Posted by: mel | February 12, 2009

Chinese Culture in Indonesia

February 12, 2009 

Dewi Kurniawati

Chinese traders first began commerce with Indonesia in the 15th century after the famous voyages of Admiral Zheng He to Southeast Asia, India, Arabia and Africa. These traders established a large Chinese presence in port cities such as Malacca, Palembang and Surabaya and began a process of cross-culturalization that continues to this day. Even though for more than three decades of Suharto rule Chinese-Indonesians were banned from practicing their traditions — most notably not being able to celebrate Chinese New Year and being forced to adopt Indonesian names, as well as being banned from politics — the presence of their descendants is still strong in Indonesia today, with influence in everything from cuisine to the medicines and elixirs that Indonesians take when they are ill.

Today, the influence of the “Tionghoa” or Chinese-Indonesians, can be traced through “pribumi,” or sons of the soil, in their use of elements of the Chinese culture in their daily lives as they rely on the wisdom of Chinese for their health and well-being, and even to improve their chances of achieving happiness in life. Among the most widespread influences are the practice of Feng Shui, the use of traditional Chinese medicines and the popularity of the martial art Wushu.


Wushu, which literally means the art of war, is the most complete and artistic of martial arts because it uses all muscles from head to toe, according to Ahmad Rifai, a 36-year-old wushu trainer and the founder of Inti Bayangan Wushu Club, or Core of Shadows Wushu Club, in Jakarta. 
“I was interested in learning about wushu after watching lots of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies when I was a kid,” said Ahmad, a Betawi, or native Jakartan.

“Wushu moves are very dynamic and there are many choices of weapons, which is why many people are interested in it,” he said.

Ahmad said that the sport was recognized officially in Indonesia in November 1992 and was grouped together under the traditional martial art of pencak silat.

“Before 1992, so many people learned about basic moves of wushu, but under the Suharto regime, the sport was repressed along with other Chinese cultures,” he said.

Ahmad, who was a national wushu athlete from 1993 to 1997, has triumphed in many international championships — from the Beijing Open to the World Championship held in Baltimore, US — is very optimistic that wushu will gain more  interest in Indonesia as more people are eager to join his club. 

“So many of them are from Indonesian’s younger generations.”

Nandira Mauriska, a 10-year-old Betawi girl 

Nandira is one of the younger generation of Indonesians interested in wushu and has been a member of Ahmad’s club since she was 6 years old.

“I was interested because its moves are cool, although they are pretty difficult too,” Nandira said.
Nandira, according to Ahmad, is one of the most talented students in the club, and although she is young, has already reached level five out of eight total levels.

“My goal is to be a national athlete like my Uncle Ahmad,” she said.

Odi Purwanto, 28, another wushu trainer

Odi said he has studied wushu since he was 8 years old.

“As a kid, I learned Karate, Taekwondo, and the Indonesian traditional martial art pencak silat, he said.

“But I love wushu the best,” he said.

“Wushu moves and fighting tools are comprehensive so that when you use different swords, its shows the beauty of the sport.”

At the Inti Bayangan Wushu Club, the members are divided equally between Chinese descents and native Indonesians. 

“This is a universal sport,” he said.

“So we can mix well.”


Feng Shui, says Erwin Yap, a Feng Shui educator and consultant based in Jakarta, is a Chinese art and science that stretches back 6,000 years. Its focus is on how the proper arrangement of nature, objects and the dimension of time can provide harmony in life.

“Feng, which means the wind, and Shui, which means water, are two powerful elements that shape the earth,” said Erwin. “As such men can incorporate the Chi or energy into these elements, to bring positive impacts on our life.” 

Yap, 40, who has studied Feng Shui since he was 8 years old, said it is a science of reason, if you discount the legends and myths incorporated by Taoist and Buddhist influences.

“If you take those elements out, it becomes a pure rational science, that is why it is adaptable anywhere, including in Indonesia,” he said.

This Chinese practice has long been a part of Indonesia society, he says.

“I am so happy that Feng Shui is practiced by so many pribumi. When I give talks, I notice that even many women wearing head scarves come and listen.”

Katharina Yulia, 34, secretary, Jakarta Globe

Katharina planned to move into a new house in the Bintaro area on the outskirts of Jakarta until she told a Feng Shui expert.

