Falling seeds take root: Ritualizing Chinese American identity through funerals

Juwen Zhang, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation has two aims: to identify a structure in Chinese American funeral rituals; to understand the role of funeral rituals in establishing Chinese American identity and in transforming Chinese traditions. A review of Chinese funeral rituals offers a historical perspective on the transformation of tradition. Ritual studies, ethnicity, and folklore performance perspectives are all considered in developing the methodology. The analyses are based on fieldwork conducted by means of participant-observation and in-depth interview for a period of over two years in a primarily first-generation Chinatown community in Philadelphia. Using a four-stage structure in the funeral rites, this study looks at the roles of the bereaved families, the community, and the funeral director in the process of ritualizing a Chinese American identity. It was found that, in the performance of Chinese American funeral rituals, certain rites reveal some core identity markers of Chineseness, which express the fundamental Chinese belief of the immortality of the soul, while other rites are arbitrary markers of cultural and socio-economic contexts; Ethnic identity, therefore, is a process of strategic adaptation derived to integrate the group into the larger society. In this process, each ethnic group or sub-ethnic group is searching for its common language, location, socio-economic status, folklore and folklife, and psychological identities, but certain elements are emphasized and ritualized to demonstrate its identity, while others are considered arbitrary factors. This study is limited to the funeral practice of a particular group with a particular immigration background and socio-economic status. It is thus not intended to draw general conclusions regarding the practice of funeral rituals among all Chinese Americans.

Subject Area

Folklore|Cultural anthropology|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Zhang, Juwen, "Falling seeds take root: Ritualizing Chinese American identity through funerals" (2001). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3015398.