Tag Archives: asia
As somebody who hails from a place where it’s hot and humid for most of the time, I am quite fascinated by where the seasons are so radically distinct, and felt in the most in-your-face way. I don’t experience the bite of winter nor the accompanying longing for spring, nor the giddy high when this longing is finally fulfilled.
I find it intriguing how a lot of the customs that are practiced even in my corner of the world revolve around celebrating spring, the season of fertility and rebirth. For instance, a lot of weddings happen this time of year, and I’ve only recently realized how appropriate it is! Weddings are traditionally a prelude to child-bearing, and what better season to procreate than when the earth is sprouting seeds, shoots, and flowers?
So for today’s post, we’ll celebrate spring by celebrating fertility symbols!
Woman of Willendorf
She used to be called Venus of Willendorf (modern-day Aggsbach, Austria) and she’s estimated to be 20,000 years old. That’s a lot of zeroes, which means she’s way older than the Venus of Roman mythology, which is probably why the name didn’t stick. She has no feet, and she can’t stand on her own. Her face is covered by horizontal bands which many figure to be plaited hair. Archaeologists have unearthed many other figurines that look very much like her. Scholars think that her disproportionately large breasts and belly, and very detailed nether parts, point to her having been used as a fertility symbol in ancient times.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Eggs & Bunnies
These are nowadays are used as Easter symbols, but they are so because they represent fertility. Eggs are themselves evidence of fertility, and bunnies, well, they are known to reproduce really quickly and easily.
These are female fertility charms that are used in indigenous cultures in the Philippines and in certain parts of Southeast Asia. Its key characteristic is in its shape — rounded with a slit in the bottom. The negative space in the middle is said to resemble an embryo with an umbilical cord attached. The shape too makes it easy to be worn as ear ornaments, but they can also be used as pendants.
It’s strange, I know. But it just so happens that the Chinese term for chopsticks, zhu, also also translates as “many sons”, and because of this chopstick sets when given as wedding gifts are said to bring luck.
Midori’s post about one-word resolutions a couple of years ago changed the way I approached new year’s resolutions. And as January rolls around again, I would like to take some inspiration from Korea, all because I came across this thesis by graduate student Sungmi Han about humor in Korean tradition, and was intrigued by it.
Asian culture is one steeped in history and tradition. We think emperors, dynasties, martial arts, silks and ceramics. The very idea of “Asian culture” seems serious, and exotic, and a tad highbrow. The last thing one would associate with it is humor.
Enter Korea. This country has taken influences from Japan, China and the Western world and put its own quirky spin on them. For all we know, fun and whimsy may be how Korea has weathered the storms of its history.
The country had a troubled past. There were conflicts to deal with, both external and internal. Geographically, it was stuck—sandwiched between China and Japan—and over the centuries it was bullied and battered incessantly one or other of these two neighbors. In the past 5 millennia, Korea was attacked and invaded a whopping 998 times! As if that wasn’t enough drama to grapple with, there were inner upheavals as well, which eventually broke and shattered the nation in two.
But laughter is cathartic. Throughout the centuries Koreans have used humor as a fortress to shelter their innate optimism, as an antidote to misery, and as a way to break free from what confines them.
A Korean king may have used a 14-faced die like this one to inject some comedy at work, probably in some version of truth-or-dare. Each side contained instructions for some kind of dare, like “make a funny face,” “dance silently” or “down three cups of liquor in one gulp.”
Take the mythical beasts that we would find standing on guard outside palaces. The ones in China look ferocious, kind of like the gargoyles in Medieval churches, with their glaring frowns. These figures are meant to inspire fright. But the Korean versions are actually quite… cute. They’ve got gentle eyes and goofy toothy smiles.
They’re so round and adorable that we’d actually want to hug them, despite the fact that they’re made of stone.
