Posted in China, misc.

Tomb Sweeping with Covid-19

Tomb Sweeping Festival was a rather different affair this year. While China is officially an atheist country, and the major organised religions only have relatively small numbers of followers here, the majority of the population belong to a patchwork of local folk religions with a strong emphasis on ancestor worship. As such, Qingming (Tomb Sweeping Festival in English) is an important part of their calendar, it is a time for the living to honour the dead.

They honour their ancestors, but it is also a time for families to commemorate the lives of their departed relatives. They visit them in the cemetery, clean their tombs or gravestones, and offer food and symbolic money in a solemn ceremony of remembrance. While there are folk religious elements to this, like lighting a changming lamp or burning paper money to ensure the dead can travel safely to the next world, the way these rituals help the living break free from the shadow of the deceased and come to terms with the reality of death are important, even for the non-religious.

This year, however, many were not able to observe this tradition, even as the country was collectively grieving for all those killed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Out of fear of further outbreaks many cities still have bans on mass gatherings, which includes the crowds normally found in cemeteries during this particular festival.

For many this was the first Qingming since the passing of a relative, Covid-19 related or not. It must have been particularly heartbreaking for them to not be able to take part in their traditional rituals. Even more so for those who lost loved ones to the virus, who due to the infectious nature of the disease didn’t get to say goodbye – no last kisses or clasped hands during the final hours.

All over the country relatives could be seen trying to view their loved ones final resting place from a distance. Many funeral parlours have turned to online services, including virtual reality visits to cemeteries and digital flowers and candles. Many offered to clean tombs and leave flowers for the deceased, free of charge. We can only hope that the cancelling of these rituals and internment services will not leave family members of the deceased unable to come to terms with their loss. Funerals and memorial services are, after all, important for ensuring the mental health of surviving family members.

This year, timed to coincide with Qingming, the government announced a national day of mourning for those lost to the pandemic. At 10:00 on Saturday, Chinese people all over the country observed three minutes of silence, while car horns and air raid sirens wailed in grief. The previous day, the Hubei government had honoured 14 victims of the virus, front line medical workers including the previously reprimanded Li Wenliang, as martyrs.

In China, and all over the world, this loss is being felt collectively. Burials, funerals and other rituals after major disasters are a way to say farewell to the dead, console the living, and heal the wounds of personal and collective pain. They shape our memory of the event into a shared social legacy; they can be a lesson, a warning, and a source of emotional encouragement or spiritual motivation.

These rituals are usually one of two kinds: the personal (things like funerals and tomb sweeping activities) or the public (top down orchestrated public services). Both are needed at times like this. Of course, the Western media propaganda machine never misses an opportunity to spread fake news about China, even during times like this they are up to their usual tricks. I’ve seen the public mourning services being reported as something sinister, designed to further control how the people are able express themselves.

Now in the past the Chinese government might well have put too much emphasis on public mourning at the expense of personal mourning. I have a difficult time believing they did this for sinister or ulterior motives and, regardless, modern China is markedly different from its past. The Communist Party learns and evolves.

Take the Tangshan earthquake as example, which in 1976 killed at least 240,000 people. Immediately after the quake, state media focussed on residents’ “anti-earthquake spirit”. At the time the party viewed traditional rituals and burial services as part of the nation’s feudal past. The dead were buried quickly, often in unmarked graves. Those who lost loved ones in the disaster quietly burned offerings of paper money on silent streets.

Over the years these individual expressions of mourning and memory persisted in the city, especially around Tomb Sweeping Festival and the anniversary of the quake. A business man, sniffing out a way to cash in on the massive loss of life, unveiled a memorial wall on which relatives could carve the names of their deceased – for a price of course. Despite the crassness of the project, and its blatant commercialism, thousands of orders were placed by people looking for a place where they could visit their loved ones, touch their name, or simply cry. Eventually the government ordered the wall torn down and unveiled a free one of its own, a move indicative of the authorities changing attitudes towards personal grief and mourning.

Holding a national day of mourning or building a statue to Li Wenliang (as one Hubei politician has called for) can be a powerful way to remember a disaster. It is also vital to allow traumatised individuals a means to vent their emotions, find hope and preserve personal memories. I want you to know that contrary to what is suggested by Western media, in China these means do exist and are allowed. Take Li Wenliang’s final Weibo post (Weibo is the Chinese equivalent of Twitter). Netizens have turned it into a sort of shrine, a place where they can spill their thoughts. Some thank him, some say they miss him, some tell him Wuhan has finally contained the virus, some talk of bewilderment and some talk of courage.

