Celebrating marriage

New trends from the West, old traditions from the home country

A little story about a wedding party photo session that I happened upon a few years ago in a middle class Beijing hotel:

I had left my room to go to my Chinese class as I saw a wedding party having pictures taken in front of the hotel. Nothing special about that. But when they saw me, the only “long nose with yellow hair” far and wide, the groom literally grabbed me and I was made to a “guest of honor” not really understanding what was happening with me.

The young couple were farmers from a little village not far from the capital. They and their families had been saving a long time to make this wedding party possible. Having it in a Beijing hotel was grand, having a “foreign guest” made it obviously even grander. Much of it was obviously about gaining face.

After so many pictures had been taken of the couple with me, parents and parents-in-law with me, all the other guests with me, and I had been given three bags of wedding candy I was finally able to excuse myself and go to my class.

Unfortunately I didn’t have my own camera nor smart phone ready so I have no pictures from this occation.

 

The following two stories are examples of two extreme ways of celebrating marriage in today’s China.

The first story is based on an article from the Guardian, April 2011. (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gallery/2011/apr/27/chinese)

Chinese couple marry in ceremony inspired by British royal wedding

Royal wedding inspires couple to marry with ‘royal carriage’ theme surrounded by guards in furry hats and scarlet coats.

wang-xueqian-sits-on-a-ca-005

the-bride-and-groom-walk-002

It was a wedding fit for a British princess, but by the increasingly elaborate standards of the Chinese elite it looked almost modest.

The parade involved 50 people, a dozen cars and two horses. It was led by four women wearing white dresses and floral wreaths on their heads carrying a square banner in red, white and blue with the couple’s names printed on it.

The couple waved regally from their horse-drawn carriage as they rode through the eastern city in a procession costing 50,000 yuan (£4,600). Lavish wedding celebrations are becoming increasingly popular in China and the industry is said to be growing by as much as 20% a year.

While the legal procedures are a bargain – it costs less than a pound to register a marriage – banquets can include hundreds of guests. A growing number of wealthy couples have added ceremonies, which can mix western or old-fashioned Chinese rituals with a dash of the unexpected – such as Mickey Mouse appearing to help with proceedings.

Wedding planner Hu Lu, who arranged the procession, said the “royal carriage” theme was increasingly popular and three more couples had already booked it for next month. “Every bride wants to be princess Snow White when they get married,” she said.

Another wedding held the same year, reportedly for the daughter of a coal mining boss in Shanxi province, was said to have cost 6m yuan. Photographs circulated on the internet showed a procession composed of Rolls-Royces, Ferraris, and Mercedes cars with several cameramen filming from Jeeps.

 

The second story is based on an article in the Taiwan Journal of East Asian Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Issue 20), Dec. 2013

Remodeling Confucian Wedding Rituals to Address China’s Youth Culture Today

confucian-wedding

In response to social and cultural problems two intellectuals in China have offered different versions of wedding rituals based on the Confucian Classics in order to restore ritual as a powerful tool for individual, family, social and national renewal.

Zhu Jieren 朱杰人, former director and current CEO of East China Normal University Press, planned a “modern version” of the wedding ceremony from Zhu Xi’s Family Rituals (朱子 家禮) for his son’s ceremony in Shanghai in 2009.

Zhang Xianglong 張祥龍, a philosophy professor at Peking University in Beijing, orchestrated a more antique Confucian wedding for his son in Beijing in 2010.

Both Zhu and Zhang aimed at giving new life to classical rites and leading participants to reconnect to traditional aesthetics and values. Zhu Jieren asserts that a wedding is an affair of the parents, the extended family, the society, and ultimately the whole country. In his view, weddings teach people that they have a responsibility, not only to their own parents, but also to the larger family, the entire society and to Nature.

Ultimately, Zhu Jieren does not only want to campaign against the “spiritual pollution” of “Western ills,” but he wants even more to reconnect younger generations with their ancestors and their society through hierarchical respect.

