Sweeping graves

Resurrection followed by grave-cleaning? Seems kind of redundant, if you think about it. Still, that was my weekend – which started last Thursday and will last until at least this coming Sunday.

The setting
Every year around April 4th or 5th, the Chinese celebrate Ching Ming – ‘Tomb Sweeping Day’. On this day, they go to the graves of their ancestors to literally sweep the graves clean. According to legend, the tradition dates back to some centuries BC, when the Duke Wen of Jin burned a mountain to thank Jie Zitui for saving his life, thereby accidentally killing Jie and his mother. Out of grief, Duke Wen ordered three days without fire to honor Jie’s memory. Thus the Cold Food Festival originated, which later got mixed with the Ching Ming day.

(This story was shared with me by my Chinese teacher, who told me that this story is “from her hometown”. When I asked her about it, she shared with me that her hometown is 300 kilometers away from the mountain. I told her that if you drive south from my hometown in The Netherlands, you would cross the whole of Belgium and end up in France.)

Nowadays, the Ching Ming festival is still celebrated in Hong Kong. On this day, the Chinese people tidy up the graves or the little marble plaques behind which the ashes of their ancestors are stored: they clean the stones with tissues or brushes, weed the graves, and touch up the inscriptions in the stones. Besides this, they make incense, candle and food offerings, or bring flowers. Many people also bring paper goods; in the olden days they used to bring only paper money, but nowadays it seems like “the consumer demands of the earthly have crossed over into the hereafter”(according to the website Discover Hong Kong).

(A few days ago I was going to a shop that sells all the paper items, and was thinking to myself I should like to instruct my family to remember me in the Chinese way after my death. That way I could finally get all the things that so many people seem to long for: a big house, loads of cash money, a nice Ferrari, designer clothes, Prada bags, Swarovski jewelry, the newest iPhone, a big plasma screen TV, a maid to clean my house, and a relaxing message chair to sit in and enjoy my life in hell – all made of paper and burned on my grave)

The reasons why
But why do people celebrate this festival? What are the ideas behind it?

Traditionally, people would go to the graves to worship their ancestors and offer to them the goods they might need in hell. According to Chinese cosmology, ancestors after death go to either heaven or hell. When they are in hell, they will need many things to ease their sufferings. The living are expected to ‘send’ these things to them through burning and offering. In return, the living might be blessed by the ancestors, or in any way not haunted by hungry ghosts. The festival is also connected to the Confucian idea of filial piety – an idea that is still very important in Chinese society. It concerns taking care of parents and grandparents, even after their death.

Nowadays, people in Hong Kong still celebrate the festival. They go to cemeteries or columbaria where the bodies or ashes of their ancestors are. They bring flowers, candles, food (suckling pigs are especially popular, and apparently quite tasty), incense and paper things. They gather with their whole family – if people can get off work on that day or don’t have other obligations – to perform the ritual in front of the grave or small marble plaque. After the ritual – which might take ten to thirty minutes – they go out for lunch or other family gatherings.

The combination of Little and Great Traditions
The festival intrigues me. Not only because it is a traditional Chinese festival, which is great to experience. It also intrigues me, because I wonder why such a centuries’ old traditional festival, which revolves around a Chinese cosmology that is so ancient, is still practices in present-day, highly modernized Hong Kong. Moreover, it intrigues me to find out how Catholics and Buddhists give meaning to this tradition. Does the practice of this ‘Little Tradition’ not conflict with their beliefs in the ‘Great Traditions’, two concepts once proposed by the anthropologist Robert Redfield (which can also be called ‘local traditions’ and ‘official traditions’)? What is the meaning behind the festival for present-day Catholic and Buddhist believers in Hong Kong? What do they value, what rituals do they perform, what don’t they agree with, what do they think happens when they don’t celebrate it, what rules do they follow, and how much do they know about the traditional way of celebrating?

The way I “celebrate”
An interesting case study, and one that I am trying to explore as well as possible. How? By visiting cemeteries and columbaria and observing the behavior of people. I have already been to the Catholic cemetery in Happy Valley, the many cemeteries in Chai Wan (Buddhist, Catholic, public, Islam, and a war cemetery with also 14 graves of Dutch soldiers), a big Taoist temple in Tsuen Wan, and the Christian cemetery in Pok Fu Lam.

Last Sunday, I was at a Buddhist temple, trying to keep up with the Chinese chanting. The chanting was done to accumulate merit for the ancestors, to reduce their suffering in hell – a Buddhist way of celebrating Ching Ming. The woman next to me shared a Buddhist story about the festival, thereby placing Ching Ming in a Buddhist context. She reinterpreted the Little Tradition in light of her belief in a Greater Tradition.

Last Monday, I visited a columbarium with an informant, a Buddhist woman of about my age. We went up to one of the many buildings, and took the stairs to the second floor. There, we found the small niche which holds the ashes of her maternal grandparents. In the middle of the marble plaque (of about 30x30cm) was a picture of an old, happy couple. Underneath were – in golden letters – the dates of birth and death of the man and woman. While standing in front of the little niche, my informant shared with me her thoughts as a Buddhist on Ching Ming, and how she celebrates it each year. We talked about theological issues concerning life after death, and about Chinese traditions.

Why do people nowadays still celebrate Ching Ming? Why do they go to the graves of their ancestors? My Buddhist informant told me that for her it is a way of educating the younger generation. She has a few young cousins who haven’t known their grandparents. Through the festival, they will get to know their grandparents, and they will get educated into the Chinese way of respecting your ancestors.

I have asked more people to show me around, to introduce me to the festival and help me understand more about Ching Ming. Interestingly, one of my Anglican informants wanted to take me to Man Mo Temple, a Taoist temple on Hong Kong Island, while a Catholic believer has asked me to join her to a big Taoist temple in Tsuen Wan. These are apparently the places they associate with Ching Ming – the places where they think I can experience the festival best. However, these are probably not the places they themselves go to. So why take me there? And what does this say about the way they perceive Ching Ming?

A concluding personal remark
While riding back home, I especially thought about the comments of my Buddhist informant about the educational aspect of the festival. I wished we had such a day in The Netherlands.

When my maternal grandmother was still alive, the whole family would gather once a year in the elderly home where she lived to celebrate her birthday. On the day of her cremation, my cousins, my siblings and I promised each other to stay in touch, and to keep meeting each other once a year to catch up.

It has been years since we made that promise, and sadly enough we have broken it every year.

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