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Sweep, Pray, Weep, Visit Ancestors
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The Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day, tomorrow is the time to honor ancestors. All over China families sweep the graves of their dearly departed, burn incense, paper money and offer food.

We sweep. We pray. We weep. We "visit" our ancestors at this time every year.

Bunches of yellow and white chrysanthemums, pervasive smoke and incense, the ashes of paper offerings ... the smell of the Qingming Festival is everywhere.

Qingming, better known as the Tomb Sweeping Day, is the time to commemorate and honor our ancestors. It's a "dialogue" between the living and the dead, Earth and Heaven, body and soul.

The traditional festival is observed in a very Chinese way: Young and old clear the family tombs, touch up gravestone inscriptions, pray before the ancestors and make offerings of food and fruit.

On a rainy Sunday, four days prior to Qingming (meaning "clear and bright"), which officially falls tomorrow this year, I went as usual with my family to visit my maternal grandparents' graves. My sister, her husband and their son also joined us.

It has been six years since my grandparents' tombs were shifted to the Huating Graveyard in suburban Jiading District. The 20-hectare cemetery was already packed with visitors in the early morning, despite the drizzle.

I fought my way through the crowd to the tombs only to find weeds growing rampant around the headstone. I pulled them out, cleaned the stone and slab with a cloth and replaced the wilted flowers with fresh ones.

Mom began laying out the flat stone just as if she were setting a dining table: fruit in the first row, rice and steamed bread in the second, vegetables, fish and meat on the third.

It was, of course, not for a picnic. Instead, the food was considered an offering to the spirits. Three sets of chopsticks and three wine cups were placed close to the headstone. For my heavy-smoker grandpa, two cigarettes were also lighted.

Candles were lit, incense was kindled. Dad knelt down and started to burn paper "money" and paper ingots. The realistic Chinese yuan, US dollars, Japanese yen and Hong Kong dollars are intended for the deceased to use in their afterlife. The more money is burned, the richer they would be.

Along with the burning, the solemn worship was performed in order from the senior family member to the junior - me. Mom was about to pray after kneeling down, but finally couldn't help weeping upon remembering the days when her parents were still alive. She sobbed and murmured to the gravestone as if talking to them in person.

I, as the youngest member of the family, was the last one to kowtow three times and pray for wishes to come true - sorrows and tears aplenty as well.

According to Chinese culture and tradition, the practice of ancestor worship is said to be largely based on three beliefs: that a person's good or bad fortune is influenced by the souls of his or her ancestors; that all departed ancestors have the same material needs as they had when alive; and that the departed can bless and assist their living relatives.

Whether true or not, the three beliefs have been maintained and carried on for centuries, in forms as trivial as eating the fruit after the observance - it's firmly believed that the essence of the ancestors passes down via the offering and will bring good fortune to the next generations. The junior person (in this case, me), traditionally eats the fruit.

Besides food offering, paper-money burning and worship, other Qingming rituals include pouring wine on the earth around the grave and setting off firecrackers to scare away evil spirits, especially for a new tomb. The firecrackers also let deceased ones know that their offspring are there to pay their respects.

The whole ritual took no more than an hour, solemn and orderly. Before the drizzle turned into downpour, I waved goodbye to my grandparents and also the Qingming Festival, leaving all the memories, sorrows and tears behind until the next year.

Qingming marks the spring

The Qingming Festival, literally Clear and Bright Festival, is a traditional Chinese festival on the 104th day after the winter solstice, usually occurring on April 5 or 6.

It was first created by Duke Wen of the Jin Kingdom during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-467 BC) when he accidentally killed his loyal follower and adviser, Jie Zhitui, and Jie's mother in a fire that swept out of control. The duke was trying to find Jie and persuade him to return to the imperial court.

The duke was so upset that he ordered a temple built in memory of Jie and prohibited all fires on the anniversary of Jie's death. So people had to eat their cold food on that day - the Hanshi (cold food) Festival. Later on, people began to visit Jie's tomb and it was not until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) about 300 years ago that the practice of Hanshi was replaced by that of Qingming.

Traditional food on the Qingming Festival is qingtuan, a round-shaped dumpling stuffed with sweet bean paste. "Qing," or green, comes from the green plum juice in which the dumpling is soaked for a long time. It coincides with not only the first word of Qingming Festival, but also the color of green - the symbol for spring.

Actually Qingming Festival is not just a day of mourning and sadness, it is also a time to celebrate the coming of spring, often by going out for a picnic. Since ancient times, people have followed the custom of ta qing (treading the greenery).

Other events include flying kites, especially popular in North China. The annual Weifang Kite Festival held every April in Shandong Province has become a major event, attracting thousands of tourists and kite-flying fans from all over the world.

According to the Chinese astronomical calendar, Qingming Festival is one of the 24 seasonal division points, after which the temperature is supposed to rise up and rainfall increases. It is the peak time for spring plowing and sowing.

(Shanghai Daily April 4, 2007)

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