Culture may be defined as a learned system of beliefs, feelings, and rules for living through which they organize their lives. A culture is a way of life that is passed from one generation to the next, and societies within the culture are guided by their learned system of beliefs, feelings, and rules for living. Within the customs of their culture, people within society are taught that they share some common understandings with one another. Being taught the customs, members of society are expected to follow the traditional customs of the group.
Cultural relativism recognizes that different cultures have distinct social trajectories, or chosen paths. According to Van Gennep, “the symbolic basis of all cultural systems invariably leads to differences in the meanings of things from situation to situation” (Crapo 2013). The knowledge embodied in the culture of a society is taught to each new generation as a set of rules that define the proper way of thinking, feeling, or acting. Customs within one’s culture may seem bizarre or repugnant to outsiders, but people in each society have their own distinctive patterns of thought about the nature of reality.
As one moves from one status to the next within their lifecycle, Arnold Van Gennep states, “the life events and status changes that are typically experienced by individuals are commonly proclaimed to other members of society by formal rituals known as life crisis rites or rites of passage”. Rites of passage are ceremonies held in different cultures when a member of their society undergoes important changes in their status within lifecycles of the group.
There are four symbolic rituals that are commonly celebrated, and according to George Jacinto and Julia Buckey, “in most cultures there are specific rites of passage related to birth, coming of age, marriage, and death” . China, Japan, and Africa have public symbolic rituals that are commonly celebrated which include the following: naming ceremonies, marriage ceremonies, and funeral ceremonies. Although China, Japan, and Africa commonly celebrate symbolic rituals, the ceremonies are based on their own set of beliefs and cultural traditions, and the ceremonies differ from each other.
Naming ceremonies are one of the commonly celebrated rites of passage, which confer human status on the new member of society. In this ritual, the baby is officially received into the community of human beings and symbolically given human status by acquiring a human name. Traditional cultures realize that a name given to the newborn can be a powerful part of a person’s spiritual life; therefore, cultures devote more energy into naming the newborn. A birth of a baby is a cause of celebration for parents throughout the world.
Different cultures honor the new arrival of a newborn in different ways, and this can be seen in the cultural traditions in China, Japan, and Africa. In each of these cultures, the name given to the newborn varies at different times after the birth of the newborn, the parties that are held are different, and the people responsible for naming the children differ. In China, the naming ceremony is full of culture and family togetherness, and a child’s birth and naming process are sacred events. The name is given one month after the birth of the baby during the Red Egg and Ginger Party, which is China’s traditional baby naming ritual.
The Chinese Red Egg and Ginger party celebrates these events and honors the family and new child. While most of the spiritual meaning may be lost to those outside of the traditional environment, the Red Egg and Ginger Party is commonly practiced by many people until today. During the celebration, hard boiled eggs are dyed red and given to those who honor the birth of the child, and the eggs symbolize good luck. Eggs were considered a delicacy in traditional China and were usually reserved for special occasions or guests.
During the celebration, the baby’s name is chosen and given by the grandparents or by a fortune teller. At the celebration, the baby’s head is shaved. While the girl’s head is shaven in front of an image, the boy’s head is shaven in front of the ancestral table. In Japan, the naming ceremony is done on the seventh night after the baby’s birth. The naming of the baby consists of a first name and last name, and the middle name is left out. Once the name has been decided, the name is then written in calligraphy on a meimeisho, or a fancy cardboard, which will be displayed above the baby’s crib.
At the celebration, the attendees gather around the newborn, and gifts in the form of money are given. After the gifts are disbursed, the celebratory dinner is served, which contains two auspicious dishes. According to Tasha Davis, “nearly all African cultures believe that the infant has come from the spirit world with important information from that world and is bringing unique talents and gifts; indeed, a unique purpose, mission, message or project to offer to the community and thus a reason for celebration” .
The community is responsible for naming the newborn because the name the newborn belongs to the whole community. The boys will be circumcised at the ceremony, and the girl’s ears will be pierced. During the ceremony, elders pray for prosperity, followed by a meal consisting of ritual foods and drinks. In Africa, the naming ceremonies are performed at different times depending on the countries within Africa. The Akran and Yorubi children are named on the eighth day after being physically born, and the newborn does not exist until the naming ceremony takes place.
