This essay on “when Chinese females dream of their dead relatives” was written in the format of a Capstone thesis for an attempt in the last module in the course for Doctor of Psychology. It was not accepted and the student started afresh on another title. The writer wishes to be identified by only one name, Tsai. Copyright belongs to Tsai. Reproduced here with permission from Tsai.
Chinese Females’ Dreams
What it means when Chinese females dream of their dead relatives.
This study investigates SingapoChinese women’s dreams of dead relatives. This paper analyses the sample dreams of several Chinese women living in Singapore. There are indications that these women show their maternal instincts even after the deaths of their relatives. They experience nostalgia and their dreams show this continuity with waking life. This study found correlations between dreaming of dead relations and female gender traits like concerns over nurturing, physical security, mental stability and emotional well-being. Suggestions for future studies would include exploring the scope and consistency of such dreams with Chinese females living in different countries, their levels of education, status, generation, religion and other factors. Therapists working with Chinese female clients and their dreams can help them by being culturally sensitive and aware of the role dreams play in their lives.
There are Chinese populations all over the world, since mass globalisation has spread Chinese people to countries outside China, like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, India, Europe, USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand and etc. This discussion is limited to a few Chinese women living in Singapore, and during the time frame of 1966 to 2017. This paper’s discussion is limited to Chinese females living in Singapore, unless otherwise stated. Research shows that dreams about dead people are a common theme for Chinese people and more so for Chinese females (Yu, 2008). The discussion uses dreams from Singaporean Chinese females and this is the reason why this paper will limit the scope to Chinese females living in the country Singapore. These women included my grandmother, my ex-colleague “Maggie”, my ex-classmate “Gina” and myself. The dreams mentioned in this paper were narrated from the memories and written notes of the writer. Nobody was interviewed and no ethics were compromised. At that time of hearing those dreams, I had no intention of using them in my studies. I did not know that I would be referring to them in my thesis. I had not even started studying for my course in psychology. Other unofficial informants were people I had met in life. Their anecdotes are narrated without prejudice.
The Singapore Chinese females dreamed of their dead ancestors doing routine activities like having a meal, and talking to them, giving instructions or warning of impending danger. These dreams depict common activities because they are continuous with waking life. Research articles will back up the argument on why these dream themes are continuous with waking life (Domhoff, 2011). Almost every Chinese person has learned in their culture that the dead chose to appear in a dream to communicate. The Chinese child hears and absorbs from story books, family, neighbors, friends, teachers, classmates, the environment, society, media and other influences. However, there are Chinese people who lack this abundance of input sources. I once met a fellow psychology graduate “Jen”, 22 years old in 2014, who was an intern in the mental hospital. She was a Chinese whose parents were originally from Malaysia. She lives in Singapore with her family, but they do not know or practice Chinese customs. For example, Jen said she was unaware of the Chinese custom to avoid sweeping the floor during the first two days of the Lunar New Year. This supposedly avoids sweeping away the good luck and blessings for the New Year. Jen’s family used to return to Malaysia to stay with her paternal uncle for the holidays and she did not know about these traditions because her parents did not talk to her about this aspect of Chinese tradition.
There could be several types of messages from dreams of the dead. The communication could be about how they are coping in their after life, to continue sharing an old activity performed during waking life, to warn of possible dangers and fulfill unfinished business they wish to see completed. Generally, Chinese souls want to continue talking to their descendants and relatives in dreams to maintain continuity with waking life. This may be true, or the argument could be for other way round; that Chinese females unwittingly trigger dreams of deceased relations because they mourn for them and miss them.
After a Chinese person dies and is buried or cremated, the relatives mourn for 100 days. They wear mourning bands in the form of a piece of small cloth that is pinned to the right sleeve or left sleeve. If the deceased is a female, the brooch is pinned on the right sleeve while the male relative is mourned by the reminder on the left sleeve. The small pieces of cloths to be used are in different colors, depending on the wearer’s relationship to the deceased. A Chinese who knows this tradition, need to see the color of the mourning badge to know the mourner’s relationship with the dead relative. Friends of the deceased do not need to wear this mourning ornament.
Some close relatives also had to wear a piece of cloth folded like a slash diagonally across from the shoulder to the waist. These “scarves” were of different colors like black, blue, beige, pink, green and etc. The wearer was assigned to a particular color to denote their relationship to the deceased. The deceased was my great-grandmother so I was given two scarves to symbolize I was two generations removed. My scarves were lime green and pink. These were cheerful colors to symbolize sweet life for the young. I was told to layer the pink cloth on top of the green one and wear it like a slash across my body. I also had my mourner’s badge which was in the same colors of pink layered on green. The casket company normally provided all the accessories.
During the funeral wake of a Singapore Chinese, mourners visit wearing clothes of sombre colors like black, dark blue, or dark brown. Non-Chinese mourners in Singapore have grown accustomed to Chinese culture and they know not to show up at a wake in bright, gaudy colors of dressing. Food and non-alcoholic beverages are served at the wake. The official mourning period by the old fashioned orthodox custom observers used to be 100 days. The mourners may not wear colourful clothing during these 100 days. Due to modernization, western culture and influences from society, work and personal psychological factors, this mourning period may be reduced to 40 days, or one week. The reasons are practical and aesthetic. Wearing black or a dull color affects the mood, feelings and thoughts of the mourner.
In fact, on the day of the funeral burial, relatives are given brand new white socks to wear, up to the point where the coffin is lowered down into the ground. During the burial of the customary ceremony at the graveyard, the relatives are instructed to remove and toss down their white socks to signify that they have said goodbye to the dead person and is finished with them. The living do not want to be burdened by more trouble from the dead. The relatives then scoop up a handful of mud or soil and toss that down into the coffin. At this point, the relatives may cry, or say goodbye. After the last mound of soil has covered the grave, relatives walk back to their transport vehicles. A member of the family should have prepared to give to all the mourners one “silver piece” each. This is normally a local coin of small denomination wrapped in a piece of red paper. This coin represents good luck to ward off the bad luck from attending a funeral.
My paternal great-grandmother died when I was around 12 years old and she received the honor of a Chinese customary send-off burial, infused with some Christian influences. There probably were many more Chinese customs which I have omitted writing about, or were not conducted at the funeral. Singapore Chinese were separated from mainland China Chinese and did not follow all the old traditions as those in China would. There was a lack of manpower like elders who were more experienced and knowledgeable in customs to provide guidance for the procedures. My paternal great-grandmother was a Protestant and her adult children decided to follow a combination of Protestant and traditional customs of Chinese funeral rites. During her wake, Protestant church parishioners conducted Christian eulogies, sermons, hymn singing and the traditional recounting of old memories to share the deceased’s life.
I dreamed once for my deceased great-grandmother. She smiled at me. Later, when I retold my dream to my grandmother, she said it was bad. The Chinese dream interpretation of a smiling dead relative means they are crying for you. For in the Land of the Dead, a manifested sign means the opposite. This means that when a dead person smiles, she is actually crying for you. The reason why she cried is probably a prediction of the events in your life. It implies your life would not be going smoothly.
Dan Waters, a writer in Hong Kong, noted that the Chinese mourners there may cry loudly to express grief because “This serves as an incentive for the deceased’s spirit to exercise benevolence on descendants” (Waters, 1991, p. 105).
A Singapore Chinese Christian who is getting the funeral rites done may be receiving the Christian rites without the Chinese custom rites of relatives wearing mourning arm badges, white socks and getting coins. The Chinese customs that are conducted may depend on the wishes of the deceased’s family. Religious rites are given priority over ethnic customs.
Three or two generations of Singapore Chinese ago, mourners used to wear their bereavement on their faces, arms and bodies. They refrained from smiling, merry making and wearing colourful clothes for 100 days. Slowly, as the older and first generation of Chinese elders in Singapore died away, the second and third generation of Chinese found they had trouble keeping up with maintaining so many customs. Wearing the mourning badge and clothes slowly became outdated and got reduced to 40 days. Now, in the present 3rd to 5thgeneration of Chinese in Singapore, the people may only wear mourning clothes for a week. It is deemed old-fashioned. When someone wears the markers for mourning, other people in office and society may gossip and create discomfort or trouble. The outlook now is to be homogeneous in dressing and behaviour. In this way, Chinese customs are slowly being ignored and lost. Chinese females from across different generations do still dream of dead relatives. In spite of Chinese culture being eroded by modernization of society and Western influence, Chinese females in Singapore still dream of the dead.
