Tomb Sweeping Festival

TombSweeping

China is currently having a three-day public holiday and 4th April is the Qingming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Festival. Chinese communities across Asia visit the graves of their families to pay respects and this begins with a thorough cleaning, hence the name.

The BBC News website has some images from the ritual.

It is traditional to burn representations of things the deceased may need in the afterlife, such as paper money. Over time these have become much more elaborate and you can buy paper houses, paper furniture and paper phones. In this image, a relative is burning a paper iPad, iPod Nano and iPhone for their relative to use in heaven.

PaperiPad

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Generational Traditions in China

Tradition, this word means something different to everyone, but the same general traditions are upheld in a culture. To us in the UK, tradition could be the local parade, Christmas celebrations or even as close knit as family traditions that have been happening for generations. Traditions stretch across a culture, and as they are intimately linked to each other. Tradition affects culture, and as new generations pick up traditions things change. Some traditions being forgotten or changed into something different.

This blog post will look into the traditions of China, and how some of the generations celebrate tradition, change or have even stopped them all together. When deciding on what aspect of life I wanted to focus on for this report most of the generational differences would of been seen as bad, or sad. I wanted to show a nicer side to the generational differences, where tradition is upheld and still seen with respect.

Chinese new year is the first tradition that comes to mind when thinking about China,  as a child I thought it was odd as it did not happen on the same day as our own new year. The Chinese new year is never on a set date but between the 21st January and the 20th February this is due to the Chinese running on a lunar calendar rather than a fixed one like the west.

In China the tradition of new year is celebrated with the exchange of money in red envelopes, exchanging gifts with the family, firework displays and much more. This tradition has been happening in China for generations, a time to gather with the family. Generations have celebrated the new year in different ways, as each generation is raised it seems that the customs of a Chinese new year are dwindling. Not that far in the past Chinese new year was hugely celebrated, the older generations in China would still remember them to this day, grand fireworks displays, 15 days of celebration to bring in the new year. During new years lantern processions would take place in the streets, as people welcome another year. The modern Chinese new year consists of a 7 day holiday from work, of which all socializing is mainly done through the internet or use of mobile phones and even ordering in food from a restaurant instead of cooking themselves. The family still gathers though and younger people travel in from there place of work to spend this special time with family.

The Chinese new year festivity’s have changed through generational jumps, still being revered by the elderly but the younger generation not embracing all of the older customs, not enough time, having a work place to go back to. This generational gap of technology and longer working days/working away from home shortens the festivity’s and some of the older customs. Here we see things such as the lantern processions dying, cooking the day before new year is also a dying tradition, as there is more money it is easier and more relaxing to let a restaurant cater for the big day. This being said the Chinese new year is still celebrated and embraced by all generations even if the tradition is slowly getting smaller in size.

Traditional Chinese medicine is also a generational tradition, the Chinese believe in their medicine and the role it plays. To the west this could be seen as alternative  medicine but in China it is used in some of the health care delivered. As generations pass the knowledge and willingness to use traditional medicine changes, the practice is still in use and taught. A survey was carried out by the Prince of Wales hospital in Hong Kong on the attitude of 91 students who study medicine towards traditional Chinese medicine. The survey showed that 40% were positive, 59% neutral and only 1% was negative. This shows that the youth of china are picking up the tradition from the older generation, where the use of traditional medicine may be changing in china, the generational gap is a lot smaller than to be expected.

China, known for many traditions, has born 1 tradition that won the west over, took over the big screen and bought about a new era of movie hero’s.  Kung Fu has been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years, but as the modern era approaches China this may be a tradition that is due to die off or fade into the background. While watching a documentary for a previous report i made note of the attitude of a kung fu master and his students. The film crew focused on his top student, along with his attitude towards learning kung fu, the message was clear; he did not want to learn kung fu, he would rather go to the city, get a job and lead a rich life in the new China. The master was also interviewed about this, and he seemed sad that the art was dying out, but wishes his student a good life, as long as the master had passed on the lessons he only hoped they would be continued as such a tradition had been alive for so long. This shows a decline in the quest for knowledge, rather the yearning for a life outside of the school where a job can be gained. This is kind of sad in a way, the traditions of old masters may be dying out, people who put their  lives into the advancement of kung fu and only wish to pass on this knowledge. Who knows we may see a day that kung fu is only taught the way it is here, in weekly lessons or even just become a memory.

