Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Day To Remember The Good

Today is Qing Ming Festival (清明节).

Literally, it means 'Clear and Bright Festival. It is also known in other names such as, Tomb Sweeping Day, Festival for Tending Graves, Chinese Memorial Day and Spring Remembrance. From these variations of names, one can easily get a brief idea of what it is about.

Qing Ming is a festival for the Chinese to remember and honor one's ancestors at their grave sites. Besides praying and showing respects at the tomb, the descendants of the dead will typically offer food, tea, wine and joss papers.

The day usually starts very early for practical reasons: to beat the crowd and to avoid the hot sun. I can agree to the latter but beating the crowd? Nay! In some places, the visit to the grave sites is substituted by visits to temples where the ancestors' tablets are enshrined.

Generally, the Chinese in Singapore do take this festival rather seriously even though it is not designated as a national holiday. As a result, most people would choose to celebrate this day during a weekend close to the actual date. That partly explains the huge crowd over a few weekends before and after the festival.

In China (PRC), the day has become a national holiday since last year. I suppose this is part of their effort to retrieve and revive some of the long-lost ways to celebrate traditional Chinese festivals. It is also a public holiday for people in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

Event though it is a Chinese traditional festival, Qing Ming usually occurs around 5 April of the Gregorian Calender (aka western calendar). In fact, it falls exactly on the 104th day after the winter solstice (冬至), another Chinese festival celebrated with eating glutinous rice balls (汤圆).

For my family, Qing Ming is a day of great reunion, no less than the Lunar Chinese New Year. Although it is a day we visit the tombs, it has not occurred to me that the festival is eerie in any way. In fact, I find the mood of the day joyous and merry.

In ancient Chinese, Qing Ming too had a place in the hearts of the poets and artists. One of the famous poem was by Du Mu (杜牧), a poet from the Tang Dynasty. He wrote:


Simply translated, it means:

The rain drizzles like tears on the "Qing Ming" Day;
The mourner's heart aching on his way.
Where can a winehouse be found to drown his sadness?
A cowherd points to "Xing Hua" Village in a distance.

A famous painting (above) by Song Dynasty painter, Zhang Zeduan (张择端) portrays an elaborated scene during Qing Ming. It is a 5.28 meter long scroll and in it you can find 814 humans, 28 boats, 60 animals, 30 buildings, 20 vehicles, 9 sedan chairs and 170 trees.

The above picture shows an extract of the painting. You ought to see the
whole picture and take time to scroll horizontally. It is really an awesome piece of art.

Qing Ming is not unique to the Chinese. Many other cultures around the world have similar traditions. They too would set aside a day to visit the grave of the deceased family members.

In Japan, they have the Bon Festival to honor the departed spirits of one's ancestors. 3 days are set aside in August for family reunion and visit to tomb sites.

In Korea, the people perform ancestral worship on Chuseok Day (above) where they will visit the tombs of their immediate ancestors.

In Nepal, Gai Jatra is a day of remembering the dead. Traditionally, they will use a cow (real or constructed) to lead the spirit of the dead to the next land.

In the Philippines, they celebrate the Day of the Dead (Araw ng mga Patay). It is a day of family reunion where tombs are cleaned or repainted, candles are lit, and flowers are offered. The entire families may camp in cemeteries, and sometimes spend a night or two near their relatives' tombs.

There are also many other similar rituals in Europe, Latin America and other parts of the world. It seems to me that it is a rather 'universal' tradition to pay respect to our ancestors, regardless of our religion and culture. The virtue of filial piety is almost instinctive to human and it has been so since a long long time ago.

Qing Ming or not, let's hope that such virtue always prevails.

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