April 11, 2022
BEIJING – “A drizzling rain falls like tears on the Mourning Day;
The mourner’s heart is going to break on his way.”
These lines are from the The Mourning Day written by the poet Du Mu (803-852) and translated by Xu Yuanchong, who died in Beijing in June at the age of 100.
If I have time, I still visit my grandparents’ tombs on the anniversaries of their deaths … However, Qingming Festival is more like a time for me to understand or learn about death.
Yuan Long, resident of Tianshui city, Gansu province
Composed during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), this is one of the best-known poems about Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day, an important occasion in China when tributes are paid to ancestors.
According to tradition, at this time of year people remember the deceased and worship their ancestors by visiting tombs, where they burn incense and paper money.
They usually choose a day during the week in which the festival is marked to conduct their memorials.
This year, Qingming fell on Tuesday, when Beijing resident Dong Runxian, 63, woke early in the morning and placed a yoga mat on her living room floor.
She knelt on the mat and bowed three times slowly in memory of her father, who died in 2009, and her husband, who predeceased her father.
“I like to visit their tombs in my hometown, but if this is not possible, I still pay tribute to them from my home,” she said. “As many people say, ‘As long as we don’t forget them, they are still with us’.”
The remains of Dong’s father, who was 86, are buried in a suburb of Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi province. In the past, tearful family members visited his tomb during Qingming Festival, burning incense and paper money.
The tomb of Dong’s husband is in a cemetery in an urban area. Dong has not been back to the cemetery for two years, but her daughter, Ling Baobao, 36, returned there once during this time to clean her father’s headstone and pay tribute to him.
Ling said: “When I went back, I didn’t burn paper money. I remember vividly that when my father died there were many rituals. I was a teenager, so many family members such as my uncles and cousins came to help with the complicated proceedings. I just knelt down for a long time and watched the burning ashes falling from the sky against a framed photo of my dad in the distance.
“It was very noisy and many people were crying. I didn’t know why they seemed to be even sadder than I was. I just wanted to stay with my father’s body for a little longer to quietly recall our precious and forever-lost memories,” Ling said.
“Many years later, I started to bring to the tomb flowers and a bottle of the liquor that my dad used to like, spending some time peacefully there.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic or her busy work schedule, Ling has not returned to her hometown of Taiyuan during Qingming in recent years. She has written about her father－sometimes in the form of a letter to him－at this special time as part of her own “ritual”.
“When I write about him, feeling the deep sorrow of loss while gaining the strength to live more energetically through his love, I believe it’s a good way to keep his spirit with me, just as if he was still alive,” Ling said.
She is not the only one writing to pay tribute to the dead. Social media platforms such as Sina Weibo and Douban have group chats for netizens to post about their loss and show respect for loved ones online. In turn, they receive numerous replies from other netizens, who offer comfort and support.
A Douban user surnamed Lin lost her younger brother last year, when she was unable to be with him. Since his death, she has written on Douban from time to time, including letters to her brother.
The comments she posted include: “My dear brother, the summer has come. The lotus flowers are growing in the pond. I want to send you this song that you love most to let you know that I miss you every day.”
Many netizens reposted or replied to her posts, which comforted Lin.
Countless users such as Lin are turning to social media to express their sorrow for the deceased. Unlike in real life, where people seldom talk about death, they share their feelings freely.
Several years ago, websites emerged for mourners, providing a virtual space for them to conduct ceremonies online, rather than visiting tombs.
This form of mourning triggered hot debate, with some people feeling that paying tribute to the dead online is less respectful and sincere. Such attitudes prevented acceptance of this new approach to grieving.
But for the past two years, with many places in China fighting the pandemic and people significantly reducing cross-city trips, this new method of paying respects has become more popular.
This year, there has been little discussion about the sincerity of online tomb sweeping. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, during the Qingming holiday from Sunday to Tuesday, more than 21.5 million people held virtual memorial ceremonies on thousands of online platforms－growth of 192 percent from a year earlier.
During the same period, more than 17.5 million Chinese held traditional tomb-sweeping ceremonies nationwide, a year-on-year fall of 74 percent.
Many choices are available for those holding memorial ceremonies online. For example, by inputting the deceased’s name, users see an onscreen memorial tablet. They then light a virtual candle and present a bouquet in memory of their loved one via the screen. They can even set up “memorial halls” for the dead.
Authorities at all levels across the country recently issued documents advocating online tomb sweeping in order to prevent mass gatherings and reduce cross-infection risks and carbon emissions. Online tomb sweeping platforms are becoming better regulated and offer an improved service.
In addition to private memorial activities, online tomb sweeping has been used for large-scale public events such as official remembrance ceremonies.
This year, Yuan Long, 31, who lives in Beijing, did not return to his hometown of Tianshui city, Gansu province, for Qingming Festival.
“With the epidemic ongoing in many places nationwide, I didn’t want to cause any trouble for myself or Tianshui, so I stayed in Beijing during the holiday. But I talked to my parents back home and they kept me updated about their memorial ceremony,” he said.
Yuan said the atmosphere in Tianshui during Qingming is relatively upbeat, rather than sad. Dozens of his family members, including his parents, uncles, aunts and cousins, visited their ancestors’ tombs to show their respects. The ancestors included Yuan’s grandparents and great-grandparents.
“It’s more like a chance for the family to get together. The younger kids enjoy the time with their friends, eating lots of snacks, while the elders chat with each other in the early spring weather, surrounded by flowers,” Yuan said.
“We also recall the funny stories that happened when the deceased were still alive. It’s a time of year when we can talk about the dead without any mental pressure that might sadden us.
“If I have time, I still visit my grandparents’ tombs on the anniversaries of their deaths. This can be sad. However, Qingming Festival is more like a time for me to understand or learn about death.
“We will all die and we will all have those we love die. But it is worth so much that when we are alive, we fight for what we believe in and experience the world with our love and energy. Qingming is a time for us to forget our fear of death.”
People used to talk little about death. In China, when friends, colleagues and family members met, they usually avoided mentioning the dead. However, in recent years, such attitudes have gradually changed and more people, especially educators, have encouraged parents to tell their children about death, instead of keeping it a mystery.
On March 27, Peking University held its fourth Qingming forum, which was attended by scholars and experts from medical science, sociology, ethics and the funeral industry. Livestreaming of the event attracted more than 40,000 netizens.
Han Qide, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and honorary president of the China Association for Science and Technology, said at the forum that people should deepen their thinking about death.
“When we can think it through thoroughly, we get complete freedom,” he said.
Han delivered a speech themed on “beauty and aging”, in which he discussed the process of aging and dying based on fundamental medical knowledge.
He said attitudes toward aging stem from a different understanding of life and death among people, which determines the quality of their later life.
Han quoted a line from the Pixar Animation Studios movie Coco: “If there’s no one left in the living world to remember you, you disappear from this world.”
He said: “We all live in the world for a short time, but we have come here, loved, worked hard and made some contribution and left some light for others, which is the core meaning of our lives. When we think this way, we will have less fear of death.”
Zhou Cheng, a professor at the Department of Philosophy and dean of the School of Health Humanities at Peking University, told the forum that the school has promoted discussion about the concepts of life, death and memorial culture at a deeper level.
“We discuss these topics not only theoretically, but also involve many practical aspects such as the funeral industry and medical care. In this way, we hope more new ideas and concepts emerge among all of society,” Zhou said.