The significances of red envelopes: Promises and lies at a Singaporean Chinese funeral

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The article “The meanings of red envelopes: Promises and lies at a Singaporean Chinese funeral” written by Ruth E. Toulson, revolves around a large question: Why do red envelopes appear at Singaporean Chinese funerals? The creator attempts to understand the connotations of shades in the Chinese culture and how it shapes its day-to-day socio-political and financial transactions. The author elucidates and develops the theory of Keane about the switch of messages in context to the established relationships among the human beings belonging to specific cultures. The author employs ethnographic lookup tactics in order to experience and recognize the basic connections of the colours with that of the Chinese culture. The main argument of the paper establishes that there could be more complex relationships between the perceptions of colour among diverse cultures across the world. The study precisely focuses on the meanings of the materials to convey the nature of the relationships.

Toulson attempts to explore the meanings of materials especially the colours that carry more than just a message or compliment. It enables my own understanding regarding the functioning of meaning making and its relevance to the basic cultural etiquettes of a culture. The author makes the study very interesting by inferring the importance of red colour of envelopes (hóngbāo) that appear at Singaporean Chinese funerals. It is very thought-provoking because of the fact that colours do are important to certain cultures. The paper attempts to draw a relationship between death and the colour (red) that represents it. The red colour has an intimate relationship with the sociocultural notions of China including the Christians and the people who are without faith. It is related to fertility, life, energy etc. In the same culture white colour denotes the colour of death in the same culture. This is perhaps one of its kind research-based studies that look deep into the cultural nuances of China including Singapore. While going through this article, I could connect its findings as well as the general arguments made by the author with my own real-life experiences and literature.

In The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, written by Anne Fadiman gives an account of cultural differences between two diverse cultures of Hmong and Americans. The author actually attempts to map the existing relations of the two cultures that differ in many ways. Toulson represents cultural connotations as one of the important factors that could lead to a comprehensive understanding of the general ways of life of the people of specific cultures. “The souls of sacrificed animals are precious and vitally connected to human souls. Animals are not considered to be far removed from human species as they are in our worldview… Since the bonding between the life-souls between the patient and the sacrificed animal is so intimate, it is likened to souls being wedded together” (Fadiman 34). It infers from above quote that the Hmong links ‘souls’, which are seen as white in colour with health and happiness. They have a staunch faith in soul and on their ancestors who could make or break Hmong prosperity. They can go to any extent to please a soul who they believe exists as white in colour. And as per the rituals Hmong need to pay offerings to their ancestors for their good beings. The ritual of soul searching has been acknowledged by Hmong all through. They believe rituals have a holistic approach and can cure any diseases (Fadiman 36).

Most of the scholars of anthropology have a general consensus regarding the unique colour cognition of every culture. Also, anthropologists’ constantly investigate the connotations as well as the denotations of colour along with their symbolic meaning as in the case of red, white and black with blood, semen and faeces (Turner 23). Toulson mentions that the colour perception and its relevance form a basic understanding of a specific culture. For instance, Chinese communities do not prefer to combine the colours of red and white because according to them these colours belong to marriage and death respectively. If someone dies in a family, every member of the family is not supposed to attend a marriage ceremony, bridal or a baby’s one-month fête for a year. James Watson (Toulson 158). Fadiman mentions one of the important implications of a traditional approach that emanates cultural etiquettes, governing ethnic and aesthetic including the colour aspirations of the concerned people. These rituals laden cultures weigh down the new world (developed) approach and leave an imprint of ambiguity within the spheres of Medical practices.

Besides, the colour connotations and denotations convey a lot of information without actually getting into a discourse. For instance, Toulson mentions Wolf’s (1970) essay, ‘Chinese kinship and mourning dress’ to develop a general argument regarding the unexpected preference of red colours supposed to be worn on mourning occasions by the kin (Wolf 190). Such is the case of a cultural attribute that attempts to add colours to the fact that funerals are dominated by white. The red colour is popularly seen to be used or won by Chinese people as it has deep-rooted undertones with its culture.

Such examples developed a very keen interest in studying the choice and influence of the colours on other communities and cultures. For instance, I see most of the Muslims around the world prefer and wear white colours especially the Arabs. White could symbolize peace, sanctity, purity, and concentration in their cultures. It is even important to observe that they wear white clothes on every occasion including marriage, death, or during prayers. Also, according to Toulson, colours have rooted connections with the existence of the cultures that may or may not denote the general understand g of the aesthetic preference of others. Arabs, do prefer white colour on almost every occasion even during their two bigger festivals – Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Zuha. Besides representing the above-discussed qualities, the white colour represents Noor – the divine light which the Muslims desire or reach to earn it.

So by referring to the Toulsons arguments, I can actually take a look around and I find many things that have connotations with colours and the cultures. For instance, the traffic lights have distinguished colours that denote separate things and are embedded in almost every culture of the world. I think the Red traffic light means stop in America as well as in China or Russia. Such connotations and associations are defined according to the global culture or global village conception.

Chinese culture is very rich in its presentation by illustrating its uniqueness regarding every attribute especially the colours that it establishes firmly. The red envelope correlation with that of the death and happiness is well documented by Toulson and enables an in-depth understanding of the cultural etiquettes of China especially Singapore. The red colour is associated with the colour of promise or faith that broadens the philosophical scope of its culture. Similarly, every colour could be interpreted differently by the diverse cultures of the world except the colour of the traffic lights.

Works cited

Fadiman, A. The spirit catches you and you fall down: A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (1998). P. 34-37

Toulson, Ruth. The meanings of red envelopes: Promises and lies at a Singaporean Chinese funeral. Journal of Material Culture, 18(2). 2013. 155–169

Turner, V. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UniversityPress. (1967). p.23

Wolf, AP. Chinese kinship and mourning dress. In: Freedman M (ed.) Family and Kinshipin Chinese Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, (1970). 189–208.

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