There is a lot to talk about on this subject of tradition, as China is rich in its cultural heritage but i hope i have portrayed some of the better sides to the generations as traditions are passed on, old customs live on in the hope that people remember where they came from and more importantly why the customs exist in the first place. Things change as time goes by, each generation will drop parts of traditions due to time or even not believing in them anymore.

Jewellery and traditional beliefs

Today, China is known for being one of the largest producers of pearls. It is a very ancient artistic tradition, but China began to use precious metals relatively late. Rare references for ornaments date from the Tang period (618-906). At the beginning of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), the Chinese showed great interest in jewellery influenced by Persia and India. Only toward of the end of the 11th century, we can see local characteristics. The most important type of jewel was worn on the head like tiaras and diadems. We can see many influences in Chinese jewels from the Himalaya region (Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan), where the traditional skills were trekked from village to village, tribe to tribe. The jewellery traditions of the Far East reflect this immense environmental, cultural and economic diversity. However, many jewellery traditions were stopped during the time of communism, where personal adornment was severely criticised by the government. Only official badges and medals were authorized, in order to show one’s pride and loyalty to the party. Since the end of Mao Tse Tung reign, the Chinese have recovered the skills and knowledge to make ancient and traditional jewellery work.

Punched work, pierced work, and filigree are characteristics of Chinese jewellery. Their jewellery is seen to provide power and strength to the wearer. Animals were representative and symbolic. For example,  the dragon symbolized power and good luck, the goldfish for abundance of gold, the phoenix for good fortune, opportunity and luck, and many others like bird, tiger, monkey, bat, peacock. Clouds, flowers and twigs were also symbols of good luck. Colours and semi precious stones were worn in order to give power, but also to cure some diseases, give longevity, and to be healthy.  The most famous stones used for many centuries are coral, turquoise and jade.

Hair ornament, gilded silver, turquoise, coral and seed pearls.

Hair ornament, gilded silver, turquoise, coral and seed pearls.

Turquoise is seen as a “living stone” that shares the ultimate fate of the mortal that wear it. Its colour symbolizes water, air and sky. This stone can counteract devil forces and make the wearer brave and invulnerable. In addition, seeing it in a dream may bring you good luck.

Coral is supposed to bring good luck, strength to women, and favourable effects on menstruation. The most desired variety is the Italian coral. It was brought by the Silk Road and was only worn by the wealthiest class. Marco Polo noted that Tibetans ranked coral among the precious stones and used it to adorn the necks of their women and idols.

Turquoise and coral were used to make amulet boxes in silver, gold or copper. Hidden spells or prayers in the boxes were used to appease evil spirits, while the decoration was symbolic to strengthen power content.

amulet box made with turquoise and coral stones

The blue turquoise colour was also given by enamel or by the very traditional Chinese process: using Kingfisher feathers. The technique, called tian-tsui, means “dotting with kingfishers” that involves using glue to adhere the feathers onto vermeil, or silver. The Kingfisher bird is highly esteemed by the Chinese for its colour and celebrated in poetry and song by Chinese from ancient times. Over the centuries, the Kingfisher’s blue colour feather became highly prized and extremely sought after as an inlay in decorative arts. Kingfisher feather were used by the Chinese to denote status, wealth and royalty. Today that tradition has disappeared; many birds were killed during the Qing dynasty just in order to collect their feathers and the skill of tian tsui has disappeared as well. But we can still see very wonderful pieces in museums.

hair ornament made with kingfisher feathers

chinese necklace and earings made with coral beads and kingfisher feathers

This portrait of the wife of a high dignitary is painted on silk. It was made during the 1st Ming dynasty (early 15th century). She’s wearing a traditional headdress, which constituted with phoenix, clouds and flowers. The red beads were probably coral and the clouds in blue are made with kingfisher feathers to symbolize air and sky. We can also see turquoise beads on the pendants and pearls.

