurtured, allowing you to grow and prosper. It is only fair that you show proper recognition, regard, and respect to them. You owe your life to all of them. For this reason, people offer burning joss sticks, plates of food, and cups of tea to the ancestors by placing them before their pictures and tablets. It’s a sign of shared nurturing and support.
Sharing holiday dinners is one of the most important, if not the most important, part of celebrating the New Year, which is not a one-day event. Chinese New Year is celebrated over a couple of weeks. Plenty of time for everyone to have their own large dinner gatherings and attend other dinners! This time spread averts our own difficult Thanksgiving and Christmas problem: which dinner to attend. We often either end up only going to one and having to miss others, or going to a couple dinners—if they are staggered (ex., early in the afternoon and a second later in the afternoon or evening). Always a difficult decision.
No problem for Chinese New Year. A family can attend different dinners on different days. Thereby assuring their proper enjoyment of all the special foods!
And what are some of those foods?
FISH is an essential dish. The Chinese word for fish,yú魚, is a homophone for excess and a surplus,syú餘.
So, overall, the fish is a strong good symbol for wealth and luck. The word fish is used in such optimistic and encouraging proverbs such as: a fish in water, which means congenial in general and good relations between husband and wife; and a surplus of luck, which refers especially to the luck that comes to virtuous families.
Serving a whole fish is also important because it signifies both the family as a unit and that the prosperity is for the whole family.
LONGEVITY NOODLES are another essential dish because the long noodles represent a long and happy life. Always a good thing, right? The noodles can be cooked in many different ways—boiled, fried and served on a plate or in a bowl—but they must be very long and uncut.
FRUIT, citrus fruits and lychee or longan (translated as dragon eye. See how the seed looks like a dragon’s eye!) in particular, are very popular since they also represent prosperity, family unity, abundance, happiness, and of course, good luck.
A HOLIDAY SPECIAL: In celebration of Chinese New Year, the young adult novel, Hidden, is free through Amazon from Saturday, January 21st through Monday, the 23rd. It’s an adventure/mystery story of survival and the bonds of friendship in ancient China. Go to the “books” tab and the Hidden link to Amazon or to Amazon.
The fish image is from popsugar.com/food/ and the longan image is from growables.org.
We’re almost at the beginning of a new Chinese year! Lucky us. We get to celebrate New Year’s twice: once on January 1st and a second time on the first day of the first lunar month—which this year is January 28th.
As many of you already know, every year in the Chinese Zodiac is represented by an animal — each with special, auspicious qualities. This year, 2017, is the Year of the Rooster.
Why the rooster? What does it symbolize?
The rooster is a strong yang symbol, going back many hundreds and hundreds of years.
The crown on its head (the rooster’s comb) show that it supports and encourages civil society.
When a rooster finds food, it is said to let others know about it. Therefore, roosters are considered benevolent.
Because it crows in the morning, marking the break from darkness to a growing sun light, it is important as a symbol for chasing away negative forces and what is evil.
And, finally, because a rooster has razor sharp claws to fight against its enemies, it is considered courageous.
All of these positive symbols represent one side of a coin—the other side is the personal side. For those people born in the year of the rooster, this will not be such a good year. That’s because the year of one’s birth is usually considered an unlucky year for the person.
Whatever the year brings, New Years is a time of celebration. In times past, and perhaps today if jobs permit, people celebrate for at least a week with special dinners and visiting family and friends.
I can hardly believe it’s April already. Tomorrow, April 5th, is Qing Ming, a special day for every family of Chinese descent. While Qing Ming literally means Clear and Bright in English, the day is also known as: All Souls Day, Grave Sweeping Day, Tomb Sweeping Day, and Chinese Memorial Day.
Qing Ming day is a special time when families show respect and honor to their ancestors by gathering together to tend their graves. The family takes special foods, tea, and other grave goods (such as spirit money) to offer the dead at their grave. This is done because, traditionally, the departed live in a world where they still have needs. They need money, food, items for comfortable living. Once everything is officially offered up to the ancestors, the family picnics at the grave site. As we know, sharing food is an important way to show solidarity, togetherness. Thus, Qing Ming does double duty by bringing the family together to honor the dead and to strengthen family ties among the living.
The history of marvelous Chinese inventions is fascinating. The invention of firecrackers is an example.
The word for firecracker in Chinese is bàozhú (exploding bamboo) and is derived from the original firecrackers used in ancient China, perhaps as far back as the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC). At that time, pieces of green bamboo were thrown into a fire and then the bamboo would burst apart with loud bangs. In other words, these original firecrackers were not the same as those developed later, no gunpowder was included.
Li Tian, a monk living near Liu Yang city, Hunan province, is credited with having invented the modern firecracker. According to mythology, Li Tian filled a piece of bamboo with gunpowder to frighten away a persistent ghost that had been bothering the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) emperor Li Shi-ming. The loud bang did the job. The ghost fled and the emperor once again had peace. In honor of this great invention (pyrotechnic fireworks), Chinese traditionally held a festival in Li Tian’s honor on April 18th.
By the end of the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127 AD), firecrackers consisted of paper tubes stuffed with gunpowder. The tubes were tied together with rope, forming a long string of firecrackers, which could be set off in succession. This produced quite a display of noise and smoke.
Noise and smoke, both are considered important for protecting a household. Noise chases away ghosts and other evils, such as poisonous insects (see my January 5, 2014 blog on the 5 noxious animals also sometimes called the five evils) and sickness. Smoke cleanses the house and also gets rid of poisonous insects and dampness, which can cause illness. Therefore, for a couple of thousand years firecrackers have been synonymous with health and peace, which leads to a prosperous future for the family.
