My Mother’s Qi Pao

Woman wearing qi pao (shorter length)

Woman wearing a qi pao (shorter length)

I was thinking of my mother’s qi pao, which hung in one closet along with several of her other precious dresses, but the qi pao was different and stood out – it was red with some embroidery, made of silk and was very shapely, with a long slit down each side of the dress.   I found out later that she wore it at her wedding. I loved the feel of the silk.  It was so soft and intimate.  I could rub it against my cheek, and it felt sensual.  

When I went to Kun Ming, I visited a factory that made silken cloth.  There were two men at a loom, weaving.  The older man sat atop an old wooden structure and pedaled away as on a bicycle but at varying speeds (I’m not sure my memory is entirely accurate here), and the younger man below moved his fingers quickly and precisely across the evenly spread out threads as across the strings of an instrument.  The older man above determined which spool of thread would filter down to the guy below.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember much more, except that the weaving of the cloth was intricately coordinated between these two men (who never spoke a word as they were working), and it must have taken a great deal of time and skill to learn how to do this.

The end product was bundled yards and yards of silken cloth of all different colors.   To this day, it is one of the most luxurious sights I have ever seen.  Each bundle seemed heavy in weight, with different patterns of embroidery in gold, silver, turquoise…  and some of the embroidery, as intricate as it was, was subtle because it was red on red or ivory on ivory.

I asked someone at the counter if I could have a small piece of cloth, just a small square as a souvenir.  She checked with her supervisor and said, “I’m sorry.  We cannot give you just a small piece.   We have to sell the cloth by the meter.  If you want, you can buy a meter of cloth.”  

A meter of this silken cloth cost $300 at the time.  Even if I could get half a meter, it would be $150, which was too much for me to afford.  Privately, I wondered if they thought I had deep pockets as a foreigner.  (You always had to be wary of inflated prices as a foreigner.)  Didn’t they have a piece of “scrap” lying around somewhere?   Whatever the case was, they were, indeed, attending to a couple of Japanese customers who had decided on what cloths to buy (most likely, for kimonos).  The woman at the counter unrolled and measured out the cloth of each bundle carefully and took out a fine pair of scissors, making an almost perfect straight cut down the middle.  

The qi pao, which is a traditional Chinese dress, is now worn mostly at formal occasions, like weddings or ceremonial functions, or is worn as a uniform for certain job functions (stewardesses at airlines, for example).  Each one is made to fit the individual body (like a glove) and has a collar at the top, traditionally with Chinese knots for buttons.  It’s not the most comfortable garment to walk around in, but it’s certainly a hip-hugging, sexy dress.  Not all of them are made with silk, which is expensive.  I don’t know if today there are still two men weaving cloths at the loom where I was in Kun Ming or whether they have been replaced by factory workers.  I do know it was a magical experience to see the cloths and see them being made.  

As for my mother’s qi pao, my sister and I both at one point tried to put it on, of course, but it didn’t fit either of us correctly (my shoulders were a bit broad, my waist wasn’t tiny enough and the bodice was definitely too loose).  My mother had a figure to be envied, and my sister and I joked that certain traits skip a generation.  We asked our mother to put it on, but she modestly declined, even though I’m quite sure it would have fit her.  Perhaps she wanted to keep the memory of her having worn it only on the day of her wedding.  

My sister now keeps my mother’s qi pao.  Even if I like to tell myself that material things don’t matter so much, I realize that certain things do, especially because they represent a piece of someone that is part of us – in this case, a memory of the vivid, beautiful woman that my mother was and what was precious to her.