This is my favorite wedding picture (2012) . It shows my best Chinese friend Xiao Yan with her husband Lu surrounded by her family and their friends in her hometown about 400 km SW of Beijing.dsc_0467

 

The same couple enjoyed later a relaxed and uncomplicated wedding dinner party in a Beijing restaurant with working colleagues and friends including the above mentioned “yellow-haired long nose”.

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Qi gong 气功

After a brake of quite a few years I joined a qi gong class again. The meditative slow movements that require the practitioner’s full concentration are good for my body and soul. In my hometown Bern more than 20 schools offer their courses in the Internet.

Qi gong has a long history in China. It was introduced to the West in the 1980’s when China opened up.

Qi gong (“work on life energy”) includes different kinds of breathing as well as more or less gentle and smooth stretching exercises and stationary postures. While doing the exercises one should be fully concentrated on the exercise, on being here and now. The slow and gentle movements of meditative, healing qi gong can be done also in advanced age and with restricted physical ability. This is the kind of qi gong I do.

Other styles of qi gong are more vigorous as parts of taiji 太極and gongfu功夫exercises. The different schools and styles may focus on different aspects of qi gong. However, they all share the aim of enhancing the well-being of the practitioner.

What happens during a qi gong practice? In the physical sense, muscle coordination and joints are activated and blood-circulation is intensified. One feels a kind of prickle in the hands and feet during the exercise. As for the mind, fully concentrating on the exercises and forgetting about everything else around you is a wonderfully refreshing experience.

There is no scientific data on the physical effects of qi gong. The perception remains subjective. After a training session my head feels refreshed and relaxed. As my muscles and joints have been worked on also my body feels good. That’s enough.

End of one-child policy

After over 30 years of practicing the one-child policy that was to slow down the population growth, the Chinese government allows Chinese couples now to have two children. The one-child policy has always allowed for exceptions, e.g. for members of certain ethnic minorities and rural couples, but now it should apply to all citizens.

Why the change of policy? The reasons have to do with the demographic development of the country. Who should care for the aging population and what about the fact that there are less and less people, who support a growing number of others, who do not generate an income? Not only are the numbers of aging people rising dramatically, but there is also a gender imbalance due to which millions of men are not able to find marriage partners.

“The UN estimates that by 2050 China will have about 440 million people over 60. The working-age population – those between 15 and 59 – fell by 3.71 million last year.” However, “experts said the relaxation of family planning rules is unlikely to have a lasting demographic impact, particularly in urban areas where couples were now reluctant to have two children because of the high cost. Just because the government says you can have another child, it doesn’t mean the people will immediately follow,” said Liang Zhongtang, a demographer at the Shanghai Academy of Social Science.” (The Guardian 30. Oct.2015).

Many people are of the opinion that the state should stop controlling family planning altogether. As Stuart Gietel-Basten (BBC) puts it: “Even if people are allowed to have two children, what if they want to have three children or more? What if unmarried women want to have their own children? At the end of the day, it’s about women’s reproductive rights and freedoms.”

During my travels in China during the past 15 years I have often been told that the one-child policy has not really been practiced nor controlled consequently. For example, wealthy couples were able to pay the extremely high penalty for having a second child because they were financially independent and didn’t need to worry about losing their jobs.

Furthermore, due to fertility treatments, pregnancies with two or even more babies are acceptable. Couples have been allowed to keep both or all children even before the new law.

As for preferring boys to girls, also here a trend shift seems to be taking place. Today young men move away from home as their work may require relocation. Daughters-in-law are no longer reliable care takers for the aging parents. Some people believe that daughters are more reliable than sons, that is daughters-in-law, in this respect. So baby girls are now more welcome than they were in earlier times when the only officially sanctioned child should preferably have been a boy.

Links for further reading:

BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-34665539
The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/29/china-abandons-one-child-policy

 

 

Smoking forbidden in outdoor public spaces in China as of June 1. 2015

smoking ban (2)

 

A cigarette in China may be solace from the drudgery of work. And it may be entry into a club of card-playing men and fuel for a night of drunken deal making as Nathan Vanderklippe puts it.

