Saturday, 5 April 2008

Tomb Sweeping

Having arrived back in China this week, I was quickly informed that Friday (The 3rd April) would be a national holiday. Having just spent a week of a 'National’ holidays in the UK where we feel inclined to share enlarged eggs made of chocolate, I was intrigued as to what the significance of this holiday might have been.

In Chinese the holiday is called Qing Ming Jie, which has the literal translation of “Clear/Pure Brightness” but is more commonly known as ‘Tomb Sweeping’ Day. As with all Literal translations it sounds very strange to our western ears – why would you want to sweep a tomb? What is a tomb? Who does it? And Why?

I started to write this Blog with a view, not to concentrate on this ‘Strange’ Chinese festival, but to compare (and ridicule!) a few of our western traditional holidays – Shrove Tuesday, Boxing day, April fools day and bonfire night to name but a few! However whilst investigating this Chinese phenomenon (I can only find other references in Taiwan and HK) I became more and more interested in this seemingly religious festival, in a seemingly unreligious culture?
An ancient tradition spanning over 2500 years, this year sees the holiday raised to national holiday status for the first time. As the name suggests it’s a time to tend the gravesides of your deceased relatives, ancient deities and modern day martyrs.

Coincidently, I live just around the corner from a large cemetery in the Qingpu district of Shanghai and couldn’t work out this week why they had installed a new traffic control system and there was a large police presence all around the streets leading to and from the entrance. It was only when I read in the local Shanghai Daily that some 2.7 million people in Shanghai alone visit the graveyards of relatives on this single day – the police were expecting a crowd, and a crowd is what they got!

People all around this vast country visit the graveyards that populate the suburbs. Cemeteries open at 6.00 am and fill quickly, in the Beijing suburb of Babaoshan some 118,000 people visited the local cemetery on Friday alone. China Daily reports some 100 million nationals taking trips to graveyards, and memorial sites on Friday.

Along with clearing weeds, and generally dusting the gravestone, offerings of cold food are made, these normally comprise of fruit, or deserts and qingtuan - green sticky rice balls (some people I spoke to also mention leaving alcohol for their ancestors to enjoy!). It is believed that the food should be simple, as not to attract the evil spirits in the cemetery, this follows a belief that if you don’t care for the deceased they will become ‘hungry ghosts’ and cause trouble for the living.

One of the big parts of this tradition is the burning of fake money (mingbi) and paper effigies at the graveside. Thought to ensure that the dead are provided for in the afterlife, this can create enormous problems and Last year, mourning activities caused more than 1,400 fires, resulting in three deaths. In 2006, there were more than 2,300 fire accidents linked to the holiday, accounting for one-third of the forest fires that year. This year will be the largest celebration on record – no wonder the authorities aren’t taking any chances.

What did surprise me when trying to learn about this custom, was that since 1949 it has been illegal to be buried in a coffin, and the communist party enforced compulsory cremation. Not surprising I guess when you consider that almost a 25,000 people die on average each day in China – that’s a lot of graves! People found a way around this law people by burrying the ash in coffins and mounting tombstones, which maintained the demand for cemetery space.
As time has gone on, the law has steadily become ignored and the rise is burials is almost back to its previous pre-ban figures. This has also let to a massive rise in the price of available plots (Yinzhai house for the dead), with the average price per sq meter in a Beijing cemetery averaging between $1400 and $4000 (This compares to $2500 for an apartment - Yangzhai, house for the living). Its now fact that it costs you more to be dead than alive!

The average ash burial uses just 1.5 sqm, however the government has been encorouging people to use smaller spaces as the demand for funeral space overburdens availability. Some cemeterys are now offering spaces of just 0.2 sqm, however with a tradition of ensuring comfort for the deceased - these are not prooving popular. The government has recently (April 1st - not an April the 1st joke, I promise) doubled the reward for sea burials to 400 rmb ($50) in a vain attempt to release the ressure on cemetrys - again due to traditions only a very small percentage have been taking this offer.

This all leads me to the reason for not only people wanting to bury their relatives even in these circumstances, but also the reason why Qing Ming Jie is so important. Whilst not religious it comes from the teachings of Confucius (some would argue a religion in itself?), and superstitions around the dead, that promote the belief that you should care for the dead and provide for them to ensure a happy life for you and your family in the future. My thoughts are with the cleaners of the cemeteries – at Boashan cemetery in Beijing last year they removed 20 tons of rubbish left by the mourners during Qing Ming Jie – who knows what the pile will look like this year!


Anonymous said...

Hi, Paul

I am Richard. How are you recently? It is long time since our last conversation at Longbridge and I miss you a lot.

I couldn't imagine that you made such a deep research on Chinese convention as a foreigner.

All best wishes

Paul Stowe said...

Hi Richard, Hope you are well and everything at Longbridge is OK? (I hear too many bad things in the news!!) Anything I can do to help - just let me know.