Singapore Chinese visit their relative’s grave or columbarium where the ashes are interred. This is first done after 100 days of the last rites of burial or cremation. These close relatives may pray at the site. They may say their own prayers in any manner of respect, be they Christians, Buddhists, Taoists (the Hanyupinyin name is Daoist/ Daoism) or from any other faith. The first visit may also be postponed and done at one’s convenience. Chinese people believe that visiting the dead makes it known to them that respects have been paid and the dead should leave them alone. This important first visit is the time to let go of bereavement and start a new life and journey. However, some Chinese relatives are deeply affected by this ceremonious visit. I spoke to one of my aunts “Twiggy”, who is my great-grandmother’s granddaughter. She used to tell me stories of her dreams about dead relatives. She also said she had visions of souls gathering around her sofa in the living room, waiting for her daily devotional prayer of the holy rosary. The souls wanted to receive the merits of her prayer, to get some relief for their suffering. Aunt Twiggy was a devout Catholic who prayed for her dead relatives and according to psychological research, people tend to dream of themes that occupy their minds during the day.
Although Singapore Chinese customs say that official mourning should be over on the day the mourning colors are discarded, still some would continue to grieve in their own way. Mourners are known to frequent the resting place of their departed relative. Some have less honorable motives. They pray and offer sacrifices to seek favors. The requests are usually for money, to pass important examinations, to get a good job or other intangible but earthy rewards. I heard from an informant in 2000 that a Chinese widow used to visit daily and cry loudly at the columbarium where her husband’s ashes were interred. This behaviour is not encouraged. The surviving relatives have to let go of the dead to allow them to leave earth peacefully. If the relative cries a lot, then the dead person may have regrets about departing. If the dead can not depart properly, then they linger around to be seen as ghosts. One Chinese tradition is to wish the dead person “Yi Lu Hao Zou”. This is a traditional Chinese phrase in the common Mandarin language. The translation means to have a good journey. Regardless of whether the dead departs in peace or not, the soul/ spirit/ ghost may return to see their relatives in dreams.
A common Singapore Chinese belief is that when one sees a dead person in a dream, it is because of their ghost which has made its appearance. It is considered bad luck to see or talk of negative topics like ghost and death. Generally, the Chinese people avoid speaking of negative topics. It is also rude to speak of negative topics in the presence of outsiders like stranger, guest, distant relative, mere acquaintance, one’s boss and virtually everybody.
Isabel Drake is a reporter for Singapore’s national newspaper called The Straits Times. She interviewed Ms. Ang Jolie Mei, a Singapore Chinese woman, who is a director of her own funeral company. In the news article, Ms. Ang said she took over her father’s funeral service company when he suddenly died. She was 24 years old back then and her mother was worried that she would not get a boyfriend or husband because of her business. Chinese consider it bad luck to be associated with death and negativity. Ms. Ang related an anecdote of how she handed a woman her calling card and when the lady saw she was in the funeral parlour business, she immediately returned the name card. In Chinese culture, it is bad luck to keep the name card of inauspicious and negative business. It is equivalent to being given that kind of card because you may need that service soon. Ms. Ang said: “When I started my own company, I was very sure that I didn’t want a company name that included the word ‘funeral’ ” (Drake, 2017, p.D4). This example showed how even the Chinese woman does not want to portray herself as being associated with negative business like the funeral parlour.
Chinese culture in Singapore has been influenced by Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, modernization, and Western culture. As was described, the Chinese Protestant funeral rites has both Christian customs and Chinese traditions infused together.
It is common for Chinese people to dream of their dead relatives and this discussion focuses on Chinese females who had dreams on dead relatives. These dreams can consist of a range of imagery but they point to the continuity hypothesis. My paper discusses several Singapore Chinese females’ dreams of their dead relatives and how they show continuity with waking life, threat simulation, communication about the after life and divine intervention. My argument is that almost all dreams about deceased relatives point to the hypothesis that dreams are in continuity with waking life.
Why Chinese females dream of dead relatives?
Dreaming of dead people is a common theme across cultures. Dreaming of deceased relative is even more pronounced as research has discovered people dream of familiar characters more than strangers (Skrzypinska & Slodka, 2014). Singapore Chinese people are usually raised in close knit families and spend most of their adult years in close proximity with their immediate family members. The adult children may continue to live with their parents after leaving school and starting work. After marriage, at least one married adult child may continue to live with their aged parents to care for them. When this younger couple has children, there will be a three-generation family living under one roof. This large family exists with mutual help and co-operation. Of course, not every Chinese family stays together for three generations. Singapore Chinese couples who are divorced usually return to their original families for some help. If they have children and the custody is awarded to one parent, this person may ask their parents, who are the children’s grandparents, to help.
In the event that the family members are unable to help, someone in this circle will reach out to the surrounding society ask for assistance. For instance, when my family could not help me to secure a job, I asked my friends and eventually a Chinese woman from my church recommended an opening for me. When I was in my childhood and young adulthood, my Chinese relatives sometimes enquire about my welfare and may try to persuade my father and grandparents to help me. This is not always the case for Singapore Chinese families. Some parents do not have sufficient resources like time and money, to care for their children. Even the affluent may not want to dip into the pocketbook to finance every whim and fancy or tertiary education for their children. Around 50% of teenagers who complete 10 years of schooling need to find full time or part time jobs to earn money to support their life style. These youths may desire to further their studies with tertiary education but their parents may not continue to provide financial support. This was the situation as far back as I can remember and still is the same in present times. Singapore Chinese parents are concerned about saving money for retirement and may conserve their funds for that purpose.
Singapore gained independence from British colonial rule in 1963 and briefly was part of the Malaya Federation before being unceremoniously booted. Singapore stood on her own as an independent republic in 1965. The local government preached meritocracy to encourage its citizens to work hard to attain their desires. Local Chinese families experienced many changes like economic uncertainty, inflation, rising costs of living, lowering of the standard of living and the policy for population control. These conditions create hardship where the people become desperate to seek help. When they fail to obtain relief from the living, they will try to ask help from the dead.
Singapore Chinese are usually very shy and fight clear of the limelight and controversy in personal affairs. They do not go to the authorities to beg for help, unless they have a “thick skin” and can bear the brunt of humiliation for begging for charity from unfamiliar people. It is easier and less confrontational to try other ways to solve personal problems. Sadly, for these reasons, some people resort to crime for easy money. Chinese people who believe in souls/ spirits/ ghosts in the other world, may try communicating to them for help. In return, they offer food, drinks, paper “hell” money and other paper replicas. The spirits supposedly feast on these offerings. There is no free lunch in the land shared by the living and dead.
Research shows that if a large amount of time is spent on one type of activity or with familiar characters, the dreamer has a tendency to experience dreams of the familiar. Yu (2008) wrote: “The rank orderings of the prevalence rates of the 55 dream themes for the Chinese sample were very similar to those for the Canadian and German samples. The most prevalent dream themes for the Chinese sample were 31, school, teachers, studying; 1, being chased or pursued; 12, falling; and 6, arriving too late” (Yu, 2008, p.7). Yu wrote that for the Chinese, Canadian and German samples; “This result indicated that the prevalence profile of the 55 dream themes was highly similar for the three ethnic groups despite the previously mentioned cross-cultural differences” (Yu, 2008, p.8). For this reason, I think it is appropriate to apply research from Western studies to support my argument. Domhoff (2011) published a table of 13 common categories of dream imagery and their corresponding frequency of occurrence in German men and men. Women dreamed of parents/siblings, spouses/ partners, other family members, friends, familiar characters, travel/ vacation, parties/ cafes/ bars, shopping, and leisure activities more than men did. In contrast, men dreamed of certain categories more than women did. Men had higher percentages of reported dreams in sports, entertainment, school/ work/ politics and “dreams with no familiar elements”. (Domhoff, 2011, p.54). As for dreams which do not show continuity to waking life, Domhoff suggests more research work needs to be done to “… focus their attention on the significant minority of dream reports that have no familiar characters, settings, or activities” (Domhoff, 2011, p.55).
Chinese women tend to dream of familiar people who happen to be their family members. The previous generations of Singapore Chinese women tended to be stay-at-home mothers while the men went out to work. “Compared to women, the men’s dreams are less likely to have familiar characters and familiar leisure time activities, and more likely to have instances of school/work/politics” (Domhoff, 2011, p.55).
More Chinese females than males dream of dead people for the reason that the females have traits that encourage continued anxiety and caring for the deceased. Schmitt, Realo, Voracek & Allik (2008) said that: “Observed sex differences in personality traits such as assertiveness and anxiety also appear to be culturally pervasive” (Schmitt et al., 2008, p.168). This is how they explain why a culture (like the Chinese) have females who are anxious about the physical needs and well-being of her family and close relatives. Other cultures may not promote traits like anxiety in their females or males. The researchers said that the social role model approach explained that “… most sex differences are assumed to result from exposure to sex role socialization, a process whereby culture defines the appropriate ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving for men and women” (p.169). For example, an act of nurturing by a Singapore Chinese female “… in a collectivist and traditional culture might be dismissed as more compliance with sex role norms” (Schmitt, 2008, p.170).
