The following is a text transcript of an interview of Chihoung Chen conducted by his son, Leon Chen.
What is your name?
Chihoung Chen ().
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Kaoshioung City (), Taiwan. When I was almost two years old, I moved to Jia-Yi (). I lived there until I graduated from high school. Then I moved to Taipei. I lived in Taipei until I graduated from college. Then I worked in an army hospital before going to America.
What year was it when you went to America?
When you were growing up, did your parents tell you stories about our ancestors?
When I was young, your grandfather wasn't the type to tell stories. Your grandmother was the one who told the stories. In China, family is very important. When your grandmother was very young, her mother died, so her father took care of her. On your grandfather's side, your great-great grandfather was born and raised in Hangzhou (). When he was twelve, the Taiping rebels attacked the city and killed all of their family members except for him, one brother and sister, and an aunt. After the rebellion ended, your great-great grandfather returned to Hangzhou and rebuilt the family. He married and had three sons. The youngest of the three was your great grandfather. Your great grandfather had several daughters and a son, who is your grandfather. During the Communist attack, he fled to Taiwan and eventually settled there.
Were there any legends?
No, they were all real things that happened. This is pretty important. If a family didn't have portraits, then they would take a paper with that person's , which is the person's year, month, date, and time of birth, and use it to represent that person. For example, you were born in 1985, so your year would be represented by . In China, they say that there is a time that is necessary for a person to be born. If a person's body can't be found, then their would be used to represent them.
When you were growing up, did you ever attend a ceremony to worship ancestors?
Do you remember what you did?
Well, we would offer food. We would burn three incense sticks, and kneel and kowtow three times. After each time, we would pour more wine to our ancestors. Then we would go outside and burn paper money, and pour wine around the burning paper money.
You mean you did it like how we do it?
Right, only the one we do is simplified. Do you know why it's simplified?
In the past, entire generations of a family would live together in a big house. But society changed, and those large families disappeared, and they split into smaller families. You know how your grandparents live with us? To us that seems pretty normal, but that's because we're still into Chinese traditions. Anyway, in the past people would live in a big house. The head of the family would have a very big responsibility because he has to take care of everybody in the family. In those big houses, there would be an ancestral hall. That's a special building used to worship ancestors. It housed the portraits and ancestral tablets. Normally, it would be used as a place for kids to learn, because schools weren't very common. Family meetings were also held there. This hall is pretty important. In the past, the ceremonies are a form of education. The kids would learn respect for their elders. The worship ceremonies were pretty important. But after the family sense split, the worship ceremonies would become more simplified. Our family tried to maintain as much as possible, so you would be able to pass it on to your children. To me, the process itself is a kind of education. It teaches you to respect where your coming from and to take the responsibility to pass the moral standard to the next generation.
Do you remember what you did at a funeral?
Well, when your grandfather (on Mother's side) died, do you remember how old you were?
Less than a year old.
You went back to Taiwan that time. He was also a good man. When you were born he was very happy. Then he got cancer and died. When we went back that time, we didn't know much about funerals, so we had other people who worked for the funeral home perform the procedures. They cleaned his body and changed his clothes. They asked us if we had any money. We gave them some money. The people working for the funeral home took the money and put it in your grandfathers's hand, then gave it to us. They said that your grandfather gave the money to us, and they wanted us to keep it forever. Then we invited Buddhist monks, and they chanted sutras.
This funeral was a combination of Taoism and Buddhism. After that the coffin was closed. A lot of people sent flowers. Your grandfather was the second most powerful general in the Taiwan navy. And then we went to the mountains. Traditionally, we would throw paper, but your grandmother was a principal of an elementary school, so we didn't throw that much as to not harm the environment. At the grave site, we waited. Chinese people believe that there must be a certain time for burial. It's all determined by a feng-shui master. He determines the time and the day and the angle. He has a special kind of compass and waited for the right time. I have one of those instruments. Haven't you seen it?
Your grandmother was extremely sad. Afterwards, we were grateful to those workers so we took them out to dinner. After several years, many people in Taiwan go back and collect the bones. It's not that popular among mainland Chinese, but it's done very often in Taiwan. After awhile, they go back and open up the coffin. The bones are then placed as to resemble the skeleton and they would spray wine on it. Some people would cremate the bones, while others would clean it, spray it with wine again, and put it into the coffin. The Chinese say that the more the body decomposed the better. If the body is not decomposed, then it's bad luck. It means the soul isn't willing to leave the body. Egyptians in old days want bodies to stay whole.
In some cases, if the body can't be found, then clothes or a paper with their would be placed in the coffin. If there's like a car crash and a person's in a coma, then people would take clothes and incense and call the soul back.
Have you been to only one ceremony to pick bones?
Yes. Actually, the one we went to is different from typical Chinese practice in Taiwan. Do you know why your great grandmother's grave was above the ground?
Because your grandfather was planning on returning to mainland China. Sometimes there are two coffins. The body is placed in a coffin, then that coffin is placed inside a bigger coffin. Chinese beliefs are different from those of other cultures.
Does our family have ancestor portraits?
No. In the past, there were shops with the body parts of the portraits all painted in. Once somebody died, family members would go to the shop and commission a painting and the artist would paint the head in. Nowadays, there are no ancestral halls to place the portraits. Your grandparents probably saw them.
Does our family have photos of our great grandparents?
Yes. We even have a picture of your great-great grandparents. Your great grandmother and great-great grandfather were devout Buddhists. They were strict vegetarians. One of your grandfather's sisters was also a strict vegetarian. Because of this, I started being Buddhist when I was in sixth grade.
Do you think there are any more of those shops you were talking about?
No. First of all, the houses were too small, and the Cultural Revolution probably destroyed them. The Communists also dug up many graves, including those of your great-great grandfather and the great grandfather on your grandmother's side. Many graves were dug. So, I try to teach you everything that I know about Chinese culture, so you can pass it on to your children.
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