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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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/

“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.