The Significance of Social Tradition and Ritual in Asian Culture

Few cultures divest rituals and annual celebrations with as much importance and reverence as do the Asian cultures. During the 5000 years of China’s existence, in particular, a number of social and religious customs have risen to an importance that at times becomes unhealthy, causing the subjugation and mistreatment of individuals and fostering moral hypocrisy. Modern China’s quandary is finding a way to preserve the beauty and poetry of traditional Chinese customs while incorporating a more humanistic viewpoint that prevents the abuses and excesses that have from time to time developed.

In Asian culture, tradition has for centuries played a much more important role than it does in American society, where originality and spontaneity are prioritized and rituals are seen as being old-fashioned and even compulsive. In Lydia Minatoya’s novel The Strangeness of Beauty , one character tells another,

“Take sweeping the garden path with a light bamboo broom: the point isn’t just to clear off debris. Designed to develop dedication and spiritual depth, the real task is in repeating the activity – morning and dusk, over and over, for decades – until she learns to leave light, flowing impressions on the soft surface earth”.

This focus on the awareness of an action, and of using everyday actions as tools for gaining aesthetic values is an integral part of Asian society, manifested in everything from cooking to ink painting. The important thing is not quantity but quality. While in American society time is looked at as precious and not worth squandering on any pursuits but those which please the individual, in Asian culture the passage of time is seen as a necessary and proper part of life, and a sensitive awareness of life and time as they pass is far more important than trying to catch time or stop it. This results in a heightened respect for the elderly and a mature resignation to the transience of life, which enables the individual to experience life as fully as possible instead of grasping at it with both hands in a vain attempt to prevent its passage.

There are many things that distinguish traditional Asian festivals from the typical American or European celebration, but perhaps the most important of these is the idea of auspiciousness, or luck. In Asian culture luck is not something that falls randomly upon deserving and undeserving alike, as it does here in America, nor is Heaven as benevolent as the Christian God, who “gives rain to the just and the unjust”. Good fortune for Asians is an elusive but sometimes suggestible entity that must be wooed and won by following strict rites and rituals, and Heaven is more than ready to punish any who forsake the venerated social and religious practices. In traditional Asian thought, auspiciousness or its opposite are present in almost every aspect of everyday life. The Chinese word for the number four is avoided, particularly during certain times of the year, because it sounds like the word for death, a highly inauspicious topic at the best of times. Actions that were regarded as universally auspicious or inauspicious have been used to augment or destroy social and political relationships, such as in Lady Hyegyong’s Memoirs, where the sovereign of the Korean court drives his son to hatred and then to madness by his deliberately inauspicious actions toward him. This is an excellent example of how deeply entrenched the idea is in Asian thought. Many of the father’s actions toward his son were not intrinsically harmful in any way; it was entirely the son’s perception of them as inauspicious that caused the mental damage and his ensuing insanity and death.

Food is also an important part of both ancient and modern Asian cultural rites. In a society that from its conception has been largely agricultural, food has been used to represent love, prosperity, wellness, social status, even hardship. During many traditional Asian festivals, certain foods are served that have a historical significance as well, and whose tastes and smells, such as ginger and bamboo, induce feelings of well-being and happiness. The offering of food to the gods is part of almost every Asian festival, used to appease malevolent spirits and ghosts and ensure domestic and financial felicity for those who follow the prescribed patterns. The Cold Food Festival, which directly precedes the Qing Ming Festival is sometimes referred to as “Cold Food Day”, since cooking during the festival is taboo and all foods must be prepared without the help of a stove. During the Qing Ming Festival itself, boiled eggs are offered to the gods, and offerings at the graves of ancestors often include roasted pig and small cakes of auspicious colors. Author Lu Xun, in his short story Medicine describes a woman celebrating, if it can be called that, the Qing Ming Festival by putting dishes of food and a bowl of rice beside her child’s grave. Another example: drinking a beverage made from chrysanthemums and eating a cake on a hill or other high point during the Chong Yang Festival symbolizes the hope of social advancement for the eater.

A third integral component of any Asian celebration, traditional or modern, is color. In spite of the many changes that modernization has brought, the linking of certain colors with prosperity, luck, and destiny remains. The art of Feng Shui claims to alter the flow of living energy and bring good luck, fortune, etc. by the placement of colors in respect to direction. More generally speaking, colors represent auspicious or inauspicious things, for example the color red, the dominant color in Chinese society and culture, represents warmth, life, and the Fire element. Linked to the Earth element, gold or yellow represents power and position. In ancient times, only the emperors were allowed to wear yellow, as it was a symbol of their exalted social status. This may seem outdated and one would be tempted to imagine it is a vanishing remnant of a vanishing way of life, but in fact it is still undeniably part of everyday life, even permeating the world of electronics and children’s toys. Video games made in Japan feature different ‘elements’ and energy, associating different powers with different colors, affecting mood, status, and the like. To the uninitiated observer this looks simply like creative elaboration, the addition of fanciful, arbitrary extras to attract users, but I theorize that it is the manifestation of a sort of clandestine return to traditionalism, a traditionalism that has mutated in order to survive, but that remains clearly identifiable when viewed in the right context. This example is perhaps the clearest demonstration of how traditional Asian customs and ritualistic behaviors, far from being extinguished, have made their way into the most modern areas of Asian culture, and into the minds of Asia’s future-its youth. However divorced these re-emergent cultural markers may be from their sources, they reflect an openness to the value of tradition and a lessening of the severely anti-traditional, anti-Confucian movements that have caused such an upset of Asian society and subjectivity.

Both extremes, traditionalist and modernist, have their pros and cons. There have been moments in the history of fundamentalist Confucianism that were certainly as dark as any in the history of similar religions. Conversely, the complete rejection of traditional values causes physical and metaphysical anarchy, and a tragic separation between generations and individuals that is ironically similar to the divisions formerly caused by dogmatic Confucianism. The early modernists criticized the traditional Confucian value system because it had become so corrupt that it was dividing people rather than uniting them. As pointed out in Lu Xun’s New Year’s Sacrifice, traditions had become more important than fellow human beings, resulting in a society that was indifferent at best and, at worst, characterized by a sort of voyeuristic sadism. This hypocrisy led to the violent modernist revolt whose end was the destruction and replacement of all things traditional. But the tenacity of the traditions that for centuries carried Asia’s entire peasant population through drought, war, and the Great Leap Forward, is evidenced, I feel, by these traces sown throughout all of Asian history and literature that can still be found today, in the unlikeliest places, merging with the most progressive elements of Asian culture. Tradition and Asian culture are inseparable; there are centuries of tradition ground into the dust beneath the most modern Asian city and traditions lurking in the shadows of every skyscraper. The enigma of how to successfully integrate their cultural heritage and the modernist elements that want to temper it if not abolish it entirely, is one of the largest issues facing Asia today.

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