Friday, April 8, 2016

A Foreigner Observes Qing Ming

“Have a nice Qing Ming!”
“We forgive you; you're a foreigner. You don't know any better”

                    Seen on social media

This weekend, all over China, people are manifesting reverence for their dead: by traveling home, by burning yellow paper in little chalk circles on sidewalks all over cities, by buying lavishly of fireworks, streamers, flowers, and the aforementioned yellow paper, that serves as currency in the afterlife. For the Chinese – whether they actively believe or just go through the motions, hold that their ancestors are alive and well in another world. Surely they need money, I-phones, jewelry and other items, cunningly made of paper. All is sent across the barrier of these two worlds by smoke: from incense, from candles, from reducing those paper items to ash.

This foreigner was uniquely privileged to witness, first-hand, how a family from a small village honors their dear departed. Penny hails from a such a village about 30 minutes outside of 黄陂(Huangpi -  who-ahng pee). Among her dead are the usual assortment of great- and grandparents and others, but also her father, who was taken when my friend was just 14 years old. As I've met most of Penny's family, I was eager to finally 'meet' her father.

Having arrived in Huangpi Friday evening, we set out early on Saturday morning to the village – if indeed it could be called a village: it was a collection of 7 houses. Not so much as a post office to distinguish it as a township proper. Arriving in a caravan of 3 cars over a succession of one-lane roads, we clambered out, shaking off the rattling we endured over the rough roads. Those most concerned with the proper playing out of events headed directly to the general store – essentially, a few shelves of goods, set up in someone's living room, to purchase all of the necessary accoutrements: firecrackers,  incense, candles and, of course, yellow paper 'money'. After borrowing a hoe, a shovel and a scythe, we set off, down a narrow footpath, into the hills.

Being an observer – not family, I arrived at the graves last, to see people climbing on dirt mounds, hacking away at vegetation with the scythe. Others were bringing chunks of sod to form caps on these mounds. Penny took a moment to 'introduce' me to everyone: here lay her grandmother and here, her great uncle. Over there rested an aunt, and, in the only marker not made of dirt, was her mother's brother. I questioned the difference in the tombs. Sam explained: in China, one is no longer afforded a whole-body burial, as they were in the past. These days, cremation is the law, so this uncle with the concrete marker was the only relative who was cremated.

Whether cremains or skeleton, everyone got the same treatment. The eldest of our party, a venerable old man, planted lit incense and candles in front of each grave. Young and old participated in burning 'money'. The feeling was not so much of reverence as of gaiety. Once the burial mounds had been clear of vegetation, Penny led the obeisance: in front of each grave, bowing 3 times with hands clasped and muttering something I did not catch. Finally, the men gave warning: “Small children, get away!”. They were about to light the firecrackers.

We all wended our way back to the homestead for a short break, and then repeated the process at another location, in the opposite direction of where we had been before. This time, the area was more open, and I could see what all went on.
This burial mound was cleaner and better tended. Hardly any vegetation grew on it, and it sat apart from others, on level ground. This was Penny's father's grave.

The mound stood nearly 2 meters tall. Fresh dirt was shoveled on, and the sides compacted. As with the other graves, sod was brought in to form caps – one inverted and one right side up. How I wish I knew the significance of these caps! As with the others, 'money' was burned, incense and candles were lit and planted, and this mound was encircled with a ribbon of fire crackers. Meanwhile, further back into the tree line, some of our party tended to other graves, giving them the same treatment. In a moment, the men once again declared we should make haste away, and set off the fire crackers. As we rushed, pell-mell, from the noise, exclamations of a wild boar sighting floated up. Too bad I missed it!

Strangely enough, at these burial mounds, there were old, discarded shoes. I have no idea why there would be shoes there. Sam did his best to explain, but I don't think I really caught the essence of the tradition.

Isn't it difficult to try to explain a ritual to a complete outsider? I am so grateful to Sam and Penny, who invited me to celebrate her family with such an intimate rite, so that I could witness for myself what happens, even if I left with more questions than answers. 

Why didn't we celebrate Sam's family? By tradition, daughters honor the family and men take care of it. Thus, for any other celebration, Sam would be called on to lead his kin. For Qing Ming, ancestor worship falls to his sister and her husband, whose sister, in turn, takes up the yoke for his family. However, these days, most people honor both sides of the family, traveling first here and then there to make sure all ancestors are equally revered and rewarded.   

After a third such gravesite visit, we had a lunch at some relative's house, still deep in the country. I'll describe the house, the meal and all that went on there in my next post but, for now, we have to drive sixty-eight kilometers, to Ezhou, to tend to yet another relative.

Remember Ezhou? That lovely little city I described in July, 2014? Such a good feeling I had when visiting there, that I decided that would be where would I retire to. Apparently, many others thought so, too. There were so many grave markers, even along the highway! When I shared this thought with my friends: how they laughed!

I stayed in the car with the two children while the adults paid their respects, in the pouring rain. Even though I wasn't grave-side, I can report one notable difference between the ceremonies in Huangpi and Ezhou: garish adornments. Whereas Huangpi graves are decorated only with candles and incense, Ezhou tombs are lavishly embellished with streamers, tall posts wrapped in bright paper; and vivid, larger-than-life silk flowers. Of course, paper 'money' and fire crackers feature heavily. Penny explained that every region, and perhaps every village treats their ancestors differently. What is the norm in Ezhou would be considered bad taste in her village.

I might have questioned the depth of feeling, considering the general air of festivity surrounding the proceedings of the last 2 days, if not for the incident at dinner in Huangpi. It took place in a fancy restaurant, and everyone who was graveside also attended the meal. Erica, my little buddy, soon grew restless – young children care little about momentous events. To amuse her, I taught her how to make flowers out of tissue paper. The prettiest one she requested I put in her hair. She then went to all the relatives, preening and expecting compliments.

Everyone told her her flower was horrible! Because the tissue paper was white, and white symbolizes death, the assembled family told her to remove her flower, because she's not dead and shouldn't adorn herself as though dead. Penny's aunt went so far as to snatch it out of the poor, bewildered child's hair. Sam and Penny tried to explain the significance of white flowers in vain: the child thought her flower was pretty, and meant to wear it in spite of its supposed significance. 

Once again I acknowledge that China is a land of contrasts: one may merrily set fire crackers alight around graves to wake the dead, but not adorn themselves with white flowers, for fear that the dead may actually rise and snatch a beloved child prematurely.

Who am I to understand where the lines of distinction lie when understanding the import of putting pretty flowers in a young girl's hair?  

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