Editor’s Note: China is a country with an abundance of tradition. While most expats are familiar with things like eating noodles on one’s birthday, hanging couplets during spring festival and are probably even familiar with concepts like ‘hell money’, some Chinese customs and traditions will surprise even the most seasoned of the ‘old China hands’.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to any foreigner who has been in China for any substantial amount of time that China is a land steeped, some might even say smothered deep in tradition. Most of us are well aware of the couplets (春联) hung on doors during Spring Festival, ‘hell money’ and maybe the weirder among us have even heard of the funeral stripping traditions of Taiwan. China, however, is a place of inexhaustible oddity and tradition, and the aforementioned aspects of Chinese culture barely scratch the surface of the plethora of strange and interesting traditions that dwell in the nooks and crannies of this country. Here is a list of a few traditions that may surprise even the most well seasoned of “old China hands”.
Photo: UCLA Body Art of the World
Tattoos aren’t just some modern invention, they have a deep history all of their own and a part of that history can be found smack dab in China’s Yunnan Province. Starting sometime during the Ming Dynasty, the women of the Dulong ethnic minority began having their faces tattooed. According to UCLA’s Body Art of the World project, the tradition was originally meant to prevent the Dulong women from being raped during this tumultuous and often violent era when wars between tribes in the area were frequent occurences and women would often be taken captive by the victors. The last Dulong woman to have her face tattooed was Jiasong in 1966, because an end was put to the controversial tradition in 1967. According to a 2014 article by Yibada, the health of the remaining tattooed women is being monitored to ensure that the tradition is not lost prematurely.
Recently, some western news outlets have even done stories about this fascinating custom of the Mosuo minority in Yunnan, however information about this tradition is often rife with inconsistencies and misunderstandings. ‘Walking marriage’ (走婚) is a system within the culture of the Mosuo people that allows for men and women to have multiple relationships throughout life. If a Mosuo women is interested in a man, she will invite him to come to her house in secret during the night. The man will spend the night and leave in the morning. While the Mosuo women would not be expected to be in an exclusive relationship with one man, such relationships are often long term.
The result of such a system is that children born into it usually do not know who their father is. Men aren’t totally free of responsibility for the child though. This system of marital relationships results in large extended families and men are responsible for all of the children of the women in their families. Since men and women stay in the same extended family unit for life, there is no gender preference when having children as opposed to traditional Han Chinese society where there is a distinct preference for male children who, unlike their sisters, will not have to leave the family once they are married, but rather stay and take care of their parents.
Known as ‘wawa qin’ (娃娃亲) in Chinese, this custom has died out in the more developed areas of the country thanks to government intervention, improved family planning and the rapid modernization of the past few decades. However, it was not long ago that the practice was abolished in these areas--in fact, I know some people who were arranged to be married this way--and there are still cases of child marriage in the most remote areas of China’s rural, relatively undeveloped countryside. In China, child marriage is usually a sort of agreement made between the families of two children that when they grow up they will marry than it is two children actually marrying. In the West, child marriage died out earlier than in China where there are examples of such marriages (link in Chinese) being arranged a little over 20 years back.
Zha Ma Jiao
In a handful of villages in Linyi County, Shanxi Province a controversial and bizarre (some may even say insane) tradition takes place on the two days sandwiching the Lantern Festival at the end of Lunar New Year. These festivities, known locally as ‘Zha Ma Jiao’ (扎马角) involve using a conspicuously thick metal needle, akin to a sharp chopstick, to pierce the cheeks of revelers through the inside of the mouth. The actual event is split into three parts according to an article (link in Chinese) from Souhu: ‘shang ma’ when the man undergoing the act pierces himself, ‘pao ma’ during which the man uses a whip to ward off evil and ‘xia ma’ when the needle is removed from the cheek. Those carrying out this ceremony are called ‘majiao’. If you want to have a go yourself, head on up to Shanxi next Lantern Festival and check it out.
If you think it was tough choosing a career path, try making that decision when you’re just a year old. When Chinese children reach one year of age, some families will perform a tradition known as ‘zhua zhou’ (抓周). Often held just before a nice big lunch of ‘birthday noodles’ (symbolizing long life) is eaten, the ceremony involves laying out a number of objects, each symbolizing various paths in life leading to different careers. Some objects that may be included in the spread are: a seal, a pen, ink, money, an abacus, food, a toy, etc. If the child is a girl other objects will also be displayed such as a shovel, spoon, thread, and scissors among other things. Traditionally speaking rudimentary education of the child, the path it should be led on in life and how it should be raised are all determined by what it grabs from among the objects. Even families who are not at all superstitious will sometimes still hold a zhua zhou ceremony for their children, just one reason among many that it still persists today.
Know of any other interesting Chinese traditions? Let us know in the comments.
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