Qingming Jie (清明节): On Death and Brightness

It is a temperate afternoon in Beijing and the dust levels in the air are low, as the sands that blow in from the Gobi in subtle obfuscating layers of golden hue during the Springtime have yet to make their more forceful migration. Calm throngs of pedestrians meander past the 17th century Yonghegong, 雍和宮, The Lama Temple. Some walk out of the large ornate temple gate, passing the glass-cased, wheeled boulangeries operated by white skull capped migrants from Gansu, Qinghai, and Xinjiang, stopping to buy a sweet or ask directions. Others, young couples in trendy clothes with Canon 5D Mark II or the like dangling from their necks drift amid the occasional dusty, tattered, and malformed beggar replete with padded crutch and thin metal alms bowl; foreign faces that belong to both befuddled tourists and seasoned expats exchange glances. The less than symphonic sounds of traffic, air escaping from underneath a bus, breaks, general car noises, the occasional ringing of a bicycle bell, competes with the ebbing and flowing chatter of street level conversation and the inescapable floating mantra of om mani padme hum, emanating from the stereo of the myriad Buddhist trinket shops that line the street. These shops are always well stocked with the CDs that produce this well-known Buddhist chant, with incense and statues, and sundry other devotional objects but today they boast another sort of merchandise, a great assortment of unimaginable wealth to be offered up to the deceased. From paper bills, known as spirit money or hell bank notes, to paper houses and even luxury cars, the colors and textures of the street are a macabre polychromatism. It is the eve of Qingming Jie (清明节), better known to Western audiences as the Tomb Sweeping Holiday.

This last week China celebrated the ancestor veneration holiday of Qingming Jie (清明节). Reinstated as a National Holiday only in 2008, the three-day Qingming Jie has seen an increasing number of Chinese taking advantage of the time off and traveling to ancestral homelands and villages to pay homage to their relatives. Those migrants or students who cannot afford the journey home make simple burnt offerings in piles or tin cans, on thoroughfares or in hutongs (Beijing’s unique alleyway system); while, those who have never moved far from the soil of their ancestors drive, take rickshaws or the subway to visit the nearby graveyards of their beloved with libations and gifts of fruit, food, liquor, and a myriad of other offerings. According to the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs this year an estimated 520 million Chinese paid tribute to the deceased at cemeteries during this year’s three-day holiday, an increase of 15% from last year. Furthermore, the Railway Authority notes that over 20 million Chinese traveled by train between Sunday and Tuesday.

On Tuesday, China’s cultural hegemon, the China Central Television (CCTV), announced a Central Government decree to relocate or renovate upwards of 300,000 tombs of martyrs of China’s Revolution, each tomb being subsidized by the central government to a sum of 5,000 yuan (around 800 USD). Meanwhile, Radio Free Asia reports (CN) a sizable increase in the strict control over another kind of martyr’s tombs, those of democracy advocates and dissidents. Many well-known Chinese dissidents have reported being placed under house arrest or warned by the police not to politicize the holiday. This year’s crackdown is a reminder of an incident that occurred during the 2009 Qingming holiday when retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang was savagely beaten for visiting the tomb of the contentious former Communist Party general secretary and prime minister Zhao Ziyang, whose memoir had recently been published outside of China. Zhao had been stripped of his position after sympathizing with the 1989 Tiananmen student demonstrations and lived out the remainder of his life in house arrest before dying in 2005. Sun Wenguang was brutally beaten but survived.

As most modern traditions, Qingming is the evolution and amalgamation of several older rites. According to story the holiday is an adaptation of one originating earlier, during the Spring and Autumn Period, around the 7th century BC. It stems from the Cold Food Holiday, Hanshi (寒食节), which was practiced as a memorial for Jie Zitui. Jie had been a loyalist of Duke Wen of Jin during his 19 year period of exile before returning to power and eventually rising to prominence as one of the powerful leaders of the Spring and Autumn Period. One legend tells of Jie selflessly carving a piece of his own flesh in order to serve Duke Wen a meat soup during a time of famine. After the Duke regained his stature and power he set to honoring those who had aided him. His ministers and warriors were greatly rewarded but he somehow looked over the humble Jie Zitui, who had claimed interest only in returning the Duke to power and had withdrawn into the woods after the campaign had succeeded. Realizing he had neglected to honor Jie, Duke Wen went in search of his old companion but, failing to discover his hermitage in the forest, took the reckless advice of his ministers and set the woods ablaze to drive out his friend. However, as seems patently obvious in retrospect, the poor Jie was trapped and burned alive in the conflagration. So remorseful at his foolishness the Duke commanded that food should go without fire for three days to honor the memory of the deceased Jie.

