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.

Increasing the Gap Between Generations

Aspirations, views and opinions on all aspects of life differ greatly between many individuals. This difference of opinion is further emphasised in many instances between the generations. This contrast is due to a myriad of different factors: changes in an individual’s upbringing; alterations within a society and varying moral values all play a major role in defining a person. In the past thirty years, China has undergone significant changes with regards to the ‘young generation’. Pop culture, fashion, music and the internet have lead to more individualism within this generation which is believed to be widening the gap between their predecessors. In turn, this has lead to a host of new aspirations, views and opinions which are driving modern day China forward.

This growth of individualism is impacting upon millions of modern day Chinese families. A recent Channel 4 documentary followed Gok Wan, a famous British fashion designer, on his first trip to China in order to discover his ancestral roots. This documentary raised some interesting points regarding the relationship between the generations in China. In a conversation with his father, who grew up in a rural village outside Hong Kong, we are shown a similarity which still exists between the generations. He believed that the typical Chinese work ethic was that more money equalled a better life. With the majority of Chinese families still earning very little pay this statement can be seen as true, after all Deng Xiaoping – the late leader of the Communist Party in China – said “To get rich is glorious”.

It can be seen that public opinion on the acquiring of wealth has not changed a great deal in China’s history. Nonetheless, there are many aspects of life that this ‘young generation’ are coming to their own conclusions on. Duncan Hewitt, author of Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China, talks in detail about the opening of the first IKEA store in China and of its influence over young couples in the area. A young woman who worked there claimed that the older generations have been through tough times and have therefore never had the pleasure of being engaged in the style or design of home appliances and furniture. This is evidence of an increase of individualism within the young families of China. In addition, she goes on to say ‘…many people have simply thrown out their traditional Chinese furniture- sometimes including antique family heirlooms – in their desire to embrace a modern way of life.’ This, it could be argued, is a drastic change in opinions towards family ancestry in China. Family heirlooms which have been passed down from generation to generation are sometimes cast aside in order to encourage modernity into their lifestyles. This ‘young generation’ no longer want to be tied down to the past; they want to embrace their future.

Hewitt goes on to describe another such divide between the generations, this time concerning dating. He explains that a man named Mr Chen had a son (around 12 years of age) who was in his second year at senior high school and had a girlfriend. Hewitt describes the father’s distress by saying ‘For Mr Chen the idea of teen romance was completely unimaginable’. This is no doubt a very young age to be dating, even in the West. However this was completely unheard of in China only twenty years ago. This is further evidence that the young generation has much more freedom and the rules and regulations pressed onto them by their parents and society alike are not as strict as they have been previously. Moreover, this widens the gap between the generations in the country.

It is not only the easing of the rules and regulations placed on young children and teenagers in China which is causing this increase in individuality and freedom. Hewitt states that some parents in China believe that youngsters are being more disobedient. One parent he interviewed states, ‘young people these days have less respect for authority figures…now we’re the ones who have to learn from the kids…’ Parents’ authority in China was something to be feared by the children, however now better education coupled with more outlets to express ones individuality has lead this dynamic to shift. This can be tied to government reforms and protests within the country: individuals within China are becoming more independent and are more willing to take steps to positively affect their future. Although many aspects of life in China have remained the same with regards to views and opinions towards them, the ‘young generation’ have started to make some changes.

Made in China

‘Made in China’ is a brand we see all the time. It is on household appliances, electronic systems, clothing and toys. Pretty much every manufactured item will have a version of it that was “Made in China”. How much do we actually care where these items were created and at what cost?

I don’t think twice when I see an item of mines that has been branded with “made in China”. So I started wondering if people had different views from me, maybe they are put off by an item with this brand, thinking that the item is of lower quality than items manufactured in the UK or they just feel the same way as I do. So I started asking around friends and family.

The majority of the people I asked did not really have any views on the matter. They would just see it as another item that was usually cheaper than others. It seemed than people were more focused on price than anything else. So what makes “Made in China” products cheaper than products developed in the UK? Is it cheap labour? What sort of deals are these Chinese workers getting? Would people still buy these items if they knew all the information behind them?

