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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

清明节 (Qing Ming Jie), or "Tomb Sweeping Day"

Last year China gave the, uh, country, a whole week off in May, around the "May Day" (first of May) holiday. The result was another typical Chinese holiday of skyrocketing prices, mind-boggling congestion, and basically billions of people all trying to travel and go to the same places at the same time. Not ideal.

So this year it looks like The Powers That Be have axed that week off in May, and have instead decided to parcel out that week off in discrete three-day-weekend increments, by "embracing" more regional and/or low key holidays. The first of those happened last weekend: Qing Ming Jie (清明节), a holiday popularly translated as "Tomb Sweeping Day."

(A side note: it is kind of strange to live in a place where a government decree suddenly changes how over a billion people celebrate a tradition. Can you imagine the government in the states trying to tell people to cancel one holiday and take those days off another time? It seems incredibly odd to me, but hey, most people, myself included, were just happy for the day off, and were using the time to be with friends and family ... which seems to be what people the world over do with their holidays, regardless of the underlying reason for the day off ... six one way, half a dozen the other.)

Jenny, Kevin, and Michelle browsing one of the innumerable stalls selling Qing Ming Jie paraphernalia.

"Tomb Sweeping" is really only a small part of the holiday, but the day seems to be comprised of all the elements of that classical Chinese veneration of ancestors. The tomb sweeping sees families visiting the graves of their relatives, giving them a little spring cleaning, and leaving flowers, fruit, and other savories at the grave. There's also a lot of money-burning, but more on that later.

You've probably already seen pictures of my good friend Jenny. She's eating pizza with us below, she's traveled to 长白山 (Chang Bai Shan) with us, she's tutored us, she's helped us in countless ways: Jenny is a true friend here in Jilin.

Jenny has also lost both of her parents. Her father when she was younger, her mother much more recently. She's an incredibly strong woman, and she is so outgoing and cheerful that it's easy to forget what she's been through. She invited me, along with Kevin and our friend Michelle, to visit the graves of her parents this past Qing Ming Jie, and I was honored to be there with her.

Jenny's mother was baptized (with Jenny's consent) before she passed away, and her mother and father were interred together in a Christian cemetery.

I know it sounds insane, but sometimes I just forget that Jenny speaks to us in her second language. I mean, I know it, I know it in an academic sense, I can hear her accent and all, but still. When Jenny finished cleaning the dirt off of her parents's grave, she started speaking to her mother, and of course it was in Chinese, and I've heard Jenny speak Chinese a million times before ... but it was strange, different this time. She wasn't speaking simple Chinese for my learner's ears, she was talking, praying, to her mother, with all the beautiful fluency of your native tongue.

Jenny brought some fruit, flowers, and pastries from a local bakery. She left some on the grave, the rest she brought with her as we left. I don't know if she bought those pastries because her mom liked them, or because she likes them.

Outside the cemetery, we began to burn the (fake) paper money. I think it's to offer wealth and fortune to those we've lost. Jenny bought a large pile of big yellow money, old money (as in, deep-in-the-past-dynasties old) that looked more like bills of exchange or property deeds than money. No one really knew how to burn the money, what ritual we were supposed to observe, so we made a little stove with some nearby rocks and burned two big piles, one for Jenny's mother and one for her father.

Michelle helps Jenny finish off the paper.

I felt incredibly honored to spend Qing Ming Jie with Jenny, to see first hand how this day is celebrated. But I don't really know what else I can add, so I'll stop.


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