Nearly a thousand years later, during the reign of one of China’s most illustrious emperors, Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty, the evolution and amalgamation of Qingming took a form more recognizable to its present manifestation. Xuanzong’s 43 year reign is credited with bringing the Tang to it zenith of power, however it collapsed with the An Lushan Rebellion. During the pinnacle of Tang prosperity lavish cosmopolitanism was common. The affluent citizens of the Tang were reportedly holding such extravagant rites in honor of their ancestors that it was causing problems for the state. Emperor Xuanzong passed a decree limiting the length and extravagance of ancestor worship to a single episode, becoming the annual three-day holiday of Qingming. Still today, dotting the Chinese countryside or spanning massive cities of the dead, tombs and gravestones in China are works of artisanal masonry often costing relatives extravagant percentages of their savings.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), as the whole country stalled amid chaos, the holiday was forbidden. With the end of the Cultural Revolution people began again to observe the holiday in public. It was during the 1976 Qingming festival that the lesser known Tiananmen Incident occurred. On April 5, 1976 Chinese citizens, angry at the removal of public displays of mourning over the recently passed Premier Zhou Enlai, gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest the Central Government, still largely commanded by the Gang of Four. With the Red Spirit yet to be sidelined, the Qingming crowds were labeled counterrevolutionary and the square was cleared by Public Security forces. Deng Xiaoping was dismissed and placed under house arrest, accused of planning the protests. Two years later of course, the Gang of Four were gone. Deng had been rehabilitated and elevated to Paramount Leader. In several ways this contentious performance on Qingming Jie in 1976 informed the repertoire of resistance which the student leaders of a decade later employed during the pro-democracy movement that culminated in the Tiananmen Incident of June 4, 1989 and lead to Zhao Ziyang’s dismissal.

In the last two decades the rising affluence of Chinese citizens brought on by Deng era market liberalizations has ushered in a magnificent array of modernizing rituals to the practices of Qingming Jie began centuries earlier. Despite the Foxconn scandals and spate of reports on the exploitative iEconomy, iPhones, iPads, and such goods have been increasing in popularity among the living Chinese population and some among them have chosen this year to send these technologies to their deceased relatives. Taobao, the popular Chinese version of Amazon or Ebay, was selling paper devices to this years Qingming crowds. A paper iPhone complete with accessories like charger and carrying case can sell for 20 to 438 yuan, upwards of 67 USD. China Daily related this humorous anecdote:

“How will my old man know how to use this thing?” one customer asked.

“Well, Steve Jobs is there,” the seller replied. “He should be able to teach the oldies how to use an iPhone. But don’t forget to burn the charger too, or the old man will have a hard time trying to use it.”

This is merely the most recent trend in bizarre death gift giving that has ranged from playfully absurd to morbid, years past introduced paper Dior handbags, country villas complete with guard stations, and Ferraris. But one of the most unsettling traditions, one that is not confined to the time of Qingming but follows death around the countryside year round, is that of the supposedly 3,000 year old tradition of the ghost bride.

An unfortunate interpretation of Confucian values on family and ancestor veneration, the practice of ghost brides is as simple as it is macabre. A young unmarried man dies. His family wants him to be happy and complete in the afterlife. They purchase the corpse of a woman to be buried next to their son and serve as his wife in the underworld.

Among other attempts at enforcing his famous feminist maxim, ‘women hold up half the sky,’ Mao Zedong outlawed the practice of ghost brides in 1949. However, an illicit trade continued and has drawn more media attention in the last few years.

A startling 2007 report by Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory tells the story of farmer Yang Dongyan who first purchased a woman for 1,600 USD to sell her as a living bride (more likely something of a sex slave). But, the article explains, when “he discovered that the woman could command $2,077 as a ‘ghost bride’… he ‘killed the woman in a ditch, bagged her body, and sold her’ to an undertaker.” Yang Dongyan then killed a prostitute and sold her body to be buried alongside another zombie bachelor. He continued in this fashion until he was caught by the authorities. The majority of ghost brides are not coming from murdered women but the practice is nevertheless inexcusable, whether the woman’s corpse has been sold posthumously by her family or it has been exhumed by grave robbers.

China is the only country in the world with a higher suicide rate for woman than for men, and it is no coincidence that the value of woman as nothing more than a marriage commodity-indeed, one of the words for marriage in Chinese, 嫁, is a pictogram of a woman joining another families house-is correlative between the high rates of suicide and the practice of ghost brides. For more on female suicide and gender based structural violence in China see Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.

Last week the Economist reported this story:

In Guangping county of Hebei province in February of this year, an 18-year-old man surnamed Liu, who died of heart disease, was joined in a ghost marriage with a 17-year-old woman named Wu, who died of a brain tumour. The Liu clan paid 35,000 yuan ($5,600) for the body of Ms Wu, a hefty sum for a farming family in Hebei where the average income per person is around 5,000 yuan per year. Having never met in life, the two were buried together in death, and dumplings were scattered on their grave.  Their honeymoon was cut short soon after, however, when grave robbers snatched Ms Wu’s body, reselling her into another ghost marriage in a neighbouring province…

Trade in female corpses is flourishing in these poor rural areas. Bodies are typically procured through brokers, with the typical quoted price of a fresh corpse rising at least 25% in the past five years to 50,000 yuan. A Chinese newspaper last year blamed rich coal mine bosses for driving the cost of a female corpse as high as 130,000 yuan. In 2010, a bodysnatching ring was broken up in Hebei province. Its members had robbed dozens of graves in the region, earning hundreds of thousands of yuan.