I started looking at a famous factory in China called EUPA who employ 17000 people. EUPA’s massive workforce pumps out 15 million irons per year, millions of sandwich grills, microwaves, coffee makers and blenders. The workers live here, eat here and their children attend school here. A lot of its employees are getting a very good deal here with cheap rent, food and a social life. The company encourages relationships between employees and generally wants what’s best for them. Without this company many of the workers would still be living in poverty. Even though they do not get paid as much as a British person would working in a factory, I still think this is a really good thing because its helping the lives of so many Chinese families.

But this is not how it always is. There has been many horror stories about Chinese factories where the employees are treated terribly with little or no pay at all. One example of where bad conditions have happened is in a company called Foxconn who have contracts with Apple. Employees there would work for an average of 60 hours a week for $2 an hour. Conditions were so demoralizing for some workers that the company had hung up giant nets outside the buildings to solve what it called a “suicide problem” among its employees. The company allegedly employs underage workers and hides them when the Fair Labour Association inspection occurs. Apparently conditions are improving and are a lot better than they use to be.

There are many other factories out there that we have no idea how the conditions are. EUPA in my opinion gives the “Made in China” brand a good name and it’s a shame how other companies could ruin this. Overall the people working in these factories are better off and earn a lot more money, even if it doesn’t seem like a lot to us, than they would else where. A lot of the employees are from rural areas with little or no work opportunities available to them.

After telling my family and friends what I found out, overall their views didn’t really change. They would not be put off buying “made in china” products as my uncle said “it’s still keeping someone in a job”.

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.

Public Opinion on Chinese Goods

Britain today, like many other Western nations, is host to a consumer culture. Hundreds of thousands of products ranging from kitchen appliances to clothing are purchased daily. However, we rarely know where and how these products have been manufactured. In addition, the big question concerning our consumer culture is: do we really care how these products have reached our high street shelves?

Ultimately, there is no definite answer to this question. Public opinion will always be divided on some level, whether it regards government legislation or what the best deals are in your local supermarket. The topic of where our goods are manufactured is therefore no different. This may be due to a vast array of arguments for and against China manufacturing shown in our newspapers and on our televisions. As a result, it is therefore no surprise that most individuals are unsure themselves what they think and where their opinions lie within this subject.

I recently asked around in order to achieve a better understanding of what individuals really thought with regards to purchasing goods produced in China. Firstly I asked whether or not the presence of the words ‘made in China’ would deter them from buying, and does this generally determine the quality of the item? The general answer was: no, It does not matter in what country something has been produced. Some went on to say that customers can and should deduce the quality of a product themselves based on their own experience. I believe this argument to be true in some cases. For example, by simply looking closely and physically holding an item of clothing we can give a reasonably accurate assumption as to the level of quality of the product, and can therefore decide whether or not to buy the said item. Consumers should be actively aware what they are spending their money on. Most goods produced in China and sold in the West are well made, however it can be argued that consumers themselves can be blamed for poor quality products continuously reaching our shelves. If people keep buying them, they will surely continue to show up.

In most instances consumers can use their own knowledge and intuition when it comes to buying a product, but what if we do not have the opportunity to sample a product before parting with our money? I asked this question to the same people as before, to which they replied that they generally place their trust in companies to produce good quality items. It was believed it was the companies’ responsibility to be absolutely positive that their products are well made, before putting them on the market. Again, I agree with this statement to an extent. It should be the responsibility of the companies to ensure that they are producing and selling products that are well made. Moreover, it is the responsibility of the companies in the West that employ Chinese factories to check the standards of the goods that have been produced for them.

This relationship between the importer and the manufacturer may seem easily manageable on the surface, however research into the matter tells us differently. The book ‘Poorly Made in China’, written by Paul Midler, explores the functioning of factories in the country. Based on his own first hand experiences within the manufacturing industry in China, he has come to some conclusions which may surprise Western consumers. He believes that when an importer was considered to be putting too much effort into improving the standard of goods produced in the factories then he was seen as being a troublesome client. Although we cannot dictate this as fact for all manufacturers in China, it does not bode well for consumers in Britain and the West. Our reliance on companies to produce quality items is, in some cases, undermined before the goods have even reached the production line.