Singapore Chinese culture raises females to be anxious, tender-minded, nurturing and conscientious in caring for family, relatives and friends. These traits are so ingrained that they become personality traits in Chinese women. This explains why they continue to care about the deceased’s after life. They think about them, pray for them, cook for them in ancestral worship and visit their final resting places. These Singapore Chinese women are still anxious, conscientious and tenderminded toward their dead. Moreover, a Singapore Chinese female researcher has written that: “If properly cared for, the dead would become caring ancestors and a source of help and blessings; if not, they could turn into malignant spirits” (Chew, 2009, p.9).
The social role of Singapore Chinese women has not changed drastically since the Chinese settled on the island in the mid-1800s. Singapore women are educated and enjoy respectable status in society. Yet women are still in charge of the kitchen, domesticities, child-rearing as well as caring for all live under the roof. Women today are pampered with modern conveniences like catered food, home deliveries of groceries/ food, electrical appliances for every domestic chore, easily available transport and other privileges. They are not entirely freed from the kitchen or domesticities. They are not allowed to relinquish their social role model. This means when they are deadlocked in problems, they will continue to seek help. The Chinese believe that their dead relatives may have the power to help them out of inextricable circumstances. Singapore Chinese women will continue to think of their beloved dead relatives and dream of them.
This could be because females by gender, are physically smaller and weaker in stature. They desire mental stability, physical security and emotional well-being. Initially, at the beginning, children depend on parents for their primary needs but after reaching adulthood, they have to become independent in some of these areas. Females then turn towards friends, fellow humans, dead ancestors, religion, witchcraft or other supernatural sources for satisfying desires. A research writer wrote that “86% of Singaporeans have a religion and half of these people devote everyday of the week to some religious activity or other” (Chew, 2009, p.4). This evidence shows a heavy reliance on religion . Even if they do not obtain their wishes, at least they get some mental and emotional relief in their belief that their wishes are being communicated and they nurture hope of receiving wish fulfilment. The clinician should try to interview the dreamer to discover their connections with the deceased, issues with present circumstances and wish fulfilment for the future. Follow-up questions can include asking what kinds of resources are available to achieve these desires. Chinese Catholics pray to powerful dead icons in the Church like the saints, to get help for their petitions. If a therapist knows that the client has a strong belief in their religion, then it should be suggested that religious practice be done to accompany therapy. Medication may be prescribed if necessary.
If the Singapore Chinese woman requires urgent material help, the clinician may suggest more tangible sources to increase the pool of resources. The government has its Ministry of Social and Family Development to provide counselling, financial assistance and other social services. Some local Chinese women are shy to approach government departments to beg for help. This trait is also found in Taiwanese Chinese. A group of researchers in Taiwan, Tien, Lin & Chen ( 2006) did a study on 574 college students whose average age was 21. 67 years old. They wrote that their sample of college students became more receptive and positive towards dream therapy after experiencing how helpful it can be after one session. Tien et al. noted that among their sample population, the Taiwanese Chinese who had “high levels of collective self-esteem reported less positive attitudes toward help-seeking among Taiwanese” (Tien et al., 2006, p.12). Apparently Taiwanese with confidence did not favor searching for help. One trait of Chinese tradition teaches self-dignity and shame which retrains a person from begging for help. This custom is so common among Chinese that it is common not only in Singapore, but also in Taiwan, where it has been recorded by the researchers. Tien et al. wrote: “For Asian people, who inclined not to seek for professional help because of feeling ashamed to tell personal problems in front of strangers, dream work can provide psychological benefits out of their expectation” (Tien et al., 2006, p.13). This characteristic of self-restraint in seeking help can explain why Singapore Chinese females are known to pray to ancestors and engage in religious activities to seek help. Their belief in dead people contacting them in dreams is so strong that they would see a dream with negative content as a threat simulation to warn them of potential danger. The therapist may have to handle resistance, anxiety, fears and other psychological issues before the client is able to accept this suggestion.
It seems Singapore Chinese women turn towards ancestral worship and religion when they face challenges in waking life. Their thoughts, emotions, anxiety and stress may have triggered dreams of beloved dead ancestors.
Why do Chinese females dream of dead relatives engaged with them in activities like eating and talking?
A dream of a dead relative is likely to be a memory replay of past activities in the normal routine of waking life (Wamsley & Stickgold, 2010). The living person may be mourning their loss and having dreams of the dead relation is the brain’s response. Research has shown that the brain may replay recent memory of a novel learning experience. The clinician should recommend their client to engage in a relaxing activity before sleep so that the dreamer gets a positive dream instead of the old dream of the deceased relative.
Why Chinese women dream of dead ancestors in the after world?
Chinese culture says that souls of the dead journey to the after world, which may be hell or heaven. Usually Chinese souls descend to hell, or are reincarnated in various forms of life, to atone for misdeeds. Singapore Chinese believe that when a fellow Chinese dies, the soul may travel to one of six destinations which are hell, heaven, rebirth as an animal or human baby, to become a ghost or a buddha. The destination depends on the merits which the person had accumulated during the lifetime. There are several opinions on what happens after a Chinese person dies. Another view says that a Chinese may have several souls/ spirits as they may manifest in different forms like a heavenly soul, earthly soul or terrestrial soul. Hong Kong Chinese are nearer to China and they are able to maintain traditions and culture better. I liked Dan Waters’ account of a Chinese woman’s funeral and I have decided to use his text as a reference as I agree with its accuracy (Waters, 1991). Waters said: “Although one of the above six destinations is the normal fate of a person’s heavenly soul, earthly souls reside in graves or ancestral tablets to be worshipped by descendants. Terrestrial souls can be divided between tablets or altars in family members’ homes and in ancestral halls. Views vary on this ‘multiple-soul’ principle as do those from theologians, regarding life after death for a Christian” (Waters, 1991, p.108). Waters has recorded a deceased woman’s relatives’ dreams which they believed were communication from her spirit. He said: “Dreams played an important part in this study” and continued to narrate about the dreams (Waters, 1991, p.126-127).
Singapore Chinese culture practices ancestral worship to offer food, clothing and money, to send to the dead. The sacrificial offerings are burned because that is the way to send them into the other world. A made-in-Singapore movie called “The Maid” has cinematography on what happens during the Chinese seventh Lunar month (Tong, 2005). This is the annual Month of the Hungry Ghost. Tradition says during the month of the 7th moon of the year, the gates of the underworld are opened and ghosts move out into earth. They roam around in search of food. Chinese families offer food, fruit and other edibles to sate the hunger of relatives’ ghosts. After they take care of their relations, they then offer the same to wandering ghosts in the street outside their home. They place the food offerings on the ground of a public place. They burn specially printed “hell money” that is meant for ghosts in the underworld. The Singapore Chinese believe when these ghosts are satisfied, they will not haunt the living. The exact date of offering the feast for the hungry ghosts is on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month of the year, but Singapore Chinese may start to burn paper offerings and food throughout the seventh lunar month.
Chinese females are more engaged in preparing food and bringing it to the ancestors’ graves than Chinese males. Since the females are spending more time doing the preparatory work, they have lasting impressions and memories of the process and may have dreams relating to the ancestors who were the main reason why the preparations were done. When ancestral worship features prominently daily in waking life, memories are triggered for replay in dreams. Sometimes, the dream imagery may show the deceased in a new and happy environment and this type of dream allegedly reassures the dreamer that there is no need to worry for the deceased. Chinese books and movies feature ghosts in the netherworld and the Chinese female who has seen these may have dreams about them. Some examples of Chinese fiction that concentrate on plots with ghosts and dreams are “Hundred Secret Senses” by American Chinese author Amy Tan and “True Singapore Ghost Stories: Volume 1-25” by Singapore writer Russell Lee. Examples of successful box office hits are Singapore director-scriptwriter Kelvin Tong’s movie The Maid and Lee and Boo’s The Gods Must Be Crazy.
The clinician can try to enquire about this Chinese person’s cultural and religious practices. Therapy can be assisted along with cultural practices that will reassure the dreamer that proper rituals are conducted to help the dead.
Why do the Chinese dream of ancestors talking about omens?
Ancestors may have spoken about dangers and risks attached to various scenarios. Dreaming of ancestors giving a prophecy is a kind of threat simulation (D’Amato, 2010). This type of dream may be experienced especially after the person has seen a threat and is reminded of what the ancestor had warned about during their waking life. The clinician should be alerted when the client speaks about such types of dreams. The omen would be about a prevalent problem that should be discussed in therapy.
Why do Chinese women dream of their dead relatives giving instructions to do a task?
The living person knows about some unfinished business that involved the dead relative. This person may be having a guilty conscience or is troubled by the issue. The problem may be about failure to give the deceased a proper burial and funeral rites (Hinton et al, 2013). The dream about the dead relation asking to do something is the living person’s creation, because of thoughts on that topic that preoccupied the brain. The clinician can help the dreamer to explore the dream and leave it up to the client’s discretion whether they want to carry out the task.