However, the new ban has been justified by concern about health issues. The goal of the smoking ban is to protect non-smokers against second-hand smoke and create a social environment that will put pressure on smokers to quit. It should also be another major step for China moving towards modernity.

Not only places like offices, shopping malls, restaurants, bars and airports should become smoke-free. Also many outdoor public places such as the areas outside kindergartens, schools and hospitals will be required to be smoke-free.

There are supervision hot-lines that people can call to report violations. Anyone breaking the law will be fined: Individuals must pay between 10 and 200 yuan (up to $32), businesses up to 10,000 yuan ($1,600). And anyone who breaks the law three times will find themselves named and shamed on a government website. Not a small thing in a culture, in which losing face is still a shame.

Katie Hunt, CNN reports: “Perhaps no one is happier than the World Health Organization, which worked closely with Beijing to write an anti-smoking law that stands to be among the most influential on earth. If it works, it will serve as the template for national Chinese rules and make Beijing an example for the entire Asian region.”

A comment from a smoker: “If you want to stop smoking, it would be better to shut down the tobacco companies – but that’s impossible, because tobacco is so profitable for government.” Full 7 per cent of China’s state revenues supposedly comes from tobacco.

Beijingers make jokes about the “clearly cleaner” air due to the ban. The air may not be generally cleaner because less people smoke outside, but it is certainly much cleaner in Beijing restaurants now than say even 5 years ago. According to my experience people not only smoke much less in restaurants, men also drink less hard liquor. The ambience is definitely getting more and more pleasant.

My sources:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/new-beijing-law-in-aims-to-finally-snuff-out-smoking-in-indoor-public-spaces/article24716723/

http://edition.cnn.com/2015/06/01/asia/china-beijing-smoking-crackdown/

http://english.cntv.cn/2015/06/09/VIDE1433796604391351.shtml

 

Vortrag über einheimische “Religionen” Chinas

Die einheimischen “Religionen“ Chinas
und deren zunehmende soziale Bedeutung in der heutigen Volksrepublik

Am Donnerstag, den 7. Mai 2015
19.00 Uhr

Unitobler Gebäude im Raum F005
Lerchenweg 36, 3012 Bern

Die Volksrepublik China ist ein sozialistischer Staat, dessen Verfassung auf einer materialistischen Weltanschauung basiert. Religion hat in dieser Ideologie keinen Platz. Und doch kann heute überall im Land ein reges spirituelles Leben beobachtet werden.

Die heutige Regierung erlaubt und unterstützt gar gewisse spirituelle Aktivitäten mit der Begründung, dass alles, was der Aufrecht­erhaltung des sozialen Friedens dient, gut für das Land ist. Zudem soll die Praxis der einheimischen Glaubenssysteme die nationale Identität der Bürger verstärken.

Link zur Einladung zum Vortrag 7.5.2015

 

China Political Stories in 2015 — Which Will Be the Biggest?

The Wall Street Journal 2015/01/06

Anyone who has spent time observing Chinese politics is keenly aware of the country’s capacity for making fools of prognosticators. This past year was a case in point.

The formal arrest of former security czar Zhou Yongkang, the detention or imprisonment of prominent government critics previously assumed to be safe and the production of an unprecedented top-level blueprint for reforming the legal system demonstrated a surprising boldness on the part of Beijing in the second year of President Xi Jinping’s term. On the flip side, an explosion of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the U.S. Justice Department’s indictment of five Chinese military officers on cyberespionage charges showed how that boldness could backfire in unexpected ways.

And yet, what fun is it trying to understand this place if you can’t polish off the crystal ball every once in a while? We’ve listed a few of our own ideas below, in no particular order.

