Separation and Reunion in Modern China

By Charles Stafford | Go to book overview

Conclusion
the separation constraint

We might almost say that social life does violence to the minds and bodies of individuals which they can sustain only for a time; and there comes a point when they must slow down and partially withdraw from it.

Marcel Mauss 1

I began this book by pointing out that in China, 'processes of separation and reunion, epitomised in moments of parting and return which involve both the living and the dead, are often a matter of great concern'. I also promised to describe 'bit by bit', the Chinese fascination with separation and its counterpart, reunion. In the chapters building up to this one, I have dutifully described many practices and cultural objects– festivals, greetings, leave-takings, religious rituals, funerals, weddings, poems, banquets, novels, doors, political speeches, and newspaper articles– which suggest, when taken together, that separation is indeed a common theme, perhaps even an obsession, in Chinese culture.

But is there anything unique about the Chinese focus on the separation constraint? My argument from the outset, on the contrary, has been that the underlying problem is a universal one: i.e. something given to humans in their natural environments. Separation is unavoidable, and this has both psychological and sociological implications. The universalist psychology of Bowlby and others suggests that all human infants have instinctive emotions related to processes of 'attachment'. Separation anxiety is integral to this: the natural response of infants to the loss (however temporary) of those on whom they depend. By extension, such natural responses set the psychological framework for adult life, during which our key emotional crises may again be seen as effects of the separation constraint.

Of course behind this constraint– something which can be viewed realistically, i.e. as a problem of literal 'departures' and 'arrivals'– lie very complex questions of human relatedness. But actual processes of separation and reunion are themselves interesting (and important!) precisely because they are often the most tangible manifestations of human autonomy and dependency. For this reason, the seemingly 'psychological' separ

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Separation and Reunion in Modern China
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgements viii
  • Introduction: An Anthropology of Separation 1
  • 1 - Tow Festivals of Reunion 30
  • 2 - The Etiquette of Parting and Return 55
  • 3 - Greeting and Sending-Off the Dead 70
  • 4 - The Ambivalent Threshold 87
  • 5 - Commensality as Reunion 99
  • 6 - Women and the Obligation to Return 110
  • 7 - Developing a Sense of History 127
  • 8 - Classical Narratives of Separation and Reunion 144
  • 9 - The Politics of Separation and Reunion in China and Taiwan 156
  • Conclusion - The Separation Constraint 174
  • Notes 179
  • References 192
  • Index 200
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