Chinese women dream more of their dead ancestors and relatives than other dead people who were unrelated to them.
Research showed that a dreamer is likely to have dreams on what he has spent many waking hours engaged in. If the person spent many hours on prayer, meditation and religious activities, he is likely to dream of a religious activity, than a non-religious one (Salem et al., 2013; Salem et al., 2009). All things discussed, the dreamer may be in mourning and dreaming of the dead person is one way of seeking closure. This may be especially so if the dream imagery shows the deceased in a new environment. If the dream shows a pleasant new environment, the dreamer is reassured to let go and move on. If the dream shows a sad or horrible environment, then the dreamer is motivated to perform rituals to help the soul of the dead. Chinese people care about the after life of their deceased relatives because they believe the soul goes somewhere after the body dies. The clinician should investigate the factors behind the client’s emotional attachment to the deceased, assist in the grieving process and help them find closure.
Do the old or present generation of Chinese females get dreams of their dead relatives?
The old generation of Singapore Chinese were strongly embedded in cultural traditions which were passed down by word of mouth. That generation of Chinese women were not well educated and many could not read Chinese words written in Mandarin language. The spoken languages were dialects that originated from geographic regions in China. Some of the common dialects were Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew and Hakka. Immigrants from China brought their dialects to Singapore and these spoken languages continued to be used. When Singapore gained independence and established herself as a republic in 1965, the new government tried to unite all the different dialect speakers by enforcing Mandarin to be studied as the Mother Tongue, or second language in schools. This was difficult for Singapore Chinese as the past British Empire’s colonization deleted the formal study of the common Chinese script in schools. The formal language of communication in Singapore, where this writer stays, is the English language.
Slowly, cultural heritage was getting submerged by the evangelization of Christianity, whose propagation was aided by the availability of literature in English language. The first Christian church that was built in Singapore was the Armenian church, which was completed in 1836. It was built by the Armenian trader community for their worship and was named the Armenian Apostolic Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator. William Milne, a Christian missionary based in Melaka (present spelling Malacca) started sending missionaries from 1815 to 1845. It was very difficult to preach Christianity to Chinese people. Roxborogh, a writer from New Zealand, researched on the early Protestant and Catholic churches in Malaya in the early 19thcentury. He wrote that the missionary Milne experienced that “The main problems were the multitude of dialects and lack of interest in his message. It seemed “impossible to gather hearers” – it was hard to get even ten and Sunday was a working day. Such Christians as there were did not set a good example and Protestants were no better than Catholics” (Roxborogh, 1990, p.7) Roxborogh said: “In the next 30 years the Mission was to send 26 missionaries to Melaka, Penang, Singapore and Java” (Roxborogh, 1990, p.3) The evangelization of Singapore was slow as the movement was not smooth. Roxborogh explained that: “The departure of the LMS and the American missions meant that after the 1840s Christianity was represented in the Straits Settlements by groups who frequently had difficulty recognizing one another as sharing the same faith” (Roxborogh, 1990, p.17). The French Catholic mission was attributed to have worked hard in Singapore as: “A new church was built in 1802 and used until 1857 when the present site in Farquhar Street was obtained” (Roxborogh, 1990, p.11). There is a lack of formal academic literature in Google Scholar to provide articles on the development of Christianity in Singapore in the 20th and 21st century.
When Chinese people wanted to read about culture and traditions, they would usually be reading in the English language. Translations or newly written literature on Chinese customs were incomplete and less popular. Chew (2009) wrote a paper on Daoist youths in Singapore. She said that: “As Daoism is mainly practiced by the Chinese, incompetency in Chinese language and dialects tend to hold back an interest in such a research” (Chew, 2009, p.4).Chinese women changed from ancestral worship to religious Christian worship. Chew wrote that: “Two religions have absorbed the departing Daoists adherents – namely Christianity and Buddhism. For example, Christianity grew dramatically from 10.9% in 1980 to 14.4% in 1990 to 16.5% in 2000. Buddhism has also grown steadily from 34.3% in 1980 to 39.4% in 1990 to 53.6%” (Chew, 2009, p.5). The Chinese who used to worship mythical gods in heaven, ancestors, legendary deities in literature, objects, spirits and other beliefs, slowly left them behind. This is despite the past dreams from dead relatives. One reason could be the Chinese realizing that they could not get more of what they were seeking from ancestors and superstitions.
The clinician may examine what are the differences between the older generation of Singapore Chinese females and the present generation of adult and young adult females. The factors that have changed may have a relation to the types of dreams in the present time.
Does the Chinese woman’s religion matter in determining who dreams of dead relatives?
The paper will mention one dream sample, where an older Chinese woman has converted to Protestant Christian, and then having dreams of her deceased spouse and other dead relatives. Prior to her conversion, she was not a firm believer of any organized religion and did not talk about seeing dreams of dead relations. Coincidentally, the other woman’s dream sample was also obtained when she was a Catholic and not while she was a non-believer. It could be that before the Chinese women converted to organized religions, they did not spend as much time in contemplation of heaven, and what happens after death. The clinician who has Catholic and Christian clients should read up on these religions and be knowledgeable on the diversity of religions. If the therapist is uncomfortable about counselling the client, then this should be told to the client and a referral should be offered.
Chinese women dream of dead relatives because they mourn for them, miss them in waking life, remember their shared experiences, believe in after life, wish to continue to care for them and seek their blessings, guidance and protection. The thoughts and feelings of waking hours influence the brain to replay memories of the dead in dreams. Since dreams of the dead are mainly of normal activities that reflect waking hours, they give the impression that dreams continue waking life.
Chapter One – Introduction
This thesis is about why Singaporean Chinese females dream of their dead relatives and how it affects them in their waking life. The personal implications for a Chinese female who had a dream of a deceased relation would be mental disturbance, and disruption to daily functioning.
Scholars and therapists should be interested to know more about what it means for the Chinese females when they dream of dead relations. The dreamer may have unresolved issues with the deceased. Therapists should discover what are the troubles that lurk behind the dreams. Therapists can also look into the grieving process and assist to terminate the mourning for the dead and move on to healing.
Suggestions for future research may include exploring the circumstances under which Chinese females dream of their dead ancestors. What can be done to address the true factors that created the dreams of dead relatives? Do Chinese females living in other countries also get dreams about their ancestors? Are therapists in countries without predominant Chinese populations addressing the issues of Chinese females with these dreams? Does the religion of the Chinese female dreamer affect the types of dreams she would be getting? It is hoped that as more information becomes available, clinicians will be empowered to design customized therapy to help clients who are troubled by dreams of dead relatives.
Singapore Chinese are united by ethnicity but may have unique differences in their family traditions. For instance, a local Chinese family may practice traditional Chinese customs, and may include Buddhism, Taoism, ancestor worship and worship of deities in legends/ fables/ folklore & etc. A Chinese person may visit a Buddhist temple, and a Taoist temple. There may be an altar at home to pay patronage to ancestors, the Goddess of Mercy, Kitchen God, Monkey God, The Three Immortals and etc. In my childhood, I met a female China immigrant who worked as a domestic maid in Singapore. She told me that there were Chinese people who pray to old coconut trees. It was said that old trees had spirits residing in them. This belief is similar to those from other local cultures.
Chapter Two – Literature Review
The readings throw light on Singapore Chinese culture, local Chinese females, Chinese customs, ancestral worship and related beliefs. It all started with Singapore Chinese females assuming the social role of nurturing mother figure. She continues to feel anxiety and care for her deceased relative after the funeral. Her thoughts in waking hours trigger dreams of the dead relative. Typical dreams of the dead involve visitation, salutation, nostalgia and prophecy.
Why do Chinese females living in Singapore dream of their dead relatives?
Chinese females are usually tasked with the responsibility of taking care of household chores. The matriarch of the family takes the priority of being the person with status and power to delegate chores and tasks to other family members. It is customary for females to be assigned domestic chores. In the absence or inability of the matriarch to perform domesticities, another female member of the family takes over. Chinese females spend a large portion of their time doing housework. Any family member who has a request is likely to convey it through the matriarch or another female who is likely to show empathy and maternal instinct enough to assist. Chinese females tend to be close to their family members and this may extend to other relatives as well.
Chinese females may seek help from ancestors, deities, mythical gods, legendary divine superpowers, religion and beliefs to advance their desires. There is some evidence to show that these females seek help because of some concerns. Their dreams that are frequently dreamed are those about concerns of personal security, fear of being late and other negative content (Yu, 2008).
Yu (2008) showed evidence that Chinese females tend to seek help because of their gender. This researcher collected study data from the Typical Dreams Questionnaire (TDQ). He looked at samples from America, Japan, Canada and Germany. The results showed “… similarities in the prevalence profiles of the 34 typical dream themes between the two cultures” (Yu, 2008, p.2) The cultures in reference are American and Japanese. Yu wrote in his research paper that whatever holds true for them, probably applies for the Chinese too. Moreover: “… the relative incidence of typical dreams is quite stable across both time periods and populations” (Yu, 2008, p.2). Yu wanted to say that generation after generation, the common dream themes remain the same. More specifically, generations of Chinese female will continue to dream of dead ancestors.
