Author: waveheatin

What makes Chinese Chinese? [Copy link] 中文

Rank: 4

Post time 2003-11-8 23:42:40 |Display all floors

Chinese Language & Superstition

(reposted from another thread)

Likely there is no single factor that makes a Chinese Chinese, but there must be some key factors, without even just one of which a Chinese becomes much less Chinese. Among such factors is, I think, the Chinese language in its various dialects, without which a person, regardless of one’s nationality, would be much less of a Chinese, for without it one is much less likely able to soak into a Chinese culture to be cultivated into a Chinese.

Another factor, less critical than the one above though, may be our superstition. We are a people quite afraid of the dead and ghosts, believing that the universe is roamed with ghostly spirits, which at any moment could come to do magic on us. Even in bright day light, few of us, definitely not me, dare to venture into a grave yard alone. My back immediately chills the moment I see a grave alone. You may laugh at me but it is one of the most deeply rooted psyche in me that I find impossible to explain.

For this reason, we are much more willing to believe magic power, not religious power but some unknown physics beyond our comprehension, such as the various super capacities claimed by some people with ‘GongFu’. We Chinese, including many most highly educated Chinese, are much inclined to lend these magicians a willing ear.


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Post time 2003-11-9 00:01:10 |Display all floors

My father's real story of superstition

reposted from another thread.

By ‘superstition’ I mean how we Chinese fear that our world and life are somehow dominated by devils or spirits. To understand my experience, please read the story of how my mom reacted to the death of my brother in the thread entitled "Where food is dear life is cheap" at

To listen to another story, please let's sit down to hear the story of my father.

He is now 75 years old. A few years ago, nearing his own time to go, he felt that he needed to pay a tribute to his own father, who died in the busy years of revolution, of both illness and starvation ( As a little school master in that poor village, he was locked up by the villagers.) while my father was fighting the war against the Americans in Korea (He was a Chinese instructor to army officers and never got the chance to kill anyone). Feeling so guilty he believed the only way to make up for his dad was to build him a respectable tomb with more than just a pile of yellow dirt.

Thus he made his first trip back to his home town village to conduct some preparation work, but his work was abruptly interrupted for he got a cold and a local doctor almost killed him with wrong medication.

Two years later, he recovered, and commissioned a set of tomb stones; he rented a truck and hired its driver to transport the 20 some pieces of stones (rather cheap in GuiZhou province where there is nothing but rocks, but the moving costs more) over one thousand kilometers of hilly road. A “FengShui” master was hired to select a date but not a single good date was found within months. Another master was hired for better luck, but again no good dates were found. My father had to retreat back one thousand kilometers, waiting for a better time.

A year later, a good date was found. Dragging his tired, old body, he traveled that hilly road, once more. Cheerfully they built the tomb for my grandfather, whom I never met for he passed away before I arrived.

But recently, my mother told me over the phone with her crying voice, “They destroyed your grandpa’s tomb!”. “Who? ” “Your uncles”.

In the past year, my father’s elder sister passed away, who had been sick for decades at the age of 81,

In that same year, my father’s elder brother passed away at the age of 78,

In that same year, a cousin of mine died in a car accident.

In this same year, the clan of my father’s family destroyed my grandpa’s tomb. They feared that his tomb sat at the wrong location, or faced the wrong direction, or was built at the wrong time, and for whatever unknown reasons was bringing bad luck to the entire clan. As such it must be destroyed, and so was my father’s dream and dying wish to pay a respectable tribute to his own father.

Their destruction of my grandpa's tomb is more violent than the behaviour of my mom, who felt the 'iron gate' that brought death to my little brother must be abandoned (again, please refer to the thread of “Where food is dear life is cheap” at

Stories of such superstition are abundant in many small towns or villages where 80% of Chinese population reside. In the last few decades, most of Chinese traditions have been erased (for better or worse) in the larger cities. To find the traditional ways of Chinese life you have to go to those small towns and to our parents or grand parents who are now in their 60-80’s.

Please share with us your true feeling and stories.

Thanks for reading.


