The Remains of ZhongYuanJie

Chinese Family Affairs

Children matter, but it’s the ancestors who’re everything.

It’s all well and good to read about the structure of Chinese family life, know of the value of filial piety in Chinese society, but something completely different again to be a part of it. But of course, being part of an intercultural relationship also means being part of a different kind of family life – and if meeting the parents is nerve-racking enough within a culture, it’s even more so when the differences aren’t just personal quirks, but also have their roots in a different cultural and social background.

Then again – Aren’t there always different sides to everything when you actually make yourself at home in the reality of this world? – such a different background makes us more aware and more accepting of differences. It’s not that they don’t like you or are so strange to you in the odd ways they act, it’s that there’s a gap between what you’re used to and what’s normal to them!

Funny thing, for example, when your wife tells you about the regret her mum voiced: “We had a (well-to-do) acquaintance’s offer to get his son and you married when you went off to college, but we thought that you were too young. Now you’re with a foreigner [and go so far away], and I regret not having taken up that offer…

Hmmm…

My parents also fear my going away far, again, but wouldn’t exactly express things like that. Or even have had an “opportunity” like that. Then again (oops, there it is again), they did joke somewhat like that about my brother (because of a former girlfriend of his who was a local).

The danger with experiences like this is actually twofold: To take them too seriously because the cultural difference that is expressed in them makes them stand out – or to take them all too lightly because it’s all just a different culture, forgetting that there’s still a person with his/her individual personality and character.

Personality, character, and culture come to the fore in further such interactions. In China, especially when the social interaction is with elders and ancestors – and we were in China this summer during ZhongYuanJie 中元节, the Festival of the Dead Spirits taking place on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month.

Meaning? Meaning that me secular and scientific European who knows hardly anything (but this) about his grandfather(s) meets the ‘ghosts’ of ancient Chinese traditions deeply engrained in this purportedly communist, a-religious country… and that, almost literally.

Family Altar, Dinner Table, All Together

After all, ZhongYuanJie is the festival when the spirits of the ancestors are, after a fashion, seen as being among their living relatives: the family plaque gets taken from its perch up above and onto the (normally, dinner) table; incense is burned and incense sticks are lit in their honor, given with deep bows; they are presented with the food (though not SiGua, silk gourd, apparently, as I learned), before that gets put on the family table and eaten, and, finally, they are supported with paper effigy clothes and money that get burned in order to reach them. And there are firecrackers. Of course there are…

The usual problems apply:

Festivals and rites in other places are, by definition, exotic (as long as they don’t involve things going against a viewer’s convictions in some way, in which case they may be seen as simply “appalling”). Thus, they seem quite important and imbued with special meaning. Fact may be, though, that they are (also) just things you do, because they are a part of what you just do.

Even so, of course, there is some relevance to them. At the very least, the (patrilineal) ancestors’ importance is made rather obvious. And it is this which makes for a salient difference between Chinese and other cultures, for even as parents are important just about everywhere, filial piety is still much stronger (and perhaps, more contentious) an issue in Chinese culture.

Guanyin and Mao Zedong
After all, even Guanyin and Mao Zedong together help less than children who take good care of their parents…

Aside from “the Chinese dream,” the Chinese Communist Party’s latest buzz phrase, talk and TV ‘ads’ about taking care of one’s parents were very noticeable this time in China. (Where before, it had been the “harmonious society.”)

Children are treated well, if not too well, as they are young and often rather strictly when they enter school, especially the closer GaoKao, the all-decisive college entrance examination, gets. And even there, the undertone isn’t just that you, the child, won’t have a good life if you don’t study well (with well preferably meaning being at the very top), but that you may not be able to care for your old parents if you don’t, and it – and you – would be terrible if you didn’t.

Not that we didn’t care and get concerned about our aging parents here in Europe, too, but family structures and psychology in China definitely are different.
The children are important, but not so much in and of themselves as, ultimately, as providers for the older generation and progenitors of future descendants of the family line. Those, then, will be the ones you can command around and call bad when they are, or even when they aren’t, but no talking back to your parents. Or even explaining the situation when things can’t be done the way they consider right. (Remember: *you* are wrong.)

The issue with sociocultural particularities is just that, after all: Proper understanding is necessary to deal with such differences – and the best understanding may yet be that it’s not so much about understanding, in any way that is logical and can be talked about, but about the ways you act, just because you do.

So, do. And be ready to be considered bad, anyways, for things never go the way the perfect pictures imply they should. The stronger the views of how things should be, the less so… but at least, given festivals, you can attune later.

The Remains of ZhongYuanJie
The Remains of ZhongYuanJie

And what's your take?