Yu (2008) wanted to produce evidence to show this trend. He recruited 348 university students in Hong Kong; of which 107 were men and 241 were women. The participants’ mean age was 20.68. These participants completed the TDQ and results were tabulated. He found that 48.6% of males and 68% of females dream of “A person now dead as alive”; as in talking to the dreamer in a dream. (Yu, 2008, p.4).
Yu (2008) showed that Chinese females had more dream themes that triggered threat simulation. For example, females had higher percentage and frequency of dream themes like being chased, falling, being frozen with fright, being physically attacked, and seeing a dead person returning to life and etc. (Yu, 2008). Chinese women by gender showed tendency to be more preoccupied with threat simulation and the dead in dreams. This may be due to gender traits like showing concerns over nurturing environment, physical and mental stability and emotional well-being. I have discussed why more Chinese females than males dream of dead relatives. But why do they dream more of their deceased relations and not of dead people in general? It could be because people dream of familiar characters to continue waking life. Polish researchers Skrzypinska & Slodka, (2014) also found that female dreamers had more frequency of dreaming of “dead/ imaginary dream characters. There were also higher aggression/ friendliness and physical aggression percent than in norms group” (Skrzypinska & Slodka, 2014, p.27).
Singapore Chinese women may lack a feature which makes them rely on dreams and divine intervention. Schmitt et al. (2009) said that: “In societies in which longevity is threatened by poor health, in which only a fraction of people have opportunities for a good education, and in which people suffer from economic hardship; the development of one’s inherent personality traits is more restrained” (Schmitt, 2009, p.180). This may explain why many Singapore Chinese females behave as though they were incompetent to deal with challenges and they turn towards dreaming for help to come.
Studies from non-Chinese cultures may be used as evidence to support claims because it was shown that there were “… remarkable stabilities in relative dream incidence …” and gave evidence from studies showing “remarkable consistencies in the relative percentages of the most common dream themes between the total Canadian sample and Griffith et al.’s (1958) American and Japanese samples” (Yu, 2008, p.2) Yu said that “there were very few changes in the nature and prevalence of typical dreams despite a time lag of about 40 years between their studies and that of Griffith et al. Accordingly, the relative incidence of typical dreams is quite stable across both time periods and populations” (p.2).
Chinese female dreamers identified characters in their dreams as their relatives. They are able to do so because “… the identification is based on: appearance, face, behaviour, social role, relationship to dreamer and logical deduction” (Skrzypinska & Slodka, 2014, p.24). These two researchers designed a study to investigate how dreamers knew they were included in their dreams. From self-awareness, the researchers carried on to examine how dreamers did character identification. This research was done in Poland and “It was found that there are signific antly more family members in women’s dreams than in men’s dreams …” (Skrzypinska & Slodka, 2014, p.25).
The clinician should explore associated themes with the dreamer. Perhaps there are unfinished business with that deceased relative which explains the continuity of the theme in the dream. Some unresolved issues can be mourning the death, interrupted social dealings, need for the deceased’s presence for security, guilt over incomplete closure and etc. If the clinician discovers that the client may need to perform cultural practices to release mental stress and emotional guilt, then the recommendation may be made to seek the right person to assist in cultural or religious rites for closure.
A group of researchers based in the USA and Australia examined cultural context and role of dreams of the dead in Cambodia. There are many Chinese living there. This article is used because of the similarities Cambodian Buddhists share with Chinese culture. The researchers said there were three main types of dreams of the dead. The categories are: “ ‘visitation’, ‘nostalgia’ and ‘trauma’ ” (Hinton, Peou, Joshi, Nickerson & Simon, 2013, p.445). These categories can be applied to the Singapore Chinese females’ dreams that will be discussed in this paper.
Wing, Lee & Chen (1994) have done research to uncover the types of Chinese people’s dreams and they found evidence in China: “Around 403-221 B.C. , in the late pre-Chin period, the first book about sleep and dreams appeared in Chinese history, Zhou li/ Chun Guan. This book recorded that the government set up a type of imperial officers who acted as ‘dream interpreters’ and classified dreams into six types: Zheng-meng (dreams of normal daily trivialities), Si-meng (dreams of loved ones), Wu-meng (dreams while being half asleep and with a cloudy consciousness or daydreaming), Xi-meng (delightful dreams), Ju-meng (fearful dreams) and E-meng (dreams of surprise)” (p.609). This Chinese method of dream classification has some similarities with Hinton et al.’s categories whose category of nostalgia corresponds with the ancient Chinese class of Zheng-meng (dreams of normal daily trivialities). Hinton et al.’s category of trauma corresponds to the Chinese class of Ju-meng (fearful dreams). Hinton et al.’s category of visitation dreams correlates to the Chinese class of Si-meng (dreams of loved ones). Wing et al. said that “Since ancient times, Chinese people have believed that the soul of a person is vulnerable to the influence of spirits during sleep” (p.609). This suggested that dreams may be caused by spirits. There is an old folklore that says dreams of the dead are caused by ghosts who visited the sleeper. It is difficult to prove this so another thread of reasoning is discussed. Wing et al. interviewed their sample of participants in their study to discover if there were any triggers for dreams. They found that: “Tiredness, sleep deprivation, stress and irregular sleep were commonly reported as unusual preceding events” (p.610). More work has to be done to confirm that these are triggers for every dream. The therapist whose client speaks about having a dream, should ask if they had encountered these factors like tiredness, lack of sleep, irregular sleep patterns and stress.
Singapore Chinese women’s relationship with death
Singapore Chinese women have been tasked with taking care of her family members, domestic chores, and if she is working outside home, she has to manage that too. These women become obsessed with management of domesticities. Not only do they manage their own designated turf, they also have a streak of competitiveness. They feel the compulsion to make arrangements so that they maintain control, or gain the upper hand. For instance, when they have a terminal illness, they would plan for their funeral, down to the last detail. The Chinese Christian woman would try to discover how she could attain a good after life. If she is told that she has to accomplish the pre-requisites like saying prayers every day, donating money to the church and poor and etc., she would be going all out to win eternal life. This kind of behavior is typical of the Singapore Chinese woman. If the Chinese woman is a Buddhist or Taoist, she would perform similar actions as according to religious teachings, to attain a good after life. Singapore Chinese women worry too much and do not let go when faced with death.
Catherine Lim is a Singapore Chinese writer who has written more than 20 books in different genres. She is well respected for her views. In her latest book “An Equal Joy: Reflections on God, death and belonging”, she also written about death and how local women prepared for it. One woman, nicknamed QT, took charge of planning her funeral right down to the last detail. Lim wrote that after attending QT’s funeral wake, she had a dream: “That night I had a dream in which I was watching and cheering QT doing a marathon. In the wild nonsensicality of dreams, she was dressed, not in a T-shirt and shorts, but a pretty sequinned dress and high heels. As she reached the finishing line, she gave a loud shout and showed, not a victory sign, but the middle finger. I was convinced it was meant for the obnoxious Grim Reaper, and that my dream was some kind of empathic connection with this feisty woman” (Lim, 2017, p.27). Lim may have experienced the dream as a consequence of seeing how QT wrestled control back into her hands.
For good measure, Lim included another example of a woman nicknamed BT who also exhibited the control streak when facing fatal illness. Lim said: “If she could no longer hope for life, perhaps death might not be a bad thing if it opened up the way for an equally good afterlife” (Lim, 2017, p.31). These examples showed that Singapore Chinese women hated to lose out to other women and men. When they are diagnosed with terminal diseases, they will fight to the end. After learning that they had no hope for recovery, they wrestled back some control by planning for their funerals and after life. As the women put so much effort to maintain control of their after life, they would surely return as ghosts if they were permitted to do so.
Some of the Singapore Chinese females’ sample dreams are below.
What kinds of dead people portend what kinds of events?
I am a fourth generation Chinese, living in Singapore. My paternal great grandparents, who were my grandfather’s parents, were the first generation of Chinese of our family tree in Singapore. They were born in the Province called Fujian whose sub-provincial city is Xiamen in China and emigrated to Singapore for a better life. I have no idea how they lived in China but it must have been a struggle for them to decide to make the perilous journey across the seas to reach Singapore. I have limited information on how they lived in Singapore. I know they worked and operated a warehouse near one of the waterways. Singapore depended on trade and most of the travel routes were via water. They had five sons and one daughter. My grandfather was the third son. When he was a very young child and before he started school, my great-grandfather brought him back to China to visit relatives, obtain blessings from ancestors in China, and may be also to conduct some business dealings. During the voyage, the ship was tossed around in tumultuous sea and hygiene on board was wanting. My grandfather fell ill and it was with great difficulty and suffering that he recovered. He returned to Singapore, went on to study in Raffles Institution, which was a prestigious school. He managed to win a scholarship and went to England to study Mathematics. He was blessed by his ancestors. After graduation, he returned to work and live in Singapore. My great-grandparents died long before I was born. I only set eyes on them by way of their photographs, which enjoyed a privileged position at the altar table.
