Millions in China sweep graves to honour ancestors

Offerings to the dead on first day of Qingming holiday include effigies of iPhones

The first day of China's traditional Qingming holiday, or tomb sweeping day, saw millions of Chinese visit burial sites to honour their ancestors by praying, brushing the dust off the tombstones and burning offerings to the dead.

Qingming means “bright and clear” in Chinese, and it is effectively the equivalent of All Souls’ Day in the west.

In the alleyways of Beijing, shops sell Qingming packages for the next world, while along the banks of the canal in the city and near the temples dotted around the capital, people burn offerings.

The Chinese passion for consumer goods is evident even in the way people mark the festival, as they burn bank notes, replicas of iPhones, model houses and fake gold bars as gifts to appease the gods and ensure their ancestors live the high life in the afterworld.

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Changed society

“They show our ancestors how society has changed,” a man surnamed Hu told the

Global Times

newspaper as he shopped for Qingming items in

Ningbo

in the eastern province of

Zhejiang

. “They have never enjoyed it before. It’s time for them to try to have fun.”

According to the ministry of civil affairs, more than 3.9 million people visited the graves of relatives on Saturday, with data from 150 major cemeteries nationwide. This figure was down 13.8 per cent on the same period last year, it said, although it didn’t say why.

On the first day of the three-day holiday, there were more than 11.6 million trips, which was up 11.1 per cent year on last year, according to the China Railway Corporation, and nearly half of those trips were by bullet train. Another 88 million were expected on Sunday.

Qingming can be a politically sensitive period, as activists travel to the graves of leaders whose views are ideologically unsound, and security officials keep tabs on the movements of dissidents. In 2012, thousands mourned the late Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang, who is linked to the democracy movement.

One of the more gruesome theories about the origin of the festival, which began about 2,500 years ago, concerns a prince called Chong'er, who was exiled by an evil concubine, but saved by a loyal servant, Jie Zitui.

After Chong’er was restored to power, he sought out his servant to reward him, which Jie refused. The prince decided to smoke him out, and Jie perished in the forest fire. Chong’er regretted his death, and ordered memorial rituals for his loyal servant.

It’s not all grim – people also like to fly kites in the fresh spring air, and eat rice balls.

The holiday always revives the debate about where the dead should be buried – land is ever scarcer in Chinese cities and cemetery plots are expensive. This has led to a rise in the use of biodegradable urns to carry the ashes. Eco burials now account for nearly half of all interments in Beijing.