PAULINE D. LOH CHINESE WHISPERS Looking back, also ahead
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.