My paternal grandparents practiced ancestral worship and prayed to their deceased parents. After my grandmother converted to the Protestant faith, the framed portraits of her in-laws still occupied the central position as the place of honor in the house. The one striking difference was that nobody burned incense sticks (joss sticks in local term) to worship these ancestors. These ancestors did not show up in a dream to admonish my grandmother. We reasoned they had long gone to their places and were no longer around.
My paternal grandmother’s mother lived well into her 80s and I was fortunate to have enjoyed several good years knowing her. My great-grandmother was a Protestant convert to the Christian faith so my grandmother did not set up an altar to worship her as a saint or ancestor. I am writing about the people whom I shall be mentioning later. I have used my relatives’ dreams as examples because I believed in them and trusted their narratives.
Dream of a dead relative going traveling
My grandfather died in February 2000. I missed his funeral wake as I was recovering from surgery and could not walk. About one week after his passing, I dreamed of seeing him. He was saying farewell to me before leaving on a tour. I begged him to take me with him because I wanted to see the world too. He firmly refused and I woke up from my dream. I narrated my dream to my grandmother and she said my health was not strong. She said I had dreamed of the dead because I was weak and most probably, my grandfather had come to see me in my dream, because he wanted to take me away. If I went away with him into the netherworld, I would have died. My dream portended my death. I told her that he was the one who declined to allow me to accompany him on his travels. She then asked me what was the color of his clothes in my dream. I told her he was wearing a dark colored suit and she confirmed that was his attire that the undertaker had dressed him in. The business suit did not quite fit as he had gained some weight since it was made. The undertaker did the usual strategy used to make the coat fit. H e cut a slit at the back of the coat, right down the center. This way, the coat could be pulled to cover the deceased’s front and be buttoned. She believed I had the dream because I told her a piece of information which corresponded to reality. I did not attend his funeral and was unaware of the color of his attire. She said that I saw my grandfather in the dream wearing his funeral suit in which he was sent off and she believed I had the dream. Some Chinese believe that the dead would be traveling and seen in the clothes they were buried in, or cremated in. There are Chinese people who believe that dark colors, especially black, are funeral colors and should be avoided. The dead should not be dressed in very dull colors like dark colors as they should be presented as happy to leave this world. My grandmother was a very practical woman and she used my grandfather’s old business suit that was kept from the days when he was working. Practicality ruled over customs.
Wenli Zhang, a scholar in China, has written to explain how the ghost world was actually a concept created by Buddhism. After a Chinese person died, his soul had six possibilities for the next life. It could “… ascend to the heaven, to continue to the people’s life, to drop for the domestic animal, to go to hell, to become hungry ghost, to go to asura” (Zhang, 2009). My dream said my grandfather may have continued to be a human being as he was going traveling in his human form. He loved traveling and used to accompany his boss or any department that was traveling out. Dreaming of him indulging in his favorite pastime was credible for me. My dream showed a continuation of what he loved to do in his waking life.
My grandfather was an atheist. He refused to be converted into Christianity. Neither was he a Buddhist, Taoist nor practiced any religion. He admired Confucius and almost everything Chinese. The only type of act he conducted that had vague links to organized religion was ancestral worship. He respected his parents and would pray at their altar on every Chinese ceremonial feast day. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer at an advanced stage and lived for only two months after his diagnosis. Such is the level of medical competency in Singapore, where the GP failed to detect symptoms of illness during regular medical check-ups until it was too late. He did not smoke nor drink but hated to eat vegetables and fruit because he had difficulty chewing fiber with his dentures. When he was hospitalized, he was fed intravenously. His doctors told us to prepare ourselves. My grandmother arranged for an elder from her church to visit him at his bedside. This elder asked my grandfather a few questions like did he believe in Christ and talked about a few other Christian doctrines. When the answers were affirmative, the elder deemed my grandfather could be allowed to have a Christian funeral. Not long after, he passed away and was given a Christian funeral.
A Chinese female friend of mine who I shall call Carrie, was a die-hard Catholic, told me that only Christian souls could appear in the dream of a Catholic person. If I apply her logic, that would explain why my grandmother’s mother did not appear to me in my dreams because I was not a baptized Christian nor Catholic at the time of her death. However, even after my baptism, I did not receive any dreams about my great-grandmother. Carrie’s logic may explain why I got my dream about seeing my grandfather, because he became a believer in Jesus at his deathbed and thus had a Christian soul. Carrie knew about Chinese customs and folklore but she said she did not believe in them. She chose to sweep all inconveniences under the carpet. She quoted points to support her arguments and ignored the issues that did not fit into her logic of reasoning why a Singapore Chinese female would be dreaming about her dead ancestors. While the Singapore Catholic Church acknowledges the existence of the supernatural, the priests warn the congregation not to meddle in non-Catholic activities like dream interpretation.
Dreaming of many dead relatives
My paternal grandmother used to narrate dreams of seeing her dead relatives. She saw her parents, parents-in-law, siblings and cousins. She said she was afraid after waking up and recalling her dream. She believed it was a soul-calling visitation because tradition said the dead visit to bear bad omens like death. This type of dream may suggest her waking concerns with nostalgia, grieving for the dead, and being fearful for her life after loved ones have died.
Dream of a dead spouse engaged in a routine experienced in waking life
In 2000, after my grandfather’s death, my grandmother narrated a dream to me. She dreamed of her deceased husband; my grandfather. She said the two of them were at a restaurant. They had ordered a dish of prawns, which are also known as shrimp. She was shelling a few prawns for him. It was normal in Chinese culture to perform the menial but meaningful task for her spouse. Suddenly, she was shaken awake by her son, who is my father. “Mother, wake up!” he said. “You have been asleep for many hours and it is now time to eat dinner!” My grandmother replied, “Why have you awoken me? I was dreaming about having dinner with your father. I was peeling some prawns for him.”
My father said he was anxious when she was in her long, deep sleep. She had been sleeping after lunch and it was rare that her afternoon nap lasted a few hours until the evening. She had diabetes and required fairly consistent meal times to regulate her food consumption and blood sugar level. He was worried that it would not be good for her health if she was allowed to sleep for as long as her body desired. Previously, on another occasion, she was in a deep sleep and had cured into a fetal position. She could not be awakened and my father called for an ambulance. At the hospital, she was diagnosed with low blood glucose.
As I was listening to her narration, I felt goose bumps on my arms and legs. I always get them when I have an eerie feeling. My gut feeling told me her dream was portentious. In Chinese culture, when a living person dreams about having a meal with a deceased person, it portends her impending death. The deceased person has invited the living one to partake in a feast for the dead. She was in deep sleep; possibly REM sleep, which was the opportune time for dreams to take place (Hartman & Zimberoff, 2012). If my father had not awakened her, she may have fallen into a diabetic coma.
My grandmother was not afraid of her dream. To her, the dream was a continuity of waking life, as she had used to de-shell prawns at dinner table for her husband. In fact, she expressed dislike and disappointment that her dream was interrupted. I was too afraid and respectful to tell her what I thought about her dream. It was disrespectful in Chinese culture, to speak of an omen on the other person. Moreover, she was my elder and that would make it a double taboo. It is difficult to find a scientific theory that can explain her dream as a warning of her death, which really happened in late 2001, around one and a half years after her husband’s death.
Dream of dead grandparents in new home to inform of their new location: dream from a female
About a month after my grandmother’s death in late 2001, I dreamed of both my grandparents. They looked younger than their older adult ages before their deaths. Both of them were using walking sticks that were fashioned out of branches which still had leaves on them. They were smiling and seemed to look happy. Their environment was bright and the surroundings had blue and white clouds floating in the sky. There seemed to be images of other people in the distance. I asked to stay with them but they refused. After I woke up, I realized the meaning of my dream. According to Chinese culture, dreaming of my dead relatives portends my death. My dream was in 2001 and I am still alive today. This shows that dreaming of the dead does not always prophesize the dreamer’s death in the immediate future. I have no other Chinese culture tradition, myth or folklore to explain this dream easily. However, there is a possible explanation using Christianity. My dream was not a death dream but a visitation salutation from my grandparents. They wanted me to know they are well. The landscape of clouds suggests the conventional idea of imagery of heaven and what it looks like living in the sky. The dream may have been a visitation dream to inform me of what has happened to my deceased relatives.
What is the significance of a Singaporean Chinese female dreaming of a dead relative having a meal with them?
