Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: christianity
Tuesday, 28 May 2013 18:26

Keening: Taiwan's Professional Mourners

Translated from the Chinese by Conor Stuart. Photos courtesy of Liu Junnan and Wang Zhengxiang

When did keening become so forced?

A Mei: 'There was always someone there saying: Now you should cry... You can't cry now...My brother and I often got mixed up, "Do we have to cry now? Or not cry?".
                                                                                                                 -Seven Days in Heaven (2010)

The film, Seven Days in Heaven (Fuhou Qiri) from the short story of the same name, describes the experiences of A Mei, the female protagonist who has been working in the city for many years, on her return to her rural hometown for her father's funeral. There was a montage in the film with a lively Spanish dance track playing in the background, in which the 'keening' during the funeral preparation process is satirized – at one point A Mei hasn't finished eating, and later hasn't finished brushing her teeth, but hears the call "the girl should come and cry", and she has to don her mourning clothes and sprint to the altar to cry – in a very memorable scene. This scene must have made a lot of Taiwanese watching laugh (at least that is what happened with my friends and I), not just because of the comi-tragic sorry figure she cut, but also because we've all had similar – even if not quite as dramatic – experiences and sentiments.

Funerals, always touch on death and separation. Being grief-stricken or crying, is a natural emotional and physiological reaction; however, having to cry or 'keen' under the strictures of a pre-formulated ritual, is hard to think of as 'natural'.

How old is traditional? How new is modern?

In Taiwanese funerals the time to cry is appointed and when that time comes you have to cry, even if you have to fake it, and it's a loud keening wail – this is an element of Taiwanese funeral culture which is often criticized as a corrupt practice. When watching Seven Days in Heaven, A Mei's embarrassment, and the laughter of the audience, reflects the distance that people nowadays feel towards funeral rites.

For the past 20 or so years, a trend towards modernization in funerals has gathered momentum; the customs surrounding the funeral rites, often seen as esoteric were rebranded under the new moniker 'the study of life and death' (a field of study in the Chinese speaking world: shengsixue), advocated in the context of Metaphysics. A milestone in this trend has been the regulatory impact of the 'Mortuary Service Administration Act' promulgated by the Taiwanese government at the end of 2002, an act that states its purpose as essentially advocating conforming funeral customs to reflect the demands of a modern society.

If one compares the funeral model listed under the Citizen Ceremonies' Model ratified by the government in 1970 and similar models offered by funeral businesses today, one discovers that there's not much difference – clearly we haven't completely gotten rid of the old, and welcomed in a new way of doing things, but rather we've adapted and reinterpreted some of the finer details. So, before we rush to accept the traditional/modern dichotomy, perhaps we should ask ourselves what is this tradition that we are talking about? How old is it really? And what about the meaning of it should be reformed?

The shift from secular to religious funerals

To continue the example of keening, let's do a bit of historical research.

Normally people from Han culture think of funeral rites as pertaining to three separate traditions, the Confucian school, Buddhism and Daoism, at the same time, different characteristics sprang up in different localities. The fact that a funeral rite is called a rite () implies that it not only a religious activity; comparing the Confucian, the Buddhist and the Daoist traditions, the relationship between rites () and the Confucianism is much older and much deeper.

Very early on, China already had the concepts of ghosts, deities and ancestor worship, however, from the time of Confucius and Mencius, the rites, although they took their origin in belief and sacrificial rituals, developed by Confucian intellectuals from the rites of Zhou has always been secular, the main thrust of which was concerned with governing the behaviour of man. Confucianism tends to a belief that improving one's own sense of morality can give order to society, and allow one to accept one's place in life; they didn't feel the need search for consolation in imagining ghosts or deities. Therefore, the funeral rites and customs Confucianism advocated didn't include religious mysticism, but rather they reflected the 'normal' social order and social contract.

Pursuing harmony and rationality in this world, cannot ease the primal terror that people feel when faced with death, and this pursuit is unable to answer people's questions or speak to their imaginings of the afterlife. The narrative of life and death in Confucian thinking, advocating the ideas of putting the service of man before the service of spirits and that of keeping a respectful distance from ghosts and deities, is not enough to satisfy these questions; so, as Buddhism, which had come from elsewhere, and the home-grown Daoism came to fruition in the Wei, Jin and North-South dynasties, the system of rites surrounding funerals associated with Confucianism became intertwined with those of Buddhism and Daoism; with the changes in the way people think about the world, the secular Confucian orthodoxy has gradually become less dominant, under attack as it was from modern ways of thinking; supernatural religious belief was able to come to the fore in funeral rituals, revealing even more clearly the shift towards thinking from a religious perspective.

哭喪04Restraining Grief, a Thousand Year Old Ritual

However, in the midst of this trend, keening is considered an example of a more 'classic' ritual.

