San Diego State University
Soc 338 Sociology of Religion
November 30, 1995
|TABLE OF CONTENTS
A traditional Chinese New Year celebration has many rituals, myths, and traditions associated with it. Most of these are carryovers from ancient religious practices of Buddhism and earlier religions. In China, it was relatively easy to honor these rituals each year, but as the people immigrated to the United States, it became harder for them to keep the "old ways." First generation immigrants still celebrated in the time honored style, but as the American-born Chinese sought to integrate into mainstream America, there was a loss of culture, either through natural loss (each generation passes on less and less until the entirety is gone), or by willful rejection of strange and "old fashioned" ideas in favor of "modern" ideas that were more acceptable in mainstream American culture. It is difficult to determine whether the loss of the rituals causes the loss of culture, or the loss of culture results in loss of ritual, but where the rituals thrive, the culture has a viable presence.
Using Durkheim's principles of ritual and society, this paper will make a link between Chinese culture and Chinese New Year rituals, and discuss their decline in modern American society. Beginning with an overview of Chinese New Year traditions, it will progress into the link between a specific tradition (the Lion Dance) and the sense of community it brings. From there, it will address the decline of the Lion Dance and the integration of American-born Chinese into mainstream America, at the expense of traditional Chinese culture.
As with most holidays, Chinese New Year has its share of related rituals. In face as the single most important holiday in the Chinese calendar, it has more than its fair share. Traditionally the country ground to a halt for the two weeks prior to the new year as the people prepared for the coming festivities. Each activity held a special significance and there was a reason for every action, no matter how quirky it seemed. Entire villages were wrapped up in common activities and even if one person forgot the significance of a certain ritual, there were any number of others who could explain it. And there were all kinds of things to explain!
"Spread honey on the lips of the Kitchen god's picture and when he reports your family to the gods, he will only have sweet things to say, or better yet, his lips will be stuck shut!" "Pay off all of your debts before the new year, or else you will be in bondage the whole year!" "Wear new clothes on New Year's Day, especially red for celebrating!" "Clean your house in the last days of the old year so you start the new one with a clean slate, but be careful not to clean on New Year's Day or you may sweep your luck away!" "Think only good thought in the beginning of the new year and good things will return to you during the year." "Don't use any sharp objects on New Year's Day or else you may cut your fortune short, or worse yet, your life!" "Don't raise your voice on New Year's Day and the rest of the year will be tranquil." "Don't clean up the mess from firecrackers, as the red paper spreads, so will the luck!" These were just a small sampling of the traditions that needed to be observed. In addition to these personal rituals, and just as important as what was done, was what was eaten. like the Jewish Sabbaths, there could be no cooking (or any "work" for that matter) done on New Year's Day. Yet traditionally, there was a family banquet of some sort that evening. Some of the dishes that were pre-cooked the night before even had special meanings. Fish was almost always a course on the menu as the pronunciation of "fish" and "surplus" have similar sounds in Chinese. Thus the blessing, "Nian nian you yue!" could either mean "every year has fish" (for dinner), or "every year has a surplus" (a better blessing). Chicken was called Phoenix, and symbolized a vigorous life. Of course all throughout the celebrations, candies that were unavailable the rest of the year were eaten to "sweeten" the new year. Another option for the new year meal was a vegetarian dish known as "jai" or "monk's food." This dish reminded the diners that new years was more than a time of celebration, it was also a holy time.
All of these things culminated in the actual New Year's Day celebrations, beginning with ceremonies at the Buddhist temple at midnight and continuing through the day and for about two weeks (fifteen days) with visits to family and friends. The visits were complete with the passing out of lisee (red envelopes filled with money). These were only given by the adults to the children (anyone who was not yet married).
On the fifteenth day of the first month, the celebrations officially drew to a close with the Lantern Festival. The Lantern Festival was characterized by the appearance of mythical animals such as the phoenix, dragon and lion. And of course at night lanterns, often taking the shape of these mythical beasts, were lit to guide the spirits. Lions are harbingers of good luck and their fierceness scares off evil spirits. They are often seen as guardians and can be seen set in stone at the city gates and in the entryways of important buildings, much the same way gargoyles were used in medieval times. During the Lantern Festival, the lion is manifested as a cloth and paper maché costume built over a bamboo or wicker frame. It is operated by two men and accompanied by musicians who play a large drum, cymbals, and gongs as the lion "dances" around the village. Each martial art school (usually only one, or two at the most depending on the size of the village) built and displayed their own lion. Sometimes, each village would send its lion dancers to compete in a provincial Lion Dance competition. As the most public expression of the new year festivities, I will take the Lion Dance as a representative for the many Chinese New Year rituals rather than attempt to discuss each rite. Although that would be a very worth-while undertaking, it would fall outside the guidelines of this paper.
