Separation and Reunion in Modern China (2002) by Charles Stafford

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Separation and Reunion in Modern China (2002) by Charles Stafford

In this monograph Charles Stafford considers separation as an existential state of human societies. He depicts how “repeated physical separations in various forms- including, ultimately, in the form of death- are surely an evitable feature of human life [that stands} in a complex relationship with various forms of emotional and social separation and distance” (Stafford 2002, p.5). By means of ethnographic data accumulated both in Taiwan and on the mainland, along with historical sources and literacy, Stafford details the ways in which the Chinese regard the passage of separation and reunion in frameworks as varied as the etiquette of welcomes (jie) and farewells (song), traditional religion, family formations, kinship, festivals of reunion, and the political separation and reunion of China and Taiwan. During the opening chapter, Stafford describes many of the approaches in psychology and then anthropology on the subject of passage and separation, opening by examining Freud’s study on mother-infant relationships. Freud considers separation to be a structuring difficulty of childhood which sustains a lifetime consciousness of autonomy, dependency and relatedness. Stafford subsequently exhibits four approaches to separation within anthropology (Freud 1955). Initially he illustrates cross-cultural comparisons in mother-infant relations. He then assesses the literature on separation in findings of socially displaced groups in refugees and migrants. Finally, he reviews studies on the function of emotional ambivalence in human relations produced by conflicting, universal requirements for autonomy and dependence. The introductory chapter is the most theoretical and bases the framework for the rest of the monograph. Subsequently, Stafford examines many specific examples of the position of separation and reunion in Chinese society and culture. Deriving predominantly on his ethnographic data, the first chapter studies two festivals of reunion: the Chinese New Year and the mid-autumn festival. Stafford portrays the ‘turning of the year’ (guonian) ritual as a fantasy of perpetual non-separation. He stresses the significance of returning home for the holidays, the series of visits that follow the actual festival and the diversity of sayings and practices that echo the fantasy of unity. For instance, they would say, in some form, if another around the table had difficulties (kunan) in the future, they would certainly be able to rely on the others for help. Furthermore, communal eating and sharing of food was also important, in a similar way to the significance of this in the Tonga village which Junod (1962) described, in which it was the case that everyone has some of all of the meals prepared. The ‘mid-autumn’ festival’ (zhongqui) which Stafford discusses also elaborates the fantasy of pertual ‘non-separation, and both festivals key moments entail reunification with the dead. Furthermore, there are visits marked off by rituals of arrival and departure, which inevitably highlight ongoing reciprocity and ‘unity’ between ancestors and descendants, in the face of death and spatial separation. Stafford also demonstrations that history has an unfortunate propensity to impede the fantasy of unity; he illuminates this with an example of the mid-autumn festival at a PRC university that doesn’t allow students to return home for the festival. In chapter 2, Stafford explains the etiquette of parting and returning in China in the reception and sending off of guests. Stafford states that “the public elaboration of partings and returns seems, in many circumstances, inversely proportional to the emotional or social closeness of the attachments in question” (p. 55). Once more, a fantasy of permanent non-separation in intimate relationships is prevalent, in this instance approving a comprehensive dismissal of the common etiquette by which separations and reunions are managed. Chapter 3...
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