Turquoise, coral and pearls are very famous in Chinese jewellery. But the most famous stone is obviously the Jade. Not only for jewellery making, also for decorative objects, dishes, vases, hair comb… We found utilization of jade as jewel since Palaeolithic (hunter-gatherers) period with perforated beads at Zhoukoudian. But it’s during the Neolithic period the “art of jade” have started, caring in the Zhejiang province (5000 BC). The massive production of finely polished pendants and beads were being produced in South-East China during the 3rd millennium before Christ.  In ancient time, Jade was most expensive than gold. For example during the Imperial China, the first prize for an athlete was jade, after gold for the second place and at the third place ivory.

Jade often has a green colour, but the most rare and luxurious one is the white jade.  Many colours can be found: pink, orange or light brown, blue, black. The different colours are created by different types of chemical components: the green jade contains chromium salts, the blue-green jade contains cobalt salts, the black jade contains titanium salts, and the pink jade contains salts of iron and manganese.

traditional jade bangle made in various colours

In ancient China, jade was used in rituals and sacrifices. According to ancient Chinese beliefs, the sky was round and the earth was square. A jade ornament with a round hole in the middle, called “bi”, symbolized the sky. A jewel of long hollow jade with rectangular sides, called “cong”, symbolized the earth. The bi was often placed with the corpse before burial as jade cicada was used to symbolize rebirth.

China, late Eastern Zhou dynasty or early Western Han dynasty 3rd – 2nd century BC Diameter: 5 1/8 inches, 13 cm Thickness: 1/8 inch, 0.4 cm

In the Han Dynasty, some leaders were buried in suits made entirely of jade. It was made of many pieces with various shapes, usually square, that were held together by thin threads of precious metal or silk, like the shroud of King of Chu. These extremely expensive structures were reserved only for elites. It is estimated that it took several years to achieve this kind of ritual costume that consists of 2000 to 5000 pieces! The Chinese believed that jade had magical properties and protected the corpse from decomposition.

jade shroud made with white jade and gold thread, Han dynasty.

Jade is still being used today, although the techniques have changed with technology the jade objects as talismans, “bi” or decorative objects are still used in Chinese culture, and popular with tourists as souvenirs.

Chinese Knots

Chinese knotting is an ancient folk art that involves the tying and weaving of a single length of cord or rope into a variety of shapes, varying in complexity, that each hold their own symbolic meaning. Most knots are double layered and symmetrical and have two cords entering the knot from the top and two leaving from the bottom. Each kind of knot is named after its shape or the symbolic meaning that it carries. Knots can vary in colour, but are most commonly made with red cord, as the colour red is a symbol of good luck and fortune in China. Today they are mainly used as decorations, given as gifts on special occasions or used as buttons or adornments on clothes. However these knots have a long history, and originated as a way of recording information and events, before the creation of Chinese characters.

Although, due to the delicate nature of the art, few ancient examples of knotting exist today, there is evidence that the history of knotting goes as far back as 100 000 years. For example, the recent discovery of tools that would have been used for the tying and untying of knots, and reference to knots in ancient literature. They were first used as a form of communication, a method of recording historical events and a symbol of a contract or formal agreement. For example, when archiving an event, the nature of the event would be recorded in the shape of the knot and the importance or significance was emulated in the size of the knot. An event of great historical importance would be recorded with a large and complex knot, whereas less significant events would merit only small, far simpler designs. It was also widely used in traditional Chinese clothing, as a means of fastening or decorating garments, as knots proved to be far stronger than bone buttons.