“He told me that it’s not a good year to move into my new house — better hold back until next year,” Katharina said.

“He told me that I should have consulted him even before the house was built,” she said. And that “it is best for me and my family not to move in this year.”

Katharina, born to a Javanese family, is not sure when she started to believe in this ancient Chinese practice so much that she agreed to heed the Feng Shui expert’s advice.

“I just believe in him,” she said, adding that her Feng Shui expert also once told a good friend of hers to get rid of a mole in order to avoid divorce from her husband.

“She hadn’t had the time to do it,” Katharina said. 

“And now she’s in the process of divorce because her husband was cheating on her with another girl.”

“I believe that Feng Shui can help me to achieve what most people want in life, happiness,” she said.

Aditya Setiadi, 23, Pianist

Aditya believes that Feng Shui is the science of balancing life with nature to achieve harmony. He said that mother nature often gives people the clues they need for their happiness, but that they often ignore the guiding signs.

“I think it is based on a science that has been practiced for thousands of years,” he said, adding that he sees a similarity between Feng Shui and “Primbon,” the Javanese almanac of auspicious days and horoscopes.

Speaking about the natural world and mankind he said, “As a Javanese, I know they are also trying to achieve harmony between the micro and macro cosmos.”

Aditya has been interested in Feng Shui since 2003, and believes it to have a rational basis.
“I always get the Chinese horoscope every year and mark down my days of expected misfortune,” he said. “I’ll be extra vigilant during those days.”

Traditional Medication

Traditional Chinese Medicine includes herbal medicine, acupuncture and dietary therapy. In Indonesia, Chinese herbal medicine has also long been merged with Indonesian traditional potions known as “jamu.”

“Traditional Chinese medicine in Indonesia has applied the specific science and technology that originated from China, but most of the ingredients we use are from Indonesian traditions,” said Willy Japaries, a general practitioner who graduated from the medical faculty of the University of Indonesia and is also an acupuncturist and a Sinshe, or Chinese medical doctor.

Willy spent five years in Guangzhou to learn about Chinese medicine professionally and is now the head of the Indonesian Naturopath Association’s Jakarta branch. He said that the Indonesian government acknowledges the wide use of herbal medicine and encourages more study and research to develop traditional medicines in Indonesia.

“Both modern and traditional medicines can be synchronized and complement each other to help patients,” Willy said.

Malia Kirana, 37, Jakarta-based office manager

Malia found out she was suffering from uterine myoma, cyst and endometriosis in 2002. Doctors said the problem may have existed for five years. She agreed to undergo surgery right away because doctors said the condition was serious. However, last year the same problems returned and this time she decided to go to a Sinshe and undergo treatment with traditional Chinese medicine.

“I didn’t want to go through another surgery,” Malia said.

“A friend of mine suggested to me that I see this Sinsei because she had the same problem and it is now totally cured.” Malia, born in Banjarmasin East Kalimantan province, believes that Chinese traditional medicine will fix her problems.

“I have met many friends who have been cured after treatments from a Sinsei and I wouldn’t go if I didn’t believe it,” she said. She said that she would use Indonesian traditional herbs if there was no Sinshe.

Malia said has not yet checked with her doctor to see if the treatment has been effective.

Suharyani, 34, a housewife in Jambi province (the reporter’s sister-in-law)

Suharyani, the mother of two children, recalled that after she gave birth to her first son she began using Chinese herbal medicines.

“I went through a C-section and was told by my doctor to go back and forth to the hospital to check and make sure the wound was properly cleaned to boost my recovery,” she said.

“But then one day, my mom brought me tiny black pills from our neighbor saying they are powerful Chinese herbal pills that will make my post-operational wound dry faster,” Suharyani said.

She started taking the pills and ended up only having to go back to see her doctor twice after her surgery. At first she worried about taking the pills because her doctor had warned her not to take any medication aside from his prescription drugs.

“But my mom convinced me it’s okay, and said that many people had taken the same pills and that they work like a charm.”

She said her wound dried within days, and that she was thankful to her mom for introducing her to the pills, that she believes enabled her to be able to walk standing straight up in just a week.

“I took the same pills again after giving birth to my second child,” she said.


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