The lives of the Filipino-Chinese today are a mixture of the ancient and the present. Their reliance on science and technology sits side by side with the customs and traditions that have been passed down to them from their ancestors. The same people who use mobile phones and the Internet still resort to the Chinese lunar calendar when planning events and to feng shui when buying properties.
However, there are people who argue that certain traditional Chinese customs, such as the burning of incense and consulting feng shui, are superstitious practices to which Catholics should not adhere. As a Filipino-Chinese who practices both traditional Chinese customs and Catholic rituals, I can’t help but ask: Am I doing two completely opposite things? In practicing a number of traditional Chinese customs, am I violating the teachings of the Church? Should I give one up?
In “Inculturation of Filipino-Chinese Culture Mentality,” Jose Vidamor Yu said that environmental harmony is among the worldviews that shape Filipino-Chinese religious beliefs. Feng-Shui is actually a term used to indicate this quest for harmony with nature. It is one of the means to determine the balance of the earth’s forces. As such, many Filipino-Chinese consult Feng Shui experts in the construction of business establishments, houses, hotels, and even grave sites in order to achieve harmony and balance in these areas. A number of non-Filipino-Chinese however, regard the method of Feng Shui as superstitious. They believe that Feng Shui is a blindly accepted belief.
Another worldview Yu mentions is filial piety. The Chinese consider it important to teach children to be filial and respectful to elders. For them, filial piety is the basis of an orderly society. The importance of this value can be seen in the veneration of dead ancestors, a custom that shows how honoring one’s parents extends even when the parents have died. Many however, find this to be a form of idol worship.
A third worldview is the preservation of Chinese heritage. The Filipino-Chinese uphold Chinese heritage amidst integration to Philippine culture. The older generation fears the loss of traditional Chinese values and beliefs, so they socialize children and grandchildren in three major ways – birth, marriage, and death – as noted by Ari Dy, S.J. in “Weaving a Dream: Reflections for Chinese-Filipino Catholics Today.”
Birth. When a Chinese baby is born, he/she is already considered to be a year old; age is calculated from the date of conception, not the date of birth. A month after the birth, a small celebration to mark the arrival of a new family member is held.
Wedding. Before the marriage, the parents of the groom formally ask the bride’s parents for her hand in marriage to their son. This practice is called pamamanhikan in Filipino and kiuhun in Hokkien Chinese (Dy 2000). A formal engagement ceremony called tinghun is subsequently held, in which the exchange of rings and a sumptuous dinner follow.
The couple is free to choose their wedding motif. Some opt for the use of traditional red in their clothing and decorations, while others incorporate Chinese elements within a Filipino or Western motif. The Chinese character for ‘double happiness’ (囍) is usually significantly displayed during the engagement and the wedding.
Death. The family usually decides on the duration of the wake and the date of the funeral. Only black or white clothes are allowed to indicate mourning. Incense or joss sticks are offered to the deceased at a square altar containing offerings of fruits, flowers, and wine. A picture of the deceased is displayed on this altar. A banner with the Chinese character tian is displayed in the altar, symbolizing the prayers offered for the dead. The money (tian gee) donated by friends and relatives of the deceased is usually used for expenses related to the death ritual.
Given these worldviews, is it possible to integrate Catholic and Filipino-Chinese beliefs? Yes, indeed. This is what is called syncretism – the fusion of elements from one’s culture with those of other cultures, or the adaptation and modification of elements from other cultures as these are blended into one’s culture. Cultural diffusion has allowed for the mixing and mingling of cultures that no culture is completely “pure.” How then, do we reconcile the Catholic faith with Filipino Chinese beliefs and rituals? Let us go through the practices again:
Feng Shui. Yu notes that the high regard for nature, as shown through Feng Shui, is quite similar to the Christian teachings on environmental harmony. The quest for harmony can be seen in the Christian story of creation in Genesis. God created relationships in harmony. The creation of man, woman, and animals was done in harmony. God saw all he had made and that it was good (Genesis 1:3). There was trust and harmony between man and woman, and even between man and animals: “The man gives names to all the cattle, all the birds of heaven, and all the wild beasts” (Genesis 2:20a) each one was to bear the name the man would give it (Genesis 2:19c).
Filial Piety. Mateo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary in China, viewed ancestor veneration as compatible with Christianity (as long as the overtly superstitious parts of the rites are removed). The Jesuits in China saw ancestor veneration as a means of showing sincere affection and respect for members of the family and as a sign of thankful devotion to ancestors of the clan. Ancestor veneration was thus interpreted as a civil practice, rather than a religious one. The teachings of Confucius on filial piety also do not oppose the teachings of the Bible. In fact, the fifth commandment is: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).
There are also a number of ways by which Chinese customs pertaining to birth, marriage, and death, can be integrated into the Christian sacraments, as Ari Dy S.J. has suggested. For instance, the sacrament of baptism can be given during the child’s first birthday. Whereas the child’s first birthday, called to tse, is a welcoming into the Chinese family, so is the sacrament of baptism a welcoming into God’s family. The child can thus have a combined celebration of two important events.
With regard to marriage, Dy tells us that there are Chinese Catholic couples who attend weekend programs for those contemplating marriage. In these programs, priests invite couples to reflect on things that they often take for granted about each other. These programs allow soon-to-be-married couples to deepen their love for one another and approach marriage with a better sense of commitment.
When it comes to death rituals, Catholics in the Philippines usually offer masses for the deceased during the wake. In these masses, the Filipino-Chinese can offer incense to the dead after the communion prayer. Dy said that incense or joss sticks should not be associated with Buddhism or Taoism. They can be likened to candles that symbolically direct our prayers heavenward.
After reading Jose Yu and Ari Dy’s works, I realize that it is indeed possible to integrate Chinese customs and rituals with Catholic beliefs and practices. We don’t have to give up our ‘Chinese-ness’ to follow Christ. We simply need to have a critical and discerning attitude. We can definitely use our cultural customs and traditions to enhance the expression of our faith. This does not only apply to the Chinese, but to other cultures as well.