In traditional Eastern societies, the religious is not as differentiated from the secular as in modern Western societies, so each of the above listed rituals would be seen by their Chinese practitioners as being religious rituals. Perhaps viewed through the eyes of a Westerner, this would not be so. Therefore, before we can apply Durkheim's theories of religion to them, it must first be shown that they conform to what he defined as religious. Taken from his book, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim defines religion as, "...a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things; that is to say things set apart and forbidden - beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church all those who adhere to them" (Johnson, 54). Durkheim's work in the field of sociology has shown that "...any deep and ultimate commitment is regarded as defining what is 'sacred' to the individual whether or not he regards it as grounded in divine or supernatural authority" (Faulkner, 46). Religion, then, can be defined as a set of beliefs and practices relative to a deep commitment that unites individuals into a community. Taking the case of the Lion Dance, it is a practice involving both the performers as well as the spectators, who offer gifts to the lion in exchange for the blessings they believe were being bestowed. The other Chinese New Year rituals can also bee seen as more individualized practices surrounding the same belief. All of these practices demonstrate deep commitment by the very fact that they are carried out faithfully each year. Hence, the question becomes whether or not these beliefs and practices unite the believers and practitioners into a community.
Hans Mol has noted that "what is true for personal habits in relation to personality is equally true for social customs in relation to social identity" (Mol, 237). Durkheim also saw religious ritual as being of "primary significance as a mechanism for expressing and reinforcing the sentiments most essential to the institutional integration of the society" (Faulkner, 15). Thus, subscribers to Durkheim's proposition that "society is always the real object of religious veneration" (ibid.), would have no difficulty in observing that the Lion Dance and Chinese New Year rituals propagate the community simply by the fact that they are collective rituals and Durkheim's statement that "religion is, in a word, the set of symbols by which society becomes conscious of itself; it is the characteristic way of thinking of collective existence" (Johnson, 222). Those of lesser faith would need to see a proof of this assertion before accepting it. Durkheim saw the four functions of ritual as:
1) "It serves a disciplinary and preparatory function, that is, ritual imposes a self-discipline that is necessary for social life. Members of society need to accommodate constraints, controls, boundaries. Learning to follow religious rituals facilitates development of this ability.
2) "Ceremonial ritual provides a cohesive function. That is, it brings people together, reaffirms their common bonds, and reinforces social solidarity. By doing things jointly and repetitively, the members of the group strengthen their bonds of relatedness. 'The essential thing is that men are assembled, that sentiments are felt in common, and that they are expressed in common acts.'
3) "It serves a revitalizing function. That is, it makes members of the society aware of their common social heritage. It links them to the past: What we do has a history; we ourselves have a history. Such awareness can provide motivation and inspiration to carry on.
4) "It serves a euphoric function. It aids in establishing a pleasant feeling of social well-being. This function takes on special significance when a group is faced with calamities, disappointments, losses of treasured members, and other threats to its stability. It helps straighten out the sharp curves and adds some rays of light in the dark tunnels of disappointment and despair."
Another link between ritual and society can be seen in Durkheim's view of "mechanical solidarity." He states "religion is equated with mechanical solidarity where an individual's thought and actions are little different from those of other individuals" (Pickering, 265). Randall Collins attempted to derive the mechanical solidarity theory and it is to this derivation that I will compare the Lion Dance in order to show that it does indeed unite the people into a community. The derivation follows eight steps as outlined below:
1) The longer human beings are physically copresent, the more likely automatic, mutually reinforcing nonverbal sequences are to appear, and the stronger the level of emotional arousal.and the corollaries to step eight:
2) The greater the number of human beings who are physically copresent, the more intense the emotional arousal.
3) The greater the common focus of attention among physically copresent human beings, the more likely they are to experience a common emotional arousal or mood.
4) The more that people use stereotyped sequences of gestures and sounds, the greater the common focus of attention.
5) The more that people use stereotyped sequences of gestures and sounds, the more likely they are to experience a common mood.
6) The stronger the emotional arousal, the more real and unquestioned the meanings of the symbols people think about during that experience.
7) The longer people are physically copresent, and the more they focus their attention by stereotyped gestures and sounds, the more real and unquestioned are the meanings of the symbols people think about during that experience.