It would, however, be dishonest to imply a pandemic of ghost brides. And, as much as folklore experts claim little benefit in paper made Apple products or rotting nuptials, by far the most common substance for honoring the dead on Qingming are the many manifestations of Joss, a word some claim is adapted from the Portuguese deus for god: spirit money (冥币), yuanbao (元宝), Joss paper (金纸), and incense. They are burned with the intent of transferring wealth to the deceased. The money and yuanbao, paper gold ingots, is believed to transcend its material form when burnt by a loved one and travel to the coffers of their ancestors.

In their article “Religion and Modernity: Ritual Transformations and the Reconstruction of Space and Time” National University of Singapore professors Tong Chee Kiong and Lily Kong examine sacred public space among Chinese rituals in Singapore. They pose an interesting question, germane to our brief discussion of Qingming history and ritual. Of sacred places, they ask, “[H]ow are they negotiated or reinvented as contexts change. In other words, how do places become conceived as sacred or not as the larger social circumstances alter, and what new processes and rituals are called upon to define sacredness (4)?”

We can see a partial treatment of this question in the introduction of paper iPhones, as Taobao becomes a place for purchasing sacred objects, but more so we witness the construction of public sacred places when these and varied Joss offerings are burned outside of the graveyard, as is common in larger metropolitan cities such as Hong Kong or Beijing, and among the migrant population. The authors of the paper discuss the Joss burn tins, the perforated fire buckets and low dishes which are subject to a kind of transubstantiation and consecrated, as conduits to reach the dead.

I am slightly concerned at the capitalist underpinnings of such a ritualized treatment of currency, however. It maintains an unfortunate notion of quality that elevates monetary accumulation above most all else. And beyond this, in a Buddhist sense, shoving large quantities of money, technology or condominium effigies into the spirit world for one’s relatives maintain the loved one’s attachment to the material world even after they have passed out of this life, thus forestalling a more peaceful reincarnation. During Qingming in 2010 I asked a Chinese woman why we should assume that the afterlife is a monetary economy and not a kind of Anarcho-collectivist society, for example. Why do we assume the dead care for these trappings of the living? She didn’t have a prepared answer and preferred to gloss over the idea.

This year, George Ding, in Beijing’s expat publication The Beijinger, quipped:

The problem stems from the flood of “hot” cash that materializes in the netherworld every year as aboveground families burn stacks of fake paper money at funerals and on memorial days in the belief that the departed can use the money in the afterlife. The trend began to accelerate in 2008, when Tomb Sweeping Day was reinstated as a national holiday. As the amount of burnt offerings rises, the value of netherworld money has rapidly declined, driving inflation.

The field of the semiotics of currency is underdeveloped and proceeds mostly from a Marxist discussion on the metaphor of currency value in relationship with more material, albeit socially constructed, labor value. But, we can still examine spirit money as an indicator of particular social trends, concerning the lands of the living and the lands of the dead. The money is itself worth no more than the easy-burn paper it is printed on, of course. But society attributes a certain value to it based on the imbued significance it is meant to have for their loved ones, and the notion of sacrifice. A large Hell Bank Note, as they are translated into English on one side, might claim to represent 1 billion yuan. The burning of such high amounts is of course what leads to Ding’s humorous article. But it is a symbolic gesture of sacrifice and love for the dead. The objects have gained their value in relation to certain traditions of mourning and they are capable of evolution, as we have seen the change from fruit and cake to cardboard iPad.

As it grows dark along Yonghegong Dajie, the gates to the temple have been closed and bolted and the crowds are much thinner than they were an hour or two before. People still mull about, some burning stacks of Joss paper in small tins that have been placed on the street in front of the shops selling the paper. Some scurry off to prepare dinner before returning to the night streets with stacks of spirit money and other paper offerings to burn on the concrete.

At night, small fires light up the corners, the streets, the alleys, the various hidden spaces turned into public sacred places. Young couples, families, individuals, and retirees kneel, stoking the embers of burning paper. Those whose ancestors are far, far away draw white circles of chalk around their offering to protect it on its longer journey. Some draw circles of water for safety against the flame while others make it part of the ritual and use a circle of wine. People burn paper food and some burn real cakes or rice. And, by the next morning, much as the grand Maitreya Buddha of the future that stands at the back of the Lama Temple, the small offerings will linger into the dreams of the future, first as small stains of ash, and later, as subjective and localized memories of a sacred public space and participation in the unfolding, historical process of the ritual, Qingming Jie.

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