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Nations & Customs
Jixi Huizhou Anhui

 

Huizhou, situated at the southern tip of Anhui Province, is a place where you can easily reflect on feudal times as you stroll through ancestral halls and memorial archways.

In ancient China, the ancestral hall was the centre of a clan and also the spiritual home of its members.

At that time, important events usually took place in such halls, such as ancestral worship ceremonies of a clan, important decision-making and reward and punishment of all kinds.

Those with different family names were never allowed in, as the hall was taken as a symbol of clan unification, said Bao Caihong, a tour guide at the Tangyue Village in Shexian County.

While for the women, they could enter these halls only once during their lifetime - on their wedding day, the guide told reporters, explaining that it was because the female was considered to be inferior to the male in old China and thus not allowed to appear during formal occasions.

However, there was one exception in Tangyue Village where the only ancestral hall designed for women in the country was built 200 years ago.

Then how could this happen in feudal times when the women were looked down upon?

The tour guide explained that the unique hall had a story linked to her clan - the Bao family - a once powerful name in the salt business during the Qing Dynasty.

The builder of the hall, Bao Qiyun, lost his parents when he was just eight years old. Luckily he had an elder brother and was brought up by his sister-in-law. After making his fortune through the salt business, Bao returned to his hometown and decided to repay his sister-in-law by building her a hall.

The clan leader agreed, but recommended that the hall be built in the name of the village"s 59 widows, all of whom remained loyal to their husbands and did not remarry after they died. They were taken as role models of chastity, which was considered the best virtue for women in ancient China.

 

After that, these widows had their names etched in the family ancestral hall and were worshipped by their offspring.

For Huizhou women in olden times, this was exactly their best ending. They pursued chastity their whole life, just as men struggled to define their careers.

The establishment of this hall seems to be an indication of the improvement in the status of women, but the tour guide told us that its only purpose was to shape women"s behaviour to match feudal etiquette.


The women"s ancestral hall was named "Qingyi Tang", or "Qingyi Hall". "Qing" means clean in Chinese, indicating that the female should always be loyal to their husbands. The Chinese character "yi" is composed of three simple worlds which literally mean "a devoted heart," warning local women that they should only give their heart to one person - their husband. They could never have a second partner, even after their husband passed away.

More details inside the hall reveal that the structure was only a tool to indoctrinate people with the idea that chastity was a must for women. One example is the tablet hanging at the top of the hall which reads "Being Loyal to the Husband and Being Filial to the Parents."


Not every woman was willing to surrender themselves to the feudality. Some didn"t care about chastity and chose to remarry, but they had to endure unbearable shame.

The annals of the nearby Qimen County told how a remarriage ceremony was held.

"When entering her new husband"s house, the widow was not allowed to walk through the front door. Instead, she had to step in from the side door, barefooted and face-covered. Meanwhile, the neighboring kids would throw small bricks or stones at her..."

Such a "ceremony" might force the widows to give up any idea of remarriage.

Now, local women need not to worry about such outdated regulations since China promulgated its first marriage law in 1950, which abolished arranged marriages and encouraged freedom of choice in selecting a spouse.

Also, the ancestral halls were no longer used since most of them were destroyed or abandoned during the Cultural Revolution, which lasted 10 years until 1976.

"At that time, they were considered to be an "old concepts", so all kinds of worship activities were cancelled," Bao Caihong said.

Now, traditional worship has not returned to the Tangyue Village and its surrounding areas, but some local residents are now organizing such activities themselves.

"Villagers usually burn paper-money as an offering in front of the tombs of their late ancestors on special days such as Tomb Sweeping Day or during the Ancestor"s Festival," Han Liangjing, a tour guide in Nanping Village of Shexian County said, "all the ancestral halls are empty and serve as tour sites now."

There are also something different. Han Ying, a family inn owner in Nanping, places a statue of Bodhisattva in the courtyard and burns incenses from time to time, expecting to get some blessings.

Han says it"s a real pity that many of the local rituals are fading away. "Now it is hard to get them back because the traditional worshipping ceremonies would cost a lot," but she believes they will be restored one day with the boom in local tourism. "They can help visitors know more about the traditions."

 

 
   
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