Even today, Chinese knots are rich in symbolic meaning, and therefore hold a great deal of sentimental value when given as gifts or passed down through families. The Chinese word for ‘rope’ is ‘shèng’, which has similar properties to the words for ‘spirit’ and ‘divine’; therefore knots also carry great spiritual meaning and have been used as objects of worship. The word for ‘knot’ itself is ‘jié’ and is related to many other terms that reinforce the symbolic meaning of the knots. For example, ‘tuán jié’ which means ‘to unite’, ‘jié hūn’ meaning ‘to marry’ and ‘jié guŏ’ meaning ‘result’ or ‘outcome’ are just a few.

It is no wonder then that knots have been so closely related to love and marriage in Chinese culture. In ancient times and even now, lovers may give a knot as a token of their love, for example the ‘truelove knot’ or ‘double happiness knot’, which are often associated with weddings and symbolize mutual love and growing old together…

 

True Love Knot

Double Happiness Knot

The following knot is a traditional Chinese button knot, used for thousands of years before the invention of zips as a way of fastening clothes. It was also not only functional but a beautiful way of decorating garments and is still used today…

Button Knot

In China fish are associated with wealth and good fortune, as the word for fish is similar to the word for ‘plentiful’. So a knot in the shape of a fish would perhaps be given as a gift to wish a friend good luck in a new endeavor…

Gold Fish Knot

Another common knot is the butterfly knot. The butterfly is also a symbol of love and longevity, particularly the strong bond between lovers, therefore a butterfly knot is the perfect gift for a new couple…

Butterfly Knot

In todays China, a land that is evolving at such a rapid rate in order to keep up with the demands of modern society, it is comforting to know that ancient traditions such as knotting, passed down through so many generations, are still alive and continue to intrigue and delight people the world over.

My Chinese Paper Craft: New Year Animals

These are a few examples of some of my experiments with Chinese craft. Hope you enjoy.

Challenge 4: Create a Shuang Xi

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Create a Shuang Xi (double happiness) using your discipline-specific talents, or developing new skills.

Be creative or experimental, but convey the meaning or spirit of the symbol.

You might want to weave one, or create a cushion. You might want to do a lino cut or screen print. You may want to produce an animation or pendant.

It can be simple or complex – it is up to you.

Take your time over this if you wish, and collaborate if you want to (in teams or in disciplines).

Document your process (photos, video) and post your finished shuang xi to the blog.

 

Symbolism in Chinese Food

food

An interesting report from the BBC today on symbolism and food, not just in China but Scotland as well:

Dishes eaten at Chinese New Year carry great significance, as does the way a Burns Night supper is presented. But these are not the only meals which represent something to diners and the reasons we attach meaning are as myriad as the food itself.
It seems odd that a small parcel of tasty filling encased in a light dough wrapper can represent so much.

But the jiaozi dumpling symbolises prosperity to diners, who traditionally sit down for a family feast on the eve of Chinese New Year. It also means wealth when the dumpling is crescent shaped, like the gold ingot once used in ancient China as money.

Chinese chef Ching-He Huang says the centuries-old “lucky” food traditions come from superstitions about feeding the spiritual world, legends and history.

“For example, the bamboo glutinous rice, zongzi, was eaten to commemorate a famed poet. These rice dumplings were thrown in a river so the fish would feed on the rice instead of his corpse, because he threw himself into the river and he was a well-loved poet and patriot of the people,” she says.

Fuchsia Dunlop, BBC journalist and author of the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, says many of the meanings given to Chinese food are homophones of their names in Mandarin.

“In the Chinese language, so many different characters have the same sound and it is ripe for word play. For instance nian gao – which is a new year’s cake – also means tall or high, so it is eaten to represent doing better or reaching higher every year,” she says.
Steamed fish, which is a staple of many suppers, is served as a dish called nian nian you yu, the word for fish “yu”, being a homophone of “surplus” and “abundance”. It must be whole to symbolise completeness and good fortune.
Noodles represent a long life and autumn moon cakes are eaten to celebrate the roundness of the moon. Oranges are thought to symbolise wealth and tangerines good luck.

Read more over at the BBC site where there’s also a video