8) The more the conditions for strong ritual experiences are met, providing they do not produce mutual antagonism or asymetrical [sic.] threat-deference arousals, the greater the interpersonal attachment and feeling of security.
1) The greater the previous ritual solidarity and symbol reification, the more painful a change.Note that these steps can apply to observers as well as participants of a ritual.
2) The greater the stress, the more incentive to invoke ritual solidarities.
3) The greater the physical danger, the greater the likelihood of invoking prior rituals of solidarity.
4) The stronger the ritual ties within a group, the more that entries and departures of individuals from participating in those rituals are handled by ritually enacting the transition.
5) The stronger the ritual ties within a group, the more that violations of ritual procedures are met by spontaneous outrage and by ritualized punishments.
The longer human beings are physically copresent, the more likely automatic, mutually reinforcing nonverbal sequences are to appear, and the stronger the level of emotional arousal.
It is hard not to be physically copresent in a small village especially when one has spent the past two weeks visiting friends and relatives, and even before that had spent two weeks preparing for this very moment. As far as the nonverbal gestures, respectful bows have by this time become a habit that portray a sense of order in the community. Each moment in the new year celebration has been leading up to this point in time and so the level of emotional arousal is bound to be very high.
The greater the number of human beings who are physically copresent, the more intense the emotional arousal.
As the Lion Dance progresses through the streets of the village, the whole village turns out to view the performance and follow the Lion around to each subsequent location of performance. The mood that pervades the crowd is one of excitement as the Lion only performs once per year. The emotions are released as a "cheer" and firecrackers are lit to emphasize the celebratory mood (Low, 4)
The greater the common focus of attention among physically copresent human beings, the more likely they are to experience a common emotional arousal or mood.
The focus of the spectators is on the Lion and waiting to see what feat the performers will show next. Every move the Lion makes is observed and when done correctly sets the tone of the performance and the crowd's reaction.
The more that people use stereotyped sequences of gestures and sounds, the greater the common focus of attention.
Each dance follows the same basics sequence of events, and so the crowd will know about what to expect. Although within the pattern there is room for variation, the basic pattern is always the same. This give them a sense of reassurance that what is happening is not strange, or new, but the same time honored ritual performed time and time again. The sound is supplied both by the crowd's cheers, the firecrackers and the music. The drum lays down a rhythm that only varies in tempo to control the speed and intensity of the dance. I have seen Lion Dance performances from all over the world and while each drummer has his own style, the basic beat pattern is the same no matter what country you are in.
The more that people use stereotyped sequences of gestures and sounds, the more likely they are to experience a common mood.
As the lion moves through the different sections of the routine, the music controls the flow of action. When the Lion is going through the playing or fighting stage, the music is vigorous and exciting. As the Lion approaches a difficult maneuver the tempo changes to build the crowd's anticipation. Everyone focusing on the dance will sense the mood and unconsciously at least will be caught up into it.
The stronger the emotional arousal, the more real and unquestioned the meanings of the symbols people think about during that experience.
Although the Lion is only a costume, not the actual messenger from the gods that it supposedly represents, the observers become so enthralled in the performance that this does not matter. In their minds, the performers have the ability to bestow a blessing and they believe that they have received some fortune by being present to witness the Lion dance.
The longer people are physically copresent, and the more they focus their attention by stereotyped gestures and sounds, the more real and unquestioned are the meanings of the symbols people think about during that experience.
This is actually a precursor to the previous step. As the people focus their attention on the performance, they will be moved by it emotionally.
The greater the physical danger, the greater the likelihood of invoking prior rituals of solidarity.
There is always a sense of danger in the Lion Dance. Many times it comes from the acrobatics of the Lion as it jumps onto high platforms, or performs on top of high poles (Low, 6). Other times it comes as two rival Lions battle for the prize at a competition. However it comes, it never fails to bring an "edge of the seat" excitement to the crowd enhancing their emotional arousal.
The stronger the ritual ties within a group, the more that entries and departures of individuals from participating in those rituals are handled by ritually enacting the transition.
There are many other rituals associated with the Lion Dance such as the official initiation ceremony where initiates are invited to "drink tea" with the master. Or when leaving a school, having to pass a certain challenge. All of these build a sense of accomplishment and community in the one undergoing these rites.
The stronger the ritual ties within a group, the more that violations of ritual procedures are met by spontaneous outrage and by ritualized punishments.
