Asian Cultures, Cultural Heritage, History, Tradition

“Drizzling in the fresh spring breeze”

Drizzling in the fresh spring breeze

A traveler passed by with a broken heart

Where was the liquor store, he asked

A shepherd boy pointed to the village of almond flowers.

This is one of the most well know Chinese poems written by the famous poet Dumu 杜牧 (803-852AD) about the day of Qingming, which was yesterday this year, on the 5th April. In the poem he describes a 1500 year old tradition where people would visit their family graves in the mountain on this day. Unlike the Western tradition of burying the dead in a church yard, in Chinese tradition, especially for large Han families, is to bury their relatives in piece of land owned by the family in a mountain in their home town. No matter how far one moves, the family graveyard stays. For some, this tradition of visiting the family grave become a journey to look for one’s root.

The poem from Dumu is a common topic for traditional Chinese painting

Life and death

Qingming is originally one of the 24 Solar terms, which lands on the 15th day after Spring Equinox. The two words Qingming initially describes the bright green pasture and fresh breeze around this time of the year. It is a celebration of life a cold winter, but why is it related to the dead? While there are a few versions to explain the origin of this practice, it is believed to serve at least a practice reason: that people should check the graves for damages by animals or the elements during the winter, in order to prepare for the raining season to come.

Cremate, not bury

However, this tradition of visiting the family grave may not be around for many more generations. In recent years as  more and more land has already been taken up by industrialization that rolls across the vast country, the Chinese government has started to take action to change the tradition of burying in the ground, pushing people to use cremation instead. The purpose is to free up land for farming and food production. However, many resist cremation because of the deeply ingrained belief that the dead should rest in peace in the ground. Despite the strong push from the government, only about half of the people have adopted cremation. It is believed the government will continue its push.

A family during the ritual of 扫墓 (saomu) , which includes cleaning the surroundings of the grave and laying down wine and food for the diseased.

Price tag on respect

The result of this “war between the living and the dead for land”, as many calls it, is that the living is paying more and more. Some examples of an average funeral, including the most common traditions, from buying the land for burying, to treating friends and relatives for a meal, cost over 140k RMB. As for cremation, it does not get a lot cheaper. As there is currently a shortage for this service, they are charging a high price. Some calculation put the price to about 90k RMB for all the ceremonies. Relatives complaint that they were being ripped off, and were made to feel they should not negotiate in this “last respect” that they pay to their family member.

While the price tag takes away the romanticism of this spring day, it may be worthwhile to develop and allows for more innovative ways to handle such sensitive matter, that could be more environmentally friendly and find a real balance between generations.