It’s is probably only in Korea that one would find a monument built for a King’s umbilical cord and placenta. It’s not so odd to find turtles in tomb markers (they’re as ubiquitous as crosses and angels in cemeteries in the west), but none have the gentle smile that the one here has.
In a garden in Changdeok palace, there are a lot of these stone planters, and in some of them, we’d see frogs coming in and out of a pot, probably in search of their princesses.
Common folk in Korea used to carve their own changsung or spirit posts to protect against bad spirits. It seems that scare tactics were replaced by bids to win over the evil by making them laugh with these funny faces.
With its history, Koreans could have become a belligerent, hardened, jaded, joyless, and un-spontaneous people, but no! They rallied and fought to keep their naïveté, optimism, and sense of humor. And as they evolved as a people, they acquired certain qualities which developed into an aesthetic that spoke profoundly of their culture’s resilience and grace. This, I think, makes Korea a worthy inspiration for a New Year’s Eve post.
All images via Sungmi Han except where indicated.
On this side of the world, Christmas celebrates family and coming together to celebrate the end of the year and hope for the coming one. Just like other celebrations however, in different parts of the world Christmas might have a different cultural significance.
Christmas has its origins in the Christian faith, so it might be celebrated differently in some some countries where Christianity might not be a prominent religion. Coming from a dominantly Catholic country, to me it always had a meaning that was connected to religion.
In Japan, where Christianity is not a dominant religion, Christmas is celebrated rather differently and has gained a meaning that is linked more to contemporary culture instead of spiritual traditions.
Christmas eve in Japan is a holiday to be spent with loved ones – in a much more literal sense. It’s kind of like the equivalent of Christmas in July, but instead you could think of it as Valentine’s day in February.
Christmas eve is a night for lovers, romanticized by the festive holiday lights and displays. Couples are the focus of this holiday, and most christmas celebrations center around romantic love, making it the equivalent of what valentine’s day would be in places such as the US and Canada.
There are a couple of traditions that have been adapted in Japan during the holiday season with varied approaches. Exchanging gifts is also done as a sign of good will, but not everyone partakes, possibly because it is more traditional to give a gift of goodwill to people who have helped you during the year at New Year’s.
Families also prepare a Christmas meal, but it’s far from what you would expect. In recent years the Christmas meal of choice for many Japanese in urban areas is Kentucky Fried Chicken. This started a few decades ago when Christmas wasn’t a widespread holiday (it still isn’t a national holiday today), and has since become tradition.
The meal is similar to what families in the US would do for thanksgiving – place an order in advance to avoid waiting in a line for a special portion of chicken, christmas cake, and other special goodies.
And speaking of christmas cake – Japanese christmas cake isn’t the traditional fruitcake you would expect, either. It’s basically a soft sponge cake decorated with strawberries and cream icing, sometimes with a greeting or other holiday garnish. I personally enjoyed eating this kind of christmas cake – it was light sweet but not overly laden with fruit and spice.
Wherever in the world you celebrate though, Christmas never fails to be the most festive time of year. However you decide to celebrate, may your days be merry and bright!
Asia is home to almost 4 billion people of diverse histories, cultures, and religions, and yet a common thread of merrymaking unites many Asian countries as December comes along. A lot of cultures have been influenced by American and European colonizers such that long after achieving sovereignty, certain practices remain. Technology, too, contributes to the rise of a global culture where political and cultural boundaries blur.
Therefore though Christians are a minority in Asia, and Christmas at its core is a religious celebration celebrated by this group, non-Christian Asians have secular ways of taking part in it. Christmas mood is infectious! There’s all that music, those brilliant, glorious lights, the decor, the gift-giving, and the sheer joy of it all. And let’s not forget Santa and Rudolph. It’s great fun, good for the soul, and good for business.
So how do Asians celebrate Christmas? In many different ways.
Christmas is called bada din (the big day) and is a state holiday here, much through British colonial influence. In Goa, Christians decorate mango trees or banana plants instead of fir, and light up some clay lanterns.