The Hutu and Edo children are named on the seventh day after their birth. The Akamba children are named after three days in which a goat is slaughtered as a token of appreciation for the ancestors who are responsible for human fertility. Lastly, the Mbuti Pygamy children of the Ituri Forest are initiated in a ritual in which vines are tied around their ankles, wrists, and waists in order to be brought into contact with their future livelihood. In addition to naming ceremonies, wedding ceremonies are symbolic rituals commonly celebrated. Cultures handle courtships and mate selection in many different ways.
In some societies, parents select marital partners, and in other societies, the choice of a spouse is a responsibility of the young adult themselves. Weddings are grand occasions with elaborate formalities, and wedding ceremonies legitimize new sexual, economic, and childrearing obligation. Wedding ceremonies can range from simple ceremonies to very elaborate, elegant ceremonies. The differences in wedding ceremonies can be seen in China, Japan, and Africa. In China, marriages are for keeping the ancestral line and creating alliances between families.
In preparation for the wedding ceremony, certain steps are taking which include the following: proposal making, birthday matching, marriage divination, betrothal gifts presenting, wedding date fixing, dowry urging, and welcoming the bride to the ceremony. The process began with an elaborate marriage proposal and acceptance. This process was placed in the hands of a go-between, who acted as a buffer between the two parties. The important parties in proposal and betrothal negotiations were the parents of the prospective bride and groom, rather than the bride and groom themselves.
Certain rituals had to be performed in order for the groom to take off the bride’s veil which includes hair-pinning, capping, setting of fireworks to frighten evil spirits away, and the bride having to step over a saddle. In spite of the elaborate preparations, the wedding itself was quite simple. The wedding ceremony consists of being taken to the family altar where homage was paid to ancestors, tea being offered to the groom’s parents, and lastly the bride and groom bowing to each other. In Japan, wedding ceremonies can fall into two categories which are traditional Shinto ceremonies and modern Western-style ceremonies.
Marriages have been categorized according to the method of finding a partner. In Japan, marriages result from arranged introductions or the bride and groom deciding to marry on their own. In the wedding ceremonies, dressing the bride is extremely important. According to Gidoni, “the preparation of the bride for her first appearance in elaborate kimono, heavy make-up, wig and head covering is extremely complicated and time-consuming” . Another highlight of this ceremony is a rosary with 21 beads that represent the couple, their families and the Buddha all joined on one string to symbolize the union of the families.
Part of the ceremony involves honoring the parents with offers of flowers, a toast, or a letter expressing their love and gratitude. After the wedding ceremony, the reception, being a Western-style tradition, begins. Plenty of courses are served, but never in a multiple of four because the number four sounds like the word for death. Additionally, the different foods served all have special meanings. For example, lobster might be served because red is a lucky color or clams served with both shells symbolize the couple’s union.
In Africa, weddings are known to be family affairs, and are often not only dependent on the relationship between the man and woman, but on family input and approval as well. Marriages in Africa are strongly dictated by religious influences. Many Northern African marriages are decided by their Muslim faith, while other regions follow the traditions set by their ethnic religions which include Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism. Young men and women are taught about the responsibilities of married life and educated about sex and procreation.
Many rites and rituals are performed as part of the wedding ceremony. Of particular significance are rituals meant to purify or bless the couple. Among the Yoruba people, the oldest woman in attendance will spray gin on the couple and other relatives to bless the new union. Among the Bemba people of Central Africa, a woman about to get married is given a clay pot by her father’s sister. Because the main purpose of marriage is procreation, the clay pot stands for the womb that is expected to be filled and blessed with many pregnancies.
A similar ritual can be observed among the Shona people of Zimbabwe, when the paternal aunt hands a clay pot full of water to the bride to bless her with a fertile marriage. Water is intimately associated with fertility in Africa. Among the Hutu, on the day of her wedding, a woman’s body is smeared with milk and herbs to cleanse her from her previous life and make her pure. Among the Ndembu, the bride walks backward into her husband’s house. An old woman who is instructed in matters related to sex and marriage accompanies her and presents her with beads, which symbolize children, to bless her with fertile marriage.