I can personally attest to the spontaneous outrage of some when a performance does not conform to the pattern that person is used to. In my own Lion Dancing experiences, I have seen shop owners refuse to give the gift, or actually go up to the performers and tell them what to do, just because a minor detail was overlooked. I believe this demonstrates the importance the Lion Dance holds for certain individuals.
Having satisfied each step of the derivation, it is safe to say that the Lion Dance qualifies as a community building ritual in the Durkheimian sense. Based on Durkheim's statement that ritual "strengthens the links with the past and the future of one's culture" and thereby "represents society" (Mol, 234, Hans Mol observes that "rites articulate and reiterate a system of meaning, and prevent it being lost from sight. [sic]" (Mol, 233). So if ritual prevents the loss of culture (society), what happens when the ritual is lost?
Among the American-born Chinese today, there is a widespread loss of ritual. Particularly where there is not a high concentration of Chinese in a close proximity to one another. By personal observations, I have seen a sharp decline in the practice of traditional Chinese rituals not only during new year's celebrations, but in every aspect of the culture. Whether it is by intermarriage that parents are no longer able to pass on a cultural heritage, or because of ignorance, or even a general apathy to the culture, the Chinese in America are fast losing the rituals that once defined Chinese-American society. Case in point, I am in contact with a 19 year old Chinese gal who was born in Taiwan and is now attending college in Ithaca, NY, who has never seen a live Lion Dance performance. Because it is still such a major part of Chinese culture, she knows what the Lion Dance is, but performances now are so rare that a significant portion of the Chinese population, like her, have grown up never having experienced one first-hand.
Durkheim noted that "there are no societies in which the sacred is not manifest in some form or other" (Mol, 203) so at first glance the loss of a ritual would not seem to affect the culture because the sacred would just manifest itself in some other way or through another ritual. However, the key to maintaining a culture is not so much the rituals of that culture, but what is seen as sacred. Allow me to illustrate this further with a case from history.
When the first Chinese immigrants came to America, they still held their culture and traditions to be sacred. Therefore all of their rituals were manifestations of their historical background. As later generations shifted their emphasis from their traditional culture and embraced the new American culture, the "sacred" to them at least was no longer Chinese culture, but American. Thus their performances of the ancient rites lacked the unifying element of common commitment. They became empty imitations of what used to be meaningful rituals. Durkheim says this move from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity (where individual's have selfish motives rather than a drive for communal unity) is inevitable (Pickering, 447). It is a selfish motive (selfish is used here without any comment on its moral nature, but on the level that it is a self interest) that seeks to discover "where do I fit in" rather than "how can I advance my culture?" As this selfishness pervades a culture, apathy toward the rituals becomes apparent and eventually the rituals will fall out of practice. Durkheim observed that without ritual, "...modern society should collapse..." (Pickering, 349). This is true only because the motivation behind the ritual (keeping the culture "alive") is already gone. Compared with the American mainstream, Chinese culture in America is really only one of many sub-cultures, and "small-scale societies depend for their unity and existence on a strong collective conscience in which religion and therefore ritual are paramount" (ibid.). Without the rituals and the conviction that the rituals are worth while, sub-cultures are very much in danger of becoming lost into the mainstream. This being the case, where is Chinese-American culture headed in the future, and what can be done to prevent the loss of these cultures?
There are two possible ways that Chinese-American culture can progress in the future. It can integrate with mainstream American and become lost as a distinct culture, or it can go through a resurgence and reclaim the rich heritage of bygone eras. According to Harry Johnson, Durkheim's "central problem" was "how does a differentiated society achieve normative integration" (Johnson, 308)? My answer is that the different societies simply lose interest in preserving their own background and apathy moves them toward the common ritual-lessness of modern Western society (Pickering, 349). Durkheim predicted that "the twentieth century would witness the decline of the religious establishment" (Faulkner, 145). As defined in this paper, that would mean the loss of traditional Chinese culture. This prediction is coming true as can be attested to by the shift from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity in American-born Chinese. In order to reverse the trend we must determine if this shift is a cause or an effect of the move toward undifferentiated integration. It is a problem that Durkheim himself struggled with and offered few answers to (Pickering, 473). But looking into his other writings brings insight to his approach to the problem: "Ritual also restores identity, particularly when disruption has occurred..." (Mol, 13). In order to restore Chinese culture to its former state, we need to bring the old rituals like the Lion Dance back into practice, but more than that, we must see the need and have the desire to keep the culture alive. Rituals can remind us of our roots, but without a common belief and motive, the rituals will be empty.
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