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Badasses of Chinese History: Huā Mùlán
One of my favourite legends surrounds Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s and his journey north from Baghdad with and observations of Vikings. Ever since reading the novelisation Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton, I have been fascinated by folklores, myths and fables. In legends we can relate to their accounts, discover our own histories and create a personality we can never possibly know. In Michael Crichton’s afterword he gave the view that history and legend can be interesting “if presented in the correct way.” The story he wrote surrounded the legend of Beowulf – in response to a close personal friend lecturing on the “Bores of Literature.”
I’ve never seen Disney’s Mulan, nor have I seen several of the other film adaptations studios have spewed out since the early 1920’s. The works just do not interest me. Fascination in China surrounding the story of Huā Mùlán (sometimes referred to as Fa Mulan – Huā means flower) continued with a modern play starring Méi Lánfāng – a man playing the heroine. Prior to that legends and stories told of this unlikely lass’s rise to the fore. Disney’s animated effort was the first ever Disney DVD release – and the first cartoon by the same production company to tackle warfare openly. For many people outside of China it may have also been the first chance to see a little of China’s vast culture and history. Without it, we’d probably not have heard of Christina Aguilera too (she sang on the soundtrack).
The original legend was transliterated in “The Ballad of Mulan” more than a thousand years ago by an author who was never named amongst an anthology that has subsequently stayed mislaid to history. The oldest copy of the narrative, comprised of just 31 couplets, portrays Mulan’s triumphant military career throughout which she masked her gender from her fellow combatants. Ultimately she led a war-winning battle and is given reverence by the Emperor. The Emperor furnishes a cash reward and a senior post in the army. After twelve years of service and a bucketful of praise, she sought retirement. Instead of rewards, she opted to live out her days in her hometown. Home is where the heart is. Even on returning to her hometown, her companions from the armed forces did not know she was a she, they still thought she was in fact a he. Twelve years of poor observations on their part.
The famous poem, limited to around 31 couplets, received stage treatment in the 12th century, lay dormant for five centuries before returning to the frontage. Another stage adaptation and the novel Sui Tang Yanyi pushed Huā Mùlán back into discussion. Historical bases debated Mùlán’s family name.
Sui Tang Yanyi, Guō Màoqiàn and Chu Renho have the honours for most adapted and printed versions of the Huā Mùlán story. When was Huā Mùlán around? Somewhere before the Tang Dynasty and strewth knows when. There isn’t really anything written down prior to the poem, Ballad of Mulan. Where did Huā Mùlán reside? Again, scholars and literary critics will argue until they’re blue in the face. The Northern Wei (Běi Wèi) is argued by Xu Wei’s play, whereas, the Sui Tang Yanyi romantic novel has her as a founder of the Tang Dynasty. The poem was written prior to the latter option. Guō Màoqiàn, a specialist in poetry and written art, compiled original material somewhere around what is now called Shāndōng… …BUT, his existence even evades evidence. Her name isn’t always the same either – across novels and accounts, with surnames mentioned as Hua, Zhu, Wei, Ren to Han.
Most stories note Mùlán was sat at a loom (an old fashioned clothing weaving device). She was worried. One male from each family must be enlisted to the regional army. Her father was vulnerable and old, her younger brother too young. Somehow, Mùlán manages to join in their place through some old-fashioned cross-dressing. Other stories claim that Mùlán would rather fall on her own sword than be ruled by a foreigner. Chinese culture is deeply rooted with patriotism – and pride, and massively swayed to family loyalty. I admire this, and many stories of Mùlán echo this sentiment. In Disney’s film, Mulan has a dog named “Little Brother” as a nod to her younger sibling joining the army – I hear “Little Brother” means something more phallic here. Chu Renho’s story follows this but diverts in as that Mùlán is captured by troops loyal to Dòu Jiàndé and his quest to be king. His daughter and self-titled Princess Xianniang tried to recruit her. On discovering she wasn’t a man, she blew a gasket of excitement. They became the female equivalent of blood brothers – sworn sisters.
Amongst the Sui Tang Yanyi, Guō Màoqiàn and Chu Renho visions of Mùlán, there are names like Chi Fu mentioned in the story, translating into English as “to bully”. The central theme seems to be one Confucian virtue grasped atop all others. Bravery and loyalty sub-themes easily mask this to a degree but respect for one’s elders, ancestors and ultimately one father stand out. Perhaps in western families with one parent families, it is not so easy to relate but here in China the story is fiercely relative [pun intended]. The big three authors’ incarnations develop an idea of mass casualties, often at the hands of Mùlán’s armies.
