Saturday, April 4, 2009

# 55 Today's Picture 090405

Stone Forest (Shilin), Yunnan ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Life and death in China Part Two: Qingming - Grave sweeping festival

Funeral wreath 

Qingming picnic in Yunnan ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Death is as significant as life and today is a very important day in China, it is Qingmingjie 清明节 - the Clear Brightness Festival or as it is more widely known in English the Grave Sweeping Festival. Qingming falls 104 days after the Winter solstice (usually April 4th-5th) and is the time to honor the dead and reestablish contact with families members who have passed away. It is deeply rooted in the strong family ties and family values that exist in Chinese culture. Where ever there is a grave or gravesite, today is the day to visit, clean away old flowers, weeds and rubbish, light incense and candles, commune with the dead - even eat a meal beside the grave, letting the dead eat a favourite dish too or maybe even drink a symbolic glass of baijiu or smoke a cigarette, whatever they might have preferred in the past. Paper money (joss) is burnt and firecrackers are set off - not only to scare away unwanted spirits that might be lurking around the grave but also to announce that you have arrived and want to show your respect. Triple kowtows are made on the ground and time is spent speaking with the family members and ancestors that no longer share this existence: you should inform them of what has happened in the family during the past twelve months, how everyone is doing but also telling them not to worry too much about those still alive, you might even like to ask a piece of advice or two. The traditional and superstitious  feel that if this ritual is not performed then the spirits have the  power to wreak havoc in your life. It is maybe no coincidence that Qingming, the day to honor the dead, is also a day when spring, rejuvenation (time to start planting crops) and young love is also honoured. 

I'm sure for many in Sichuan today their thoughts will be turned toward the dead who all share the same day of death: May 12th, 2008.

Qingming has existed since the Tang Dynasty but it was only in 2008 that it yet again became an official public holiday in China, the first time since 1949. Do not confuse Qingming with the Ghost Festival (Guijie) which comes later in the year or the Double Ninth Festival (Chongyangjie) which is another day where the dead are honoured and graves are cleaned up. In Vietnam Qingming is called Tet. For more about Chinese festivals and traditions read: Kinesiska symboler och På kinesiskt vis.

Life and death in China Part One: Longevity lock charm

©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

In China when a child turns 100 days old family and friends gather for a celebration. The baby is given many gifts and a longevity lock – a changmingsuo – to hang around its neck. The purpose of the lock is to protect the child, bring it good fortune and especially to lock the child’s qi – its vital life essence – to its earthly body so the child will stay here on earth with the parents and not be taken away prematurely, in essence “locking” the child to life.

On the lock above you can see special characters and symbols. The big character in the middle is – happiness – one of the most important auspicious blessings to be had in Chinese traditional culture. The two small bats on either side on the top are also symbols of happiness because they are homophones with happiness, also pronounced . The two characters on each side of the large happiness symbol are bai suo: “the lock for one hundred years”, wishing the child both a very long life - at least one hundred years – and happiness for one hundred years. Little bells hang from the bottom and the red thread is also a lucky colour. 

A lock like this could either be worn around the neck of the child or hung in the house for protection. I say could because it is no longer common for children to wear the locks, but it has again become fashionable to give them as presents that the parents will then keep as a keepsake (and lucky charm) for the child. These locks were most popular in China during the Ming and Qing dynasties and they came not only with the inscription above but with many different ones, albeit all with the same general meaning.

Yesterday I went to a combination baby shower and going away party for two dear friends that are moving home after living in Chengdu for a couple of years. When they fly home they will be two passport carriers but actually they are already three, the bun in the oven just doesn't have a passport yet (maybe I should say the baozi in the steamer basket). We joked a lot about many things, one of them being that we should gather all the kids around us here in the foreign families in Chengdu and get t-shirts made for them stating not where they were born but where they were made. It's sometimes a much more telling fact: Made in Thailand, Made in China, Made in Hong Kong, Made in England, Made in South Africa etc etc. The little boy that the changmingsuo above was bought for will be born in South Africa but he was made in China and I hope that a little part of him will somehow be "locked" to the country he was created in and to the friends of his parents that will so very much miss them when they move away. Yi lu ping an Carin and Barry! (And little Thomas or Luke or Matthew or whatever you wind up being called...)

....and thanks Kim D. for an incredible spread of fantastic dishes and desserts. Sorry that we drank up all your special wine, it was gooooood!