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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Where Chinese Spirits Dwell—Semele's Temple

Semele's temple. Photo: Gary Beechey.
By David Hsieh

“Gong Hey Fat Choy!” Today we start the 4712th Chinese new year, the year of the ram. According to astrology, it’s the year to show your gentle hearts and creative impulses!

Many of the Chinese new year customs are known among non-Chinese. For instance, the marking of years with 12 animals; the standard greeting of “Gong Hey Fat Choy!” (in Cantonese) or “Gong Xi Fa Cai!” (in Mandarin), which means “wishing you good fortune;” giving “red packet money” to children; lighting firecrackers; watching the lion dance. But some are less known, including the act of paying tribute to one’s ancestors.

This act traditionally takes place on new year’s eve, before the whole night celebration starts. (Chinese also stay past midnight. But there’s no counting down and less partying. It is just a hearty family gathering!) All the family members, who are supposed to come together (much like Thanksgiving here), are led by the head of the family (traditionally the father or grandfather) in this solemn ceremony.

The components of the tribute vary from family to family, region by region, but can contain the following: putting out wine, fresh fruit, and freshly cooked food, burning incense sticks, and bowing or kneeling before the “ancestors.”

Where does this act take place? Usually in front of the family shrine. The shrine can simply be a plaque with some wording commemorating the family ancestors. You can see the shrines in a lot of Chinese homes, usually on a table mounted on the wall or in an altar. But in a prominent family, especially one that has lived in the same place for many generations, there would be an independent edifice, such as the “temple” Zhang Huan salvaged for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Semele, at BAM on Mar 4, 6, 8 & 10.

The show’s temple was found in Duze Village, about 255 miles southwest of Shanghai, where Zhang lives. The temple originally belonged to the Du family and is 450 years old, dating back to the Ming dynasty (1368—1644).

Why the need for a family temple? What would have been inside? Well, to start with, it is not a mausoleum. The elders of the family who had passed on would be buried in underground tombs in more remote areas. Chinese do pay tribute at cemeteries, and there are rituals around those visits too. The fifth day of the fourth month on the lunar calendar is the traditional “cemetery sweeping day” and is still a national holiday in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. And the burning of “paper money” is a common practice.

But in Confucian societies, ancestors are not people you think about just once a year. They are constant reminders and a moral guide. (“You give shame to your ancestors!” is one of the harshest reproaches a Chinese person can get.) So their presence in everyday life is essential.

Traditional Chinese valued multiple generations living together in a big, extended complex. So the whole family would share one shrine, which was located in the family temple. This was the most sacred place in the entire complex. Tributes were not paid only on the new year, they happened year-round, although with less ceremony. They also took place on the occasion of major family events: a descendant gaining an important official post, getting married, giving birth to a boy, or going away on a long trip. But it is not all celebratory. If a descendant gave a major offense causing the elders to expel him (or her) from the family, it would be done in the temple with ancestors as witnesses. In this vein, one of the parental punishments was to order a disobedient kid to kneel before the shrine and to reflect on the wrongdoing.

Semele. Photo: Gary Beechey
So if this place is so sacred, how did it end up with a family living in it (and not even a Du descendant)? During the Cultural Revolution, ancestor worship, like all religious ceremony, was banned. Many shrines and temples were destroyed or reappropriated for other purposes, including reallocation to less prosperous families. This is what happened to the Du temple, which is now reappropriated again by Zhang Huan as a temple where a Handel-composed opera based on a Greek myth is set. It’s a most interesting and unexpected cultural mesh. Will the Du ancestors be hovering about and watching the show during the BAM performances? We wonder…

Semele will be at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House on Mar 4, 6, 8, & 10.

David Hsieh is a publicity manager at BAM and the US correspondent of Opera China.

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