I still consider myself lucky since I didn’t have any Qingming experience yet. Ever since elementary school, in spring time, my friends keep mentioning their Qingming with the family and their stories always leave me in fear. They are stories about mountains in the remote suburbs, cemeteries, tombstones, flames and smoke. At that time, I was too young to grasp the idea of death and afterlife, and I wish my Qingming experience can be delayed as late as possible.
The Qingming Festival is the festival of the dead. Each year on April 4 or 5, Chinese people take the day off to visit their ancestors in the cemeteries, tending their tombs by sweeping the dust (sometimes symbolically) off the tombstones.It has been a part of the tradition for more than 2,500 years. Rumor has it that almost every Qingming Festival in the history had either rainy or cloudy weather, as if the sky is touched by the sadness on earth. One of the most widely spread Qingming poem depicted a typical scene on the day of Qingming, saying that “drizzling rain falls like tears, all mourners have lost their souls”.
Honoring the ancestors is an essential part of Chinese culture. As my grandfather settled in a city that is four hours of plane ride away from his hometown, one of the first things he considered is to relocate the family burial from his hometown to his current city once he settled down. This relocation will go through the proper ceremony, and each Qingming following that relocation, new libation and offerings must be made. My grandparents used to travel all the way from Beijing to Northern China to visit that family burial.The importance of honoring the ancestors can also be seen in the movie Mulan where a shrine in a residence is dedicated to the plaque of ancestors.
One of the most common Qingming practice is to communicate with the dead by burning offerings in front of their grave site. Paper money, in the currency of the underworld, is burnt so that the people who live there will have enough money to get by. Paper houses, paper cars, paper cell phones and very recently paper iPad are all popular offerings for burning. The gift shop at the cemeteries will have Qingming special package which include everything people might need in the underworld in the form of paper. Once the offerings are burnt to ashes, the wind will carry them away, up to the sky and down to earth where the ancestors live. Not only in cemeteries but also on the street, after sunset, people start a little bun fire, and start to send gifts to the underworld. It is quite spectacular to walk on the street, seeing little groups of people surrounding a small fire, burning paper Luis Vitton bags and paper BMW cars.
Qingming is not only a time for commemorating the dead, but also to learn how to cherish the living ones around you. As spring comes with the smell of dirt, rain and freshly bloomed flowers, a new wave of life begins.
The Woman Behind the Cultural Perspectives Section:
Asheley Gao is an extremely creative young woman, currently attending UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, a long way away from her home country of China. She is double majoring in Political Economy and History of Art. Her interest in life and exuberance is evident, not only in her work as an artist and academic, but also a friend and co-worker.