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The Odd and Picky Giant Panda

I watched this rather funny video two days ago of a baby panda sneezing which made me want to write about pandas.  I know this is going to sound horrible, but after watching several nature shows on pandas over the years, I’m convinced that giant pandas are partially responsible for their own endangered state due to their bizarre and strange evolution.  This is what I have learned:

  1. Pandas are solitary creatures, and they don’t seem particularly inclined to procreate. In captivity (it’s hard to spot and observe pandas together in the wild), you can put a male and female together alone for long periods of time, i.e. years, with enough space and privacy for each of them to feel comfortable, and they often refuse to copulate, even when in heat. 
  2. Pandas used to be carnivores.  Their digestive systems are suited to digest meat. Other plant eaters, like deer, can absorb up to 80% of nutrients from plants, but pandas can only absorb about 20% of their nutrients from bamboo. (Pandas’ short intestines are unable digest cellulose and, therefore, do not remove all of the nutrients from the bamboo.)  Pandas evolved their characteristic “thumb” and from then on pretty much ate only bamboo stems and shoots which accounts for 99% of their diet. (Couldn’t they have found a happy medium as both carnivore and herbivore? And as herbivores, couldn’t they have diversified their diet just a little and mixed in a few berries and cabbage or something?)  
  3. Because bamboo offers so little nutritional value, the giant panda eats 60-80 pounds of bamboo a day and spends at least 12 hours a day, eating.  It also has to defecate a lot (up to 40 times a day) because their digestive systems don’t absorb bamboo well.  (So don’t ever ask a panda whether they have anything better to do than pick at leaves.)
  4. The female panda is fertile only 1 to 3 days a year.  Breeding season is from March to May. This doesn’t give a male much opportunity to sow his oats and help ensure survival of the species.  Because pandas are solitary and territorial creatures, they usually do not tolerate other pandas in their areas (mostly because it would take too much energy to compete for food), so each adult panda needs approximately 2 to 4 square miles of land in order to survive.
  5. Once the egg is fertilized, the embryo free floats in the uterus and does not implant itself in the wall of the uterus until 3-5 months later (!) when the cells actually begin to divide and the embryo begins to grow.  (Does this make any sense to you?  The theory is that the mother has enough resources when implantation happens to keep the baby alive and that conditions are optimal for the embryo’s survival.  She has to keep her belly full during this time or else the embryo will likely not implant itself.)
  6. Female pandas mature into adults around the age of 4 or 5 and males at around the age of 7 or 8.  Pandas live for about 20 years in the wild (and 25-30 years in captivity).
  7. The baby panda is born about the size of a stick of butter (3-6 oz).  The mother is about 900x the baby’s weight (about 150 lbs), and mother pandas have been known to not infrequently kill their cubs by accident by rolling over or onto them.  Not only is the baby tiny, it’s blind, toothless and furless when it’s born. The baby opens it’s eyes after 6-8 weeks and is physically and fully dependent on the mother for about 5-6 months, after which the baby can start consuming small amounts of bamboo.  It’s emotionally dependent on its mother for an even longer time.  So the mother usually takes care of the baby panda for something like three years, which means that, on average, a female raises up to two or three cubs during her lifetime.  (Males leave after mating and play no role in raising of babies.)
  8. If the female panda has two babies or twins, which occasionally happens, she will only take care of one cub and allow the other to die soon after birth. (This is probably because the mother has only enough energy to take care of one cub.)

I’m not debating that deforestation or human expansion into panda habitat have made giant pandas one of the most endangered species in the world.  But certainly, the panda’s evolution doesn’t seem to have helped their survival as a species.

Today, it is estimated that there are only 1,500 to 3,000 giant pandas in existence. Outside of captivity, they live only in a few high mountain ranges in central China in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Shanxi.  Less than a few hundred are in captivity, and human intervention has become instrumental in helping to ensure that pandas survive.  Also, several years ago, there was a breakthrough in China on how to maximize the survival of baby pandas in captivity.  The mother panda, as mentioned, is only willing to take care of one cub if she has twins, and she uses her acute sense of smell to differentiate between the two cubs.  Scientists were able, in some cases, to fool the mother into feeding the rejected cub by rubbing the smell of the accepted cub onto the rejected cub so that the mother might end up feeding both. (Humans would have to do a switcheroo of the two babies.)

As for the human Chinese population, statistics show there are more than 1.3 billion people in China alone, which means that Chinese people constitute a full 20% of the world’s population (or 1 out of every 5 people).  And, unlike giant pandas, Chinese people seem willing to eat, well, almost anything.

