Continuity and change in China’s ancient Qingming Festival

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For more than 2,500 years, the Qingming Festival, or Tomb-sweeping Day, has been an occasion for Chinese to mourn the deceased and worship their ancestors. Today, although there have been changes, the tradition is well preserved.

COMMEMORATION

Shi Yukun has spent 15 hours flying from Birmingham to Kaifeng in central China’s Henan Province via Frankfurt and Beijing.

“To me, Qingming is an important holiday second only to Spring Festival,” he said.

Shi remembered that when he was young, the entire family would plan a trip several days before the festival. They prepared sacrifices and went to the graveyard in groups.

“The little ones knelt down in front of the tomb while the adults performed rituals of worship,” he said. “The children also had their tasks: folding the burning paper. The fastest would be rewarded during the picnic.”

Shi went to the United Kingdom seven years ago.

“Only after I went out did I feel the emotional attachment of Chinese people to their ancestral home. Qingming Festival is a carrier of such a feeling,” he said.

In western China’s Qinghai Province, retired railway construction worker Zhang Shenglin brought alcohol to his former colleagues’ tombs as always. Every Qingming, he will drink and talk with them.

“Seven of my fellow workers died in construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, four in my arms,” he said.

Zhang, 62, was a worker in 1974 when they started digging a tunnel on a 3,800-meter-high mountain.

“We spent three years to complete the tunnel, but some people died from floods during construction or were killed by falling stones,” he said. “I miss them so much.”

JOB OPPORTUNITIES

Shi and Zhang are among the hundreds of thousands of Chinese mourning the dead on Tomb-sweeping Day, which falls on Tuesday.

A cemetery in Changsha, capital of central China’s Hunan Province, swarms with people, where Yang Xue and more than ten volunteers offer help to visitors, directing traffic and providing consultation.

“We will be working here for ten days,” she said.

Yang is a first-year student from the funeral institute of the Changsha Social Work College.

“I feel professionally close to the festival,” she added.

The institute, founded in 1995, is the first of its kind in China. Subjects for students range from funeral oration and management to embalming. A few years ago, the students were reluctant to talk about their major. But the situation is changing.

“With the development of society, humanism is increasingly important to customers, and the old funeral workers are already outdated,” said Su Lihui, a teacher with the institute. “Therefore, our graduates are in need.”

Su told Xinhua that in 2016, there were more than 900 posts offered to more than 200 graduates. On average each student had four options.

Xiao Yang (not her real name) transferred to the funeral institute from the business school.

“I had worries before,” she said. “But the more I learn, the more I feel that taking care of people when they have completed their journey in life is a respectable profession.”

TAKING CARE OF THE LIVING

The change of people’s mind has had good effect.

In the Taosheng village of Nanchang, capital of eastern China’s Jiangxi Province, Xiong Houzi and 300 other fellow villagers boarded a bus to the cemetery, carrying flowers.

The scene formed a sharp contrast with several years ago, when villagers burned sacrifices, usually made of paper.

“We wore our worst clothes, for fear that the fire and smoke would stain or even damage our dress,” Xiong said.

But this time they were smartly dressed. After the mourning they go hiking.

“Burning paper televisions and cars couldn’t do any good for the deceased,” said Li Xiangyuan, Party chief of the Quanzi community in Linyi city, eastern China’s Shandong Province.

“If you are a good child, take good care of your parents when they are alive,” he said.

To encourage people to fulfill their filial duty, he put up a list on a billboard, honoring the good deeds of villagers.

“Changes are obvious,” said an unnamed old man.

“Take money as an example. In the past one was a good child if he gave his parents 200 yuan (29 U.S. dollars) a year for living. Now we can receive 1,000 to 2,000,” he said. “Being good to us now is better than anything else.”

Xinhua

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