About Stephanie Scott

3rd year in Illustration at Duncan Of Jordanstone

Superstitions Spanning The Generations

Chinese superstitions have been a part of life for many generations of Chinese families, but how they are viewed now had potentially drastically changed from how they were once viewed in the early years of Chinese history. Many aspects of Chinese life were once built around superstition, and some still are today. Such things as never having a house built facing North, as it was seen as bad luck, and always having a step before your front door, as ghosts cannot climb steps, are only two ideas of how superstitions have affected Chinas architecture. However, superstitions were also integrated into daily tasks and events throughout the year.

‘Superstition’ is defined in the English Thesaurus as being a belief in things that are yet to come, and is often described as an irrational or unfounded fear of the unknown causing anxiety. These ‘unfounded fears’ can be found all over the world, each country having their own specific, or perhaps, not so specific set of beliefs that have been carried through from one generation to the next. However, how new generations choose to view these superstitious beliefs is often variable with each person you ask and generally depends on how they have been brought up.  The same can be said for Chinese superstitions, whereas they were once incredibly common, now they are said to be less important, with many of the old superstitions and traditions being lost with each passing generation.

However opinions regarding superstitions vary from person to person, so I asked Danielle, a student that attends Duncan Of Jordanstone  a few questions regarding superstitions in China.

Me: ‘Are you superstitious?’

Danielle: ‘No, I am an atheist.’

Me: ‘Are there any superstitions that family members believe in?’

Danielle: ‘Yes, My granny likes to pay attention to little things. Like the things you wear, what color is not right for certain occasions, etc.’

The idea that certain colors are lucky versus those that are unlucky is very popular in China. Just as we wear black to a funeral and white to a wedding, it is believed that red is the color of life, and will bring luck and prosperity, yellow is also seen as a lucky color and is often used in conjunction with red for a variety of different things, from crafts to clothes, for this very reason.

Me: ‘Do you have any funny or interesting stories surrounding superstitious beliefs?’

Danielle: ‘Not really, In fact even my family members are aware of certain superstitions, they don’t really insist.’

Me: ‘What do you feel is the most common superstitious belief?’

Danielle: ‘A lot to do with Chinese Zodiac. Most people believed a thing called Tai Sui and try a lot of things to avoid it.’

The Chinese zodiac was used as a method of telling the time in ancient china where each of the twelve animals were associated with an hour of the day. It is also used to label years, the current year being the year of the dragon. It is believed that depending on what year you are born in, for example I am the year of the horse, will tell you things about your character. These traits are predicated because of the animal that you were born under. So because I am the horse I am said to have a warm personality, be independent and cheerful. However the horses’ great downfall is its impatience and hot-blooded nature that can lead to quick confrontations.

Me: ‘Do you personally feel that superstitions are less important now than they were in the past? If so, why?’

Danielle: ‘Yes I think they are less important now, I don’t know what the reason is, maybe because the education we received at an early age at school specifically put a lot of importance on “be scientific and say no to superstitions.”’

The same can be said for any generation from anywhere in the world on the subject of superstitious belief. Just because we might have once been scolded for walking under a ladder does not mean to say that we will go through our entire lives continuing to avoid doing so.

However, there are still those that believe in certain superstitions enough to even delay their wedding day. In China it is said to be bad luck to marry on a ‘springless’ year, in years gone by many would avoid marrying on such years and there would be a huge rush for couples to marry before a ‘springless’ year was due, however it would appear that now many young couples don’t care about this old superstition and marry regardless. However some have delayed their weddings until 2014, the year of the horse, which has two “springs” in order to assure the best luck for the new marriage.

There are still the ‘popular’ superstitions that have carried on throughout the generations. Superstitions that remain are often those that are associated with the New Year.  Every New Year in China is celebrated with fireworks, firecrackers and rockets. This is to ward off any evil spirits and to welcome in the New Year. This is also synonymous with windows and doors of a household being opened on the stroke of midnight of New Year to let the old year out and to bring in the new. Just recently my neighbours celebrated Chinese New Year, and their celebration was no different from any traditional celebration in China itself. The year of the Dragon was welcomed with lots of food and fireworks, and generously brought through dumplings for our house to also share and celebrate.

Ever since Chinese New Year I have been keenly interested in superstitions, and not those just from China, but from all over the world. It appears though that the general consensus on this topic in relation to how it is viewed now to how it was viewed in the past is that superstitions have been overpowered by modernisation and science.

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Attitudes Towards China Today

We are all partially aware that a majority of what we buy today has at one point either been passed through, parts have been bought from, or even been entirely crafted in China. However the general consensus of the public shows that this is as far as their knowledge on the subject stretches. When venturing out into the streets and asking the general public their views on products it’s clear that many shoppers are quick to assume that everything they buy likely comes, however partially, from China. However, a look into some typical household goods will show that not everything is manufactured where you would typically assume. Shoppers will look at their shoes and say “yes these are probably made in China,” a quick check of the label however will show that this is, much to their surprise, not the case.