Confucius Says…

Engraving of Confucius. The Chinese characters...

Engraving of Confucius. The Chinese characters read “Portrait of the First Teacher, Confucius, Giving a Lecture”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three years ago, I asked my father what his greatest fear was.  I was expecting him to say – old age, death, ill health, regret – or something similar. 

He said, “What I’m most afraid of in all of life is disappointing my parents.” 

I paused a bit.  “But, Dad… your parents are dead.” 

“It does not matter,” he replied.  

My father’s response surprised me at the time because I assumed that my father, being older in age, had more pressing concerns.  What I failed to understand was just how overriding and important the concept of 孝 [xiào] or filial piety is in the mindset of Chinese people. 孝 is, in fact, the mandate by which almost all Chinese live.

Confucius (551–479 BCE) is the person who delineated the meaning of 孝 in the Classic of Filial Piety.  Together with other teachings attributed to Confucius (most famously, the Analects), Confucius ultimately tried to answer one question:  How does one create a stable and harmonious society?  (Confucius lived at a time when China was in great turmoil with many warring, feudal states.)  His answer was humanistic – if one can cultivate virtue and moral behavior in the individual and in individual relationships, then, like spokes of a wheel or like the rays of a sun, stability and harmony on a micro level will emanate throughout society so that proper action for oneself and the greater whole, as well as respect for good government ensues. According to Confucius, the great ruler is a sage who rules not so much with law and fear of punishment (the sword) as with moral authority, fairness and benevolence. 

Confucius’ most famous saying, the Golden Rule, is an example of his humanistic philosophy:  Do not do unto others as you would not want others to do unto you. The concept at bottom, similar to many other philosophies and religions, is that an individual’s actions (and the consequences of those actions) are not separate from those around you.  If someone exhibits poor action, it may make those around them suffer, or even make others behave poorly themselves.  If someone shows good conduct, then it will benefit those around them and make others want to emulate their actions.  What sets Confucianism apart is that it is completely secular in its philosophy.  It does not concern itself with matters of the afterlife or God or gods and does not assume an a priori idea that man is innately born “good” or “bad”.  It also does not contain elements of mysticism (unlike, for example, many aspects of Taoism).  In this sense, Confucianism is a guide that sets forth practical steps on how to become an upright person in society through education and cultivation of virtuous action, thought and behavior in the individual, and, in many ways, how to create a polite and respectful society.

There are 5 virtues or the Five Constants in Confucianist ethics:  仁 Humaneness, 義 Righteousness or Justice, 禮 Propriety or Etiquette, 智 Knowledge, and 信, Integrity. But the building block of all societal values and the virtue of highest importance in Chinese culture which underpins the societal structure is 孝, or how to respect, take care of and honor your elders and, in particular, your parents.  Translated in real terms, what you do and how you conduct yourself, and to a large degree, your successes and failures, are brought about by education and are a reflection of your parents, your parents’ parents and so on.  Your behavior and conduct are, in fact, daily rituals to show your love and respect for your elders.  The individual therefore should make subservient their self-interest, needs and desires to what is good for a greater whole, and, immediately, to show honor, respect and love for one’s parents and heritage.  Heritage, in this sense, does not depend upon the class you were born into or certain privileges you may have inherited by birth; it means, whether rich or poor, noble or peasant, one’s ancestors and parents instilled in their children an understanding of moral and ethical conduct.  In this way, Confucianism is a completely democratic, moral education.

English: Analects of Confucius, from the Mogao...

English: Analects of Confucius, from the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many people in the West have questioned or wondered why East Asians often tend to excel in school and are driven to work very hard.  In the Confucianist world, there is little emphasis on or belief in “talent.”  The emphasis is, rather, on dutiful action in order to to exhibit 孝 or show one’s love and respect for one’s parents.  It is, in fact, one’s duty to take care of your parents in all ways, emotionally and otherwise.  Likewise, the parent has a duty to make sure that his or her children understand right from wrong, understand proper conduct and how to exhibit respect in and to society.