Chu Renho’s romantic book Sui Tang Yanyi actually kills the heroine off. In a twist A Game of Thrones would be proud of, she commits suicide. Mùlán’s bad luck starts with her return to her hometown. Her father had long since died and her mother was re-wed. The bombshell dropped that she’d have to be a concubine for Heshana Khan of the Western Khaganate. With that she departed this life for the next, so to speak. Other works give Mùlán a far healthier and happier sending off. Chu Renho’s previous incarnation had portrayed Xi tūjué (Western Turkic Khaganate, one of many Turkic peoples present in China back in the Early Middle Ages) as siding with the eventual winners of the Tang Dynasty formation. As sworn sisters their capture in place of the legging-it-for-his-own-life Dòu Jiàndé could have shocked many. The nature of their surrender included providing their captor, Li Yuan – Emperor Gaozu of Tang, with knives. In their mouths. Instead the Emperor and his wife give the captured money. Princess Xianniang can return to her beloved Luo Cheng and get hitched whilst Mùlán can go and provide for her parents.
In researching and reading more about Mùlán via textbooks downloaded, poems, online biographies, questioning my school’s history teachers, observing debates via Chinese language internet forums and several history documentaries obtained via shady copyright-ignorant backstreet DVD shops…. I have come to little conclusion. Mùlán and the myths that surround her have accomplished almost as much as she originally set out to do. Her deception and disguise has hidden the truth, so has legend. Those who know tales of Robin Hood and the folklores around King Arthur will be fascinated forever.
Swathes of legend mask the story of Mùlán. Whether you believe that the crown Princess Xianniang’s father was vanquished after buddying up with the enemy in the Tang dynasty leading to the proposed execution or not; or whether you believe Mùlán supported her parents; or whether the story has been lost in so many forms of translation is up to you; and did she really fight for twelve years?! For me, every incarnation is like the next chapter in the James Bond movie franchise, our heroine grows in stature and delivers a piece of action sometimes a little far-fetched, sometimes embellished and often with an amplified degree of life.
In my opinion, I would advise you to go back to the Dr. No of Mulan. Read the original 31 couplet poem and relish this scarce but valuable specimen of a fervently strapping woman deep from the annals of Chinese legendary literature and possibly a parody on real unconfirmed history etc. I challenge you not to take inspiration from Mùlán, the first real embodiment of Superman. Now we can look to the skies and think about the planet Venus, with a huge crater named after Huā Mùlán – that and behold the future live action Disney release by the same moniker; or we can nip over to the city of Xīnxiāng (Hénán) for a statue entitled Statue of Mulan. All remains a beautifully stoic mystery that has slipped into popular culture and remains debated.
Wei Yuanfu’s, “Song of Mulan” from the 11th-12th century sums up the vagueness of the story by concentrating on the key point:
If in this world the hearts of officials and sons
Could display the same principled virtue as Mulan’s,
Their loyalty and filiality [NB: the relation or attitude of a child to a parent] would be unbroken;
Their fame would last through the ages—how could it be destroyed?
For further reading or vieiwing:
- Mulan: Rise of a Warrior (2009 film) – Live action film about the Chinese legend. Stars Chén ZǔMíng (Jaycee Chan, son of Jacky Chan) and Zhào Wēi (Vicki Zhao) – who holds around 12 internationally recognised Ambassadorships.
The Legend of Mu Lan: A Heroine of Ancient China, written and illustrated by Jiang, Wei and Jiang, Cheng An. ISBN: 1-878217-00-3. (You can even buy a boxset with a doll http://www.heroinesinhistory.com/mulan.html)
The Ballad of Mulan, retold and illustrated by Song Nan Zhang
Pan Asian Publications 1998
The Song of Mulan, Front Street Press
China’s Bravest Girl, Children’s Book Press
Fa Mulan: The Story of a Woman Warrior, Robert D. San Souci, Hyperion Books for Children 1998
The true story of Mulan. Retrieved May 10th 2015. (There is a good powerpoint for use in school classes too).
And if you like graphic novels, look up the surreal Deadpool Killustrated (2013), Hua Mulan joins an Avengers Assemble-style cast with Natty Bumppo, Beowulf Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in H.G. Wells’ time machine.
