Monday, April 3, 2017

Qing Ming Jie - 清明节

My wife and I are enjoying a few well-earned days off from our jobs this week due to another one of the Chinese holidays we do not have in the States, Qing Ming Jie (清明节). In English, we would call this the Tomb-Sweeping Festival and it is just exactly what it sounds like. On this weekend, people travel back to their hometowns where their parents or grandparents are buried and sweep the dirt off the grave that has collected over the last year.

This is one of the holidays which kicks off springtime in China. It is celebrated on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar. OR…as westerners would say, it's the 15th day after the spring equinox. OR…as I would say, it's on April 4th or 5th each year. I don't know why it has to be so complicated.

Qing Ming Jie is similar to Memorial Day as it is a day to honor the dead, but that is about as far as the similarities go. In America, Memorial Day is celebrated like every other holiday that involves a three-day weekend. We get together to drink some beer and eat a bunch of grilled meat. At some point, someone may put some flowers on a grave somewhere. In China, there seems to be much more tradition involved.

And, as usual, since I spend most of my time with children, it is them that I turn to for my Chinese cultural education. And, since their English is very limited and my Chinese is virtually non-existent, sometimes they ask to draw me a picture instead of trying to explain something. I had no idea what this holiday even was, so two girls tried to draw it for me.

They are drawing pictures of graves.
After looking at the pictures and having a little back and forth with our combined limited language capabilities, I was able to determine that this was a day to commemorate the dead. Okay. Simple enough, but then I asked more questions.

On my way into the school that morning, I saw a street vendor selling something I had not seen before. With a holiday coming up, I figured there must be a connection. So I asked my students about the bundles of money I had seen for sale on the street corners.

It is fake, over-sized money in huge denominations.
They told me that the money is for burning. Burning. Not like we burn money in the States at Christmas by buying way more stuff than is needed, but actual burning. You buy this money and then you burn it. I had to ask why. A girl drew me this picture.

Money is burned for the dead to have a better after-life
Apparently, being dead is not much better than being alive if you don't have any money. I asked my students what a dead person would need money for and several of them shouted out "FOOD!"

I had never considered this. I know how much I love food and how much it really sucks to be hungry, but I didn't think that would be an issue after you kicked the bucket. Well, here it is. I have to do my best not to die in China.

As you can see from the video, we didn't get very far in the explanation department. I don't think any of us generally know what the other is talking about most of the time. However, I did see some of the burning of money happening that night.

And plenty of evidence of it the next day.

These burn spots were everywhere.
I'm not quite sure of the logistics of how this works or where you file your paperwork to be sure that the money you burn gets to the correct person in the afterlife and the children were of no help. They told me that the person you want the money to go to will get it. It just happens.

I continued to ask questions to try to understand this practice:

Can I burn money to go to more than one person?
Why don't the dead just get jobs so they have their own money?
Can I burn money for myself so it will be there waiting for me when I do die?
Is there crime in the afterlife?What if I burn money for my grandma, but another dead guy steals it?

Eventually, a boy raised his hand and said, "This is just Chinese tradition. It is not real. It is an ancient custom."

"Ah," I replied. "It's like Santa Claus. We leave out milk and cookies even though we know he isn't real. It's just tradition."

His jaw dropped open. "What?" was all he could say. Another kid wailed, "Santa's not real?" Half the class started crying.

I'll never understand China.