The teachings of Confucius spread throughout Asia and much of Southeast Asia and, to this day, underlies many social structures throughout Asia, from Japan, Korea to Thailand, Malaysia, etc.  Ironically, Confucius did not live to see the success of his teachings and, in many ways, regarded himself as having failed in his ambitions.

Personally, I have to say I struggled a bit with what I regarded as a rather strict and less individualistic mindset of Confucianism and the concept of 孝 because I was born and raised in the U.S.  I did not have many of the freedoms that my peers had.  I certainly felt a lot of pressure to excel (and, in many ways, still do).  I also found later that there were not a few American-Chinese like myself who grew up in the U.S. but, for whatever reason, were more accepting of their parents’ values and did not struggle so hard as I did with growing up between disparate cultures and therefore felt little need or desire to rebel in their youth (which in the West is taken for granted and almost regarded as a necessary stage of life.)  But, regardless or irregardless of Confucianism, in the end, I understood that my parents ultimately loved me and did their best to raise me with good values and, really, just wished for me to be happy, no matter what I chose in life.   

I have also posted an article here that gives, in brief, an excellent insight into the philosophy of Confucius: http://psihologploiestimarinasasu.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/confucius-confucianism/

The Sound of the Er Hu (Chinese Musical Instrument)

English: Erhu being played by a blind man in H...

English: Erhu being played by a blind man in Hubei Province, China. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Along with the zither and pipa, the er hu [èr hú] is a Chinese instrument that classically represents Chinese music (outside of opera).  

The er hu can produce a melancholy sound like no other that I know besides certain flutes. It is ideally suited for pieces that produce a sense of longing and can literally pull at your heartstrings and make you cry (which is not to say songs on the er hu can’t be very happy).  It’s an extremely versatile instrument and also used in modern, contemporary music.

What makes the er hu’s haunting sound is the snake skin (or python skin) which covers the drum.  The rest of the instrument is basically composed of:  2 strings (made of silk or now often steel), a bow made of horsehair, pegs to tune the strings, and a body made of wood.  Unlike Western music which generally uses a 12 tone scale, the er hu is used to produce many sounds in between half-tones (which is true also of traditional Indian, Arabic, Hebrew and music of other cultures) and can therefore bring out sounds that elicit varying emotions very deep within us.  

I do not know why I have seen many more men play the er hu than women (although many women do play the er hu and excellently), as opposed to the zither and, perhaps even more so, the pipa. (Perhaps men don’t like long nails?)  At any rate, I have posted here two videos.  The first one illustrates the classical sound of the er hu, and the second one is an exciting interpretation of a classic piece with modern elements (especially, and very delightfully, at the end of the video).

“I Love You” in Chinese

One of the questions I have been asked quite often is, “How do you say, ‘I love you,’ in Chinese?”  This question always makes me laugh.  I answer, “Wo ai ni,” and sometimes repeat it several times as the person is trying to learn the phrase (usually men who want to say this to their girlfriends).  

What I don’t say is, traditionally, Chinese people don’t say this to each other.  And this applies to parents, grandparents, children, friendships, etc., as well as romantic relationships. 

My mother told me, “In America, the words, I love you, is tossed around like this season’s wardrobe.”  (Well, she didn’t say it this way, exactly, but something like it.)  

What my mother meant was, when it comes to love, words have little meaning.  She also meant that romantic passion can be fleeting.  Here today, gone tomorrow…

In traditional Chinese culture, these three words aren’t necessary and even tends to minimize the true value of a relationship.  You don’t need to sayI love you, because, whatever love may be in a relationship, it is appreciated in the moments you share and in what you do.

Of course, being raised in America, I don’t mind if someone tells me they love me and I say it, too.  But I keep my mother’s words in mind, especially when it comes to romance.

