January 2006

Today we paid a visit to my Mother-In-Law’s Elder Brother–“Big Uncle,” we’ll call him.

Big Uncle and his wife live in a small two-level building on a busy small street. Their living quarters are upstairs; downstairs, with large doors that open to expose the entire room, is essentially his workshop and place of business. Big Uncle is one of Anhai’s last traditional hand-made lantern makers.

People order the lanterns from him for a variety of occasions, but he says his best business these years are for ones ordered as gifts for people who have just built or remodeled their homes. (Since we finished a major home remodel ourselves before starting this trip, we took the liberty of ordering a pair for ourselves.)

Big Uncle truly makes these by hand.

First he buys poles of dry bamboo of various sizes, then splits and cuts the wood into strips of various uniform sizes, and half as thick as a popsicle stick. Next, he buys long rolls of very thin but sturdy wire and cuts them into pieces about two inches long each. He then bends the bamboo strips into shape and ties them together with the wire pieces.

Once the “skeleton” of the lantern is done, including any metal or wooden handles to be attached, he wraps a porous, small fishnet-weave fabric around it. (Unfortunately, I didn’t see how he ties it off or seals it, as he was just building “skeletons” while we were there.) Finally, he paints the covering fabric by hand and adds finishing touches like decorative fringes and hangs them to dry all over his shop. A pair of large lanterns sells for about 90 RMB (around $12 U.S. dollars).

This has been his lifelong trade, but not without its sorrows.

One, he’s sad that his only son (he also has two daughters) chose not to follow him into this craft, as he had followed his father.

Second, he still remembers clearly the interruption to his work brought by the Cultural Revolution.

One day in 1966, he described to us, a group of local Red Guards burst into his shop and began to break and tear and dump all his lanterns, materials and tools, threatening him with dire consequences if he ever started again.

The invasion, and the decade prohibiting his work (too “tied to the traditional past”) left a lasting impression on Big Uncle, whose only real view of politics and social development is based on whatever has been passing in front of his shop’s open doorway lately.

After the Cultural Revolution ended, he waited a couple years before starting to make lanterns after being told he could again, just because he wanted to make sure it wasn’t a trick.

Even now, 30 years later, he’s wary. A T.V. crew was in town a couple years ago making a documentary about Anhai’s local Arts and Crafts styles and asked him to be featured, since his work is considered to be among the best.

He declined, telling them he was too busy to take time for an interview, but he confided to us that he was really more worried about how the story might be used against him if things ever “changed back” and the Red Guards returned. (Ironically, both my Father-In-Law and Mother-In-Law were Red Guards, but from opposing factions. More on that Romeo & Juliet tale in another post.)

The entire time we were there, he continued making a stack of small lantern frames, pausing occasionally to pour us small cups of tea or light another cigarette, just as I imagine he’s done with visitors most every day, 1966-78 not included, since starting to make lanterns half a century ago.

L to R, Big Uncle (offering me a smoke), his Wife, my Wife’s Younger Sister and her Daughter, and my Wife’s Elder Sister’s Son:

Big Uncle at work:

Big Uncle at work:

A stack of small lantern frames:

The paint pots:

Drying lanterns and tools:

Close-up of some finished large lanterns:

Today’s highlight was a visit to Longshan Temple here in Anhai. But while the one we visited a few days ago was deserted–everyone was out making holiday preparations–the temple today was packed to the hilt with people, incense smoke, and still more people. It’s a big deal, visiting a temple on the first day of the New Year, as it’s obviously the best time to pray for a good year.

I was worried that my Daughters would be too overwhelmed by the throng, but they did OK. We explained to them what this meant and what that meant as much as we could, and they either didn’t seem to notice, or chose not to acknowledge, that we were a main attraction for a lot of people.

So here they are, pictures from our visit to Longshan Temple in Anhai, Fujian Province, on Chinese New Year’s Day (January 29, 2006 on the Western Calendar).

Yesterday was Chinese New Year’s Eve. Sadly, it seems a different affair now that my Father-In-Law is gone, no doubt in part because his birthday fell on Chinese New Year’s Eve, according to the Lunar Calendar. Every year, the day was first a celebration of his birthday, followed by the Chinese New Year’s Eve festivities proper.

Yesterday, though, went something like this:

We got up early and went to the old family ancestral home, a short walk from here. On a main street behind a non-descript double doorway, we entered a small courtyard with a few separate rooms off of it. The original construction, I learned, is well over a hundred years old, with lots of exposed beams, wooden walls and doors still in place where they were originally erected. The electrical wiring, what there is of it, has been nailed and stapled to the walls and beams over the decades.

One of the family’s old auntie’s still lives in one of the rooms–the one my wife’s family, all six of them, called home when she was a little tyke. Now all the other rooms are rented out to other people, but because the family still owns it, some pictures of deceased relatives still hang above the family altar in the “main hall.”

As my Mother-In-Law laid out an offering of food and drink, and a package of my Father-In-Law’s favorite cigarettes, on a table in front of his picture, the rest of us began folding numerous reams of Afterlife Money for spending on the other side. (Folding is just to help the stacks burn more easily.) There was also a package contain a paper shirt and cardboard cell phone, watch, and other paraphenalia for use in the afterworld.

Even more elaborate offerings are burned at someone’s funeral. When one of my Wife’s Uncles died when we were here in 1996, this included an elaborate, detailed paper and cardboard mansion, about six feet long and four feet high.

Other relatives–aunts, cousins and so on–gradually began arriving (including the one I think looks like the Chinese John Mellenkamp) as the incense and candles were lit, and then we began burning the money, paper and cardboard accessories, and the package of Double Happiness cigarettes in a big fire ring in the middle of the floor.

After we finished thusly commemorating my Father-In-Law’s birthday, we started all over again with another table and more Afterlife Money in honor of all the departed ancestors, as part of the Chinese New Year observance.

Our evening observances turned out to be rather low key. We simply watched the New Year’s Eve extravaganza broadcast from Beijing on CCTV1. It’s about four hours of song and dance, host chatter, skits and the like. The biggest changes I noticed since last watching in 1997: the fashions have departed even more from Deng Xiaoping-era conservative dress–suits with brown sweaters underneath were nowhere in sight–and lots of the performers and some of the audience seemed more under the influence of Japanese trends than I’ve ever seen in China before. Dudes looked like the Ladies, in some cases.

Finally, at midnight, despite all the new prohibitions against fireworks, it sounded like a dozen full-blown conventional warfare battles were raging across China, from the alleyways to the skies. If there was a break in the explosions in the general vicinity, you could hear the rumblings from near and far, all the way from Beijing, it seemed.

And so began the Year of the Dog.

Ancestral pictures on the wall. My Wife’s Paternal Grandparents are 2nd and 3rd from the left. My Father-In-Law is on the bottom left. The three on the far right belong to another family for reasons I didn’t quite understand–maybe some sort of ancestral home time-share arrangement?:

Other pictures from the morning:

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