Living with Separation in China: Anthropological Accounts

By Charles Stafford | Go to book overview
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Linguistic and social patterns of separation and reunion

Raymond Firth

In processes of separation and reunion, language is an important, often central, factor. Of course, separation and reunion are themselves very general terms, with many shades of meaning and near synonyms. Apartness and togetherness are basic ideas in human thought, relevant to a great many contexts. To concepts of disjunction, dissociation, exclusion, isolation, dispersion, detachment, bisection, severance, divorce and the like are opposed notions of junction, combination, concurrence, assemblage, coherence, binding, marriage, and whole sets of technical processes of riveting and coupling. Separation and reunion have many aspects, behavioural and mental, varying through bodily contact, linguistic utterance, to intellectual and emotional interest. Bodily contact or movement itself has many significant variations. Handshaking, hand-clasping in front of the body, hugging with both arms, nodding, bowing, kneeling, kowtowing, kissing on cheek or lips are all very meaningful in some cultures. 1 The context of the situation is of obvious importance. The parting and reunion of kin can differ greatly from those of a fishing boat crew, of office workers, or of political leaders of different countries. Different again is the process of mass separation as a result of war or relocation of a rural population upon the building of a river dam. Separation and reunion are affected then by many variables. Among those of a linguistic kind are expressive variables, verbal forms which accompany, symbolize or recall the actions of parting and meeting again. These can be observed and are relatively simple to characterize. Much less easy to define are conditioning variables, part of the linguistic framework of social categories relevant to the conduct of separation and reunion.

Some literary examples

All human societies provide examples of the parting and meeting phenomena in verbal form, and where this is a written culture, in literary form also. The evidence I cite here is highly selective, but may help to suggest a wider examination of the field. My two first instances, wide apart in conceptualization, show recollection of separation in poetic form. From Goethe’s


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Living with Separation in China: Anthropological Accounts


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