Typically people know little of where the goods they purchase come from, how they were produced, or why. A select few from a public survey shows that shoppers know only a small amount of what goes on behind the scenes of the production market and the goods that they buy. The belief in these shoppers is that goods from China, depending on what you buy, are of a lesser quality than goods that can be bought within the Western market. Many fear that goods from China are quickly made, or even counterfeit. The opinion of some shoppers when asked ‘Do you know anything about how products are manufactured in China?’ is that a majority of products are likely, but hopefully not, manufactured in sweatshops.

Sweatshops are large buildings full of men and women that work and suffer under horrible conditions everyday. Many of these workers are immigrants from the countryside who have moved away from home in order to provide a better life for themselves and their families with the money that they earn from the factories. They work day after day for little wage and no breaks, and the conditions that they work under are unacceptable. There have been many campaigns and movements to try and stop sweatshops throughout the world.

Today there are known to be factories such as the EUPA factory in China. Their workers are viewed as valued assets to the company and are looked after and given good accommodation and pay. Younger workers must pass an entrance exam before coming to the factory and are then put into education. Once they graduate they have the promise of a job waiting for them in the factory where they have been taught.

EUPA Factory

To the residents of this factory it is much more than just a workplace, it is a community. They don’t just work together, they also live together, eat together and spend their lives together. Romantic relationships formed within the factory walls are encouraged, and marriages often take place within the factory in front of their fellow workers. These weddings are even organized by the company itself. The places where these buildings stand were often fields where farms once stood. A reflection of how advancement is changing everything. Old jobs that were once vital are replaced with what is viewed as being needed in the now.

The other biggest concern of shoppers from the West is the risk of buying counterfeit goods that have been deliberately sold as genuine products. One particular shopper that I spoke to commented, “It’s always something to think about, especially if you’re buying online, you just have to be careful.”

China is, unfortunately, notorious for the mass production of counterfeit goods. Such goods range from famous clothing brands, watches, computer software or parts, and even fake food chains have been opening up all over China. Usually such goods are almost identical to their real counterparts, but small changes have been made in order to try and avoid copyright claims. However, even changing these products slightly is not enough to save them from breaching copyright laws.

The counterfeit craze has even spread to big name brands such as Apple. Fake Apple stores began opening up all over China in 2011, at least 22 of these stores were reported to have been found and subsequently closed by authorities for breach of copyright.

The Hiphone

The epicentre for counterfeit goods in China is infamously known as Silk Street. Located in Beijing, Silk Street was once a large Alleyway with roughly 410 stalls that sold counterfeit goods and tourist items for incredibly cheap prices. However this was recently demolished and reformed into a shopping centre, claiming that there is more regulation and control over the selling of counterfeit goods within, although such goods are still found to be sold within the complex everyday.

The Silk Street Market Logo

China is predominantly viewed as being a double-edged sword when it comes to manufacturing and the buying and selling of products overseas. China is a country that wants to be viewed as a place of innovation and invention, to be a forerunner in the world of business. However they are being held back by their old reputation for selling goods that are viewed as being not up to standard when compared with their Western counterparts. A large majority of people still believe there is too much risk involved when buying goods from China when they could simply buy them at home and be guaranteed of their value.

Traditionally Painted Scrolls And Brush Techniques Of Ancient Chinese Art

Ancient Chinese art that dates back from before the 1900’s has always been of great interest, not only to me, but also to the wider, general populace all over the world. Their unique style, graceful charm and masterful use of traditional brush techniques have captivated the world generation after generation, and will likely continues to do so for many generations to come. Their timeless beauty is, to me personally, especially highlighted in the ancient hanging wall scrolls and handscrolls; these are ancient works of Chinese mastery that range in imagery from a view of a mountain on a clear day to a narrative of love illustrated over a large silk scroll. Many of these works have been found to be centuries old, and some have even been duplicated so that many versions of a single work are known to exist.

Guo Xi: Early Spring

Ink on Silk, hanging scroll, 158 x 108 cm

Often these scrolls are described as being intricately captured moments in time; some pieces illustrate an unseen narrative, while others depict a landscape through a keen use of brush strokes and blurred outlines. However the purpose of these works was not to act as a photograph, or an exact recreation of an environment that has been visited or viewed, but rather to capture the spiritual element of man or nature. To illustrate a more emotional side of a piece of work was the goal of many painters, however this ideal was not always shared by everyone and many early painters strove for a more realistic look to their work rather than something that reflected a feeling of spirit.

Chinese painting was always closely regarded with the art of Calligraphy, and the use of beautiful, natural lines that reflect motion that are often attributed to this art. The range of brush techniques used in many pieces of work is what captivates, whereas one piece may be minimalistic in content and technique, another could be complex and intricate. Sharp brushstrokes mixed with lighter more varied lines are what gives these pieces depth and atmosphere, with the use of a blurred, or ‘tapering’ image to better illustrate a great distance going beyond the borders of the material itself. With each piece the artists style is clearly reflected through these unique techniques, along with the idea of viewing the artists spirit in every work.

