The first time “Tomb Sweeping Day” arrived in China while I was there, I had no idea what people were talking about. Guo Jian described it as China’s “Hallowe’en” and I was expecting costumes and candy. It was spring of 2009 and we were back to visit his parents in Shandong. As per the translation of the holiday (Qing Ming Jie 清明节), I also imagined a bunch of brooms being taken to a cemetery to sweep the tombstones. In a way, this was closer to the truth.
In 2006, Guo Jian’s maternal grandmother passed away. It is customary, as per thousands of years of tradition, to burn paper money to send deceased relatives in the other dimension any resources they might need. The portal is the fire. I rather like the magic implied in this.
There’s a market for the fake bills that are sent to the other dimension. (Isn’t there a market for everything?) The family had stocked up. Stacks of these “riches” were carried by all the family members, everyone taking what they could fit under their arms as we walked down the road just after dusk to the nearest intersection.
The intersection is key: apparently, if you send goods to your relative on a straight road, there is a chance that he or she won’t receive the message. You need to be at a place that symbolizes all four directions.
When we arrived at what was deemed an appropriate spot, the paper money was flopped in piles to one side, the stacks of plain tissue paper to create more fodder was also loudly thumped to the ground. Another relative had brought a bottle of “baijiu” or white spirits (Chinese alcohol) and another carried small bowls and dishes filled with single portions of the meal we were planning to have that very night. Finally, one of the grandchildren carried incense in stacks all bound together, not unlike those found in a Buddhist temple.
There we were on the edge of the public sidewalk, right there in the middle of town, and the fire was lit. Slowly the money was fed through the portal. The food (that was protected by plastic wrap) was exposed for her to enjoy and then it was thrown into the fire and sent to her in the other world, along with the liqueur and the incense. Everyone stood around kindly and respectfully silent while the flames were being tended by Guo Jian’s uncle and his aunt’s husband. All three of the remaining children of his grandparents (so two aunts and an uncle—the oldest aunt has already passed away) were present with their partners and children.
It was a circle of family and fire on the side of a busy four-lane street corner in a big Chinese city.
Around us in the manicured business shrubbery associated with the office building at the corner, three other groups were burning similar piles of paper money, some also holding bowls of food to send to the departed family members. I looked farther and saw little circles of fire all around this large intersection, on all corners. Little tiny shrines for the absent were being tended by silent moving shadows of family members still present in this dimension. The orange glows reminded me of the sight of pumpkins glowing on porches in Canada. It was the closest it got to Hallowe’en.
I marveled at how impossible such a practice would be in Canada where open fires in cities are prohibited, but apparently it is not even questioned here. They laughed when I asked if it’s actually legal. It’s a cultural norm to pay respects to the passing of elders, on both Tomb Sweeping Day and New Year’s Eve. I’ve since come to expect the sight of these black ash circles around this time of year, leftover remnants of filial piety left on the sidewalk and roadsides. Perfectly legal. Perfectly Chinese.
Cigarettes were also thrown into the fire and sizzled as they burned.
“Does your Grandmother smoke?” I asked in a whisper into Guo Jian’s ear. He nodded. Feeding her habit in the afterlife was clearly not life-threatening! (I’ve since learned that she loved smoking but she apparently passed away from heart complications.)
Then the family collectively bowed towards the direction of the cemetery in which Guo Jian’s grandmother and aunt are buried. I joined in, as well. I felt honored to be invited to do so.
And when it was over, I felt moved by this ritual. I trailed the family back home feeling a reverence and gentleness lingering in my step. It was really beautiful.
Again, moved by this culture and taken in.
In a warm circle of family light.