Death and marriage: rituals in China

Our quality of life has improved considerably since the foundations for the newest mall next to the compound were completed about two weeks ago. No longer are we woken seven days a week by pounding pneumatic drilling around 6.30am. But mornings still have their surprises.

Last Wednesday at 5.10am our sleep was broken by an extremely loud explosion, as if a bomb had been set off outside our bedroom window. Car alarms whined but nothing else happened and we drifted back asleep, and thought no more about it. Unexpected noises are par for the course in China. Then on Friday my Chinese teacher listened by the apartment door to some chanting coming from a flat a couple of floors below. ‘Someone has died,’ she told me. Monks come around to the abode of the dead person and lead ritual chanting for two or three days.

Fireworks seem to mark the rituals of life in China, and it occurred to me that maybe the startling explosion somehow linked to the death. Yona explained that indeed, traditionally, a death is announced by the family lighting a single firework early in the morning. Young friends of hers live on a compound in Ningbo where quite a few old people live and they are frequently woken by the dawn ‘bombs!’ In Yona’s village, the body is carried to the community hall where she had her wedding breakfast, so that local people can pay their respects. The body would then have been carried in procession to the hillside for burial. Nowadays, burial is no longer allowed and everyone has to be cremated, although people still want to put the ashes into the family hillside tombs, where they can be honoured and remembered at Qing Ming, the annual tomb sweeping ceremony in April.

I’ve recently been exposed to the significance of burial customs as a way of tracing my own family history, as my son has discovered a photo of a tombstone that appears to belong to one of my paternal ancestors–Isaac Jacobs, my three greats grandfather. He belonged to the Jewish community in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. The inscription is written in Hebrew and sadly I can’t read it. Despite my Jewish heritage, I know some Mandarin and no Hebrew!

Death rituals have changed in China with urbanisation and the advent of capitalism, and the trip to the crematorium is now usually carried out in a fleet of expensive hire cars – according to Yona and other people I’ve talked to, far more money is spent on them than for weddings. The traditional procession on foot, with people swathed in white mourning and pulling the body on a cart, still survives in some places; a friend showed me photos of one he’d witnessed in Dali in deepest south west Yunnan.

Wedding fireworks of course continue unabated and this morning – a Saturday – we were woken at 6.30 by a series of firecracker explosions, the usual signal of a wedding. I’ve noticed quite a few in the last few days and this is apparently because many people are hurrying to get married before the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, which will take place in mid-February. It will be the year of the sheep – Yang – next year and it seems that nobody wants important life events to take place in a Sheep Year. Even though new government regulations mean that many more families can have two children, pregnancies are being delayed so that the child will not be born as a sheep.
We will be in Australia during Chinese New Year and our Melbourne hotel is right next to China Town. It will be fascinating to observe the CNY rituals there and without any language barrier maybe understand them a little more.


More on food: Hom versus Dunlop

One of our Christmas presents was Ken Hom’s ‘Complete Chinese Cookbook’. This has stimulated me to try out a whole new set of Chinese dishes, generally with good results. I haven’t given up my first love – Fuchsia Dunlop’ s ‘Every Grain of Rice’, but I needed some fresh inspiration. I always find with cookbooks – and we have a considerable library of them in Nottingham – that I perfect about six recipes and then stop exploring. With just the one book on Chinese cooking, this had meant a certain amount of repetition. We probably eat about 10 recipes from ‘Every Grain of Rice’ regularly, but still needed some new input.

Ken Hom is an American Chinese, whose family came from Taishan, in Guangdong (Canton), just west of Hong Kong. Wikipedia tells me that this area is famous for its high percentage of celebrities in the entertainment industry, and Ken Hom certainly seems to fall into this category as a TV personality. My cookery book has at least 20 photographs of the man himself – portraits of his head and of his hands with chopsticks. It is a shiny, lavish production and very well adapted to the western market.

Many recipes focus on adapting Cantonese flavours and cooking methods to ingredients available in British and American supermarkets, and not necessarily in Ningbo. Fish is an example. There are many appetising recipes for ‘firm, white fish fillets’ which I’d like to try. Unfortunately, fresh, firm white fish is not obviously available in our market or even in supermarkets, except in its frozen form, which looks somewhat unappetising. Small oily fish, with many bones predominate. One success has been steamed salmon with black beans, as both are readily available in Metro. Ken Hom says that salmon is ‘growing in popularity in cosmopolitan cities’ in China; this was not my experience when I cooked it in plain western style for guests at my graduation party. Perhaps my Chinese friends would have preferred it with the help of the spicy and salty preserved black soya beans.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s book is very different. There are no photographs of the author and the food takes first place. It oozes with the author’s enthusiasm about China and her passion for and profound knowledge of the country’s food. It strives for authenticity, and only makes occasional concessions to western taste. There are few recipes for white fish, and quite a lot for fatty meat. If Chinese people don’t eat something, it’s not in the book.