The Fox Hunt

After more than a year going after targets at home, China’s graft busters have trained their gaze on corrupt officials and their family members who have fled abroad. Authorities put the value of illicit assets spirited out of China in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Operation Fox Hunt, as it has been dubbed, has already resulted in the apprehension of 428 suspects from 60 countries and regions, according to state media reports, and it shows no signs of slowing down. A major challenge is the U.S., a popular destination for skittish Chinese elites that has no extradition treaty with China. Is this one area in which the world’s two biggest powers will find a way to cooperate, or will it feed the flames of mutual suspicion?

Hong Kong Aftermath

The 10-week occupation of key Hong Kong streets by demonstrators calling for universal suffrage was the largest pro-democracy protest to happen on Chinese territory since 1989. Now that the streets have been cleared, how will Beijing react? Will it sacrifice C.Y. Leung, the city’s unpopular chief executive? Will it clamp down and exact revenge on protest leaders?  Already, a number of those involved in the protests have been prevented from traveling to mainland China and Macau, and it seems likely the government will increase surveillance in the city, compromising what was once considered a haven for critics of the Communist Party.

The New Silk Road

The Silk Road of old came and went in concert with major Chinese dynasties. With the U.S. persisting in its “pivot to Asia,” Beijing is now determined to rebuild the Silk Road relationships that formerly placed China at the apex of a churning exchange of global commerce and culture. And it isn’t messing around: Already, China has built new border cities almost from scratch, and committed $40 billion to a “Silk Road Fund” to help lubricate the flow of goods and money in Asia. Will these efforts succeed in binding the region to China? And if so, what will that mean for China’s heft in the rest of the world?

If you’d like to read more, here is the link: http://blogs.wsj.com/briefly/2015/01/06/5-china-political-stories-in-2015which-will-be-the-biggest/

 

 

The new role of “religion” as a help for maintaining social peace

 

I have just returned from Beijing where I collected empirical material for my next public talk on “wisdom traditions” in China. I would like to share with you some of the stories I heard from young students and elder scholars about how people see change taking place regarding “religion” in their country.

As I have mentioned in my earlier articles, the concept “religion” cannot be used to describe Asian spiritual traditions the same way it is used to describe western spiritual traditions. The eastern cultures have various belief systems with their pantheons of spirits, demigods and gods that do not exclude one another, but are rather intertwined in the daily reality of the people.

In China religious institutions have never played a significant social or political role like e.g. the Catholic Church in the western world. Furthermore, as spiritual life in China has always been extremely multifaceted no spiritual institution has ever obtained exclusive power over others.

The People’s Republic has been experiencing an ideological vacuum for quite some time. My old friend Chen Feng Shan, a sociologist, made the point that “people do not accept the communist ‘language’ / ideology any longer. Neither do they accept the free market ‘language’ of the 1980’s. And generally speaking, people are having more and more trouble accepting any authority at all.” A new ethic codex is badly needed to give the people a new guideline for moral conduct.

The government is trying to fill this vacuum in two different ways. On the one hand it now allows the practice of traditional spiritual activities (as long as they can be controlled). On the other hand it actively propagates the ancient moral doctrine of Master Kong. The idea is that if spiritual activities help people to manage the contingences of their lives better then they serve the purpose of maintaining social peace. Keeping the country politically stable is the highest aim of the Chinese government.

Spiritual activities

People can and do worship in temples and churches of the five officially sanctioned religions. They can do this as long as they “don’t disturb anyone”. However, religious meetings in homes are forbidden, because they cannot be controlled by the government. Thus religion remains a private thing.

Adam Chau (Chau, Adam Yet 2006: Miraculous Response. Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China. Stanford, California. Stanford University Press: 211-215) has done research on popular belief systems in northern China in the 1980’s and states: ”To my knowledge there has been no crackdown on superstitious activities in Shaanbei since the 1980’s, which partly accounts for the vibrant popular religious life there. Yet so much of Shaanbei popular religious life (e.g. divination, spirit mediumism, rain prayers, symbolism of hell and divine retribution, etc.) would qualify as superstition according to the criteria of the Maoist era. It is quite plane to everyone in the local state that cracking down on popular religion, no matter how superstitious it looks, will meet with popular disapproval and even resistance: it ´will not win people’s hearts´.”

