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Animation of a temple.

Turning Red’s portrayal of ancestor worship highlights an important part of Chinese culture

Disney’s new Pixar film, Turning Red, follows Meilin “Mei” Lee, a 13-year-old living in Toronto, Canada. She’s an average teenager contending with all the things girls her age do (boys, friends, school). However, she has the added pressure of making her strict and overprotective mother.

Family is particularly important to the Lees, who run a temple (祠堂 ci tang in Chinese) dedicated to their ancestor, Sun Yee, who is said to have had a mystic connection to red pandas. As it turns out, this connection is much more literal than is touted to visitors to the temple. In fact, every woman in the family is cursed to become a giant red panda as they come of age – a blessing that now is viewed as curse.

Chaos and confusion ensues as Mei navigates this change. It’s a wonderful story about navigating culture and familial expectations as well as finding out who you are within all of that. As Mei says herself:

Honouring your parents sounds great, but if you take it too far, well, you might forget to honour yourself.

Ancestor worship has a long-standing tradition in Chinese culture that extends beyond the dead and also includes living elders, like parents. While many elements of the film are fantastical, much of Disney’s portrayal of this tradition stands true.

Filial piety (孝 xiao), meaning loyalty and deference to your elders, is one of the most important moral tenets in Chinese society. At the beginning of Turing Red, Mei is seen kneeling before her parents and offering them tea as a sign of honour and respect, as the ones who have provided a roof above her head and food on her plate.

We also see her mother praising her elders as she hears of Mei’s achievements. Whether great or small, she does not take the credit but rather says: “Our ancestors will be very proud of you.”

In China, particularly in rural areas of the south and north, ancestral temples are not only places to honour and remember deceased ancestors but also function at different levels within a local community. They can sometimes be used as a place of disciplining and punishing wicked or misbehaving family members in the presence of all the ancestral tablets and shrines. They also sometimes function as a place for electing the head of clans or villages.

This also echoes Mei and her family members in Turning Red. Generations meet with local elders in their ancestral temple to discuss Mei’s bittersweet ability to turn into a red Panda and how to control this monster. It is also portrayed as a centre for the local community.

Chinese traditional festivals of ancestor worship

Ancestor worship goes beyond the temple, however, and in China there are several festivals devoted to this practice.

Zhong Yuan festival (also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival) is a typical example closely associated with ancestor worship in China. Falling on the 15th night of the seventh month, the Chinese worship their ancestors by offering different items, ranging from burnt paper money for use in heaven, to other paper effigies such as houses, cars and clothes. By doing so, the living communicate with their buried ancestors.

Paper houses burn on lake.
People launch burning lanterns into the sea as part of the Hungry Ghost Festival. Reuters/Alamy

As well as Zhong Yuan, other Chinese festivals such as the Spring Festival (known as Chinese new year, 春节 Chunjie), and Qing Ming festival (known as Tomb-Sweeping Day, 清明节 Qing Mingjie), also involve honouring and worshipping ancestors. In 2008, Qing Ming festival was officially identified by the Chinese government as a public holiday, so that individuals could be off work and visit their ancestors’ tombs.

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