As the Chinese equivalent to "I'm sorry for your loss", which translates roughly as "Restrain your grief, so that you can adapt to the loss", which people today still use regularly, can attest to, the main tenet by which the Confucian system of rites deals with crying or keening during the mourning period emphasizes mediating grief by controlling one's physiological reactions. The passage 'Questions about Mourning Rites'in the Classic of Rites (Li Ji) is an early record that, even in the case of mourning for parents, the mourning period shouldn't last more than three years, the purpose of this is in the hope that people will gradually be able to exercise emotional restraint, and return to their customary life in society. This current of thought continued until after the Song (960–1279) and the Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties, when Confucian scholars gradually compiled Family Rites wherein the role of crying as a stage in funeral rites was laid down more clearly in writing, this included instructions like the following: on the death of a relative or a friend, you cry loudly (the person is dead so you can cry); throughout the period when one is offering sacrifices for the dead, one can cry if one feels sad (there's no appointed time for crying, when grief comes one may cry); but once the body has been interred, during the 'Enshrining the Spirit' ritual, one can only cry in the morning and in the evening (crying at dawn and at dusk); after a year of mourning, one should stop crying – this is where the idea of appointing the times when one could and could not cry came from in part.

As well as this, keening in this context, isn't simply 'crying', but rather it involves singing a keening song (dirge). From the perspective of the Han people, the folk keening dirges can be sung in several different ways, some are freestyle with no limitations on content, others, however, have words, but most are sung by women, such as wives and daughters on the death of an elder; during the funeral rites of the Zhuang, the Yi and the Jingpo peoples, all minority ethnic groups from the South West of China, one can always find rituals which fuse dance and keening dirges to express and relieve grief.

Can grief-stricken keening be carried out by proxy?

We can say for sure that keening is a part of a funeral culture with a long history, and it had a rich significance, and not a negative one, so is it right to label keening as a aberrant practice?

In the film Seven Days in Heaven, as well as the 'genuinely' filial daughter, A Mei, who feels bewildered by the keening ritual in the process of the funeral, there is also another classic role associated with crying: the 'fake' filial daughter A Qin, who keens professionally. In the film, A Qin is a larger than life career keener who can turn her tears on and off at the drop of a hat; the idea behind this character comes from the Chinese expression for a professional keener 'Xiaonvbaiqin'(孝女白琴 literally: filial daughter Baiqin), which formed a part of Taiwanese funeral processions (zhentou 陣頭) ten or twenty years ago. Somehow, compared to the relatives of the dead not knowing how to cry, spending money to hiring a perfect stranger who is in this profession to keep up appearances for them by 'performing' grief, seems a lot harder to reconcile with the practice of 'rites', but in Taiwan, this phenomenon has really taken off.

In fact, as well as "Filial Daughter Baiqin", another element of the parade tradition (zhentou 陣頭) with which Taiwanese readers will be familiar is the part called "Five sons cry at a tomb" (Wuzikumu 五子哭墓), these all play a part in "orthodox" Taiwanese funeral customs: the latter takes its origin in a Hoklo folktale; the former, on the other hand, is derived from the character 'Filial Daughter Baiqiong' in the 1970s' Taiwanese popular classic puppet theatre The Great Confucian Knight-Errant of Yunzhou (雲州大儒俠) – so these are all relatively "new traditions", so to speak. That's not to say that these more performative examples of keening don't have an element of filial piety or that they don't count as an expression of grief; however if one really goes back through historical records it becomes clear that these performances were actually invented by Taiwanese funeral homes – another relatively "new tradition" which only really started to become popular from the 1960s onwards.

 Because of its close connection with the rise of local funeral home companies, most of the professionals performing as"Filial Daughter Baiqin" normally work for relatively small organizations, often with staff shortages, and they're often responsible for weddings and other celebrations in addition to funerals - working in a variety of different roles, not just in the funeral sector, like performing as show girls on dance floats at weddings - a common sight at local weddings, celebrations and sometimes even funerals. For that very reason, the "Filial daughter Baiqin" profession is one of the most denigrated within Taiwan's contemporary funeral cultural industry, indirectly reinforcing people's negative impressions of this keening custom at funerals.

Overcoming the diametric opposition between "traditional" and "modern"

From another perspective, however, no matter if it's the services performed by the undertaker, the"Five sons crying at the tomb" (Wuzikumu) or "Filial daughter Baiqin", given that the structure of society has changed over time, the way funerals are held has adapted accordingly, making up for something that is now missing from our society (the popularization of funeral homes reflects the weakening of the bonds between people living in the same area and within families, as well as the scarcity of people familiar with rites; the rise of this kind of performative keening by professionals is not unlinked to the shrinking of families and the decline in the number of children), that reflects the psychology and demands of a bygone era. The custom does not take its origins in temples and it does not have a long history, but compared to the esoteric mysticism of the religious conception of rites, it is perhaps closer to the true essence of rites as they relate to the life of the ordinary man.