Badasses of Chinese History: General Yuè Fēi (岳飞) and four characters (utmost, loyalty, serve and nation: 精忠报国)
What is loyalty to you? Following your rugby or American football team through thick and thin from birth? Remaining in a job where you barely make ends meet, despite offers from elsewhere? Collecting the latest batch of belly button challenge website links on your WeChat wall, regardless of the fact the challenge has become boring to most? When I ask colleagues and friends about General Yuè Fēi, they all mention his undivided loyalty. I guess that is why he is rumoured to have been tattooed with the phrase “serve the country with the utmost loyalty” (精忠报国 / jìn zhōng bào guó) by his mother.
The four words of Yuè Fēi’s tattoos are noted as appearing on the 1489 stele (a kind of annual rock carving on a slab) placing him in contact with the small Kaifeng Jewish community. Many communities would encounter him through his time. Often depicted as a poet, Yuè Fēi has no quotable poetry, according to Princeton University Prof. James T.C. Liu. The wording on questionable poetry was almost certainly written fair later in history. His combat inevitably led him to self-repair and a brief study of traditional Chinese medicines. His teachings hereafter had further depth, assisting his troops on the field. His other strengths lay in encouraging scholars to come to his troops’ camps and lecture about champions of old, heroes of the nation and deeds done in the name of good. The double-edged sword meant the scholars would undoubtedly pass on his name and conquests.
Praying Mantis Fist (螳螂拳 / tánglángquán) or Praying Mantis Boxing is a form of aggressive combat created by The 18 Masters invited to improve Shaolin martial arts. The style of attack is speedy and would probably leave Floyd Mayweather, Jr standing still. There are knee, elbow and wrist and arm strikes like no other – fittingly reflecting the agility of the praying mantis insects. Like many legends lost in translation, Yuè Fēi’s part in creating this style is hyperbole. A historical fiction novel Water Margin (水滸傳Shui Hu Zhuan) and other texts link Yuè Fēi to the noted creators but not as the creator himself. That said, the movement “Black Tiger Steeling” is accredited to him by the famous Mantis master Yuen Man Kai. Yuè Fēi’s name is heavily linked to the creation of Eagle Claw (鷹爪派 / yīng zhǎo pài) and XíngYì Quán Boxing 形意拳). The former was created for low ranking soldiers, whilst the latter became a necessary tool for his officers.
In legend and fiction Yuè Fēi is noted to have studied under Zhōu Tóng (周同) learning varied techniques of combat underscoring brutal skills like joint-locking and something called elephant style boxing (which sounds cumbersome at best). His methods and teaching conveyed to the battle field with armies swept aside during the Jin dynasty. His name is attached to several boxing techniques Yue Family Fist (岳家拳 / Yuejiaquan). Whether he studied Buddhism to adapt things complexly named as the “Tendon Changing and Marrow Washing QiGong” routines into his own methods is up to the academics to debate, but one thing for sure is Yuè Fēi is deeply embedded in martial arts forming in and around his time.
Yuè Fēi’s birth is also subject to mystery and legend. The book, History of Song (宋史; /Sòng Shǐ) details some interesting stories. At the time of the parturition his parent’s neighbours ran over with buckets of water to douse a fire on the horizon. There was no fire. Péng (鹏), a mystical bird creature, landed before ascending out of sight and hence the name Fēi (飛) meaning fly was given to the new born child by his father. Yuè Fēi’s father was advised by a local monk (reported to be the immortal Chén Tuán) to dip both mother and Yuè Fēi in a water tank should the small Yuè Fēi start crying. After several days, baby Yuè Fēi cried. Mother and baby went for a bath. The bath washed away as the Yellow Rover burst its banks. Mother and child remained safe. Sadly, his father perished in the terrible floods. The story goes that Yuè Fēi was in a previous life, a Péng. On hearing of this, an enemy dragon (once blinded by the Péng that would eventually become Yuè Fēi) flooded the river as an act of revenge. It failed. Struggling for money, his mother did some needlework for the family housing them. Nearby to their dwelling was a cave. As a teenager Yuè Fēi is said to have gone into a cave, enraged a colossal snake, and as he dodged the snake’s probing strikes it vanished. Puff. Gone. A magic spear of the flowering spring (沥泉神矛/ Lìquán Shénmáo) is said to have been left behind following this. This led him to seek weaponry and combat teachings.