Tomorrow, April 5th 2014, Chinese everywhere celebrate Qingming Festival 清明節Qīngmíng Jié, Ching-mirng Jier. On this day families go out to the cemeteries and clean the tombs of their ancestors. By honoring the dead, people also recognize the blood tie which binds their family together. It’s a day of family unity. Continue reading Qingming Festival 清明節 Qīngmíng Jié, Ching-mirng Jier→
Veitnamese and Chinese New Year celebrations remind us of the many Asian Americans we have in the U.S.
The Vietnamese Americans are the fourth largest Asian group in the US (Chinese, Asian Indian, and Filipino are the top three). Their mass migration started after 1975 at the end of the Vietnamese War. At that time, people were fleeing Vietnam as refugees and came to the US with little material resources, although a strong ethic and desire for education and for their family to succeed. They left their homeland under duress. If they had stayed, they or their loved ones (father, mother, brother, sister) would have become a political prisoner, perhaps tortured and killed. They had little choice. Once here, however, they have embraced the US as their new homeland, with the intent to stay. They have assimilated politically, economically, even culturally.
At the same time, remembering their roots and valuing their own ethnic traditions are an important underpinning of their communities and families. While the first generation is not as wealthy on average as the first generation economically motivated Chinese immigrants (remember, most refugees come with little to no resources—no matter what their social and economic status was at home), they have poured their commitment into their children and their children’s success. Today, many second generation Vietnamese have completed college, become professionals, and can be considered successful in the US society.
The Chinese Americans are the largest, and certainly among the oldest Asian ethnic groups we have. [Note: I am using Asian as the US Census does: people with origins in the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent.] San Francisco’s Chinatown, which was established in the 1840s, is the oldest Chinatown in the US and has the highest density of Chinese-American residents. Most of these are, or were originally, from Guangdong province and Hong Kong and, therefore, are Cantonese speakers—Remember when I greeted you last week with Gong Hei Fat Choi! for Happy New Year? The reason is because historically most of our Chinese immigrants came from these southern areas; areas that have a long tradition of migrating out of their country for jobs and other economic opportunities. (Note: this includes other Chinese languages, but I’m using Cantonese as a catch-all for the Yue language branch of Chinese.) In the past, mostly men came and stayed in their new host country in order to make a living and send money home. Some of these men returned to their home areas periodically to take a wife, who may have remained in his home village living with his parents, or (once our immigration laws changed) brought them to the US to live.
In the last 10 to 20 years or so, more and more of our Chinese immigrants from mainland China are Mandarin speakers. This is bringing a change within the Chinese-American communities in terms of language use. Mandarin apparently is taking over as the lingua franca of the American Chinese diaspora. However, I must say that when I overhear a group of Chinese at a University or in a large, mixed group setting speaking with each other, they use English. Perhaps English is considered a “neutral” third language for them—one which doesn’t privilege any one of the various Chinese languages over another. Not to mention the fact that it is also the common language of the US and they all are adept at its use.
Naturally, the Chinese and Vietnamese Americans will be found at all levels of the U.S. socio-economic ladder but, overall, both of these immigrant groups have contributed quite a bit to our country. Personally, I am happy with the diversity they’ve added to our cultural understanding, yes, but (I’m being VERY selfish here) they’ve each (as with other Asian cultures) brought wonderful variety to our food cuisine! I love American comfort foods, but who can resist the flavors and textures of these “new” dishes?! If you’re interested in learning more, go on the Internet and type in foods from whatever country intrigues you—you will have a bountiful harvest!
To check on how many people are in each ethnic group in the US go to: http://www.census.gov/. You can get 2013 data as well—in some areas.
This greeting is in Cantonese, not Mandarin, because that’s what you’re most likely to hear in the US.
Can you believe we are already one week into the Chinese and Vietnamese New Year? Traditionally, New Year celebrations went on for a couple of weeks, although today that time has often been limited to as little as one week.
While the Chinese and Vietnamese have many differences in their cultures, they both share a lot of similarities for this major holiday, which the Vietnamese call Tet.
The scorpion (xiēzi, xie zi 蠍 子) is much like the spider (zhī zhū, zhi zhu 蜘 蛛) we mentioned in last week’s blog and is usually depicted as one of the 5 noxious animals. What actually composes the 5 noxious animals varies – it often includes the spider, scorpion, viper, centipede, and toad. Amulets depicting these animals were worn or hung on the walls, doors or gates as a way of protecting the family from disease and evil spirits.
Sometimes the actual animals portrayed differed—the toad may be a normal toad, but may be a three-legged toad; a worm, lizard, or tiger may replace one of the five
Images of Zhōng Kuí (鍾魁), a mythological figure in Chinese folklore, are often seen in traditional homes. He was a successful scholar—which is why he wears a scholar’s hat. His job is to exorcise demons, banish evil, and encourage blessings to come into the home. These three tasks are represented in his image through the sword he carries on his back, the demon often seen cringing under his foot, and the bat (which represents blessings) found on or near his fan. Sometimes he is shown without his foot on a cowering demon, nevertheless, simply having his picture or statue scares away evil and demons, keeping the family safe. He is a dynamic figure, full of energy and ferocious protectiveness.Today, when someone is described as Zhōng Kuí (鍾魁), the speaker is saying she has the courage to fight against evil. (from: http://www.mdbg.net/chindict/chindict.php?page=worddict&wdrst=0&wdqb=zhong)Note: The characters used forZhōng Kuí (鍾魁) are from Eberhard. Although the pronunciation is the same, Bartholomew uses a different Chinese character for Kuí (鍾馗).
"Recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me." by Carlos Fuentes