With the tide of modernization concerning funeral and burial customs, people have advocated freeing ourselves from the corrupt practices of traditional funeral customs and rites: they should be more solemn, there should be no loud mournful keening; they should be simplified and adapted to the times, there shouldn't be such extravagant decorations; one should follow religious practice, and not indulge in petty superstitions... however, these imagined "traditions" cannot be so easily homogenized, and one cannot break away from them simply by constructing modernity in opposition to them. Using the example of keening, we can even go far as to say that 'modernity' surfaces in order to resolve that which seems to be a contradiction or an aberration in any given society – here it would be the aberration would be the idea of a stranger being paid to mourn for one's relatives, but often in problematizing this aberration we flippantly iron out the creases in history, and simply thrust upon it the term 'tradition'. In this way we often remain ignorant to how the same practice, in this case keening, in a different time and place can change in the way it is carried out (i.e. from family members to professional keeners); and how this kind of aberration is a product of historic shifts within a society, and shouldn't simply be banished as a corrupt traditional practice.

Ghosts and deities remain outside of the grasp of human perception, and so judgement of whether something is good or bad is simply a product of our way of thinking and we shouldn't ignore the historical realities that lie behind apparent aberrations.

 

 

 


Tuesday, 28 May 2013 15:20

The extraordinary challenge of living an ordinary life

There are extraordinary moments in life. Moments of deep, soul-shaking happiness, moments of tremendous discovery, moments where the mountain we climb during the entirety of our existence suddenly offers us a glance of the richness of its landscape – valleys, clouds, streams and lofty peaks... There are also moments of extraordinary misery, when a beloved one disappears, when one's love is betrayed, when sickness is diagnosed, or when goals and dreams prove impossible to fulfill.


Tuesday, 02 April 2013 14:23

(Dis)belief in Taiwan

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video the experience of people from different cultures of faith or lack of faith in Taiwan is explored.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 14:19

(I believe therefore) I'm moral

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video we look at what role faith and religion has in the formation of our morality whether directly or indirectly, and whether or not morality goes beyond a utilitarian social contract.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 14:14

The form of (In)divinity

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video we explore the different images people have of god, and how this changes with time and with the progression of our journey through life.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 14:09

Divine In(ter)action

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video the way different people conceive of the way in which any god might interact with the world and with humans is explored as well as the different ways that people try and communicate with their god.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 14:04

Living (Dis)belief

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video the trials and doubts undergone by those who have already committed themselves to a belief or life without belief.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 13:42

(Dis)ordered World

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video we look at how different people structure their world in relation to or apart from their belief system, and the link between the two.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 13:39

I Believe(d)

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video the personal journey that people living and working in Taipei undergo to determine whether or not they have faith is examined and discussed.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Monday, 18 February 2013 11:36

A Pope between Winter and Spring

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has come for most commentators as a big surprise. How can someone in a position of power voluntarily relinquish it? Power and honors exert so strong an attraction on us that we often see political, economic or clerical leaders cling to them till the end of their lives. Therefore, the departure of the Pope comes as a testimony of personal humility: Benedict XVI has recognized publicly the fact that he no longer had the physical strength necessary to carry on. The fact that he made this announcement on the day marked on the Catholic liturgical calendar for praying specially for the sick makes such recognition even more moving. The gesture made by Benedict reminds me of the words addressed by Jesus to Peter: "I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." (John 21,18) Let us first admire the courage and clarity of someone able to evaluate what he still can reasonably do or not do. This is certainly a lesson in inner freedom.

But two additional questions were raised when Benedict XVI's resignation was made public. The first one might have troubled many Catholics - though it has been asked also by many people who do not belong to the Church: is not the office of the Pope "something special", something sacred somehow? Did not his predecessor, John-Paul II, and several other popes before him, show another example when they persevered till the end, notwithstanding the burden of their illness? Benedict XVI alluded clearly to this when he said in his declaration that the office of the Pope was not carried on simply by "doing things' but also by prayer and by offering one's sufferings. It is not primarily an administrative office, but a spiritual one as well. Still, he also made it very clear that personal discernment could lead different people to reach different decisions. This Pope, whose style has often been presented as conservative, finished his Pontificate with a revolutionary decision, one that will have a profound impact. A Pope is no longer a "prisoner" of his own status, but rather someone who, like many elderly people nowadays, must cope with an ever evolving health situation: what is the best way to live the remaining years of ones' life? Silence and prayer are indeed an option worth considering. By doing so, the Pope has highlighted the humanity, the frailty of any spiritual leader – and spiritual leaders may show also their leadership in the way they renounce their charge. I personally think that the Pope's decision will help advance towards Christian unity: the Bishop of Rome can peacefully resign when his health compels him to do so, as every other bishop and Church leader does The Pope is not "divine", he is a man who can recognize the moment when someone else must take charge. A humbler vision of the Papacy may help to cement unity around it, as many Protestant leaders have already noted in the past. Relinquishing the "magic" of the Papacy will actually make the Papacy stronger, by highlighting the role it can play for all Christians.

