In Keeping Tradition Alive, China Remembers Its Ancestors in New Ways


Solomon Elusoji in Beijing

Last week, Chinese people across the world celebrated the Qing Ming, a traditional festival that literally translates to ‘Tomb-Sweeping Day’; observers usually visit the tombs of their ancestors to offer prayers after the burning of incense, sweeping the tombs and offering all sorts of food and gifts.

This year the festival fell on April 5 and observers are expected to clean the tombs and pay respects either 10 days before or 10 days after the fixed date.

The Chinese believe that burning things, valuable things, honours the dead and transmits money and other goods to their loved ones in the afterlife.

This year, the Borneo Post, a newspaper in the third largest island in the world, reported that bungalows, banks, courtyard houses and gold bars were some of the hottest items for this year’s festival. According to local retailer Thian Siew Foong, who specialises in selling ornaments, people are willing to purchase these items for their dearly departed.

“I realise that the older, more conservative generation prefer to buy clothes, food, ghost money, josssticks and candles,” she said,

“Young people, on the other hand, prefer ‘upmarket’ stuff like gadgets, sports or luxury cars, banks, gold bars as well as skincare products and health supplements – to name a few.”
In recent times, the festival, which has been in existence for more than 2,500 years, has seen its observers take bold steps to adapt to a fast changing world.

For instance, in 2017, the BBC reported that one cemetery in Nanjing, a Province in Eastern China, launched a special service for “time-starved mourners”. The idea was simple: for mourners who could not get to the grave in person, personnel at the cemetery would clean tombs and place bouquets, while the paying clients watch the ritual via a live-stream on the Wechat app, China’s biggest social networking platform.

Meanwhile, since it was announced as a public holiday in Mainland China in 2008, the Qing Ming has also become a day where Chinese people reflect on the timelessness of their culture.

This year, the streets of Beijing, usually busy with traffic and pedestrians, was relatively empty.
While some Chinese used the holiday period to take vacations, others attended cultural programs to boost the understanding of their own culture. At the Liuyin Park, scores of locals and foreigners attended the 8th edition of the ‘Liu’ Cultural Festival. It was spring but the morning cold was biting as attendees gathered in a courtyard-like space surrounded by willow trees and colourful costumes.

At the Liu Festival, there were several poetry, dance and music performances that held the crowd’s attention, even as some foreign journalists were dressed up in traditional Chinese attires.

Although there have been criticisms in some quarters that China is losing its traditional values and culture due to its fast paced globalization, urbanization and commercialization. But traditional markers such as the Qing Ming, which affords every Chinese the opportunity to return to their roots and remember the practices of their fathers lays such arguments to rest.

A compere at the Liu Park Festival, in one of his many monologues, echoed: “We will do anything to protect our culture.”