New Rites for Tomb Sweeping Festival14 min read

An age-old ritual changes with the times – Matthew Chitwood

A Cloud Tobacco cigarette smolders on Shi Wenxian’s tomb. The lit end hangs off the stone ledge, slowly burning down, as if Shi’s spirit were enjoying a long-awaited smoke. All around, people are in motion. A cousin pulls pine needles from the top of the tomb while another hacks away tall, dry grass with a hand scythe. An aunt heats a blackened kettle of water over a makeshift fire as mothers and toddlers hide in the shade, dividing fake money into sheets of four so they’re ready for burning. Li Jinlan, the 79-year-old matriarch, ignites a pack of incense and begins placing the bright pink sticks around the base of her son’s tomb.

Sweeping begins at the tomb of Shi Wenxian

The Shi family is observing Tomb Sweeping Day, a festival honoring the deceased that is celebrated every year around the spring equinox, when the lengths of day and night are almost equal. It is said the yin and yang are in balance today as the world of the dead, Yinjian, and the living, Yangjian, align. The holiday is also known as Qingming, which means “Clear and Bright,” marking a change of season when sunshine awakens the land from its winter slumber and farmers busy themselves in the fields. With clear skies on this bright morning in early April, Qingming is living up to its name.

My urbanite friends tell me I’m getting to experience the “real” Qingming in the village where I live in rural Yunnan, not the watered-down version they practice in Chinese cities. Indeed, it’s hard for me to imagine the bonfires and bloodshed I witness with the Shis happening in Beijing. But as rural China modernizes, it is unclear how much longer the rituals central to rural life will remain “real.”

The chicken is plucked and prepared. Chopsticks pin down its neck and legs in a crude kowtow, and it’s offered again to the mountain god tree”

“Follow me,” Uncle Luo tells me. He is carrying a chicken and a cleaver. I immediately fall into step behind him, traipsing through the brush behind the tomb. Several meters uphill stands a rock at the base of a pine tree: the “mountain god tree.” It is tasked with keeping silent watch over the tombs below. The smoke from three sticks of incense rises through its needled branches, signaling to the spirit that the time has come. A cousin places a bowl of rice in front of the stone and a cup on either side, one of tea and the other clear grain alcohol.

Chicken in hand, Uncle Luo kowtows to the mountain god tree before taking the cleaver to its neck. Blood drips into the bowl while the cousin elevates the chicken’s legs. Finally, after its wings lay limp, Uncle Luo takes a stack of square paper money – soft and fibrous like thin sheets of egg carton – dabs it on the wound and places it by the stone.

Burning incense at the mountain god tree, which guards the tombs downhill

Soon the chicken is plucked and prepared. Chopsticks pin down its neck and legs in a crude kowtow and it’s offered again to the mountain god tree. Then it’s sliced up – to be shared among both spirits and people – and set before Shi’s tomb with bowls of rice and chopsticks. Shi’s daughter, Biang’er, who invited me to join the family outing, explains: “This is the most important part.” One by one, family members from oldest to youngest begin kowtowing in front of the tomb. They kneel and touch their foreheads to the ground two or three times, then, with their palms flat and clasped as in prayer, wave toward the tomb. “It’s how we honor our ancestors,” Biang’er says.

“Where are your ancestors?” I ask.

“They’re in the other world,” she tells me. “Yinjian.” I type into my dictionary. “Hades.” “But it’s not a bad place,” she clarifies. “Diyu,” or Hell, “is where bad people go. They’re not there.” I make a mental note: the afterlife.

Stacks of yellow paper money blaze. Colorful bills featuring Mao or King Yan, ruler and judge of the underworld, also top the pile. Some are the size of placemats and worth ten billion yuan in the Bank of Heaven and Earth. Other notes are legal tender only in “HELL BANK.” Or, for ancestors who prefer less fungible assets, a paper house or Mercedes Benz, complete with driver, offers more bang for your burn. I watch a grandchild toss onto a box labeled “Noble Dress” and wrapped in cellophane: a suit and tie, gold-embroidered loafers, a gold watch and a smart phone, all going up in smoke. “The more you burn, the better off your ancestors,” one Shi tells me. I balk at the rising inequality in Yinjian.