Christmas is a commercial season in Japan, and an opportunity for lovers to exchange gifts. It is pretty much a big deal, but it’s overshadowed by New Year’s which is an even bigger deal.
The Christian minority have low-key religious celebrations in China. Hong Kong and Macau, however — the former being and erstwhile territory of Britain, and the latter, of Portugal — are in full holiday gear, bedecked in all the trappings of Christmas, albeit just as a commercial peak season.
Same goes for Singapore, where there’s a Christmas Light-Up activity, wherein rivers of twinkling lights illuminate Orchard Road and Scotts Road, and leading the way to the malls.
A good 30 percent of its population Christian, so the Christmas celebration in South Korea is religious just as much as secular, perhaps even more so. Gifts are exchanged by everyone, and Santa drops in too, although he’s called Santa Haraboji in these parts.
As one of the two predominantly Christian Asian countries, folks here go truly over the top in their celebration, cramming 400 years of Spanish-Catholic influence and 40 years of secularized American Christmas traditions. Religious practices include novena dawn Masses called misa de gallo, Christmas Eve midnight Mass, and succeeding holidays that go on until the first Sunday after New Year’s, the feast of the Epiphany. Add Santa Claus, plastic Christmas fir trees, and Jingle Bell Rock into that mix, and you’ll get a general picture.
Autumn is a great season for festivals. Around the world, autumn heralds different types of celebrations according to place, religion, and culture. While most autumn celebrations are specific to the temperate climate, they usually have something to do with the harvest season and have roots in the culture that celebrates them.
In the United States, the most well-known celebrations equated with the autumn season are Halloween and Thanksgiving, which are both very soon! Their approach reveals the imagery traditionally associated with the autumn season here, including pumpkins, pie, turkeys, and of course, the warm colors of foliage.
Around the world as well, there are a number of festivals that happen during the later months of the years, which can be specific to a culture or religion. Here are a few, some well-known and perhaps less known festivals celebrated this season.
This German festival is for beer lovers. It is usually held from the last few days of September until the middle of October, where it derives its name from. Throughout different cities around the world, people gather to celebrate the harvest by drinking beer throughout the days, especially seasonal brews that are introduced for the occasion. Although the festival is celebrated worldwide today, it originated in the city of Munich, where the main festival continues to be held faithfully every year.
In the Munich festival, the name “Oktoberfest” also refers to type of beer served, which is specific for the occasion. The beer served is known as Märzen or Märzen-Oktoberfestbier, and is brewed within the city limits of Munich. The beer typically has medium alcohol content (5-6%), and have a rich and toasty flavor. It has a specific, specialized brewing process that begins in the spring and continues over the summer until the festival in the fall.
From the other side of the world is the Chinese mid-autumn festival, or mooncake festival. Despite its name, it is also usually celebrated early in the season, around September. The mid-autumn it derives its name from is the season in the Lunar calendar.
The harvest moon is celebrated at this festival, and people eat mooncakes baked with bean paste filling.
This Jewish festival follows the solemn celebration of Yom Kippur, one of the biggest holidays in Judaism. It commemorates the years the Israelites spent in the desert, and also has an agricultural significance.
During the holiday, Jewish families build temporary shelters called Sukkah, where they eat their meals for the duration of the seven-day long holiday. Some families sleep in these structures as well. As family event, it has connotations similar to the American Thanksgiving holiday, especially since it takes place after Yom Kippur.
The Sukkah shelters are very iconic of the holiday, and have come to be the architectural representation of this tradition. You could say that it is similar to the modern pavilion – and in 2010, an exhibition called Sukkah City took place in New York that showcased modern conceptual designs of these little habitats.
Autumn is certainly a season of pleasantries, with good food, drink, and quality family time in abundance. No matter where you are in the world, the celebrations herald the forthcoming holiday season, making the season a certainly festive one.