Both authors patiently describe and explain the main ingredients of Chinese cooking, many of which were unknown to me before we came to Ningbo. What has been a great help is that Fuchsia Dunlop gives the pinyin (Romanised script) and the characters for most ingredients and for the names of dishes. This has been invaluable in restaurants and when I’ve been trying to find vegetables or sauces in supermarkets or in the market. At first, as I struggled to learn the language, I copied out the names and took them with me to the shop; later I’ve been able to ask for them and anyway have learned to recognize more products. In my early, often painful Chinese lessons, my teacher taught me to say simple recipes from Fuchsia Dunlop in Chinese and then learn and repeat them to her. This not only improved my Mandarin, but led to some interesting discussions about cooking and different tastes.

Before we came here, I had no understanding of the regional differences between Chinese cooking. What passes for Chinese cuisine in England is predominantly Cantonese, which is the southern school. In any case, it is often not much like the authentic Cantonese food available say in Hong Kong, and full marks to Ken Hom for trying to help British and American cooks understand how to make real dim sum, spring rolls and won ton. Fucshia Dunlop was extraordinary in being the first British woman to train as a chef in Sichuan province, in south west China. Her recipes are an introduction to the fiery tastes of this school of cooking, which uses large amounts of fresh, dried and pickled chillies.

Of course, with the movement of the population from the countryside to the cities, it is easy to try all the main types of regional cuisine in the big cities. For example, we’ve eaten wonderful ‘dong bei’ or north eastern food from Shandong peninsula, in Shanghai. The signature dish is roast pork served on the bone with thin pancakes, hoisin sauce and spring onions, similar to Beijing duck, but much less fatty.

Despite Fuchsia Dunlop’s best efforts, I still long for a book written in English which would help me do more with the wonderful fresh ingredients I see around me, but don’t know how to prepare. As well as the fish and the seafood, not to say the live turtles, there is a plethora of vegetables that I’m sure would taste wonderful if I knew what to do with them. For the moment, I will continue with my exploration of Ken Hom’s book, but I think it will come into its own more fully when we return to the UK.

Mobility and change

Looking back at the last blog I wrote more than a month ago, before our trip to the UK for Christmas, I noticed my description of Invoice Stamp Man at Metro. By mid-January 2015, HR at Metro has realised that the person on the checkout can stamp the invoice for the customer after they’ve paid, and that this doesn’t really need an additional job. Now you might think this would mean that ISM had been made redundant, but fear not, he is still standing by the exit, only now he just watches the customers leave and seems to have no function other than ‘security’. One can only imagine the cultural clash between the German based management of Metro, keen to enact ‘efficiency savings’ and the Chinese default position of over-employment.

Change remains the major topic of conversation with my Chinese teacher, in both Chinese and English. Yesterday we had an interesting interchange about travel, the internet and mobile phones. This all began because of our frustration with the website set up to manage the HSK Chinese language exams. Apparently lots of money has been spent on improving the site, but it still doesn’t function well. Yona wants me to practise some online tests for HSK 3, before my exam at the beginning of February, as characters may appear smaller on screen and take me more time to read than in the printed version I usually use. To our annoyance, the practice tests won’t open and I will just have to hope for the best.

While it intermittently blocks Google and the BBC, the Chinese government is investing heavily or allowing investment in websites that enable customers to buy things. An example is the site for purchasing train tickets. This is fast becoming the only way to buy tickets in advance, something that is essential for train travel in China. If you turn up at the station to buy a ticket on the day, you usually have to wait many hours for a train with an available seat. This system becomes particularly critical at the Spring Festival, when millions of people in the cities return home to their village. On line purchasing of train tickets is controlled through the use of Chinese identity cards; you don’t even print out your ticket but can use your identity card at the computerised barrier. This is meant to cut down on fraud and the circulation of black market tickets by ticket touts. It also provides a massive database of the movement of the population in a way that western governments can only dream of.

We have not engaged with the online system as of course we don’t have Chinese identity cards, but like most foreigners, use a travel agent to purchase our train tickets. I’ve always felt this was a bit of a cop out, but Yona tells me that we are far more adventurous travellers than her parents. They have very limited Mandarin and rarely venture outside the Ningbo area where they speak the local dialect. Her mother only had 3 years of schooling so reads with difficulty. While we have sometimes got lost or confused when travelling – getting on the wrong ferry in Xiamen, for example – Yona wouldn’t allow her parents even to attempt to go so far afield on their own.

In China, modernity arrives without much introduction and in many situations you are aware of people doing things or operating potentially dangerous machinery for the first time without safeguards – driving is a case in point. While internet access in the west has come predominantly through computer ownership, in China far more people use mobile phones to get online and have never bought a laptop or desktop. I struggled to adapt to a touch screen phone three years ago when we arrived here, but at least I’d been introduced to modern communication systems all my life – landline phone, television, computer, various keyboard based phones and then an iPhone. Yona’s grandmother has never had a phone at all until recently, when the family installed a landline. She still can’t dial, and only intermittently remembers to answer if someone rings. A better system is to call the mobile of a younger person in the village and get them to go round and see if she’s OK.

Yona, in her late 20s, remains upbeat. Like so many young Chinese I have met, she is optimistic about the future, sees changes in China nearly always as positive and is confident in the government’s attempts to manage the development which has made her life experience already so different from that of her parents and grandparents.