Paper money, gold ingots and a pagoda go up in flames for great-grandparents, Yang Hengchang and Zhang Xiaoxiu

And while paper goods are acceptable, real ones are even better. In late February, my neighbor in Bangdong, Zhang Guanggui, died. Although he was 83 years old, his death was sudden and unexpected. Just two weeks earlier, over Chinese New Year, we had toasted one another with village friends over a bonfire in his courtyard. Zhang lived alone. His three children had all moved into the city for work, and often I’d see him on his patio, surrounded by meticulously kept plants, enjoying the morning sun and a kung fu novel. Over our toast, I promised Old Zhang, as everyone called him, that I’d bring a book that week and join him on his patio. But life got busy, as life does, and my promise, as promises do, got broken.

The day Old Zhang died, his children and grandchildren returned to Bangdong, and the entire village gathered at his home for dinner. They – the entire village – would stay for seven days and nights of food and drink, mahjong and cards, and smoking and gambling, until the grieving process was complete. When I arrived, men were hacking up pork and women slicing vegetables. Some fashioned temporary stoves from cinder blocks and a wok on top. I wove through the crowd in the courtyard and sat by the patio where a man was crushing red peppers with a beer bottle pestle. “Zhang made them by hand,” he told me. “One for him and one for his wife.” I followed his gaze to the patio next to me and noticed, for the first time, the two coffins lacquered black with red trim.

Uncle Luo’s niece Biang’er asks: ‘How do you honor your ancestors in your America?’”

I knew the wife’s was empty – she still lived in the city three hours away. But I wondered about Old Zhang’s, feeling too close for comfort. “It’s empty,” my bottle-wielding friend reassured me, sensing my unrest. But my relief was short-lived, as he pointed behind me with his furled chin to a pile of blankets spread over the patio with a bulge down the middle, like someone waiting to be tucked in. The blankets extended off the patio edge, hovering midair as if propped up by some invisible force. A stooped glance confirmed my fears: Old Zhang’s feet.

Bangdong villagers set up a light in Old Zhang’s courtyard to prepare for a week of mourning

Two men emerged from the house carrying a blue wooden chest. Two others struggled with a dresser. They carried them past Zhang’s body and piled them in the tea field behind his house. Other men sprang into action, carrying out all Zhang’s personal effects: bags of clothing, wooden chests, his woodworking tools, a handmade bed frame.

Zhang was a carpenter and artist. He made most of his own furniture and elaborately decorated each piece. I stood up to help and found a headboard, hand-carved and painted with red azaleas and bamboo fronds, like the ones decorating the Bangdong hillside. It was a piece of art and part of Zhang’s legacy that I wanted to preserve, if not selfishly keep for myself. I grabbed it, secretly hoping that somewhere between the bedroom and the tea field I would find a way to save it. But headboards are large and tea trees provide scant cover. Besides, these items were to serve Zhang in the next life as well, I was told. I threw the piece on top of the pile, and someone lit a match.

Historically, in rural China, people have believed in a mix of moral and theological teachings: Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism. That’s hard for many Westerners to grasp, coming from backgrounds that largely emphasize the exclusivity of being Catholic or Jewish or Muslim. Last year during Spring Festival, I went to a local temple with the Liu family from Bangdong Village. They killed a chicken and offered incense before statues of various gods. “What religion is this?” I asked the Lius. They looked puzzled. “I don’t know,” the eldest son, A Hua, replied. “This is just what we do.”

Spring is the busy season at the local temple, where families pray for the coming year: good health, good crops, good luck

Some call it “folk religion,” which sounds demeaning and lends itself to the government’s campaign against superstition. The Pulitzer-winning journalist Ian Johnson simply calls it “Chinese Religion.” In his book The Souls of China, he describes the hybrid belief system as “a fine membrane that held society together” and its practice as “part of belonging to your community.”

“For most of Chinese history,” Johnson writes, “there was little idea of religion being separate from society or government. It was all one and the same. It was how you lived. It was what you did.” He quotes from the China historian David Johnson’s book, Spectacle and Sacrifice:

Chinese culture was a performance culture… Chinese philosophers were concerned more with how people should act, and what counted as good actions, than with using logic to prove propositions. Ritual was the highest form of action or performances; every significant life event, social, political, or religious, was embedded in and expressed through ritual.

