American learns true meaning of China’s Tomb-Sweeping Day

By Ryan Thorpe Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/5 18:28:39

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Two years ago, I did nothing for Tomb-Sweeping Day. I had spent less than a year in China at that point and had very little curiosity about this new country. I focused on my work and getting settled and never gave more than a fleeting thought to the actual meaning of the holiday.

After realizing that I was going to be spending some serious time living in China, I decided that I would participate in all its major holidays, with Tomb-Sweeping Day being no less of an exception. Only after asking my friends, though, did I learn how the holiday honored and respected the dead.

As an American, the idea of a holiday that specifically focused on the dead fascinated me. Americans avoid the subject of death as much as possible. In the early days of the US funeral processions were a thing, but now such public displays of grief are restricted to funeral homes; something that is felt strictly between you, the deceased and his/her family.

As I've gotten older, I've had to attend the occasional funeral. Some were packed with friends and family, but others were sparsely attended. Unless I was extremely close with the passed individual, I was unlikely to ever visit their grave.

In China, it's very different. The Chinese continue to have close relationships with those who have died regardless of the decades or centuries that have passed. Tomb-Sweeping Day is an occasion to visit their graves, honor their memories and offer them gifts.

My Chinese friends explained that people in China burn items or money for the deceased to use in the afterlife. As a Christian, there is little talk of money in heaven. Our afterlife is a place of judgment, and after that judgment, there's little use for currency of any denomination.

This Tomb-Sweeping Day, though, I decided to help out my deceased grandparents who might need some cash or an iPhone. So I grabbed a Chinese friend and found a shop that sold such offerings for the dead. We explained my situation to the store owner and after some deliberation he gave me a yellow envelope that he said was "the best way to get something to someone very far away."

Apparently, the fact that my grandparents died across the world in the US caused him some concerns, but I wasn't about to let that stop me. The shop owner also picked out some gold and silver teals and stacks of fake American hundred dollar bills. He didn't think I should be burning Chinese currency for my American ancestors, and I did not question his logic.

We wrote their names on a bag, were given chalk and incense, and directed to a spot by the river. There I saw many locals burning their envelopes. I found a place for myself and drew an open oval on the ground. I placed my offerings inside and then lit it all on fire. I poked it with a stick to make sure it burned all the way through, as bundles of cash tend to burn slowly and unevenly.

As the pyre burned, my friend instructed me to light incense, bow and think of my grandparents. It felt unnatural bowing so deeply, but thinking of them calmed me. I remembered riding on a tractor with my grandfather, sitting on the patio with my grandmother, and fishing in the river behind their house. Those brief flashes were more than I'd thought of them in years.

I don't know if I performed the ceremony correctly, but at least my heart was in the right place. For me, part of living abroad is discovering the wisdom of another people and place and participating in a country's customs and holidays is a good place to start.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.


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