Zhōu Tóng is noted to have led Yuè Fēi to a Buddhist recluse who passed down the skills of his combats. Around this time teachings by the master archer Zhōu Tóng led to great skills with the bow and arrow, military tactics and spear work. Skirmishing with hand skills and horse-riding likely came about too. Yuè Fēi’s alleged inner strengths came from his wisdom of Buddhism. Zhōu Tóng was his Jedi Master prodigy. Yuè Fēi seemed to soak up skills and knowledge. In Hellmut Wilhelm’s From Myth to Myth: The Case of Yueh Fei’s Biography Yuè Fēi is reputed to have sought replication of famous national heroes and had been influenced by reading works by Zuo Zhuan, Wu Qi and Sun Tzu. His father Yuè He (岳和) had implanted such material on his son. Did he simply want to mimic those he saw as his supermen? In reading some of the accounts of Yuè Fēi, there is touch of melodrama, good versus evil and a story that could easily form the plot of a new trilogy of Star Wars movies. There is love, hate, fights for freedom and war.
The Biography of Yue Fei and the records of E Wang Shi mention Yuè Fēi’s learning from Zhōu Tóng at an early age. They also mention another mentor, the spear master, Chen Guang (陳廣) who was hired as a kind of Jedi Master Yoda to oversee his stick fighting skills by Yuè Fēi’s grandfather Yao Daweng (姚大翁). This was a boy conditioned for battle.
War. What is it good for? Absolutely everything in a time of conflict and invasion. From his home in Tangyin County, Henan province, Yuè Fēi was recruited by the Song military in 1122 recruited Yuè Fēi. In 1126, his squad supressed waves of warlord rebellions in northern China. This took away much resource from the battles against the Jin. As the defence of Kaifeng fell, his next movement was to an army in Jiankang. His rise was spotted as they defended the Yangtze from the invasive Jurchens. The Song court promoted him to General in the year 1133. His counterattack against the Jin-backed puppet state of Qi led to many regained territories. His and other Generals’ armies beat off the invasion allowing for the continuing Song dynasty. After defeating enemy upon enemy, and against the flow of traffic, he was called back to the Southern Song capital by the Emperor in the year 1141. Having once defeated 100,000 invaders with only 500 men, for some reason, lost to shelves of history, he was hanged. Falsified charges by Emperor Gaozong’s servant Qin Hui at fear of exiled Emperor Qinzong’s return no doubt playing a part. He died aged 39 years old.
In the biography of Yuè Fēi (鄂國金佗稡编/Eguo Jintuo Zubian) written by his grandson Yue Ke (岳珂) there are several approaches that Yuè Fēi utilised efficiently to position his armies. Yuè Fēi rewarded his soldiers well and delivered punishments just as equally. Discipline was tantamount to forming his armies. There was to be no pillaging or destruction. Theft was punishable by execution. Handing out his own personal effects or threatening to execute his own bloodline for failure was not beneath him. Clear orders were given and to be taken without a fiasco. Training was key, and when not in battle, rigorous training and fitness regimes were met. One day swimming through muck, the next clambering up stones and walls. When on leave the soldiers trained because they knew how hard they would be put to a task on camp or in a battle. The usual weaponry and movements were worked on also, but always as close to the real thing as possible. Yuè Fēi could have started his own Marine Corp or S.A.S. He would handpick soldiers, even sending home the unfit or elderly. Inheriting the Han Ching and Wu Xu armies, he sent more than half packing. For those that remained, he tried to treat them equally sharing wine, even if watered down amongst every soldier – and taking shelter only when his troops all had shelter.
After his death, former soldiers and officers spread his techniques across China, and even back to Shaolin where Li Quan (麗泉) invented Northern Ying Jow Pai boxing – something combined with Yuè Fēi’s previously formed Rotating Fist fighting style (翻子拳 / Fānziquán). Regarded as a folk hero for defending his country from a northern invasion despite wishing to look after his elderly mother. Yuè Fēi’s mother’s wish for him to serve his country unbrokenly led to an uncontested unbeaten run in battles. A poem, The River Turns Red reports: “I’ll drive a war chariot and smash apart the Helan mountain pass!” The poem further goes on to show his strength, devotion and care for those who served under him.
