This is not the first time that I faced substantial difficulty in explaining the Qing Ming Festival, which falls on April 4th or 5th each year, to those unfamiliar with this portion of the Chinese culture.
Normally I would start by saying that it is a festival in memory of the dead. The family would gather together to visit the grave of their deceased loved ones (which is called “sweeping the tombs” in Chinese), prepare and lay out a “meal” (typically consisting of vegetables, eggs, fish and meat) for them to “enjoy”, and “send” (by way of burning) some heavenly currency for them to “spend”.
Paying tribute to the dead in the family has been the major theme, although the festival also marks a good occasion to have a field trip to the countryside to embrace the first glimpse of spring (“treading the greenery” in Chinese). Eating Qing Tuan is also a big deal for those who love the taste of sweet red bean paste enveloped in the soft glutinous rice mixed with fresh Chinese mugwort or barley grass. And perhaps not surprising for a communist country (re)born after a century of wars and turmoil, people also go to pay tribute to those who had fought for the establishment of the People’s Republic, either voluntarily or organized by schools and other institutions.
From here on, I would have been drawn to the feeling as if I have exhausted my knowledge on this subject. What prevents my explanation from proceeding further is the lack of a proper anchor against which the festival can be compared.
One might easily think of the Memorial Day in the U.S., but that’s for a particular group of dead. Similarly, Qing Ming festival in Taiwan (April 5th) is set as a public holiday in honor of Chiang Kai-shek’s death on that day in 1975. Halloween might be another festival that comes up to mind, which covers not only “faithful departed believers” but also martyrs and saints (hallows). However, the trend of commercializing Halloween has become increasingly overwhelming that this traditional function of honoring the dead has taken a second-order back seat. A final candidate that pops up might be Easter, but that is even further from the Chinese festival in memory of the dead. The former is about the reborn of a god. The latter, in contrast, never goes so far as to expect a complete reborn of the ordinary people as they were. On a more general scale, Christianity and especially the protestant ethic put much emphasis on the effort of living this life fully. As long as this is achieved, the wellbeing in Heaven then seems automatically guaranteed that rarely bothers those remaining in this world.
The Hindus do not seem to care much either, albeit along an entirely different logic. In Hinduism it is more about the powerful idea of karma, or reincarnation. Generously granted with the (mental) chance to live thousands of different lives, one is all too often tempted to be indifferent to this life, or rather any one leg of lives. The duty of the remaining family stops the moment they lit the pyre of the deceased at a ghat along the Ganga. The ritual is like shooting the dead in a satellite back onto the track of karma. As for the next, “whatever will be will be”.
Thinking over and over, a closer equivalent might come from Mexico where there is the Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos). Not only do people care about the dead, they also devised (and are still practicing) an institutionalized ritual for the dead to “come back” the same way as Chinese people would do. For example, “People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed and build private altars containing the favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed” (Palfrey, 1999).
Yet on a deeper inquiry, the Dia de Muertos seems to be more interactive than the Chinese Qing Ming festival. The latter typically does not involve much communication between the living and the dead. On the infrequent occasions where the two parties do “communicate”, it is ostensibly of an exchange nature. The living offer food, alcohol, “money” and of course, their “kowtow”, in front of the grave, asking the dead to bless them on a range of items from health and wealth to happiness and relationships.
Here I need to seek pardon from the readers as whatever limited knowledge I have about Dia de Muertos, I acquired it primarily from the animation The Book of Life (a good one, though, by Guiliermo Del Toro), with the risk of being a bit exaggerating. So at least from the movie, the time with the dead is vividly interactive. Indeed, one year has passed since the two parties talked to each other last time. So many updates have to be shared from both sides. But even scholars observe that “the intent [of offering] is to encourage visits by the souls, so the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them” (ibid, emphasis mine). The events can sometimes even wear a “humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed” (ibid).
Having said so, there is nothing in the Chinese ritual per se that prevents one from “interact” with the dead. It is more about personal characteristics and preference, as people might find it psychologically weird to be speaking in front of the grave something other than the prayer to get blessed. In fact, I am the only one I know that does such talking, in written form but spanning over a longer period. The lovely Italian university town of Bologna has hosted several of my craziest thoughts and actions. Apart from the famously legendary “Inzaghi pilgrimage”, Bologna also witnessed the initial days when my paternal grandma became my God Granny. I opened a social media account that only she and I know, and (assuming she knows technology, or indeed everything, from Heaven) had since then tried to write to her once a day whenever possible. I ask for her blessing as well. But I would also talk to her about what’s going on in my everyday life. My joy, my frustration, my confusion, my inspiration. Those I’d love to share around. Those I am too shy to tell closest friends or even parents. Most importantly, I would tell her I love you, the very words that I hardly spoke out when she was alive.
Granted, I never get any verbal reply. But still it helps. It builds a subtle bond which is reassuring that God Granny is there, listening patiently and smiling silently, although it still hurts to think I’d always want that smiling face to be nearby, rather than being carved forever among the glittery stars.
Like millions of families all over China, my family fulfilled the ritual of Qing Ming festival for my (maternal) grandma last weekend. Together with my aunts and uncles, my parents send her ash to the grave so that she is now resting in peace right beside my grandpa. However, in my signature wild imagination, I’d always love to believe she is travelling with me and my mom wherever we go. To be still appreciating the beauty of the world she so loved through our eyes, just as God Granny must have been doing for more than five years now.
But we fell short of fulfilling the same duty to my paternal grandparents. Unlike my maternal grandparents, their grave is in suburban Yangzhou where they were both born, which is a six-hour return journey from Shanghai. Therefore, even though this is the 10th year that grandpa had left us for Heaven, given that the day was raining heavily with strong wind, my dad being too tired from working overtime during the busiest season of the company and my mom emotionally unstable after seeing off her mom, my dad decided to fulfill the duty later till Dong Zhi, or Winter Solstice Festival. As for Qing Ming, they would just let it go and perform the ritual at home only.
My reply: that’s fine. Thanks. And take care.
Nothing strange in its own light but nevertheless striking when contrasted with how I behaved five years ago. My grandma (God Granny later) passed away five days after I left for Yale Summer Session. So I did not even have the chance to bid her last goodbye. And my parents, afraid that the news would disturb my study, hid it from me until I flied back one month later. All my thinking ability was suffocated and stunted the moment I was hit by the sudden shock. I immediately grew so furious that I refused to talk to them for a month. The fury got mixed with a profound anguish of being abandoned as if I became an orphan. (I felt so primarily because I grew up with my grandparents when my parents went to seek fortunes abroad when I was five.)
As time flows, it took me five years, with the other grandma or “the last samurai” also gone, to realize that instead of me, it is my parents who have now become orphans in the real sense. And even if they live long enough to hit their 90s or even 100s, what are left for us are but another three to four decades together. You know when you are reaching your own thirties soon how thirty years could pass in a fleeting glimpse. So there is really no time for cold animosity or misgivings. From now on, taking good care of the living becomes the most important way of honoring the dead.
Would you agree, God Granny?
Wish you’re here.
More on Dia de Muertos: Palfrey 1999