Passing of a village aunt illustrates how far we have come from our traditions

By Wan Lixin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, March 1, 2017
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One of my aunts died recently. It was sad, though not surprising.

When my mother and I last paid her a visit in December 2014, we knocked long and hard at the door of a cousin's home where she was supposed to be living.

The knocks must have been within her earshot, but such was her condition that she could no longer respond.

Just when we were about to leave, the cousin came from outside and unlocked the door. The aunt was probably suffering from a sort of senile dementia, but I could not be sure, for elderly villagers at her age are rarely sent to hospitals for treatment. Being immobile, she spent her last years in solitary confinement.

But when the end did occur, I tried to visualize her uneventful life as best I could through my limited contact with her.

Confucius once sighed that "The occurrence of death and birth is an issue of moment indeed!"

Lives of prominent people, particularly those deemed worthy of our emulation, have always been part and parcel of standard Chinese histories. These include chiefly movers and shakers, founders of dynasties, usurpers, men of ambition or disruption.

We have a saying gaiguan lunding, or "final judgment can be passed on a person only when the lid is nailed on his coffin." But if you know how historians are still debating the worth of figures such as the first Chinese emperor Ying Zheng (259-210 BC), you know about the virtual impossibility of arriving at any valid judgment at all.

But it seems much easier to say something about this aunt, who had toiled blamelessly and ceaselessly in her capacity as a housewife and peasant. I never saw her in anger. Like the rest of her sisters, she was illiterate. They made up for their lack of education with strength in instinct and firmness in emotion.

The farthest trip she ever made was to the county seat a few kilometers away. As a matter of fact, she would feel disoriented once outside the village. Even within the village, she communicated with only a few of her closet associates. Her attention was fully directed to her immediate and extended families. She was never feared, very likely never hated, but her words carried great weight in the family.

Radical transformation

Surprisingly, from a historical perspective, she lived through an age of radical transformation, particularly in recent decades when rising wealth turned her quiet village into an economic powerhouse on the strength of several food and aquatic product processing plants. Row after row of storied village buildings have been built, lined up right next to the highway to impress bypassing visitors.

Obviously the elderly no longer have much of a place in this sanitized landscape.

Anyway they lack the equipment to navigate this brave new world. It would be pompous to call this senile disuse retirement. It's more like limbo.

In her later years, the aunt rarely ventured outside her home, spending long hours watching TV she could not understand. Villagers said she was fortunate in having not been sent to an elderly's home nearby, for her sons took turns in taking care of her.

Progress also had its effect felt on the funeral arrangement. The aunt was cremated within a few hours of her death. A time-consuming funeral that would take several days in the past has been shortened to one day.

This is probably one more fact substantiating the observation that we as a nation is increasingly forward-looking in our belief that while the past is beyond our influence, what lies ahead is pregnant with possibility. We have gone a long way in embracing this view.

According to the Analects, "When proper respect towards the dead is shown at the end and continued after they are far away, the moral force of a people has reached its highest point."

I had thought that at least during the funeral, a moment of high solemnity, remembrance of the aunt's kindness would serve to bury old grudges, or promote reconciliation.

Fresh acrimony

It turned out to be an occasion for begetting fresh acrimony.

According to my sister, who flew especially from Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, to attend the funeral, negotiations over the proper amount of gift money among relatives sparked gossip, complaints, and recriminations.

The reasons are not hard to see. As befitting a society increasingly driven by economic considerations, relations today are more and more defined by immediate economic dictates. Only the shiftless and the elderly still cling tenaciously to what is vestigial of kinship ties. In this case, a funeral throws people back into a net of traditional obligations some cease to find empowering or comfortable.

Still, reflection over the small, humble, and well-spent life of my aunt cannot but elicit my deepest respect and reverence.

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