Qing Ming Jie (Tomb Sweeping Festival) arrives on April 5. This is one of China’s newer official holidays, having been declared as such 3 years ago.
Before, Tomb Sweeping Festival was merely a traditional day that was not on the list of holidays given to workers and students in China. Its long history focused on remembrance of those who’ve passed before us. It was set aside for families to honor their ancestors, visiting gravesites to clean the area of weeds, light special incense called joss sticks (“joss” means a Chinese image or house idol in a shrine) and burn paper money for their loved ones to spend in heaven. Those with no gravesites to attend to (such as city dwellers) merely gathered together for the usual customs celebrated in their areas.
Yesterday, one of my students told me in his village, everyone had to kill a chicken and prepare noodles to offer to those who had died. After praying and bowing to their hastily-created table altar, on which was placed the lifeless, plucked chicken and pile of noodles, the family then took away the offerings to cook for the family dinner.
As mentioned before, Tomb Sweeping Day was never a holiday. Most people who had moved from home had to wait for weekends to return to hometowns for such events.
But that all changed when the May 1st holiday (7 days off) was cut to 3 days. My guess is that it was thought that giving the Chinese more holidays spread out over the year was better than just lumping a holiday all together, giving entire week. (Interspersed holidays also allow for more touring opportunities and holiday shopping ventures, thus boosting the economy.)
With the May holiday reduction, the government went searching to find replacements. They did so by changing traditional Chinese days to holidays. Mid-Autumn Festival (late September or early October), Tomb Sweeping Festival (April 5) and Dragonboat Festival (sometime in June) were then added to the sanctioned “1-day-off” list.
The Make-up Day Custom
Yesterday was Saturday, which usually means no classes but on this particular weekend, our classrooms filled with the usual lessons due to Qing Ming Jie.
Although only 1 day is given, most offices and schools create a make-up day on Saturday or Sunday in order to allow a 3-day holiday to emerge.
This year, our make-up day was Saturday.
All across China, government workers, educational institutions and companies worked yesterday to make up for a day off on Monday. On our campus, our Monday classes were all moved to yesterday, allowing students to have Sunday to Tuesday off.
Yet our school is one which is quite remote. Students wishing to go home have little time to get there and back in the allotted 3 days. So for us in little, far-away Longzhou, an extra day has been given. Our Wednesday classes have been canceled, much to the delight of the students.
A surprising 4 days off is now in effect with classes resuming on Thursday.
A New Holiday Hype: Longzhou in the full swing of things
What happens when a new holiday emerges? Well, what happens in any country: Commercialism!
Before Qing Ming Jie was declared a holiday, Tomb Sweeping items mostly included the usual fragrant joss sticks, paper money, traditional Chinese gold ingot paper chains and white, tissue papered ribbon-strip decorations to be placed on top of graves. (White in China is the color for death, unlike America where it’s black.)
But now, commercialism has taken hold.
Longzhou’s narrow outdoor market street is now overrun by hastily erected booth tents, selling all the fanciful decorations your deceased loved one desires.
The idea is that by burning images of things, the dead can enjoy these in heaven.
Specially printed, fake money has always been the traditional gift to burn as the dead can buy whatever they choose in their heavenly shops. For the devoted family member here, a 3,500 yuan stack of fake, paper bills costs 1.5 yuan in our market, roughly 14 cents. 3,500 yuan is about $500 US. Sending your late grandma or grandpa, mom or dad a dollar’s worth of fake money would certainly allow them to live quite well in the afterlife.
But if you’d rather purchase a “real” item yourself to send off to heaven, there are a lot to choose from. Paper-made houses, cars, watches, cellphones, and clothes are to be had as well, ready to be ignited at the grave and whisked off into the hands of the deceased.
When I cruised our local market, I was astounded by all the cool Tomb Sweeping purchases available.
A nicely-appointed, furnished house? 60 cents! A lovely pair of traditional shoes, your choice of men’s or women’s? 45 cents! Watch, cellphone, ring and necklace set? 40 cents! Tissue-paper wardrobe, including appropriate colors for each sex? 30 cents!
It was fascinating to see how a simple tradition had erupted into a full-blown spending spree by, and for, the living.
Naturally, wealthy, sophisticated city folk would splurge on more luxury items to burn than your average countryside farmer. One article I read out of Shanghai included such paper joss purchases as an 18 yuan ($3.00) cosmetic set (lotions, lipsticks, eye shadows, facial cleansers, and fancy bra), not to mention bottles of wine and laptops.
In our little town, we have no such posh offerings by our sellers. People here from the countryside mostly stick with basic needs of the average person, and that’s what’s filling our market tents in Longzhou.
Any True Believers in These Tomb Sweeping Tradition?
Do people actually believe such things? That by burning money or items, their ancestors and recently departed can enjoy these things in the hereafter?
Perhaps hundreds of years ago, yes. But in today’s modern society, no, not really.
“It’s just something we do,” my students tell me. “A tradition. A way of remembering our family members who are no longer with us.”
I follow with the Chinese: A very unique, time-honored tradition but no truth to it.
Yet you have to admit, the idea itself is quite intriguing. What a pleasant thought that you could actually give gifts to those you love who are no longer on this earth! Who among us wouldn’t delight in the imaginary figure of great Aunt Corrie or Grandpa James receiving your thoughtful items, smiling and waving to you in gratitude from heaven?
Kind of comforting, . . . for a dismissed Chinese superstition.
Even I, in all my logical, faithful Christian reasoning, couldn’t help but buy a few Tomb Sweeping knick-knacks from one of the sellers. Mostly, it was in appreciation to her for allowing me to take as may photographs of her wares as I wished. However, I must admit, in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “You know, Grandma Marie would really love to wear that flowery, purple tissue dress for Easter.”
Have fun cruising our Longzhou market in the below slideshow!
From Connie in Longzhou, here’s wishing you Ping An (peace) for your day.