On the fifth we will pass into the period of of Clear and Bright, the seventh of the solar terms. It is clear and bright (when it’s not raining), and the weather becomes noticeably warmer. A misnomer, particularly in southern China, but perhaps more accurate for where I am now in central Virginia. We are getting warmer, the furnace only rarely kicks on in early morning and buds are forming on my lilac bush.
Traditionally, the arrival of Qingming signals the end of the “three periods of waiting”. These are waiting for the tung flower to blossom, waiting for the field mouse to go back to the caves, and waiting for the rainbows to show up in the sky. The reason Clear and Bright is a misnomer is that it is actually marked by frequent rain, especially in south China. Outdoor activities that begin at this time are picnics, flying kites and playing cuju, an ancient football game. Due to the rain Qingming is also a traditional time to plant trees.
The first day of Clear and Bright is also a traditional Chinese festival know as Tomb Sweeping Day. It is held on the first day of the fifth solar term and the 15th day after the Vernal Equinox. It is a major holiday in China beginning two days before the actual day of the 4th on which the Shanghai stock exchange closes.
The extent of the holiday is shown in some numbers from the Ministry of Civil Affairs. On the Sunday 5.3 million Chinese visited 150 major cemeteries to honor their deceased relatives. The number of people visiting burial sites across the nation increased by 34.2 percent year on year. The cemeteries had to deploy 33,000 service staff, 76.6 percent more than a year earlier, to keep things orderly and handle the traffic, since they were dealing with 899,000 vehicles, also up 43.5 percent. Chinese traditionally buried their dead and it is thought even cremation ashes should be buried underground in urns. Fancy tombs are often built to show filial piety, but as the Chinese population has grown the areas that tombs and cemeteries take up is becoming an issue.
Qingming merged with an earlier holiday, the Hanshi festival, and took on it’s activities and customs, including lighting no fire on that day. Like any Chinese festival, commemoration or celebration, food is a big element. Cooked food is placed in front of the tidied up grave. Popular foods are Qingtuan, green rice balls, sanzi, fried dough twists and cooked eggs. The grave foods are often the favorite foods of the deceased and some families offer cigarettes and drinks like wine. Don’t think the food is wasted and left to rot, Chinese are practical people. After appropriate communion with and prayer for the ancestor the food is consumed by the family as a gesture of sharing. Also, some color the cooked eggs and share them as gifts, somewhat like Easter eggs.
Another aspect of tomb offerings is the burning of joss sticks, a kind of incense, paper money and ingots and other paper versions of items you would like them to have in the afterlife. These extras can include large replica buildings and “gift boxes” fully as high as a person. You can take a look here at this Chinese learning website at some of the amazing things to burn for Qingming. If it seems a bit crazy, consider all this was suppressed by the Communists for many years and Qingming was only resurrected as a holiday in 2008 in mainland China and see how the custom bounced back bigger than ever. Qingming is celebrated in a lot of overseas Chinese communities and a temple in Singapore instituted a ban on the “gift boxes” due to the amount of smoke and ash generated. The Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in Bright Hill Road, the largest Mahayana Buddhist temple in Singapore, said the cardboard of the large boxes was the problem but while smaller items are still allowed it may in future extend the ban. A Taiwanese newspaper editorial advocated a ban on the practice for environmental reasons. The Chinese indutrial city of Harbin not only banned the burning outright, but also the manufacture and sale of the burning money, often known as “hell money”, to help curb air pollution. When you consider the population of China, this is not as trivial as it seems.
It is not just the practice of burning offerings that is under pressure. Full body burial is being replaced by cremation. Throughout Chinese history it has been believed that the ancestors must be kept happy in the afterlife so they will aid the family in maintaining fortune and prosperity. Feng shui, now reduced to glorified house cleaning, was once the serious art of placing the graves in the proper location to ensure this. This luxury is becoming increasingly unavailable for most Chinese. The coastal cities of China are even promoting burial at sea, offering subsidies and free burials. With roughly 9 million people to bury every year, space for cemeteries is limited. Perhaps this new custom will also alleviate some of the terrible traffic associated with the holiday. The world changes and the Chinese are finding ways to adapt and re-purpose older traditions. In the end this is the best way to keep them alive.