Eating is a common and shared activity at least twice a day. Chinese people eat breakfast at home before traveling out for the day’s activities. They usually return home to eat dinner with the family. If they are outdoors at work or play, they eat out. According to Hinton et al. (2013), a dream about a common activity like being at the meal table falls into the category of “nostalgia dreams” (p.447). Another criterion that defines the nostalgia dream is that it relives “… a scene from childhood or young adulthood” (p.447). Indeed, I remembered my grandmother telling me that she was married at around 16 years old and she performed many household chores big and small. One common wifely duty was to de-shell prawns at the dinner table.
Cooking is only one of the domestic chores in the household but it consumes a large portion of waking hours. In a typical two generation Chinese family, the female doing the cooking may have to cook two sets of menus. One set is for the ageing parents or parents-in-law. The other set is for her own family of spouse and children. The two generations have separate food preferences. Sometimes, the female is lucky enough to cook one menu for two generations living under one roof. Some Chinese families retain old habits from an era past where there were no refrigerators and the entire day’s food of lunch and dinner was cooked by lunch time. The food would be placed on the dining table and covered by a large semi-circle or rectangular netted lid to prevent flies and insects from contaminating the food. Family members would wait for the entire family to gather together for a meal. Sometimes, family members who did not work outside home, would eat their meal independently whenever they felt hungry. The Chinese female who is a housewife or working from home, will have the privilege of cooking fresh and eating fresh, one meal at a time.
Chinese females typically spend many hours cooking. This habit becomes a trait especially since her family who eats at home is dependent on her culinary skills for survival. The quantity of food that is prepared daily usually includes homemade bread, four dishes of vegetables, a soup, and rice. This may take at least six hours of toil in the kitchen. A female who has to work outside home, has to wake up six hours before leaving home to cook food. This schedule eats into her available time for sleeping so she usually cooks only breakfast and lunch, before rushing off to work. When the cook of the family returns home at 7 pm, she rushes to prepare dinner. She may buy ready-made food from outside if her family is not too fussy and picky.
The average time of six hours for daily cooking does not include special occasions when more dishes are cooked for feasting at home. Modern foods like store bought bread, pastries, beverages, frozen pre-cooked foods and etc. are also stocked in the home but these are not considered staples as Chinese people prefer to eat food cooked at home. The older generation of Chinese females and males prefer to eat home cooked food and may use their influence to request that meals should be cooked at home. The prevalence of diseases like cancer has brought fear into the mentality of the older generation of Chinese males and females and they find comfort in eating home cooked food. The nurturing and maternal instinct or trait sustains the female to remain faithful to her matrimonial vows. However, statistics indicate 50% of all marriages in all the combined ethnicities end in divorce.
Some Chinese females use their status to exercise some influence over her spouse and family. They may threaten not to cook if their demands are not met. The family members may not have enough money to eat out for every meal so a negotiation and compromise are usually reached to maintain co-operation and harmony in the family. However, there are also females who do not see light at the end of their tunnel. Besides cooking, there are other household chores like washing cutlery, clothes, sweeping and moping and overall cleaning of the home. Their male counterparts like partner, parent, and/ or in-laws may maintain their stance, ill treatment and abuse to wear down her human dignity, mental, physical and emotional endurance.
In the 21st century, Chinese families who can afford to eat outside, can avail of the many opportunities of catering in, home delivery and dining out. For family members who have the budget to spend on these conveniences, they are not at the mercy of the cook, who may then think of other strategies to negotiate for her desires.
By Singapore Chinese female standards, peeling prawn shells for the spouse is normal for one or two generations past. My grandmother was the second generation of Chinese immigrants who settled in Singapore. By the third generation of Chinese females, the old customs and culture were changing. In the 1960s, the females became more assertive as they fought for their rights. Chinese singles did not use traditional matchmaking to find their spouses. They thought they could choose better spouses by dating and playing the field. More Chinese couples broke up, divorced and re-married new spouses. Divorce was still taboo and a dirty word but it was getting common. By the fourth generation of Chinese females, it was getting harder to find suitable spouses to marry. People who were concerned over socio-economic status wanted to marry into wealthy families. Poor or struggling adults experienced difficulties finding appropriate life partners. The common criteria for attracting dates were cash, car, condominium, credit card and country club membership. These are known as the 5Cs criteria to say a person has made it in life. The cost of living is very high for locals and expatriates alike. Singapore is ranked among the top 5 most expensive countries to live in. To put things into perspective, ownership of a modest two-bedroom condominium will burn a deep hole in the pocket even with a 25 year mortgage. Many parents can not afford to raise many children. In the early 1970s, the government launched a two-children-only per married couple policy for family planning. The famous campaign slogan was “Two Is Enough”. By the 1990s, the government tried to reverse the trend of population decrease by encouraging more childbirths but it was too late. The rising cost of living, inflation and low job security discouraged fertile couples. Young adult males and females engaged in pre-marital sex and shirked responsibility by delaying marriage and raising children. The statistics for abortion was around a few thousands per annum but the figure has slowly increased every year.
In 2017, the fifth and sixth generation of Chinese females in Singapore are not willing to peel prawns for their spouse/ partner. I asked one Chinese female teen, 17 ½ years old, on her opinion. She said she has to consider whether the male is disabled and incapable of handling his own food. She also said she would be busy eating her own food and has no time to do a menial chore for the male. In other words, the present generation of Chinese female feels she can ignore the status quo of the female attending to the male’s needs.
In 2016, the statistics for abortion for Singapore women of all ethnicities was around 8500. This was one of the “heights” of female status power in 21st century Singapore. Women are not playing second fiddle to the males if they fight for their rights to live the life they desire. For example, females are no longer trapped by pregnancies as they can get abortions before five months of gestation. The Catholic Church preaches abstinence from immorality like abortion but the females desire to choose for themselves. The Church pleads to her congregation to observe religious laws and teachings on preserving the sanctity of human life. The road to saving babies is paved with danger. People working and volunteering in prolife agencies have to deal with the pregnant woman’s spouse/ partner, her boyfriend, parents, siblings, grandparents and any other relatives objecting to external interference in her decision to abort her baby. Sometimes, the baby was conceived out of wedlock or outside marriage. The network of relatives and friends complicate the counselling process. The disintegration of the traditional Chinese family and way of life may lead to different dream themes becoming prevalent and dominant in increasing frequency.
The older adult and young female adult Chinese in present Singapore may address the supernatural to plead for help. When there is nobody to help, the first recourse is to pray or seek aid from any god, deity or supernatural. This situation in 2017 is similar to 2008, when Yu published his research paper and little has changed since then. His research is still applicable when he said: “Traditional Chinese religious and superstitious activities remain very popular in Hong Kong, for example, worship of ancestors, historical heroic gods, and Taoist gods, Feng Shui practice, and various forms of fortune telling, such as face reading, palm reading, drawing of sticks (Kau Cim), and astrology (Zi Wei Dou Shu/ Pik Meng). The widespread superstitious attitudes of Chinese people might provide a clue to the high incidence rate of dreaming about having magical powers” (Yu, 2008, p.9). The churches, Chinese temples and places of religious worship are usually packed full of crowds because of belief in religion, traditions and culture.
Applying Jung’s formulation to Chinese females who dream of the dead
Goss (2015) has elaborated on Jung’s formulations which explain a human being’s darker, inner hidden and denied aspects. He said every ego has its “outer presentations” that are “responsive to various contexts”. The shadow is the opposite of the good persona presented to the public as it has “inner, hidden denied aspects” (Goss, 2015, p.87). If the Chinese female panders to her shadow, the she may harbour ulterior motives like coveting status, importance and power. She may create fiction about dreaming of dead relatives in order to boost her status. This would be “how the darker, hidden side of the ego collects together difficult, under-developed and unpleasant aspects of ourselves and seems to bracket them out of view (most of the time)” (p.86). People who are unware of her shadow see only her good persona.
Goss said:”… if our persona seems particularly reliable or successful to us, it can become our default way of being in life” (Goss, 2015, p.89). If this is the case with a Chinese female, then she may see her Self in a dream where she continues to act like the reliable woman she presents herself to be in waking life. If the Chinese woman speaks only of her good acts, the clinician should be alerted to her public face (persona). For example, she may be talking about how well she treated the deceased and how she deserved to receive the visitation dream because of her merits. Goss (2015) said:” … shadow inevitably shows itself as the client comes to trust the therapist and lets their mask (persona) slip. The analyst’s role is to respectfully notice and challenge the analysand’s presentation of shadow and help them to notice, acknowledge and eventually own this” (p.95).
The clinician should be aware the Chinese females who dream of dead people, danger and negative content may be trying to avoid responsibility. The shadow may have seized the excuse of claiming to have dreams of the dead, to propagate the woman’s personal agenda like wrestling for power and respect in her family. Her status could be elevated when she tells everyone how she was chosen to receive the dream.
