Modernizing tradition for a greener holiday
Published: Apr 01, 2024 08:53 PM
Illustration: Liu Xiangya/GT

Illustration: Liu Xiangya/GT

The Qingming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, falls on Thursday this year. Qingming, literally meaning "clear and bright," is one of the 24 Solar Terms of the traditional Chinese calendar. The day heralds a season of rising temperatures and increased rainfall, making it a high time for plowing and sowing.

The Qingming Festival is believed to have a history of about 2,500 years. Over the centuries, Chinese people have developed colorful traditions, including flying kites, playing on swings and going on spring outings. A most important tradition of the festival is honoring one's ancestors and commemorating deceased family members and relatives, usually at their graves.

Right now, people across China are heading home to visit graves or the burial sites of their ancestors, tidy up tombs, offer flowers and food, and burn offerings, usually paper money, paper clothes and paper houses, as a way to remember and express nostalgia for their departed relatives. In some regions, firecrackers are also set off while sweeping tombs to alert their ancestors of the family's presence and drive away evil spirits. 

Burning paper money is a traditional way in Chinese culture to offer sacrifices to the ancestors. People believe that departed relatives also need material wealth in the afterlife. By burning paper money and other paper offerings, they can provide for their needs in the underworld, thus expressing their respect for their ancestors.

Although these customs are deeply rooted in traditional culture, it is important in modern society to observe civilized rituals during the Qingming Festival and avoid causing pollution through activities such as setting off fireworks. 

According to media reports, uncivilized tomb-sweeping behaviors are still commonplace in many places, some of which have even led to fires.

In rural areas where there are more trees and plants, igniting paper money and setting off firecrackers can easily cause fires. In urban areas, due to urbanization leading to the disappearance of some cemeteries, many people burn paper and incense on the streets, leaving fires but also scattered ashes and uncleared offerings to be seen everywhere.

The burning of paper and sacrificial items not only causes air pollution but also may cause fires on streetsides, in parks, and in other areas. Tomb-sweeping customs should not spoil local scenery, nor should they ignore safety.

In February, a man from Southwest China's Guizhou Province was detained after causing a mountain fire when burning materials to pay tribute to his ancestors.

Around 10 am on Friday in Beijing's Tongzhou district, a man surnamed Liu brought paper money, cigarettes and other items to pay respects to his deceased relatives. After igniting the sacrificial items, a wind blew the burning paper money into the weeds, causing a fire. Liu has been administratively detained by the local police.

In fact, at every Qingming Festival, reports of fires caused by igniting sacrificial items are not uncommon. It is imperative to consider how we can uphold the essence of the festival while embracing more sustainable and responsible practices.

The Qingming Festival calls for greener, safer and more civilized rituals. Recently, many places have issued proposals for civilized tomb-sweeping, advocating not only for citizens to strengthen their safety awareness and abstain from burning paper offerings by the roadside but also providing various civilized tomb-sweeping methods for citizens to refer to.

Examples include encouraging the use of fresh flowers, tree-planting memorials, online tomb-sweeping, and proxy tomb-sweeping instead of burning paper money and incense. Promoting frugal funeral practices, simplifying funeral ceremonies, and supporting eco-burials such as scattering ashes at sea and natural burials as well as inheriting the red gene by visiting martyrs' memorial halls and red education bases to learn about the heroic deeds of revolutionary martyrs are also other preferable options. 

In Northeast China's city of Dalian, a sea burial ceremony was held in February for people to bid farewell to their deceased loved ones, with 43 sets of cremains scattered into the sea.

During this year's Qingming Festival, the Babaoshan Funeral Home in Beijing held several green and environmentally friendly memorial ceremonies, guiding the masses to conduct tomb-sweeping in a green and civilized manner. 

Several cemeteries in Beijing have provided free water-soluble sacrificial offerings, using materials for paper and ink that can completely dissolve in water without causing environmental pollution.

The Qingming Festival lies in sentiment rather than formality, and tomb-sweeping comes from the heart. The Ministry of Civil Affairs requires all regions to vigorously promote civilized and low-carbon tomb-sweeping methods such as offering fresh flowers, greening and tree planting, collective tomb-sweeping and family remembrance events.

The Qingming Festival embodies the emotional pursuit of Chinese people on family ties and respect for the ancestors, embodying the humanistic spirit of generations remembering martyrs and continuing their bloodline. 

Understanding the essence of the Qingming Festival itself is far more important than pursuing traditional forms. Civilized tomb-sweeping will not weaken the sentiment of remembrance but will be more in line with the essence of cherishing memories and respecting life.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.