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Chinese Day of the Dead
Clean the Skeletons From Your Closet: Qingming Jie

Hey Ayi,

While I am delighting in the spring-like weather, my Chinese friends are talking about grave-sweeping and visiting the dead. I know Beijing's winters are long, and the weather is still colder than I'd like, but why all the gloom and doom?

Sammy Saomu

Dear Sammy,

I understand your confusion. What your friends should have told you is that the beginning of April marks the Chinese Festival of the Dead, aka Clear Brightness Festival (Qingming Jie). This year, the festival will fall on April 4.

Clear Brightness Festival begins two weeks after the vernal equinox, when flowers begin to bloom, the grass turns green, days gets brighter and the brutal winter chill is over.

According to Chinese tradition, the dead are strongly connected with life, and are believed to be responsible for guaranteeing fertility in the field as well as the house. On this day, families offer sacrifices of "spirit money," or paper money, and other symbols of wealth that are burned at the gravesite. According to traditional beliefs, the burned goods will reach ancestors in the spirit world. Other offerings include meats, vegetables and wine. Sometimes a complete meal is arranged in front of the tomb. Family members will bow in respect and transmit their regards in the form of a prayer, led by the eldest member. Families also visit cemeteries to sweep their relatives' graves, repaint inscriptions on the headstones, and light incense sticks and red candles. All of these are supposed to signal to the ancestors that they are being remembered and cared for for another year.

But Qingming Jie has not always been about the dead. In ancient times, the festival was more like a holiday celebrated by dancing, singing and picnicking. Teenage boys and girls would flirt with each other and villagers placed pine branches in front of their doors symbolizing long life. Observers would also hang sprigs of willow under the eaves of their homes as symbols of life and a talisman for protection against the forces of darkness.

Over time the emphasis of the festival shifted from the joys of life to the mysteries of death. Traditionally, meals set out for the dead include an abundance of cooked rice. An even number of dishes are served up to represent yang, or "even" energy, to balance against the yin, or "uneven" energy used to characterize offerings to gods (therefore, when making offerings to gods, an odd number of dishes are set out).

The careful arrangement of bowls, plates, cups, spoons and chopsticks is made, with an equal amount of care placed in the selection of vinegar, soy sauce and chili paste. The deceased relative's favorite dishes are prepared and offered. After the relative's spirit "eats" the essence of the meal, the food is then shared among family and friends. The meals offered at the gravesite usually consist of simple foods like mushrooms, bean curd, noodles and steamed buns. Besides being easier to carry to the site, it is also feared that much more pungent food will attract unwanted spirits.

Gods, as opposed to the dead, hold a more distant place in relationship to the living. The worshipping of gods on Qingming Jie is done through the offering of live animals such as fish, pigs and fowl. The dead, on the other hand, are closer to the living in the hierarchy of the spirit world and are believed to be trusting and accessible, and are therefore given the same food that is consumed by the living.

Another way of ensuring happiness and comfort for the dead is through fengshui (lit. "wind and water"), the ancient practice of geomancy, or land divination according to natural occurrence. It is through this practice that a gravesite is chosen. Streams and rivers, groves of trees (especially cypress or pine), and southern exposure are all desirable qualities for a gravesite. The "landscape architect," or geomancer, must choose the site in accordance with the existing natural elements such as the shape and height of the hills surrounding it. This will ensure the proper concentration of cosmic energy.

The Ming tombs, nestled against the Great Wall north of Beijing, are a great example of fengshui and magnificent beauty. By situating the tomb on the south side of the Tianshoushan hills, they are ideally protected against harmful spirits that might be blown in by the wind (feng). The topology also allows streams (shui) to run in front of the tombs, bringing only friendly spirits to the sites.

Your Ayi would like to conclude with a poem on Qingming Jie written by her favorite scribe, the poet Du Mu who lived during the Tang Dynasty (AD 803-852).

During the festival of Qingming,
Rain drizzles without end,
A lone traveler on the road is overcome by grief.
He would like to know where to find a wineshop,
The shepherd points to the village ahead
Where the apricot tree blooms.

qing ming shi jie yu fen fen
lu shang xing ren yu duan hun
jie wen jiu jia he chu you
mu tong yao zhi xing hua ccn

Got a question only an Ayi can answer? Don't have an Ayi? Ask ours. Send questions to askayi@bigfoot.com


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