Monday, April 4, 2011

Ching Ming

Qing Ming (see pronunciation in title) is upon us. That is the day that Chinese everywhere visit the tombs of their ancestors, as I alluded to in How I Spent My Chinese New Year and Death Rites. Qing Ming is the day when the living go to the dead to pay their respects, as opposed to the rest of the celebrations throughout the year, where the dead are remembered at the place where the living reside.

Qing Ming, called the Tomb Sweeping Holiday, calls for family to go to the graveyard where ancestors lie, and clean off the tombs. After a family visit, fresh paper flowers adorn the graves and the stones are cleaned of any debris or damage, such as lichen or moss that might have grown there. While gathered around the graves, family legends are recounted and new family members, if any, are introduced. As with any other celebration, paper money is burned as an offering to ancestors so that they might have enough spending money in the afterlife. Afterward, families might go to temples and pray for their loved ones. Of course, food is a big part of this celebration, but there are no distinctive foods that are served exclusively for Qing Ming, as opposed to other celebrations like Spring Festival or Dragon Boat Festival.

The West’s equivalent celebration is All Saints’ Day, the day after Halloween. It is primarily a Catholic holiday mostly celebrated in Europe, although people of all faiths and ethnicities visit their deceased and clean off the graves. In the States people tend to do that at any time during the year, especially on Memorial Day, but not necessarily on November 1st. All Saints’ Day/Memorial Day is considered a minor holiday. Generally, no special rituals are observed and no special foods are served. Usually the family does not convene for All Saints’ Day/Memorial Day, preferring the warmth and bluster of summer months for their gatherings.

Qing Ming is not a momentous celebration in China, either. The actual day of Qing Ming this year is April 5th. Although it is marked with certain rituals it is considered a minimal festival here as well. Most often, people who work or study away from their hometown will not travel home for this occasion. Even though classes have been rescheduled to offer the students and faculty the opportunity for observation and travel should they so desire, most of my students will remain on campus instead of boarding trains and buses for this three-day celebration.

As I enjoy a few extra days off, I ponder Qing Ming. The dead are a part of life in China, remembered in countless ways, not the least being at regular holidays and when naming new family members. It would seem redundant to have a day specifically to remember ancestors but all of the Chinese I’ve posed that hypothesis to counter it with: “It would be disrespectful to not visit the dead. Always inviting them to your home and not going to them would show them that you are not willing to meet them on their ground.” A strange, but I suppose a valid philosophy.

What about the dead in the Yangtze River basin? The towns near the Three Gorges Dam, where forced evacuations caused families to abandon land and homes that have been in their family for generations? Entire villages are now under water and ancestral homes exist no more. What about those exiled from Tibet? How do those families return to their dead and sweep their tombs?

They don’t. Those families have new tombs, where their ancestors’ remains may or may not lie. It is a symbolic tomb or mausoleum that they visit, so that they at least appear to meet their dead halfway.

What about families near or from the Gobi Desert who, because of extreme drought conditions have fled their family homesteads and now live in the agriculturally richer, more profitable Southern regions? Do they go back and sweep tombs?

No. Those tombs have long eroded into dust. The harsh winds and fine, gritty sand have reduced any monuments to unrecognizable mounds. From the accounting Gloria, one of my students from that region gave, the dead are remembered where the living dwell, even at Qing Ming.

Interestingly enough, if a family purchases a plot to inter their dead, they only have access to it for about twenty years. There are simply too many people and too little space for each deceased person to occupy a grave for all eternity. Also, there is an edict of cremation nationwide because of the age-old tradition of burying family members in the fields they worked all of their lives, as I alluded to in the Death Rites post. Apparently the business of commemorating a box of ashes only lasts twenty years before the next resident box of ashes takes that space.

I can see where that would make for a lot of confusion, come Qing Ming time. Imagine going to where you know your father or grandfather is interred, the same plot you went to last year, only to find it is now occupied and worshipped by another family. How would you feel? I do not know of anyone in China that has had to muddle through such a situation, but the news outlets report outrage on the part of citizens who expected to have that piece of land in their family for generations. I can imagine!

Even though I am in China, and Qing Ming is nowhere near All Saints’ Day as far as the calendar is concerned, I think of my family now. All of the deceased, on both sides of the Atlantic. My grandparents, whom I have never met. My parents, buried thousands of miles apart, whose graves I have never visited. Scores of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews whose time had come, all interred and commemorated and resting eternally under heavy slabs of stone, with markers that bear their name. At least, their bones rest there.

I prefer to think of my ancestors as roaming free, wondering why they have no money to spend. Maybe I am more Chinese than I thought I was! I don’t think I’m ready to burn paper money for them yet, but burning incense is not such a stretch.

I wish your ancestors and mine a peaceful rest on this Qing Ming.

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