Long Shan Temple 龍山寺 (Taipei, Taiwan)

 

In February of 2011, I visited Long Shan Temple in Taipei. It was built in 1738 by settlers from Fujian, China and is Taipei’s oldest temple.  As with many other temples in Taiwan, you can come here to worship Buddhist and Taoist figures, as well as various folk gods.  There are more than 165 gods or figures enshrined inside.  (In Chinese culture in general, there is no conflict with worshipping multiple gods and revered figures at once.)  Although it is the oldest temple in Taipei, when I visited, the temple also combined a slightly modern aesthetic with lighted sculptures or lamps to greet both visitors and tourists.  It has survived earthquakes, bombings and many fires throughout its history, raising its stature as a a historical site and place of worship.

When you enter, you are immediately greeted with the smell of incense, curling everywhere around you.  Even though there are many people and tourists, a sense of serenity pervades.  Typically, you take several strands of incense and bow a few times with the incense sticks in both hands as you wish for the well-being of yourself and others.  You can do this as many times as you wish.  There are beautiful, large iron pots where you can place the incense sticks after your tribute or prayer.   The temple also has many Chinese poems, carved into wood.  People kneel and pray or read from various texts and scriptures.  A multitude of flowers and offerings to gods and ancestors sit atop tables and are placed in the courtyards, a feast for the eyes and the senses.  Lit candles add to the aura.  The sound of uniform chanting of Buddhist scriptures coming from the inner temple resonates throughout, imbuing a sense of calm and wonderment.

There are three gates or entrances and courtyards, the inner ones lying within the outer, all ornately decorated.  The outer courtyard is the largest and has a waterfall, trees, tables and the sculpted lamps when I was there.  The second courtyard is where most people pray, either standing up or kneeling, bow with incense, read texts and make offerings.  The inner courtyard is the smallest and houses the heart of the temple, with carved ceilings painted in gold and with the main fixture being a statue of Guan Yin Buddha or the Goddess of Mercy.  This is the inner sanctum where people kneel and chant Buddhist scriptures, often dressed in dark robes. 

I cannot fully describe the magic of this place, except in part with the pictures I took.  If you go to Taipei, please take the time to visit.  All are welcome, and admission is free.  (The incense is also free, but you can feel free to buy incense there or make a donation.)

Shòu 寿 (Longevity)

寿 [shòu], has been written in many different ways through thousands of years.  Below, you can see 5 bats surrounding the character for longevity, a powerful motif.   

Chinese bats coin

Old Chinese coin with 5 bats surrounding the character for longevity

The 5 bats represent the five  or the Five Blessings in the ancient Book of History which are:  longevity, wealth, health and peace, love of virtue (or doing good), and a natural death in old age.  

The character for longevity is highly valued and revered.  It represents efficient use of energy and conservation of energy, a key concept in Taoism.  This concept of 寿 or longevity is very important in Chinese culture.  It means, for example, that one does not fight unless necessary.  Or one does not force oneself to do things that are unnatural.  If we expend or use energy unnecessarily, our bodies age faster and our lives become short.  To be blessed with a long life therefore implies that one is able to accept what happens in life and find peace or “to go with the flow.”

Bats are representative of longevity in Chinese art and culture.  Like most animals, they are good at conserving energy and tend to live long lives for animals of their size. Bats also symbolize happiness and prosperity because the word 蝠 [fú] sounds identical to 福 [fú], which means fortune, prosperity, and happiness.

By the way, I found this interesting information about bats on Animal Planet recently, which I think is illustrative of the concept of longevity, as well as the practice of meditation:

Bats that live in cooler climates hibernate through the winter. Their heartbeat slows. Their rate of breathing lowers so much that it can seem as if they have stopped breathing. Their bodies cool to match the temperature of their shelter. They spend the winter in a deep sleep. Hibernation helps bats survive until the weather is milder and food is more plentiful.

Sometimes a bat must wake from hibernation to move from a disturbed roost or to drink water. Waking can cause a bat to use up the energy it had stored as fat for the winter. A bat that is awakened several times might not survive the winter.

So to have a long life, we can observe nature and learn how animals and plants survive.  In nature, animals and plants generally do not fight or use energy unless necessary.  When they use energy, they use it efficiently.  (This understanding also underlies almost all practice of martial arts.)  Mentally, it is also important not to fight with ourselves.  I heard this saying once:  Buddha said, “If you lay down your sword, you become a buddha.”