Thursday, May 31, 2012

It's a Funny Thing, Culture (This is from April)

China recently celebrated its annual festival of Qingming, a solemn day of reverence to passed ancestors. It's known in English as 'tomb-sweeping day', and it's close proximity to the western holiday of Easter, at least in the Gregorian calendar, does not go unnoticed to me.

Both festivals are end-of-winter, and though they have a solemn build-up, are ultimately thankful and celebratory. Like a lot of the world's holidays, perhaps they reflect the changing of the seasons and the pattern of each passing year, the eternal dance of time. But I won't pontificate on the similarities of the all the world's cultures and try to form a thesis that they're all alike at their core (though maybe they are, and maybe I will another time). I just want to mention a few things that are interesting to me about Qingming.

Being a foreigner in China, a country quite literally around the world from where I'm from, I've noticed a few things about the way Chinese culture and commerce interact. This is particularly interesting as China's economic might grows and people here have more money to spend. Sometimes I'm just utterly fascinated by the way Chinese shell out heaping sums of money for what might seem to a westerner as bizarre and worthless. I've seen Chinese pay tons of money for tiny amounts of rare herbs to make tea. When I was in Yunnan, a popular Chinese mainland tourist destination, there were thousands of vendors to buy herbs, jade, and other small items for a lot of money, a lot of money to me anyway, or what would be a lot of money for any middle-class person from any part of the globe. Chinese will also shell it out to have a feng shui expert come to their home and reorganize it based on the feng shui principles. Solicit feng shui to an American (OK, presumably a non-Chinese-American), and even the most open-minded person will probably laugh.

But of course, the shoe fits both ways. Chinese can be very skeptical, hell, I think plenty of Americans can be skeptical, of devoting a large amount of one's time and money to a church. Most Christian groups only ask the layman for 10% of their time, money, and energy (though some groups ask for much more, such as Mormons and some Catholics). But many people just don't see the value in church, such as many in mainland China, where I have been confronted with intense skepticism regarding how churches in America ask for money from their congregations, and ergo attempt to exploit people. I get the feeling that's Party influence talking, going back to Mr. Mao, yet it still pervades Chinese society.

One major institution in the US that can be viewed as completely frivolous is sports. America has a tremendous sporting culture, and those not raised in it may be confused with the pleasure/pain it brings us on a daily basis, not to mention the tremendous amount of money it consumes. It is a business for many, but the 'product' that is consumed is just entertainment, entertainment that is valued at least in our particular culture. If for some reason our culture shifted toward valuing other things than physical performance and athletic grandeur, than the money would be drained out of major sports. It could happen. Maybe it should happen.

The Chinese dig the NBA, especially young boys. Why basketball has caught on in China so avidly I do not know. I think perhaps because it's a simple game that does not require a lot of money or specific locale or equipment to play, like soccer. But think about the cultural implications. Give a Chinese person a ticket to the Superbowl, and they will be utterly confused, despite its supposed worth and monetary value. Or sign a Chinese worker up for a complimentary membership at a ritzy golf club. Some people pay 80,000 dollars a year for memberships to golf clubs in America. The Chinese worker would just not see the value in it. (Though I should note that golf clubs are actually becoming more popular in China, but still for the vast majority, golf is still a cultural luxury that few can afford or enjoy there.)

But I digress. Let's get back to Qingming for the finale. One staple of Qingming, particularly in southern China, is the burning of symbolic gifts to offer the dead. People buy paper watches, cars, gold, diamonds, houses, even women figurines to give the dead some concubine-like company in the next world, and burn them as offerings. These are purely symbolic items, right? They are merely made of paper. One can't be expected to burn a fancy watch on someone's tomb so that they can tell time in the afterlife. But hey, people have got to honor their ancestors somehow, if only for giving them life and raising them, so if paper is the best that can be done, so be it. Few in history have the power to arm themselves for the afterlife with thousands of terracotta warriors guarding over their tomb. But it has happened.

In the west, we no longer have a sacrificial culture, at least not in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We'll put flowers on graves, and that's pretty similar, but not quite the same. Perhaps in the East they revere their ancestors greater than we do. It's more or less accepted that Asian culture is more family and communally oriented, as opposed to the individualism of the West. But I have no qualms with someone burning a paper Rolex on my grave in the hope that I'll use in in the afterlife. In fact, that would be pretty cool.

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