Chinese Culture through Foreign Languages: Rituals & Cutoms
Rituals that Celebrate Life
Human life is a process that passes from birth through years of growth and maturity to finally ends in the act of dying. Each of these stages has its particular rituals or ceremonies. In addition to times of sadness and death, as we pass through various moments, we are well aware of the good wishes that other people extend to us. We know of their care and feelings for us. The ceremonies we celebrate reveal the fullness and wealth of a culture. Chinese culture relies on many years of history, so it is only natural to find a rich abundance of ritual, all of which responds to concepts inherent in the culture. The most important rites of passage are those that mark the celebrations of birthdays, the reaching of maturity, the experience of marriage, and the arrival of death. The words below are a brief introduction to ritualized activities for birthdays and marriages.
The very significant term birthday designates the day a person enters the human world. Older persons in Chinese culture tend to remember their birthdays according to the lunar year and its calendar, whereas younger people recall their birthdays as they fall in the so-called western calendar. When the country began to officially follow the western calendar, many Chinese people likewise began to consider themselves as having both a lunar year and western year birthday. The way of computing time is different for Chinese and westerners. Chinese consider a baby one year old on its day of birth, and so the child’s day of birth actually marks the beginning of its second year. One year passes, and Chinese call the child two years old.
The month that follows the mother’s giving birth requires judicious care of her body. This period of time is called zuo yuezi, literally, “staying in one place for a month.” In the past, this month demanded that new mothers observe a number of taboos. In the first thirty days of childbirth, a woman was not to wash her hair or bathe, not to wash her hands with cold water, nor read, climb steps. She was not allowed to shed tears. She could not eat chilled foods and so forth. Among the food a new mother was to eat was Shenghua Soup (decoction of Chinese herbs), Duzhong Soup (an herbal soup composed of pig kidney and eucommia bark) and chicken soup with sesame oil.
After the passing of 30 days and the conclusion of one month of staying in one place, it was said the new mother had completed man yue, “the whole month,” also called mi yue, “the month of joy.” With the ending of “the whole month,” a parade of relatives and friends could begin to celebrate the safe arrival of the baby and good health of the mother. A banquet to mark the month of joy was often in order. On this day the banquet might include sticky rice, “red eggs” and other delicacies to offer to the heavenly spirits above. Members of the family and friends all would share in the happiness, and sometimes people used the occasion to cut the baby’s hair. One custom was to use the soft, delicate strands to make brushes for mao bi, the traditional brush that Chinese calligraphists use for writing decorative Chinese characters. Such a brush was called tai mao bi, or “calligraphy brush from the womb.”
Birthday number 60 is pronounced in Mandarin da sheng ri, “the great birthday.” The significance of the term relates to the near rhyming of the terms for “ten” (shih) and “death” (si). The traditional belief was that any hint of the sound of “death” in a phrase might result in someone actually dying. It being best to avoid that danger, the belief was people should never speak of someone’s 60th birthday, which would require the making of the “shih” sound. Actually then, the celebration of a person’s 60th birthday means he or she is 59 years old.
The traditional way to celebrate “the great birthday” is for the celebrant to invite family members and friends to a fine meal and to give each participant a symbolic gift to symbolize good fortune and long life, such as shou gui (a kind of turtle-shaped cake), shou tao (peach buns) or “long-life” noodles.
In the traditional Chinese world, marriage is not simply a matter of two people, a man and woman, committing themselves to one another. Marriage in Chinese culture celebrates the joining of two individuals and two families with the potential of the deepest of all possible ties, the bringing of children into the family. The question of marriage involves all sorts of understandings and agreements between the families. The words below address several of the most interesting of wedding related customs.
Consultation for the name (wen ming) - - The prospective groom asks the prospective bride’s parents for the bride’s hand in marriage. After the future bride’s parents accept his proposal, the couple and their families can proceed with preparations for the wedding. The first important step is wen ming. Consultation for the name is not simply a matter of asking the future bride what her name is. She must be asked about the year, month, day, and hour of her birth (these four pairs of numbers indicating one’s “Eight Characters). A fortune-teller is often consulted to determine whether the couple is felicitous match. That is, whether by time of birth and personal background the two appear to be suited for one another. When the amalgamation of the couple’s Eight Characters is determined to be propitious, a date for the official engagement for marriage can be set. A ritualistic exchange of gift follows. The future groom offers a valuable betrothal gift (usually containing the “earnest money,” wedding cookies, gold jewelry, just to name a few) to his prospective bride, who returns the honor with the giving of suitable gifts.
Worshiping the Ancestors (bai tang) - - In Taiwan, worshipping the ancestors is the most common of all the marriage customs, and marks the ceremonial climax of the marriage. On the day of the wedding, the groom goes to the home of the bride, who greets him at the entrance. As the car bringing the groom to the bride’s door draws up, assistants light firecrackers, and the air is filled with the happy noise of small explosions and pulsating music. Following any additional prescriptions thought to insure a bright future for the couple, the bride and groom then proceed to the family altar. There they first offer incense to their ancestors. What follow are the so called san bai, “the three bows.” The bridal couple first bows deeply to the deities above. They then bow respectfully to both sets of parents. The final bow is to one another, an acknowledgement that they are husband and wife. The wedding finishes with “entering the bridal chamber”—a ritualistic entrance of the couple to their private quarters.
With the completion of these marriage rituals, the bride is then officially acknowledged a member of the family.
Disturbance of the Bridal Chamber (nau dong fang) - - After worshipping the ancestors and feasting at the wedding banquet comes the widely enjoyed ritual of nau dong fang, “disturbance of the bridal chamber.” In this ritual, close friends of the bride and groom make a show of appearing uninvited and in a party mood at the door of the couple’s bedroom. This scene is probably familiar to movie-goers. Among the examples is Director Ang Lee’s depiction in The Wedding Banquet. Records from historical annals that go as far back as the Han dynasty attest to the endurance of this good-natured frivolity.
- Human beings go through many rituals in each stage of their lives. What meanings do these rituals have?
- Please state and explain how Chinese culture views the concept of “birthdays.”
- Have you ever attended a Taiwanese wedding? What did you think of it? Would you like to attend a foreign wedding? Why?
- Other than birthdays and wedding, what kinds of ceremonies do Chinese people have?
- The standard color of the Chinese wedding is red, and the standard color of Chinese funeral is white. Please compare the meanings of these two colors in Chinese and Western culture.
- Choose a single Western country and compare and contrast its wedding ceremony with the standard Taiwanese wedding ceremony.
- Many movies and television shows use rituals that celebrate life as plot themes. Please give an example of one such movie or program and explain how life ceremony is presented in the plot.