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Post time 2003-11-9 16:15:23 |Display all floors


Great story waveheatin.

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Post time 2003-11-12 01:26:58 |Display all floors

Without a formal religion, we worship ancestors

Without a formal religion, we worship ancestors

While all races worship their ancestors to some degrees, we Chinese excel or distinguish ourselves in this aspect. I remember even during the peak of the ‘cul_ture revolution’ years in the early 70’s, the homes of many of my elementary school classmates were still adorned with a not-so-ambiguous  “香火”(Xiang Huo), a respectable and honorable place for our ancestors, which is typically located on the wall facing the front entrance of a house. In small towns, where space allows, most houses  have a small hall (living room?) right behind the front entrance and all other rooms are located around this hall. The prime space in the hall is the wall facing the front entrance, which rightfully belongs to the ancestors. Typically some writings to indicate various recent ancestors specifically and more remote ones in general are placed on the wall together with other suitable decorations. A jar is also paced there to hold incense that is frequently burnt in any of the many Chinese festivals.

Recently, I notice in the city where my parents currently reside, many private houses, 3-5 stories tall, are caped with a magnificent “香火”(Xiang Huo) on the top of the building. The place of ancestor has thus adapted to the modern world and moved to a much higher place, literally, and may actually be called a private temple now. Every time we visit our parents, the very first thing to do is inform the ancestors we are coming for a visit and pay them a tribute. Incense is burnt, paper money burnt, and sacrifice (food, water and wine) offered. In front of our ancestors, the family knee down, one at a time by certain order, to wish them well and pray for their blessings. Finally fire crackers, many thousands of them, were cracked to send them on their way and possibly also to drive other unwelcome spirits away. This is part that gets my son most excited and gets remembered and talked about most among other activities of the entire trip.

Why do we worship our ancestors?  My mom is the one most enthusiastic about it. She is not illiterate. In fact she once produced a graduation certificate of a nurse school from a place two thousand kilometers away from my home town, and earned a pay rise as an educated, which shocked us kids and the entire town. “My mom, with a nurse certificate?” Under the influence of the ‘Revolution Education’ I was also very critical of her ‘superstition’. But now as I am more educated (probably one of the most highly educated Chinese in terms cumulating degrees) I actually become more understanding of my mom, and become truly appreciating of my mom passing this Chinese tradition down in my family.

As age slowly catches up with me, I starts to understand the needs of my mom and other more traditional Chinese.

(1) Such worship is out of respect and love for our ancestors. We Chinese are not very affectionate people on surface, and perhaps we seldom show our love for our parents in any symbolic way once we pass our childhood age. Silently we watch each other toil till death. As our parents pass away, we start to feel sorry for them and miss them. Some way must be found to symbolize that feeling. Putting up a ‘香火”(Xiang Huo) is one such ways.

(2) Such worship is also out of fear. As I incline to believe that we Chinese are filled with fear of dead deep in our souls. If you talk to oversea Chinese, they typically will tell you how differently ghosts are treated in China and abroad. The westerners do not seem to have much fear of ghosts, but on the hand we Chinese would have chill in our back the moment we see a skeleton. (The situation may have slightly changed now in the big cities in China). It is our deep belief that a dead would turn into something, its spirit would persist,  and it is capable of performing physical tricks on the alive.

In 1975, the grandma  of one of my classmates passed away. After many days’ procession performed by a paid ‘道士’ (Dao shi, a Taoist?), she was finally buried, but on that very evening, straw ashes was spread in her house to capture her footprints for it is believed that she would turn into something that would always come back to say a final goodbye. But since it is a spirit, the alive must get out of the way to avoid it or otherwise misfortune will follow whoever encounters such a newly formed spirit. (It is called “还魂)

Invariably, footprints of cats or dogs were captured most often, followed by those of hens or other domestic animals.

(3) Such worship is also out of the desire for good luck. Facing so many uncertainties in life, feeling so vulnerable in this brutal world, a Chinese needs all the helps s/he could get. My mom would pray for my safety every time she learns that I am going to take a flight. After the death of my brother she prays even more, both in frequency and in sincerity (please refer to ‘Where food is dear life cheap’ for more info at, for in her world, there is really no one else who could help her in her struggle.