Ink paintings were originally always produced on silk using a traditional brush pen, however silk was soon replaced with paper after it was invented as it was more economical. Stories were often painted on one large piece of silk, and were illustrated in a way that is almost like a timeline, however many of these pieces have been cut and sections have been lost over time. These works were known as ‘Handscrolls,’ large pieces of illustrated narrative. The characters of these stories move across the silk, going from one event to the next until the story comes to its ultimate conclusion and the scroll is finished. These works were often painted in black ink with dashes of color to add more depth. The various different owners of such works would occasionally add calligraphy, poems or even short pieces of narrative that would compliment the story of these pieces, and often ‘seals’ were also added.

One of the most well known artists of these handscrolls was a man named Gu Kaizhi, who is famous for his large silk works and is most well known for three specific pieces. One of these three famous works is a handscroll known as ‘Nymph of the Luo River,’ this particular work dates back to the Song Dynasty, however there are known to be eight different versions of this particular piece in museums across the world, two of which reside in the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Gu Kaizhi: Nymph of the Luo River

The scroll illustrates a popular prose poem of the time. The story itself is of a doomed romance between the Nymph of the Luo River and the writer, a poet as well as a prince, named Cao Zhi. The romance develops subtly over the course of the scroll, never is it outright and obvious, but instead is subtly hinted at in the beginning of the piece through gracefully illustrated glances between both characters, and the use of carefully placed visuals, such as the paired horses and birds in the background. However the romance was never meant to be and the Nymph rides off in a carriage pulled by dragons. The figures float through the settings, too big to actually fit into the backgrounds themselves, instead they serve to set the scene, almost like that of a theatre play, rather than the characters being overwhelmed by the setting and overshadowed they are the main focus of attention.

To create an image that is emotionally appealing, or touching in some way is what every artist, regardless of what discipline you come from, wishes to achieve. Perhaps that is why these ancient pieces are so inspiring to many across all genres of art. To create something that looks so refined and beautiful while preserving a feeling of uniqueness is something that is rare and can take a lifetime of diligence and practice to achieve. These refined techniques, the storytelling and the carefully crafted figures are something that you can find continuous inspiration in, without ever feeling that you’ve seen enough. These scrolls have stood the test of time, and though the world continues to turn and art forms continue to evolve and change, these ancient handscrolls and ink paintings remain to be one of China’s most beautiful and appealing subjects.

China’s Image Abroad- Tourism

In the late 1970’s the decision was made to begin developing China’s tourist industry, and a much closer look into how China was promoted to the rest of the world as a country of the 21st century was taken. With tourism being such a massive part of modern day China, the effects a growing global interest has on this country’s rich culture, and its people, are clearly evident. These effects are seen not only in China’s rapidly and constantly changing architecture, but also in China’s old customs and traditions.

In the many tourist brochures that are available, China is universally described as being ‘enchanting’, ‘elegant’ and ‘mystical’, with a majority of the focus being put on where would be considered a ‘hotspot’ for travellers, and why.  These hotspots are typically the more traditional parts of China; places such as the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City have primary focus for their rich cultural history.

With fewer restrictions on travel, and more areas of China being renovated and reopened for tourists, China has fast become one of the most popular holiday destinations today, becoming the third most visited country in the world, bringing in massive profits to further aid the progression of the countries plans for advancement. However, while the growing tourist interest is undeniably positive for the country’s national trade industry, this shift can also have detrimental effects on its people. China has begun renovating the older more traditional areas, some parts of Beijing for example, to be replaced with more ‘attractive’, modern buildings that will appeal more to those who would be coming to the country for business or leisure. Many people living in these areas have had to leave their homes due to this reconstruction. This change is creating a clear divide between the ‘modern’ China, with its high-rise cityscapes, and ‘older’ China, in the countryside and also the untouched parts of the city.

This strive for modernisation is one of the main reasons for demolishing many of the Hutongs in Beijing, an ongoing project that will wipe many of the traditional courtyard houses off the map to be replaced with large, generic apartment buildings.  These traditional estates have been around for centauries, and are not only a key part of Chinese heritage, but are also a major selling point for many foreign visitors. Numerous holiday packages that are available, Thomas Cook and STA travel being an example of them, include an ‘evening tour of the ancient ‘Hutong’ district of Beijing by rickshaw,’ an event that is advertised as one not to be missed for its link to the countries cultural history.

There is a huge market base in Beijing for tourism in the Hutongs, and this interest also opens up many job opportunities for local residents. Many tourists thinking of visiting China have agreed that they would prefer to pay money to visit the more traditional areas, rather than being surrounded by skyscrapers that the more modern parts of China have to offer, and though the modern architecture is impressive, it lacks the antiquity of some of the older buildings, such as that in the Forbidden City, that are so alluring to visitors. It is this fact alone that has kept many of these houses from being destroyed. Plans to renovate many of the Hutongs, to either be sold on for massive profit or used as hotels for tourists boasting a more traditional, yet still luxurious experience, are also in effect.

This course of action is being taken with many of the older, more traditional buildings. Many have been closed down for renovation and then reopened for tourists as either hotels or scenic hotspots. This constant and rapid flux has boosted China’s appeal in the West, promoting the image that China is a country quickly on the move to a prosperous future.