Qingmings Past and Present

Along the River During the Qingming Festival

-by Ernie Diaz

As warm weather returns, both West and East worship people in name, but celebrate spring in action. The risen Christ poses no serious theological problem to the Chinese. Their ancestors live in eternity, too, except they’re hungry, and they need cash. So if a westerner finds it odd that the Chinese burn funny money and leave fruit for their dead, at least enjoying the nice weather is on both holiday agendas. And for sheer cultural weirdness, flying kites at a cemetery doesn’t even approach the western idea of spring rites: forcing children to pretend they’re rabbits and hunt for chocolate eggs. So we’ll lay out a Qingming timeline, and leave Easter explanations to the bible thumpers and wiccans.

636 BCE Duke Wen orders the first day to honor a dead person, his faithful servant Jie. Ironic, considering the Duke had burned both Jie and his mother alive. This was the Jie who, tired of Duke Wen whining about his hunger pangs while in exile, served him a bowl of soup with his own thigh meat simmering in it. On returning to power, the Duke wanted to reward the man who had pitched a hand and leg for the cause, but Jie only wanted to live peacefully in the woods. Duke Wen decided to smoke him out, and did much too thorough a job of it. Thus was born the Cold Food Festival, traditionally combined with Qingming, but later abandoned. Chinese people only eat cold food if there’s hot food following.

732 CE Tang Emperor Xuanzong, an atypically thrifty emperor, grows appalled at the frequent and vulgar displays of wealth his richer subjects commit to honoring their ancestors. From now on, such ostentation must be reserved for the 15th day after the vernal equinox. Xuanzong retires to his 10,000-woman harem to celebrate the lesson in restraint he has just provided.

Early 12th Century Zhang Zeduan paints “China’s Mona Lisa”, a massive panorama titled Along the River During the Qingming Festival. The work

is a miracle of Song Dynasty detail, capturing all the frantic bustle of Kaifeng’s holiday market place. The fact that Kaifeng had a thriving community of Jewish traders, even then, starts a chicken/egg, Chinese/Jewish debate over which came first, the bargain or the bargain hunter.

1948 The remains of seven dead Chinese soldiers mistakenly make it to Hawaii, in the company of American WWII casualties. Horrified at the prospect of letting Chinese bones molder in unmarked graves, the Lin Yee Chung Association pays for their internment at the Manoa Chinese Cemetery, and subsequent Qingming honors.

1949 Mao bans Qingming and all other forms of feudal nonsense, making those seven posthumous immigrants the only mainland Chinese getting their ritual props- in Hawaii, of all places.

1976 Ban schmann; thousands of Chinese throng Tiananmen Square on Qingming to honor Zhou Enlai, who had died of cancer earlier that year. The spontaneous mass gathering results in many a cracked head, which in turn leads to arrest of the dastardly Gang of Four, and ultimately the end of the Cultural Revolution . Somehow, not one official is censured for having failed to heed the warning in John Lennon’s lyrics.

1990 Grown circumspect after the previous year’s upheaval, dissident Chinese use this Qingming to drop glass bottles in Tiananmen Square. Get it? “Little bottle” = “Xiaoping,” as in “Deng Xiaoping”. Old-schoolers drop crumbles of mouse dung, with considerably less noise and to considerably less fanfare.

2000 What with mandatory cremation, and secret burial plots so hard to come by, Chinese turn to the only logical place in which to honor their ancestors: the Internet. Websites begin selling virtual memorial halls, one receiving 300,000 hits within days of its launch. The entire industry is devastated when Counterstrike arrives in China, as millions realize it is much more fun to murder the virtual living than to virtually honor the dead.

2008 The Chinese government officially reinstates Qingming, along with the Dragon Boat and Mid-Autumn Festivals. In return, the public loses one of its precious “golden week” holidays. The merits of the compromise are lost on China expats, who are still traumatized by having to work on a Saturday and Sunday just because they’ve been given a few days off.

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2 Responses to Qingmings Past and Present

  1. Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    Very true and very amusing Ernie. During Tiananmen people used to hang “little bottles” upside down from gates to show their displeasure at the turn of events.

  2. Ernie says:

    Thanks Chris. What do you think, should I spell out the Lennon reference about “talking about Chairman Mao” and “not making it with anyone anyhow”? Guess I just did.

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