However, when good luck does not show up or a bad luck strikes, a Chinese man can also turn into very disrespectful of ancestors, to the point of destroying their tombs. To a Chinese, worship of ancestors and other religions is more for the material needs of the alive, not the dead. Please also read posting above entitled “My father's real story of superstition” for more details.

(4) Finally it is likely out of a religious need. Chinese is a people without a formal religion, an attribute I view more as a  positive than negative. But time and again we would encounter forces quite beyond our comprehension, such as death, and in such occasions there is nothing but religion that can comfort us our pains and our wounds. Without a formal religion, worship of ancestor appears to fill in our needs well.

(Note: Buddhist and Taoists are not uncommon in China, but their religions have not captured the souls of most Chinese. Most Chinese are also quite turned off by other religions that are too exclusive for the taste of Chinese, for they all tend self proclaim as the only Right One and  their god the only true gold, and typically they always attempt to conquer other religions for their own domination of the world or the human race. Please forgive me if my view is offensive to you. I am not a religious person and am only trying to understand why Chinese are not so religious on one hand but worship their ancestors so religiously on the other ).

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Post time 2003-11-12 02:41:37 |Display all floors

Really interesting reading wave

I have learned a lot.  

I agree with your comments on religion.  It is unfortunate, but religion is a source of much hatred and conflict in the world today.  It's not the religions themselves, but the people who choose to interpret the religion in a way that is intolerant to everything else.

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Post time 2003-11-12 13:17:18 |Display all floors


Really enjoy your writing about Chinese attitude towards superstition. I also read your post "where food is dear and life is cheap" - I was deeply  disturbed (though not really surprised). May your brother have peace in the heaven.   
When one's life becomes complicated, of life ahead is uncertain, or life poses no hope, it's human nature for one to seek interpretation, navigation or simply hallucination, from a supposed super nature or super being. That' s often the circumstances where people turn to religions. However, in the case of religion being not readily available, superstition takes it over becoming the last resort.
Indeed ancestor worship is one of the key Chinese characteristics. Culturally, it could have been derived from our Chinese tradition of paying respects to elders, parents, obligers, achievers, and deceased, partly thanks to the instillation of Confucianism. However, ancestor worship among Chinese has historically gone far beyond what culture could contain. It had almost taken the form of religious reverence. People assigned ancestors with various supernatural powers - they rein, steer, judge, bless, chastise our lives. This largely dominated the human side of the Chinese superstition, with the natural side of Chinese superstition being represented by Feng Shui (of course, whether Feng Shui is superstition or science is now open to debate).
Why did many (of course not all) Chinese people have a tendency going for superstition than religion? The modern reason is certainly revolutions.  Violent revolutions demonstrated to the people they were the strongest, most destructive (or constructive depending on which side was concerned) force to change the society, outpowering all the benign social forces including the influence of religions. Further more, the outcome of revolutions often included banning religious activities that were regarded to be anti-revolution and thus subversive. Historically, while Buddhism (from India) is the predominating religious faith in China, it has never had the popularity of Christianity in Europe. This was largely attributed to Confucianism and Taoism that were born and brought up on China?native soil. Confucianism and Taoism are more philosophical than religious. I don抰 even think they are philosophical ?they抮e so mundane. They effectively protected Chinese from being exposed to the influence of eastern and western religions.      


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Post time 2003-11-13 15:14:05 |Display all floors

Overseas Chinese

Chinese have perhaps one of the longest and pretty uninterrupted written history, among them literature and moral stories. Exposure to these would have given us guidance on our ethical values and behavourial conducts, making us less dependent on rigorous religious guidance.

The strong family values and support arising thereof also reduces such needs.

Later generation of overseas Chinese, except for very Chinese families, may lack this exposure and the family concept may fade.

The physical continuous elimination process through the turbulence of history would have also formed a more resilient and determined race, struggling for survivor and being flexible, may it be in China or in the adopted home countries. With time and for Chinese in more cosy environments, this may also fade.

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