After his execution, the legend of Yuè Fēi grew and remains popular amongst storytellers. Like the legend of Mulan and Zhuge Liang, within Chinese history, mythology and fact can be exaggerated or rewritten. Yuè Fēi’s history and myths are equally as fascinating and certainly noteworthy of more cultural reading. He is often wrongly depicted as the individual General who defeated the Juchins; someone fluent in Classical Chinese studies and a knowledgeable Confucian academic – again all likely to be balderdash. His Grandson, Yue Ke, released a biography, which helped to fan the flames of amplification. Still, it isn’t a bad way to get temples and shrines devoted to you; like the P.R. powers behind Tom Sawyer or Keyser Söze.
For further reading or vieiwing:
- Works by Yue Fei (Retrieved 16th June 2015)
- Works by or about Yue Fei (Retrieved 16th June 2015)
- Works by Yue Fei (public domain audiobooks. Retrieved 16th June 2015)
- “The Story of Yue Fei” (Retrieved 16th June 2015)
- Lorge, Peter (2005). War, Politics and Society in Early Modern China, 900–1795. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-203-96929-8.
- The River Turns Red
- You can listen to a stinky but interesting story of what followed Yue Fei’s hanging here [in MP3 format]. (Retrieved 16th June 2015)
- Sir Yang Ti-liang (1995). General Yue Fei. (ISBN 978-962-04-1279-0). A great English translation published in Hong Kong.
Enter the dragon’s head
Let’s start at the beginning, where all good and bad tales always initiate. In this case, Thanksgiving Day 2015. “Hey John, can you go and teach about Thanksgiving Day in an hour?”, my Head of Foreign Languages (just, English, in this case) asked me. I responded that I know zippity-doo-dah (naff all, nowt, nothing) about said event. I must confess to making up everything that day (hopscotch is a traditional Thanksgiving game, correct?). Anyway, that day I met Mr Wong in the Qiáotóu village primary school [their song is called “Dragon Boat Emotion”] and since then we have been friends.
The happening takes place on the lunar calendar date 5th of the 5th month (or Gregorian date 20th June 2015), it popped around after a long day watching dragon boat races in Wàngniúdūn (望牛墩), Zhōngtáng (中堂) and Daojiao (道滘) I went to meet Mr Wong to watch a different kind of race in Qiáotóu (the village in Houjie and not the district in north-eastern Dongguan). I was shattered but I was curious. What was going to happen next? I met Mr Wong in Qiáotóu military barracks, I mean Qiáotóu square. Centrally stacked was enough ordnances to power the Chinese space programme to save Matt Damon. Tables stood, village officials and government-looking folk lingered around. Policeman uncoiled large red wheels of bangers and volunteers edged outwards setting a large viewing area. Mr Wong called me just as an eruption of firecrackers hit by ear like an angry Muhammed Ali squatting a mosquito. Through odd breaks in the sounds I was being invited to “come join my team!” So, I did just that…
Mr Wong’s four-wheel drive vehicle bounced along the narrow streets of Qiáotóu as if we were being pursued by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The journey started at Qiáotóu square and ending deep in a chasm of villages that make up Qiáotóucun. The local buildings excluded modernisation and seemed to be constructed of less plastic and concrete. Warmth, tradition and air of care clung on like the windows in the walls. Electrical cables formed no order, strung from building to sorry looking building. Bricks replaced concrete and rubble replaced tarmac. The earth infrequently offered green chutes within this area.
Here I was to join a dragon boat race of sorts. Water not included. Well, just drinking bottles. Mr Wong said foreigners never enter this village, and have never had reason to – there are no multinational production companies. I was greeted extremely warmly and asked to join the red team. Being a Manchester City F.C. fan, I did not like that idea. However, I was a guest welcomed to unknown traditional activity. Whatever it was, I wanted to know about it. Sacrifices had to be made. I donned a red t-shirt (I had my purple Manchester City shirt underneath to prevent red t-shirt to skin contact). It seemed they had planned my visit, the only XXXXL shirt was for me.
In 2016, I was invited back by Mr Wong and his friend Mr Marco Chen. Not to be confused with the Dongguan township of Qiáotóu (桥头镇), Qiáotóu (桥头) is located in southern Houjie town, east of Fengshan park (凤山公园) and south of Houjie’s Line 2 subway station, Shanmei (珊美). To the south of Qiáotóu is the Exhibition Centre (展览中心) Line 2 subway station. Qiáotóucun (桥头村) is actually a village made up of seven hamlets.
The procession historically began and concluded at the village Ancestral Temple or Cítáng (池塘). In the present day, they commence at various Cítángs finding their finale at the village square. The view from the biggest Cítáng in Qiáotóu stands over the fish pond (池塘/Chítáng, sounds like Cítáng). At the Cítáng, villagers gather and make important decisions. Important blessings and ceremonies are held here. Events gather and ancestral heritage is preserved here.