Through the Lius, the Zhangs and the Shis, I have seen ritual in practice.

“You guys over there don’t do it like this,” Uncle Luo informs me as he pours tea and grain alcohol before the mountain god tree. His niece Biang’er follows up: “How do you honor your ancestors in your America?”

During a decade in China, I’ve navigated that question a few times. But my college roommate, Zach Marble, is visiting from the United States for the week and experiencing his first-ever Tomb Sweeping Day. Curious about his response, I divert and translate.

Grandchildren kowtow before the tomb of their grandfather, He Qicheng

“Our graves are usually all in one place,” Zach begins. “People might visit on a birthday or Memorial Day, which is the end of May, and sometimes we bring fresh flowers or light a candle.”

Biang’er is struck by his response. “So people honor their ancestors maybe two or three times every year?” she asks. Her voice is filled with admiration but also conviction, as if she has done too little.

“Nooooo,” Zach quickly replies, shaking his head with an ironic chuckle. “Most relatives probably visit only once per year, if that! My dad’s parents are buried far away from where we live,” he continues, “so it’s hard to get there. But my mom’s dad is buried in the city where we live.” Zach pauses for a second. “And, you know, I can’t remember the last time we visited.” His eyes well up with emotion, glistening clear and bright.

Modern Qingming has arrived. Perhaps the intersection between cyberspace and Yinjian is closer than we think”

For Chinese urbanites, properly honoring ancestors on Qingming is also difficult. Tombs are typically in the family’s hometown, far away from the cities where most Chinese now live. Even for those in the same province, returning to sweep tombs is problematic. “It is impossible to get home and back,” says Du Guohang, who lives in Lincang City, a 10-hour bus ride from her hometown elsewhere in Yunnan. “With just three days off, there’s no way.”

Of course, as with everything, there’s an app for that. The New York Times reports tomb websites that allow users to “buy virtual flowers and make an avatar bow before a digital grave with the click of a mouse.” According to other reports, absentee descendants can hire tomb-sweeping services on Taobao, China’s Amazon, for $80. Sobbing requires an extra fee. Modern Qingming has arrived. Perhaps the intersection between cyberspace and Yinjian is closer than we think.

A stone still marks the spot of where the Yang family’s mountain god tree stood before someone removed it to make way for a new tea field

Even in rural areas, Tomb Sweeping Day is changing. “The ritual is not as elaborate,” one villager tells me. “People don’t know how to do it anymore, or they just don’t have the time.” In Bangdong, the holiday comes in the middle of spring tea season, the most important harvest of the year. So the ritual is abbreviated and, rather than coming together, families divide and conquer. The Liu family, who took me to the temple last year, sent A Hua to a tomb in his maternal grandmother’s village an hour east of Bangdong. Meanwhile, his father, Liu Congyou, invited me to a tomb an hour up into the mountains while his wife picked tea in the fields. “This is our busiest time of year,” Liu told me. “But we can’t not visit the tombs.” The balance between family and work seems to be a struggle the world over.

The two Cloud Tobacco cigarettes on Shi Wenxian’s tomb have long burned out, their ashes scattered to Yinjian along with the “HELL BANK” notes and the paper Benz. The young mothers finish rinsing dishes and strap sleepy toddlers to their backs. The men haul the leftover food and pots to the road and pile them into truck beds and onto motorcycles. “We have to get to the next tomb,” Biang’er tells me.

I take one last look at Shi’s tomb. The charred remains of incense line its base, like spent bottle rockets, and a pile of ashes covers the ground. Candy wrappers, cellophane and red firecracker paper litter the grass. Half-burned branches smolder in a makeshift fire pit and flies buzz like a chainsaw around the mess of chicken feathers. Cousin Shi tosses his empty juice bottle into the brush and turns to head up the hill.  

“On to sweep the next tomb,” I think to myself. ∎

A version of this dispatch first appeared on Matt’s blog for the Institute of Current World Affairs. All photos are courtesy of the author.