In the coming months other countries around the globe will be having their own public mourning services, and countless individuals will be processing their own personal grief. Our emotions and memories that we take forward with us from this period are all a part of the collective legacy of this disaster.

Posted in China

The Chinese “English Name” Culture

I’m sure everyone has heard any number of jokes about Chinese names, such as the Wong Fook Hing book store meme that went viral a few years back. But its not just Chinese names that we can have a giggle at, there is a whole culture in China surrounding giving yourself an English name – and many of these names sound just as funny and ridiculous to us native English speakers.

For example, if you’re ever in China be prepared to meet any number of respectable professional women who have, for want of a better expression, “stripper” names. I know an Art professor called Candy and a logistics professional called Unique. The guy who interviewed me for my first job in China is called Rock. I even met one guy called Giant Squid!

Believe me, it gets better!

Often Chinese people keep their own surname and only give themselves an English first name. The results can be, well, unintended. Some genuine cases of this strategy going slightly wrong include Annie Tang (anything), Harry Thai (hairy thigh), Barbie Kiu (Barbecue) and Never Wong.

So why does China have such a strange “English name” culture? Most people who laugh at Chinese names probably haven’t thought about this question. Those that have tend to give ridiculously over-simplistic answers. I’ve heard it said that Chinese people sometimes give themselves strange English names because they don’t understand our naming culture. This might be true to an extent, but a much more relevant answer is that these names sound ridiculous to us because we don’t understand the Chinese naming culture.

Chinese people, when giving themselves an English name, do not somehow magically extract themselves from their own culture and their own way of doing things. Besides, often the reason for giving themselves an English name can be because its considered fashionable, or because its easier for foreigners to pronounce. It is very rarely because they want to assimilate into the cultures of countries that are literally on the other side of the world from them – they are not trying to be like us. This last point is worth remembering.

So what is the Chinese naming culture? I’ve set out four points below that I hope explains it to an extent (although bear in mind that I’m a newcomer to China, I’m far from an expert on matters of Chinese culture so if I get something wrong here let me know and I’ll correct it).

The first thing to note is that a Chinese given name can also be any word or character. In China there isn’t a strong distinction between a regular word and a name. This is why Chinese people with English names such as Boat, Rock, and Genius have these names, they are very likely direct translations of the person’s Chinese name.

We should also remember that Chinese is a much more complex language than English, they have a whole other level of language rooted in their characters. These characters, while very intimidating to those of us who like letters and alphabets, are actually intricate and beautiful representations of words and meaning. There is actually even a level of Feng Shui in these characters called the Five Elements. It is important for these elements (fire, water, stone, metal, and wood) to be balanced. If someone has a lot of Fire in their Chinese name they might want some water in their English name – so they pick Ocean!

Another relevant point to consider is that in China you can have a variant of a name that quite literally no one else you know has. It has been estimated that there are about 46,000 Chinese characters. Basic literacy only requires you to know about 2000 of these characters, and the average educated person in China knows around 4000 to 5000. That leaves a lot of characters that range from rare to extremely rare. And as we noted above, there isn’t a big distinction between names and words in China, so it becomes very easy to have quite a unique name given the sheer volume of rare characters to compose a name from. This could be a very unique character with a meaning deeply rooted in your family’s values, or simply one chosen purely for its rarity. When these practices are used in the “English name” culture in China people will try to find a name that no one else has – sometimes even inventing a name! An example of this: I met a guy called Karx, who told me he made it up himself by combining “Karl” and “Marx” (well, that’s what he told me anyway!)

Finally, remember that Chinese people put a lot of emphasis on the meaning of a name. While English names have meanings (check a baby name book, for example), in our culture we don’t attach much importance to these names – we usually just give our kids names we like the sound of. In China, the meaning of the name is extremely important – to the extent that parents often give their children literal names like “Brave”, “Strong”, “Beauty” etc. When choosing an English name for themselves many Chinese follow this way of thinking.

So by all means have a giggle if you hear a funny name, some of them are genuinely funny to Westerners. But just remember, if you’re laughing at a Chinese person because of their English name and thinking “That stupid Chinese person doesn’t understand English names!” then there’s a very good chance that that Chinese person would be thinking to themselves “That stupid laowai doesn’t understand how to choose a name properly!”