The tradition, at first, I was told, by one villager, “dated back around six generations and was brought about due to the drying up of several village creaks and two men who raced, carrying large dragon boats, down a village street.” This stimulated my inquisitiveness much more. Soon enough, I had a rounder story.
The most consistent account told from generation to generation is one of a severe drought. Mr Marco Chen, an intellectual-looking chap told me, “The reservoirs and creaks dried up. For a long time, no rain came. People prayed and pleaded for rain. The villagers held an event to show god how genuine their need for water was. In desperation they displayed a wooden dragon’s head, of a very dry nature, to symbolise luck and best wishes. Their unadulterated and sincere plea was answered. A great rain came and the villagers felt blessed and touched deep down. Every year that followed, the villagers repeated this as a thank you to god.”
The dragon’s head sounds like a name of a public house back home. In actual fact there is far more at play here, there is a sacred bond between village of Qiáotóu and their dragons’ heads (there are more than one now). It symbolises happiness, good luck, and good fortune. There is a belief if you carry it, you shall be blessed with a baby boy [I had noticed many dragon’s head carriers have their young daughters alongside them]. Each hamlet of Qiáotóu has a dragon’s head, a flag and colours. A privileged few have held the dragon’s heads, bringing belief confidence and many baby boys to those who have held it proudly up high.
At first it was villagers who joined this occasion, then their extended family, and long after friends of their family, until now where far more people connect. They link into this most historic and unique South China tradition, that is still little known outside of Houjie. Marco tells me, “A day before, twigs are gathered. New members are encouraged to join in preparations. In older times the eucalyptus plant was favoured but now is found to be less abundant. There are the usual dragon boat festival foods, like Zongzi. On the night before the event, local children take a bath with goose eggs. The eggs are put in a net, which is placed into the bath. This symbolises the hope of children growing up very quickly.”
My team, one of seven in Qiáotóu, was approximately 2500-strong, from toddlers to the very much elderly. Here everyone was given either a branch (to beat the clouds away from the dragons), a flag (the red or yellow colours of the village), a drum (noises to replicate the racing beats), or replica dragon boats (finely carved but festooned with neon lights). The team was led by a man holding a wooden dragon’s head. I was an amateur and newcomer. I was given a branch. A small branch at that. A really small branch. It was a twig.
We soon set off, joining the red tribe. There were yellow, blue, green, orange, black and gold tribes around the large village streets. The object was to snake around the village. On meeting the other tribes, firecrackers were thrown at their feet to signify the battle of the racing boats. The team that did not dance well with those who carried the dragon heads and small boat effigies performing their moves, decided without hesitation by the opposing teams, had to turn around and snake another route. The village’s most-eldest people watched on from doorways and seats around the area. As a westerner, I knew I would stand out. I was greeted with curiosity and welcomed by all.
This event happens annually but only for a few hours. The first time I joined, I felt wave after wave of euphoria and privilege to have been invited to such a matchless and rare occurrence. Again, at my second coming, I feel fully euphoric. Through working for Worlda Guangzhou, I was posted to Dao Ming Foreign Language School, who sent me on a Thanksgiving Day task to Qiáotóu’s state school, where I met Mr Wong, who has friends involved in this annual event. A set of links so finite that led to me experiencing something so exceptional and spell-bounding. I felt joy, like never experienced for many years before, like a kid at Christmas, unwrapping a present, not suspecting that his parents have worked exceedingly hard to buy them that Lego set the kid dreamed he would never ever reach. I was that kid once, thanks to my mum, I had that gift – and through her (and Dad’s) gift of life to me, I experienced that moment. The moment has gone, but every now and then life throws something beautiful my way, this was that twinkling ticking trice.
Over the years, tribalism has rocketed, exploding with each clan being rewarded at the central square for their final dance. The central Qiáotóu Square is where the judges convene and do their best Simon Cowell impressions. The team of kinfolk from Qiáotóu that wins, receives honours and a prize for their ‘hood of Qiáotóu village. On asking Edison to translate my questions to many locals, it became apparent that this is a totally unique form of this festival nationally. This time around, I was interviewed for local television, asking my opinion on this unique and vibrant exclusive custom. A rainbow with sounds, drums, whistles and firecrackers. Friendly faces welcome me continuously a team clad in red and yellow invite me to lift the dragon’s head. I lift it. I will probably have a baby boy [pending ongoing logistical problems].