The age-old “self-employed” fortunetellers can practice their trade now more or less openly also in urban areas. They can be found e.g. around the Lama Temple in Beijing. They can’t draw attention to their services in newspapers, but they can do it online in a limited way. And they have their clients.

There are two most beautiful ancient and well restored Buddhist temples, the Azure Clouds Temple and the Temple of Recumbent Buddha located near the Fragrant Hills in the NW of Beijing, which are frequented by locals as well as tourists. A young lady, who lives in this area, told me about new, privately financed Buddhist temples that are being built in the hills. By building new temples well-to-do families seek to establish themselves socially in the traditional Chinese way.

I was told that Buddhist communities tend to be growing strong around old Buddhist centers. The same thing happens with Daoist and Christian communities. The geographical location and local traditions, not individual ponderings, seem to influence the choice of the main spiritual activities of the locals. But, as mentioned before, other spiritual activities are well accepted and practiced in parallel with the main stream activities.

The Confucian doctrine as the old / new moral codex

The government’s preferred alternative to spiritual practices is the Confucian moral codex. Confucianism is an ancient Chinese social doctrine that includes everything necessary for “good governance” from the point of view of the present government. Certain aspects of the doctrine suit the government well, because it is basically hierarchical and authoritative the same way as the Communist Party.

Confucianism is theoretically a moral code of conduct rather than a spiritual tradition. In China, however, it has obtained aspects that could be regarded as “religious”. There are Confucian temples where people show respect to their ancestors and the “demigod, sage Confucius” by conducting ceremonies similar to those in Buddhist and Daoist temples. The common goal of such practices is to ensure that one’s dead relations do indeed become ancestors, supernatural powers that are benevolent and remote rather than ghosts that are malevolent and proximate. These practices make the basically rational, non-metaphysical doctrine acceptable for the many people. Furthermore, the Confucian ideology is regarded as part of the ancient Chinese culture.

As for Confucian style weddings and the more and more popular grand scale family gatherings (especially in southern China), they are regarded as commercial rather than spiritual affairs, says Chen Feng Shan. Thus the gatherings of the often large crowds are not perceived as a threat to the organized society.

The Confucian doctrine is summed up in the “Five Confucian Classics” (compiled after Confucius’ death). The current interpretation of the texts seems to stress the role of an individual as a citizen. Yu Dan expresses this in her book “Confucius from the Heart” as follows: “Unlimited possibility leads to chaos, because you don’t know where to go or what to do. We must rely on a strict system to resolve problems. As citizens, our duty is not necessarily to be perfect moral persons. Our duty is to be law-abiding citizens” (Yu Dan: “Confucius from the Heart” 2006).

However, to Confucius social harmony was consensus, not conformity. It required loyal opposition. When censors now remove critical comments from the Chinese Web with the argument that it is done in order to protect political stability, people say that the text has been “harmonized.”

Popular religious practices in China: Shamanism or “Wuism”

The term „religion“ has a strongly European connotation without a clear definition of its meaning(s). In the Asian context I prefer terms like “spiritual or wisdom traditions” or “belief systems”. For the sake of simplicity, however, I use the word “religion” in the title.

The oldest spiritual traditions worldwide could be put together under the umbrella of “shamanist practices”. Such traditions are based on the belief that “spirits” can be influenced, and actions that aim to influence them to have their support and concrete help e.g. for healing purposes, to predict the future, to bring good luck for hunting etc. The techniques of shamans and the specific aims of their practices are, of course, culture and context bound.