Do Singapore Chinese Females dream of dead relatives during specific seasons of the year?
In the Singapore Chinese Lunar calendar, there are a few dates which are important for worshipping ancestors and local deities. These are the eve of Chinese New Year, Qing MingJie (on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month), and death anniversaries of the ancestors. On these important dates, the cook of the family, which is usually a woman, will make the preparations. The seasons do not bring dreams. Instead, the period after the death is the most conducive time for dreams to be created. This is when thoughts and feelings of losing the deceased are strongest and may trigger dreams.
What happens for ancestral worship during Lunar New Year? On the eve of this day, almost every Singapore Chinese family is busy cooking up a feast. The entire family should gather together to share the “Duan Yuan Fan” (Reunion Meal) to signify the unity of the family unit. Those who opt to dine out will have to book reservations for one or two dinner tables, depending on the size of the family. For Singapore Chinese families who are going to offer sacrifices at the altar, they usually choose to dine at home as they will have more time to cook big pots of food, set up the food, fruit and other offerings. Before midnight, the altar table will have several dishes of cooked food and rice, fruit, sweet cakes, snacks, and a pair of sticks of sugar cane. At the stroke of midnight, family members light up joss sticks to pray before the ancestors. Some families throw away these offerings after prayer while other families keep the food in the refrigerator for consumption on the following day. Chinese traditions say there should be no sweeping of the home during the first two days of Lunar New Year. Good luck has been ushered in and should not be swept up for discarding in the trash. Handling of sharp objects like the knife and scissors are taboo to prevent good luck from being severed from the home. Since there is no cooking to prevent the use of knife and scissors, the family members eat the food that has been cooked on the eve of Chinese New Year. This should last 2 days, until knives and sharp instruments are permitted for use again on the third day. Not every Chinese can observe this tradition strictly as family members ask for freshly cut fruit and etc that require the use of sharp instruments. Chinese females and males do not report receiving more dreams during Chinese New Year.
Besides sacrificial food for the ancestors, the same feast should be offered at the altar of Chinese deities like the Goddess of Mercy and the Kitchen God. These deities are worshipped especially on the eve of Lunar New Year to petition them to send blessings for the new year.
For the Qing Ming Jie, or Month of the Hungry Ghost, the Singapore Chinese females generally prepare the food sacrificial offerings at least twice on two separate days. There is no hard and fast rule that forbids more offerings if the woman is able to afford it. The offering to the dead that roam about on earth can be made by placing plates of rice cake, peanut candy and oranges. Joss sticks are lit, and Chinese paper money is burned. The feast for the ancestors is brought to them at their graves. The food may consist of cooked dishes, rice cakes, and fruit. Chinese paper money for the dead may be burned as an offering to send the notes to the other world. By the time the plastic bags of “hell money” are burnt, it would be time to pack up and go home. Some worshippers do not clean up and the food is left on the graves. The vagabonds and stray animals may feast on the goodies. Visitors who arrive at the graves the following days may get the impression that the food was really eaten up. They may feel awestruck if they think the ghosts at the graves have devoured the edibles. For this reason, cemeteries and columbariums have janitors and staff to maintain the policy of visiting hours. Some Chinese relatives of the deceased cry loudly and stay on after dark. It is tough to make out human forms in the dark and their cries sound eerie in the stillness of night. This gave rise to spooky tales of haunted cemeteries and columbariums when actually, there were humans responsible for causing the ruckus. When people came to know that there were visitors after nightfall, they too wanted to join the trend of staying late and the caretakers of the places had difficulties managing the crowds.
Singapore Chinese do not limit themselves to just one date for visiting the graves. They may visit to pay respects on other days too. The filial descendants may do some basic cleaning of the area around the graves by picking up litter, and pulling up weeds. There may be enterprising grass cutters who hang around the cemeteries during this month. They can be hired for a one-time fee to cut the grass around the graves.
My paternal great-grandparents were buried before 1960. By the time my grandparents died in 2000 and 2001, burial land was scare they left instructions to be cremated. My grandparents had stopped the practice of ancestral worship when my grandmother converted to Christianity and my grandfather did not take over the cooking and preparation of food for worshipping the ghosts. My grandmother did not experience any dreams from her deceased in-laws about the lack of ancestral worship. The old fears of being punished and tormented by angry and hungry ghosts slowly evaporated. Fear was replaced by a different feeling of bitterness that all the hard work for the past 30 years was for naught as the ghosts were probably not eating the food. All those years of blind devotion could have better spent on counselling, therapy and intervention to sort out problems. A clinician would use scientific theory and evidence to support the use of therapy. I would agree but I also think that the fact that I am using my Chinese culture and experiences of dreams to write a thesis proves that my ancestors are helping me with writing my paper. A Chinese Christian does not abandon their ancestors after conversion. The Catholic prayers include mention of all those who have died and gone before us. Christians pray for the souls of the dead and this is also a form of ancestral worship.
Besides the sacrifices to the dead, there are other customs to be observed during the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar year. Singapore Chinese are discouraged from going out at night, lest some lonely ghost follows them home. Wearing red colored clothes is taboo as ghosts are attracted to that color. Going swimming is not good as ghosts may be lurking around to drown swimmers. Streets of residential neighborhoods are littered with food offerings and joss sticks. Pedestrians have to look where they place their feet while walking. The materials sacrificed to ghosts must not be disrespected. If a person accidentally steps on a piece of unburned hell money, or an item that was offered to the ghosts, then they have to clasp their hands in prayer and say an apology. Otherwise, if the offender experiences negative events, they will blame their bad luck on the ghosts. These are some of the old customs that Chinese observe to stay away from bad luck and ghosts during this particular month.
Generally, Singapore Chinese women do not say they have more dreams of their dead relatives during the seventh lunar month. If a woman says she had a dream of a sad looking dead relative, it could mean that she has not performed the ceremonial sacrifices at the grave or on the street outside her home. For the clinician, the symptom and circumstance point to the woman’s guilty feelings, or other problems. If a Singapore Chinese client tells her therapist that she is troubled by thoughts and feelings for her dead relatives, then it would be an invitation to investigate further. The clinician may ask some questions to discover what caused the mental and emotional disturbance. If this fact is revealed during the Hungry Ghost Month, then the client’s behavior could have been influenced by the current event.
There are some Singapore Chinese who believe that when a person dreams of a dead relative, it is because the dead has visited them and the medium of communication was the dream. The ghost of the deceased may have been the stimulus that created the dream. Freud used to say that dreams were created by numerous factors and one of them was stimulation from causes like sound, internal organs, nerve activity in the brain and etc. (Freud, 2010). The clinician whose client talks about dreams of dead people, or frequent dreams of any nature, should investigate the causes behind the dreams.
Christian Chinese families do not perform ancestral worship on any Chinese dates. The Catholics have All Souls Day, which falls on November 2 annually. They pay respects to the dead on this day. Singapore Chinese women do not experience more dreams of dead relatives on All Souls Day. This could be due to the teachings of Christianity which say that the dead person’s soul has travelled to another place after death and no longer lingers around on earth. The soul does not stimulate the sleeper to have a dream about the deceased.
The clinician should be aware of the cultural diversity in clients and respect them. Understanding the client’s culture will provide background information on what is important to the client and what may have triggered certain reactions.
Chapter Three Theoretical Perspective
Many Singapore Chinese women dream of their ancestors. Like all lay people, these women see the manifest content to understand the meaning of their dream. Sometimes, they fail to comprehend the manifest meaning or latent meaning. If they are troubled enough to bring their dreams to therapists, then their mental stress, anxiety and emotions can be worked on. Although Chinese custom and Daoism say that dreams can be created by ghosts who visit the sleeper, science says otherwise. Modern science points to clues that say dreams of ancestors or other imagery, can be influenced by many factors.
While it is true that a therapist can help to decipher the meaning of a dream, not everyone can afford to schedule psychotherapy to discuss every dream. Dreams demand immediate attention to address the puzzling issue of discovering its meaning. If dreams are a continuity of waking life, then understanding the manifest and latent meanings would assist the person greatly, to resolve their problems, as they move forward in waking life. If a dream appears to be a discontinuity of waking hours, then it could be carrying a latent meaning, which may be an expression for a wish fulfillment.
Chapter Four – Reflexivity
My role in writing this paper is that of a curious investigator. I wanted to discover why Singapore Chinese women dream of their dead ancestors. These women’s dreams of their beloved deceased relatives because of several factors. Psychological factors can be nostalgia for the old waking life, stress or trauma of loss. Neurological factors may include nerve activity in memory cells. Physiological factors are known to include fatigue and disturbance in sleep patterns.
More than three quarters of Singapore’s population spend time regularly on religious activities every week. This shows they believe in religion, and the teachings on death and its aftermath.
Singapore Chinese women dream of dead relatives especially on doing activities that had occurred during waking hours during their shared lifetime together.