The United States of America today is one of the most multicultural countries in the world. The diversity of people living there and the correlation between their cultures, backgrounds, self-identifications, and roots are very intense. Many cultures neighboring the territory of this country have assimilated, changed, or adjusted to the new place, and the necessary cooperation with all the other cultures. The United States has a very complex and multi-layered cultural structure where all of the inhabitants of the country belong to one nation, yet they all have very rich and diverse ancestries and backgrounds.
This creates certain disorientation and confusion. The book called “Bone” by Fae Myenne Ng explores the cultural traditions of the Chinese immigrants and their descendants in the United States and their rituals of reburial of their deceased relatives. The ritual of reburial was crucial for the Chinese people because ever since the Bronze Age they believed in the continuity of kinship between the family and society members that are alive and the ones that are dead (Risse 56).
To preserve the sacred connection between the living and the dead and their roots, the bones of the Chinese immigrants after their death were sent back home where they were to undergo a proper burial ceremony. The strength of the Chinese beliefs and traditions was so intense that the families would do anything just to arrange the shipment of the bodies of their relatives back to China for the appropriate burial ritual; this was done for the sake of the souls of the dead.
The book by Fae Myenne Ng tells a fictional autobiography of a person, who lives in Chinatown in San Francisco, California. The narrator of the story happening in “Bone” follows a life of the Chinese family where the parents are immigrants and their daughters are immigrant descendants. One of the three daughters commits suicide, and this becomes the reason for various conflicts in the story. Some of the conflicts develop around the family’s ancestry and culture.
The author of the book arranges her writing in a multi-layered way, adding symbolic meanings to some of the phrases. This technique is designed to emphasize the complex mentality and cultural identity of immigrant descendants, who are bilingual and bicultural. The very title of the book, “Bone”, is associated with something that is the very center of the body, the core part of it. The title shows that people and their roots and mentalities have many dimensions. This idea is symbolically described in the part of the narration, where Leila remembers that her mother Mah cooked pigeons for the family and always saved the meaty parts such as breasts and legs for the children, and left bones such as neck and head for herself.
The narrator mentions that Mah used to say, “Bones are sweeter than you know” (Ng 31). This statement shows the layered nature of the bones, the inner worlds of people, their roots, beliefs, and ideas. Ng chose to explore the issues of backgrounds and cultural mentalities due to the importance of a person’s cultural identity for the psychological, spiritual, social, and cultural aspects of their life. It is a well-known fact that self-identification and its crisis may lead to serious problems in people’s minds, which may eventually disrupt lives and relationships.
The Chinese community in the United States of America is rather large. Places such as Chinatown in San Francisco are organized by the Chinese immigrants and descendants to support the spiritual and cultural backgrounds of these people, create a special atmosphere where their religious and ethical beliefs were followed and maintained, remaining, at the same time, a part of these people’s American self-identities.
The Chinese culture is based on very strong worship of ancestry. Ever since early childhood, the Chinese children were taught to be grateful that their parents existed, respect the older people, and believe in their wisdom and experience (Woodward 40). In her novel, Ng writes, “Remembering the past gives power to the present. Memories do add up” (88). The author states that the memories are what prevent the dead relatives and ancestors from becoming strangers. The Chinese people believe in the spirits of the dead. Their deceased ancestors’ souls need to continue their afterlife journey, which is impossible without an appropriate burial ritual conducted in China.
According to the Chinese beliefs, the souls, whose bodies are not buried properly, are doomed to stay restless, be stuck in limbo, or can return to their families and haunt them or send diseases to them. To let as many souls as possible rest in peace a thorough practice of exhumation of the bones of the deceased Chinese people in the United States had been carried out before 1937. It was a regular happening to dig out the bones, and only specially trained people were to do it because all of the bones had to be returned, so each part of the skeleton was documented and counted (Rules for Digging up the Dead – San Francisco, par 2).
To arrange a shipment of the bones to Hong Kong, China, a person had to have the remains dug out, washed, sorted, and counted. The set of bones needed to be full, it also had to be signed and packed appropriately. The practice of shipment of bones showed that zinc containers were the best for this procedure because metal did not rot or fall apart like other materials mixing up the sets of bones and creating a lot of frustration among the receivers.
The shipment of bones used to be a charity practice, one could order such operation for various remains and this was counted as a good deed improving one’s karma. In Hong Kong, the bones were sent to a charity hospital, and then the remains waited to be claimed. The bones no one claimed were buried in mass graves. The Chinese reburial practice was popular before 1937, the year when the Sino-Chinese war broke out in China. After that, the communist government closed the country’s borders and the shipments of remains became impossible to deliver.
Ancient Chinese traditions have huge power and importance for the people of this culture and ethnicity. The worship of ancestry and recognition of kinship between the living and the dead, between family members, between people and their motherland is the basis of the Chinese mentality. The belief in spirits and souls of the dead emphasized the importance of the appropriate burials for the dead so that they can move on their afterlife path.
The Chinese people respected this tradition so much that they were willing to go through all the complex and long procedures of exhumation and shipment, they would do it not only for their relatives but also for total strangers just to make sure their souls find their peace after the death of their bodies.
Ng, Fae Myenne. Bone. New York: Hyperion, 1993. Print.
Risse, Guenter B. Plague, Fear, and Politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web.
“Rules for Digging up the Dead – San Francisco”. CINARC. Cinarc. 2014. Web.
Woodward, Doris J. “The Early Chinese in Spokane: Burial And Reburial.” Pacific Northwesterner 2012: 56. America: History and Life with Full Text. Web.