The celebration of food and dance is another common theme amongst African weddings. Often, wedding celebrations can last for as little as a few hours up to several weeks. The types of foods served during these occasions differ from region to region, depending mainly on local food trends. One of the most difficult transitions for a group is perhaps the death of a member. Since all societies must restructure their social relations so that the work of the world may be continued after the death of a member, ceremonies that mark the death of persons are found in each society.
The most dramatic aspect of this social custom is manifested in funeral ritual. Funeral rituals provide a mechanism for dealing with and disposing of the body of the decreased and provide a setting in which the survivor can be encouraged to adjust themselves to the absence of their lost loved one. In cultural traditions, special attention is paid to the care of the dead so that bad luck will not occur. In some cultures, the dead are taken to a crematory, and in other cultures, the dead are given a burial. The cultural traditions can be seen in China, Japan, and in Africa.
In China, the rules around death are very important to all members of the Chinese society. Special attention is paid to the care of the dead, and very specific rules are followed. If the rules are not followed, it is believed that bad luck will occur. The Chinese believe a person’s body should be at home at the time of death. When a death occurs, the family will immediately remove any mirrors from the home because they believe that anyone who sees the reflection of a casket will have more sorrow. Religious statues are covered with red paper, and a white cloth is placed across the main door of the house.
The family prays together, and they believe prayers help their loved ones go to heaven sooner. The color of clothing for friends and family is very important. Only the deceased’s spouse and children wear black, since their sadness is thought to be the greatest. If anyone else wears black, it is considered very insulting. All others attending a funeral wear bright colors, even white, to signify that their relationship to the deceased was not as strong as close family members, and red is not worn because it is the color of happiness.
In Japan, funerals incorporate a unique mixture of religion, tradition, culture, ritual and geography. The immediate family first keeps a night vigil, or wake, over the deceased on the day of death and generally holds the funeral the following day. During the wake and funeral services, participants who are not among the next of kin customarily offer money to the bereaved and incense are burned to pray for the soul of the deceased. After the ceremony, the deceased is often carried in an ornate hearse to a crematorium. After the cremation, the family and close friends use special
chopsticks to collect bone fragments for a cinerary urn, which is traditionally placed in a family grave within forty-nine days after the funeral. In Africa, the goal of life is to become an ancestor after death. This is why every person who dies must be given a proper funeral. If this is not done, the dead person may become a wandering ghost; therefore, becoming a danger to those alive. African traditions contain a custom of removing a dead body through a hole in the wall of a house, and not through the door because it makes it difficult for the dead to remember the way back to the living.
When someone has died in a house, all the windows are smeared with ash, all pictures in the house are turned around and all the mirrors and televisions are covered. Traditionally, the funeral takes place in the early morning and not late in the afternoon, as it is believed that sorcerers move around in the afternoons looking for corpses to use for their evil purposes. Among the Mende people, upon dying, a person must embark on a most critical journey that involves the successful crossing of a river. Among the Hutu, close relatives of a newly deceased person may not engage in work or sexual intercourse during the period of mourning.
Lastly, when Burkina Faso and Chewa women pass away, one of her pots is broken and buried with her to signify the end of her life. In conclusion, China, Japan, and Africa have public symbolic rituals that are commonly celebrated which include the following: naming ceremonies, marriage ceremonies, and funeral ceremonies. Although China, Japan, and Africa commonly celebrate symbolic rituals, the ceremonies are based on their own set of beliefs and cultural traditions, and the ceremonies differ from each other.
The differences in ceremonies can be seen through the way naming ceremonies, marriage ceremonies, and funeral ceremonies are held in China, Japan, and Africa. China, Japan, and Africa have their own set of cultural beliefs and traditional customs, and the ceremonies are based on their traditions. Although there are cultural variations shared by particular groups within their society, customs within one’s culture may seem bizarre or repugnant to outsiders, but people in each society have their own distinctive patterns of thought about the nature of reality.
References Crapo, R. H. (2013). Cultural anthropology. San Diego: Bridepoint Education, Inc. Davis, T. (2011). Rites of Passge. African Cultural Initiation Rites, 11-20. Goldstein, G. O. (2000). The Production of Tradition and Culture in the Japanese Wedding Enterprise. Ethnos: Journal Of Anthropology, 65(1), 33-55. Jacinto, G. A. , & Buckey, J. W. (2013). Birth: A Rite of Passge. International Journal of Childbirth Education, 28(1), 11-14.