Nikolas Thomas and Caroline Humphrey make a difference between what they call ”vertical shamanism“ meaning esoteric knowledge that belongs to a small elite group of practitioners. (In the old China vertical shamans came from shaman families, the jobs in the royal courts were passed from father to son and the men were carefully trained for their work) and “horizontal shamanism” referring to practices that can be performed by anyone, who is able to come into contact with spirits. They divide Chinese shamans, the 巫 wū, into three categories

或巫師huòwūshí „tribal priests“
男巫 nánwū male shamans, court officers, mediums / vertical shamanism
女巫nǚwū female shamans, healers and magicians, also mediums / horizontal shamanism

The earliest archeological evidence of shamanist activities has been found in the Yellow River area in northern China dating from 4000 – 2200 years before our time. It includes objects like small human and animal statues made of stone as well as oracle bones and percussion instruments made of clay. The first Zhou-King 武王Wǔ Wáng (11. century before our time), is supposed to have been a gifted shaman himself.

Vertical shamans seem to have played a very important role at the courts. Some of them became extremely influential. According to old court records from Zhou-Dynasty the Chinese kings were believed to rule under the Mandate of Heaven. If they ruled well, their kingdoms prospered. If not, they lost their mandate and the result was a change of dynasty. The court shamans were vital members of the court in making sure that “Heaven” was satisfied with the ruling king. Their job was to mediate between the king and the Heaven.

However, the court shamans were not only mediums and advisors. They also served as court “scientists”. They studied the constellations of stars in order to make predictions for the future. They also wrote down genealogies in order to support the claims of rulers and kept careful books about historical events. Such records served additionally the development and standardisation of the language.

The court shamans lost their status in 1912 when the First Republic of China was founded. Confucianism was declared to state ideology and the tasks of shamans were handed over to priests, who replaced shamanic practices through Confucian rites.

It was a time of enlightment and social reorganization. All practices that had to do with the spirit world were forbidden, because they were thought to be remnants of the feudal, superstitious society of before. However, horizontal shamans have always been met in all walks of life. There is a continuous market for their services as healers, interpreters of dreams, know-it-alls and fortunetellers. Their social position may always have been rather weak, but as the rulers have preferred keeping them under control (as well as possible) rather than trying to forbid their activities completely (which they knew would have been impossible) shamans have never been persecuted all too strongly.

Today a paradigm shift can be observed as the current government seeks to establish and strengthen phenomena that they call “the spiritual heritage” of the nation in order to propagate nationalistic feelings of the citizens. For example shamanic practices are being “remodeled” by introducing new potentially helpful spirits such as Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Lei Feng. The regalia of a shaman may now include parts of a Red Guard uniform and modern sport shoes. The traditional chants are sometimes supplemented by the national hymn of the PRC.

Emily Chao (Chao, Emily 1999: The Maoist Shaman and the Madman: Ritual Bricolage, Failed Ritual, and Failed Ritual Theory. Cultural Anthropolgy 14(4): 505-511.) describes such a new kind of shamanist ritual in her article and points out that in the end it is always the audience that makes their judgment of its effectiveness based only on the result.

Adam Chau (Chau, Adam Yet 2006: Miraculous Response. Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China. Stanford, California. Stanford University Press: 211-215.) has done research on popular belief systems in northern China in the 1980’s and states:

”To my knowledge there has been no crackdown on superstitious activities in Shaanbei since the 1980’s, which partly accounts for the vibrant popular religious life there. Yet so much of Shaanbei popular religious life (e.g. divination, spirit mediumism, rain prayers, symbolism of hell and divine retribution, etc.) would qualify as superstition according to the criteria of the Maoist era.”

and

“It is quite plane to everyone in the local state that cracking down on popular religion, no matter how superstitious it looks, will meet with popular disapproval and even resistance: it ´will not win people’s hearts´.”

Benefiz-Konzert am 14.6.2014 mit, unter anderem, chinesischer Musik in Bern

Benefiz-Konzert der SPOG, Schweizerische Pädiatrische Onkologie Gruppe.

Samstag, 14. Juni 2014, 17.00 Uhr, Türöffnung 16.30 Uhr
Französische Kirche, Zeughausgasse 8, Bern

Freier Eintritt, Kollekte zugunsten

Links zur Eilandung und Programm:

Benefizkonzert_14_Juni_2014. Einladung

Benezif Konzert 14.6.2014 Programm