With backing of the government to this ritual and protection from commercialisation, outside exposure allows gentle promotion of this intangible local heritage and culture. Fireworks and firecrackers are allowed by special permission of the government. The powers that be strictly observe the position and routes of said fireworks ensuring all around are safe and buildings are not put at risk. The villagers are extra careful in protecting their culture and edifices.
Mr Marco Chen highlights, “The current dragon boat traditions of Qiáotóu encourage team building and bonding. We ensure as a team, we visit every other team’s Cítáng (池塘) to show communication of the villages and brotherhood. Togetherness in our villages is most important. It is a quality we want each new generation to carry forward. We retain old world values and traditions whilst now including entertainment. There are prizes for winning team displays and happiness is shared with family and friends. There are skills used and learnt, tradition, generations together and positive attitudes throughout. This teamwork is most important to Qiáotóu, and now beyond.”
To see the event, or to explore Qiáotóu, locate the many Ancestral Temples (Cítáng/池塘) and head around towards Qiáotóu square (alongside Guantai Lu) from 8pm to 10pm on the 5th evening of the 5th lunar month [9/6/2016; 30/5/2017; 18/6/2018].
Further reading: Title: Drought Longxiang; ISBN-13: 9787536049475; ISBN-10: 7536049471; Author: BEN SHE YI MING; Binding: Paperback; Publisher: Flower City out; Published: December 1991; Price: 56RMB; Synopsis: An introduction to the festival.
The Case Against Qi Xi Festival
China has a rise on love dates in its ever-growing and evolving love culture, but is it all codswallop?
The letter l resembles the number one, and o as zero, v could be seen as the roman numeral V and e as a letter nowadays akin to electronics. Ladies and jelly spoons, I give you the October the 5th, love your electronics day. That is how some of the logic behind dates, that loosely resemble Valentine’s Day, appear to me.
I have no gripes with truly traditional dates, but it seems here the overlords of capitalism have stepped in and labelled everything according to the monthly sale of choice. The mythology behind QiXi (七夕節) and its older than 2600-year old history is interesting and worthy of a read. Sadly, an evening of sevens is like every other Valentine’s day, a chance to promote discount red panties and half-priced popcorn at the cinema.
What astounds and boggles the mind is the pick and mix of dates on offer to show your love (whether you are an abusive lover or a gentle giant). 20th and 2st of May, a is full of phonetics [“I (5) love (2) you (0/1)”]. Unlike QiXi, this date will never make National Intangible Cultural Heritage status. Regular February the 14th rears its head with standard décor and sales galore. 11/11 is a sacred date in the U.K., tied to remembrance days and mourning. Here all those ones mean single. Similarly, it could also be a digital on switch day. Lantern festival (元宵节) once carried a similar weight in ancient times for headhunting new love. Now there is a sale of lovely items tied in for fans of fanciful fondness. There seems to be a romantic date every week.
Many shops fill with bouquets of flowers, purple teddy bear crazes, tedious looking poetry pieces, chocolates (usually of bitter taste), and gifts of fancy that look at home in a very much discounted discount store. Call me the Scrooge of lust and adoration, but some tacky items are so bad, I question who came up with such ideas. It is the same for almost every occasion and often something straddles Hallowe’en, Easter and Christmas just because it has different shades of glitter.
It is great to see a happy couple minding their own business and enjoying life. Unless, they wear matching t-shirts, adorn themselves in signage to declare their commitment, or post WeChat posts of every moment they shared together (with the world), or get snagged in by supposed romantic restaurant specials. Stay at home, cook something amazing and keep it to yourselves. It isn’t a pissing competition. Tell commercialism, materialism, and face to have a day off. In the days leading up to these sort of dates, expect prices to double, treble and add on some more. Your money is wanted. Your love is the weapon for the faceless businesses. If it happens to be a case of the more expensive the gift, you give results in a feeling of the more you love him/her/it [modern world, folks] then maybe you should be investing in yellow roses, umbrellas and shoes [Symbols of a break up].
Jewel prices will rocket, fruit will be carved into heart shapes, perfumes may appear to be everywhere, and cheap looking teddy bears will breed out of hand. Resist the dark side. There may even be an imbalance of giving but not receiving, maybe that is normal, I wouldn’t know – as I avoid giving gifts on commercialised festivals.
