PAULINE D. LOH CHI­NESE WHISPERS Look­ing back, also ahead

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

Noth­ing brings home dif­fer­ences more ef­fec­tively than the celebration of tra­di­tion, and noth­ing gets more tra­di­tional than the on­go­ing celebration of the Lu­narNew Year in China, with still a week to go.

It is a uni­ver­sal fes­tiv­ity that should unite eth­nic Chi­nese all over the world, re­gard­less of na­tion­al­ity, prov­ince, city or vil­lage, but it is also a time when re­gional nu­ances be­come most ob­vi­ous.

In China it­self, ev­ery vil­lage sep­a­rated from its neigh­bors by a creek or hil­lock may de­velop to­tally dif­fer­ent rit­u­als. You can imag­ine the wide spec­trum that de­vel­ops in a vast coun­try so cul­tur­ally, ge­o­graph­i­cally and lin­guis­ti­cally di­verse.

North and south, east and west, desert or is­land, ev­ery re­gion will cel­e­brate the com­ing of another Lu­nar year in unique ways. Va­ri­ety is what pep­pers the Lu­nar NewYear fes­tiv­i­ties with such depth of mean­ing.

His­tory, re­cent his­tory, also plays a part.

There was a time in China when “old tra­di­tions” equated “so­cial evils” and were ruth­lessly erad­i­cated in one bloody decade.

Strangely enough, it was the Chi­nese over­seas who pre­served most of theNewYear rit­u­als and tra­di­tions, mainly be­cause th­ese were the only links to the moth­er­land.

I grewup with four ma­jor cul­tural influences: a Can­tonese grand­fa­ther raised in Shang­hai, his Guang­dong vil­lage wife, a Fu­jianese ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther who left home to seek his for­tune and later mar­ried a fourth gen­er­a­tion Straits Chi­nese.

Their paths con­verged in Sin­ga­pore, where they re­mem­bered the an­ces­tral land by nos­tal­gi­cally ob­serv­ing its Spring Fes­ti­val rit­u­als.

As their grand­child, I was ex­posed to a col­or­ful hodge­podge of fes­tive tra­di­tions from Can­tonese, Fu­jianese and Shang­hainese cul­tures.

The Chi­namy grand­par­ents de­scribed was a wa­ter-and-ink land­scape full of an­cient­myths and rit­u­als, its peo­ple well versed in Con­fu­cian eti­quette and man­ners as was ap­pro­pri­ate for a land that had nur­tured 5,000 years of civ­i­liza­tion.

Words can­not de­scribe the shock when I fi­nally landed in Bei­jing on my first as­sign­ment in 1981. It was noth­ing like what I ex­pected. China was in tran­si­tion in a cen­tury of changes, and too busy to bother with tra­di­tions.

The spouse, born three years af­ter 1949, tried to di­lutemy be­wil­der­ment later by ex­plain­ing that China was an old mis­shapen vase that needed to be shat­tered and re­cast so it can be bet­ter— a painful but nec­es­sary process.

Another 30 years for­ward af­ter the 1980s, the newChi­nese vase has ob­vi­ously taken shape, and is in need of dec­o­ra­tion. So it is that its peo­ple are now look­ing fur­ther back for in­spi­ra­tion, and many old cus­toms have been dusted off the shelves and re­vived.

Fes­tiv­i­ties, though, re­flect the vast changes that had hap­pened in the in­terim.

One of the first rit­u­als is the an­nual ex­o­dus from city to coun­try as China’s vast work­force goes home by train, plane and au­to­mo­bile. Another rite is the buy­ing spree, now usu­ally online, as the af­flu­ent young shop for im­ported del­i­ca­cies to bring home to their par­ents in the towns and vil­lages.

The re­union din­ner where ev­ery fam­ily mem­ber gath­ers around a ban­quet fea­tur­ing the best of re­gional del­i­ca­cies is a tra­di­tion that cel­e­brates the bonds of blood and kin.

The Lu­nar New Year hol­i­day is also a time to rest and re­cu­per­ate be­fore another year of hard work ar­rives. For many of us, that time is al­most upon us and we pre­pare to la­bor on in the Year of theHorse. Con­tact the writer at paulined@ chi­nadaily.com.cn.

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