The second question that has been raised is to know whether the Pope resigned because of the crises that have agitated the Catholic Church these last years. It seems that Benedict XVI rather thinks that he has helped the Church to return to the basics, that he has put the house more or less in order, and that he can thus leave without failing his duties. For sure, his pontificate has been a tormented period. May Spring now come on the Church, and may she become able to better listen to the voices coming from Asia, Africa and South America, so as not to be only a house of sorrow but also and foremost of praise and of joy. This is certainly the wish of Benedict XVI himself, and he has certainly sacrificed much of himself in order to allow other people able to harvest one day what he has sown.

Photo by Giuseppe Ruggirello [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Thursday, 07 July 2011 00:00

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: The Sequel

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, written in the 14th century, is the most popular Chinese historical novel, based on the tumultuous history of the country during the second and third centuries. A cultural icon, it has lost nothing of its evocative power, revived through TV series, mangas and videogames. Throughout the centuries, its over-complex plot has also provided the Chinese political scene with endless analogies, helping politicians and commentators to assess power relationships, strategies and claims to legitimacy.

No wonder that the “Three Kingdoms” metaphor is still in use. And it serves today to describe the somehow subdued battle going on between the three main ideological forces that divide the Chinese intellectual spectrum, all of them trying to define policy making and future institutional transformations. Roughly speaking, the “Three Kingdoms” are now referred to as Confucianism, Christianity and a populist form of Maoist revival.

Let us start with the latter “Kingdom”: Bo Xilai (薄熙来), Party secretary of Chongqing Special Municipality and a scion of a prominent Communist family, has built up his popularity on the eradication of local mafias (or its substitution by new factions), the building of scores of social housing, and the chanting in group and on TV of revolutionary songs of the past. He has somehow reshaped a “spiritual civilization” based (a) on the comfort of small groups fostering mutual support through chanting together and participating in community activities, (b) on nostalgia for less corrupt times, and (c) on the reassertion of the quasi-religious nature of the Party.  Strangely enough, the model has proven effective, and is now embraced by a growing number of national and local cadres, making the ones who embrace the revival of the Party and the enshrinement its history leading contenders in the political battles to come. For sure, the ultimate motivations behind Bo’s launching of the “Red songs campaign” remain unclear, but it any case it has initiated a movement that has implications going beyond his personal political future. Current dissatisfactions as to inflation and unemployment may give more impetus to this peculiar form of populism.

Confucianism fits better the mind of the leaders and intellectuals who envision the future of China as a continuation and refinement of the current model: meritocracy is the core value, a meritocracy mainly based on technical and administrative expertise; virtue is to be extolled, along with obedience and sense of order; “scientific development” associates with uncritical reverence for China’s long past (while the Populist-Maoist model relies more on generational nostalgia and short-term memory); caution and wisdom anchored into the ruminating of Chinese classics have to predominate over daring attempts at change, so prone is the country to disorder and division.

Finally, “Christianity” is fostered by the rapid growth of Christian churches, joined by people aspiring to a spiritual experience anchored in both personal and community life; at the same time, it clearly posses political undertones as it goes with aspiration to personal freedom and rights understood in the Western sense; such aspiration ultimately implies to relax or even to overcome the Party-State’s overall control on society. “Christians’ are thus often assimilated to people aspiring towards a Western-leaning model, and such people can also be found in leading circles. An example is the one provided by the economist Zhao Xiao (赵晓), who has equaled the historical achievement of the West with its adhesion to Christian beliefs and has converted to Christianity. During the last few years and months, spiritual and political values have been more clearly associated than was the case at the beginning of the “religious fever’ tide, with tensions and debates consequently growing.

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is characterized by the intricacy of its plot and the innumerable changes of alliances and fortune that occur. It would thus be unwise to see in the three “Kingdoms” now emerging the sole actors of an ever-evolving drama. But the understanding of the Characters who appear on the stage at a given moment of time might help all observers to better follow the plot yet to unfold.

Photo: C.P.


Tuesday, 06 July 2010 12:02

To harm is human, to forgive is divine

Ming C. Huang is the director of the Prison Fellowship in Taiwan. The prison fellowship gives counselling to various prisoners. They also look after victims and their families and try to fully reintegrate them into society . Of particular interest is that they give counselling to those on death row. This gives Ming a rare insight into prisoners that others may have completely given up on and provides a more accurate understanding of the individual issues and mindsets of each prisoner.


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