I am off to collect WeChat numbers off rotten oranges I’ve spotted in the River Dongjiang. If you truly care about the one love in your eyes, do something from the heart on any day of the year, preferably one that doesn’t phonetically sound like the word love being whistled by a songbird perched on a daisy overlooking fern gully. Be natural. Don’t be dictated to by the shops and restaurants. Enjoy the 5th of October.
In Brief – Q M J
What is Qing Ming Jie? Well, firstly, it is known by many names. Qingming Jie (清明节) is most common in the English tongue. It is often referred to as Tomb Sweeping Day (扫坟节) and sometimes known as Ching Ming Festival (清明節). Some refer to it as Ancestors Day. It commemorates the onset of spring as well as one to remember forefathers. It is a date for clearness and brightness (清明节means ‘clear and bright’). Think Mexico’s Día de Muertos (Day of The Dead), Ghost Festival (Malaysia etc) and Bon Festival (Japan), Samhainn (Scotland/Ireland), or Totensonntag.
When will Tomb Sweeping Day be? It falls on Tuesday 4th of April in 2017, 2020 and 2021, and the 5th of April in 2018 and 2019. It follows the solar equinox of Spring. It is either on the dates of the 4th, 5th or 6th of April. However, across China it can differ. In Hebei, it may start a week earlier, and in Guangdong the sweeping of tombs is on the eve of the day itself.
Why is it important? This is a chance to remember past ancestors.
What happens? Relatives clean and sweep graves. Ancestors are worshiped. There is often an offering of food to the deceased. Expect to see the burning of joss paper (zhǐqián金纸). Qīngtuán(青团) is often eaten. It is a green dumpling, made of barley grasses (Hordeum murinum), mugwort (Artemisia argyi or Artemisia verlotiorum species). It is quite glutinous. Prayers are cast and flowers often given to the buried or cremated. Revolutionary martyrs are celebrated.
When did it holiday begin? It officially became a public holiday as recent as 2008. However, the origin of the festival spans as far back as 636BC. Emperor Ming of Tang (武隆基) stopped the elite from their regular homages to ancestors and decided one day a year was enough. He decided that the Cold Food Festival – Hanshi (寒食节) was a good time. Visiting old tombs, cock-fighting, swinging on children’s swings, the freshening of blankets and tugs of war filled a vibrant celebration of fallen lineages.
Is it a sad day? Yes, and no. Losing a loved one is always sad. It is also a chance to celebrate the love of life. Happiness and solemnness sit together.
Can you join in? You don’t need to kneel at a graveside prostrating to the lost. You don’t even need to offer food or wine by way of sacrifice. Whilst some offer mobile phones, you can even hire someone to go pay tribute for you. You can fly kites, celebrate the arrival of spring, and take a spring outing. This dates as far back as the Tang Dynasty. Or, you could even plant a willow tree. Some people even tell ghost stories… Hiking is also a popular pursuit.
Cup of tea? It is likely an expensive tea you are enjoying might be a prestigious ‘Pre-Qing Ming’ (清明前). After Qing Ming Jie tea is cheaper, I guess.
Key words for your Chinese:
清明节 (qīng-míng jié) Qingming Festival
扫墓 (sǎo mǜ) sweep tombs
祭祖 (jì zǔ) worship (sacrifice to) ancestors
纸钱 (zhǐ qián) joss paper: paper made to resemble money and burned as an offering to the dead
烧香 (shāo xiāng) burn joss sticks (incense)
Why did I want to write about this festival? Life is wonderful and remembering those no longer with us is part of life. Today is tomorrow’s yesterday. Today is the right time to remember the luck and fortune that has brought us to this moment. If things have been hard along the way, so be it. Just keep moving forward. But, never forget the past.
杜牧/Dù Mù’s poem “qīng míng”:
qīng míng shí jié yǔ fēn fēn
A drizzling rain falls on the Mourning Day;
lù shàng xíng rén yù duàn hún
The mourner’s heart is breaking on his way.
jiè wèn jiǔ jiā hé chù yǒu
Inquiring, where can a wineshop be found?
mù tóng yáo zhǐ xìng huā cūn
A cowherd points to Apricot Flower Village in the distance.
Further information: Wikipedia’s guide to Qing Ming Festival.
Myths and legends of Chinese Tomb Sweeping Day via ancient-origins.net.
Travel China explains Qingming Festival.
Qing Ming according to Malaysian Digest.