Door to adulthood in Chinese traditional culture


Students from Guangqumen High School, dressed in traditional Han clothing, declare their adulthood at a special ceremony in Beijing. [Photo by Jiang Dong]

Modern teens find meaning in coming-of-age ceremonies as old as Confucius, Wang Kaihao discovers.

On a recent Thursday morning, the mood is solemn at the Beijing Confucius Temple and Imperial College. More than 300 senior high students from the capital's Guangqumen High School have gathered to stage a traditional coming-of-age ritual of the Han ethnic group. It's a milestone in life, stimulating visitors' curiosity and a continuous sparkle of camera flashes. It all began with a simple commemoration ritual in front of a Confucius statue in the temple at 9 am. The adjacent college was home to the country's highest educational institution during the Yuan (1271-1368) to Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, and was a place to pay homage to the famous educator Confucius (551-479 BC).

Such customs are unfamiliar to students today, and they hardly know how to behave properly at such a dignified moment. So there is some quick rehearsing beforehand-with no detail ignored.

Some students wear traditional Han clothing, and go through a complex ritual that included the donning of hats (called guan) for young men and hair clasps (called ji) for young women to represent adulthood, kowtowing to their parents and chanting paragraphs from Confucian classics.


School principal Wu Shen (middle) leads his students to enter the Beijing Confucius Temple and Imperial College where the coming-of-age ritual is to be held

The moment I knelt down was when I suddenly felt my parents become extremely great, says Shi Haoyuan with emotion. I am deeply grateful for what they have done for me in the past 18 years.

I'm glad I am no longer a child after such a touching circumstance. Though I have been here before, I've never felt so humble and so encouraged as a student confronting Confucius so seriously. This may empower me to pursue my dream of going to Peking University.

All the participants will compete in the national college entrance examination in June.

Zhou Hong, Shi's mother, smiles throughout the rituals, but some tears fall, too.

My child has been so busy, overwhelmed with preparing for the exams, she sighs.

I knew he must be thankful for our doings, but there was no chance for him to speak out. In Chinese culture, we might lack traditions to directly tell our families how much we love them. Here comes one rare opportunity.

Academic results are crucial, she adds, but traditions are also part of the fortune in his life.

There was a moment during the ceremony when children read their parents' handwritten letters, but Zhou did not reveal her inked expectations for her son.

This ceremony is beyond the form itself, says Wu Shen, principal of the high school. We launch the event to tell the students: you should learn being an adult means you have to face more responsibilities and challenges. Don't let your parents worry. Don't waste your golden age. Grasp the chance (the coming exams), which may change your lives' path.

The first recent coming-of-age ritual here was held in 2009, as a response to news reports of many high school students committing suicide. The goal was to call for more responsibility among young people, according to Ji Jiejing, the organizer of this ritual, who is also in charge of promoting ancient Chinese studies in the Beijing Confucius Temple and Imperial College.


Students hug their parents to express gratitude and to show they will take more family responsibilities like grown-ups

Coming-of-age rituals of the Han ethnic group date back to the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century-771BC), and the age of 15 was traditionally the time symbolizing adulthood until the modern standard was adopted. In ancient times, coming-of-age rituals were mostly hosted within individual families and usually went through a much more complicated process than this one. Young participants had to abstain from eating meat before the ceremony, and needed to take a bath and change clothes for preparation. But we have to abandon those parts and mix in some modern elements, Ji says.

Modern society has lost too many traditional customs. We'd love to re-establish good parts of our ancient rituals step by step, starting from festivals and crucial moments in our life.

According to Cheng Fangping, an education professor at Renmin University of China, coming-of-age rituals returned to the public's consciousness about 10 years ago and have gradually mushroomed nationwide in recent years. This follows a similar trend in neighboring countries like Japan and South Korea, whose rituals are largely influenced by ancient China. He feels encouraged to see their comeback here.

The rituals cannot be too casual, because it needs a solemn atmosphere to make new adults clearly know what this crucial moment means for them, he says.

While coming-of-age is observed differently around the globe, the spiritual gist is basically the same: to warn the young it is time to be independent.

We've seen too many Chinese people who still depend on their parents at 28, or even 38. On the other hand, parents want too much to take care of their grown-up children and won't let them go. It's not only an educational issue but a dilemma our whole society has to seriously consider.

SOURCE : (China Daily) By Wang Kaihao

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