From those that I questioned, it was the general consensus that China does produce good quality products regularly and this should not be diminished by the minority of companies that do otherwise. This then leads to the question of factory life itself in China and how it compares with its Western counterparts. After asking this question to several individuals, I found that public opinion on this matter was generally diplomatic. It was believed that factories will differ from each other in terms of the standard of working conditions. In addition, some said that the manufacturing industry in China should not be judged on the horror stories that are highly publicised. I wholly agree with these statements, Chinese factories are similar to Western factories with regards to the varying standards of working conditions. An entire nation of factories and factory workers cannot be judged solely on the negative stories we are made witness to in the media.

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.

The Influences Behind the 2008 Beijing Monkey Animation

In preparation for the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, the BBC Sport team commissioned Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn (the men behind Gorrilaz) to create an animated short which would promote the BBC’s coverage of the games. They were challenged with capturing the image of the games, and China itself, in a two minute sequence.

It would be fair to assume that China has never been well known for its own production of animated works, traditionally or otherwise. This accolade would fall to its neighbour Japan, leaving a shroud over China’s contribution to this medium. As a result, Hewlett and Albarn had little to go on in terms of style in accordance with contemporary Chinese animation. They had to resolve to other aspects of Chinoiserie in order to create a piece that looked typically ‘Chinese’.

The animation they produced is closely based on a famous Chinese novel named ‘Journey to the West’. It was written in the 1590’s during the period of the Ming Dynasty and is considered to be ‘one of the four most important works of fiction in China’s history’. The tale follows a Buddhist monk named Xuanzang on his quest to collect sacred texts, on instruction from Buddha. In addition, this particular monk had disciples which aided him in his journey, fighting and defeating demons as they went.

There is no doubt that Hewlett and Albarn have incorporated this folk religion and mythology into their final outcome. However, the original names of the monk’s disciples – Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha wujing have been changed drastically to Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy in order to appeal to a more western audience. Through portraying areas of this tale as they have, Hewlett and Albarn have not only managed to create an animation that is influenced by Chinese Folklore in itself, but have aided in bringing the latter to a larger audience.

It can be seen that the storyline has been impacted upon significantly by Chinese tradition. Another such area affected by this is the music, which has been used in order to help convey the intentions of the creators. Jonathan Bramley, the BBC Sport Executive Producer, stated ‘we needed something with a good classical Chinese element to it…’ In contrast with its animation background, China has a vast musical history which is steeped in the nation’s rich cultural past. Therefore, a wealth of material was instantly accessible to Hewlett and Albarn. Moreover, Bramley states that the music should also have a ‘…modern feel and be quite energetic.’ There is a large gap between traditional and contemporary Chinese music and this benefitted the pair greatly. Vast arrays of different and typically Chinese musical styles were available to provide inspiration. It is for this reason; Aided by their successful careers in the music business, that Hewlett and Albarn had no trouble in creating a musical score that achieved this goal. Ultimately, the music not only compliments the animation beautifully, but has traditional Chinese elements and a modern edge.

The final aspect of the film to be influenced by chinoiserie is the environment in which the action takes place. Traditional Chinese pieces of art have long been sought after since they first arrived in Europe, courtesy of the Silk Road. Complex and simple artworks depicted everything from landscapes to daily life in China. Although now commercially produced, these examples of ‘traditional’ Chinese art have played an influential part in the creation of the landscapes for the animation. When used in conjunction with photographs of rural china today, Hewlett and Albarn have successfully captured the beauty of the country. This can be plainly seen within the animation.

 

A scene from the animation showing the environment in which the action takes place.

 

 

 

 

 

A photograph of a similar Chinese landscape as we would see it today.

 

 

 

 

Through looking at both contemporary and traditional pieces of Chinese art and music a style has been produced which represents the Far East spectacularly. I believe this piece of animation is a valuable insight into how the western nations perceive their eastern counterparts through chinoiserie. The animation itself is an example of which.