For more than 2,500 years, Qingming Festival, celebrated on the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, has been a day for remembering the dead. This is the most important day for Chinese people around the world to remember our deceased loved ones. In ancient China, Qingming was by no means the only time when sacrifices were made to ancestors. Such ceremonies were held very frequently, every two weeks, in addition to other important holidays and festivals. The formalities of these ceremonies were very elaborate and expensive in terms of time and money. In an effort to reduce this expense, Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty declared in 732 A.D. that respects would be formally paid at the tombs of ancestors only on the day of Qingming.
During the weekend of Qingming, hundreds of thousands of vehicles will turn Shanghai’s highways into a large parking lot as people return home after visiting cemeteries and enjoying a spring outing. Cemeteries are always located in the city’s suburban areas. In Shanghai, the largest cemeteries are the Fushouyuan Cemetery in Qingpu district and Binhaiguyuan Cemetery in Fengxian district. In 2013, the number of people visiting the cemeteries reached 2.42 million people in Shanghai over the weekend.
In my family, my parents and relatives always prepare offerings and arrange a trip together one to two weeks in advance to avoid the big crowds. On the day of tomb sweeping, we clear the wild grass around our ancestor’s tomb, repaint the gravestones and add fresh soil. Then we present the dead person’s favorite food and wine as offerings, along with paper resembling money and chrysanthemum flowers. The food usually includes a steamed whole chicken, hard boiled eggs, sliced barbecued pork and dim sum pastries. In addition, three sets of chopsticks and three Chinese wine cups are arranged above the food and closest to the headstone. The eldest person of our family usually begins by bowing three times with the wine cup in hand, then pours the wine on the ground just in front of the headstone three times. After the ceremony, we then eat the food together at the grave site, like having a family picnic with our ancestors.
Qingtuan (green cake) is a traditional Chinese food eaten during Qingming Festival. These green ball dumplings are made of sticky rice, red bean paste and a special plant (barnyard grass shoots) called maiqing (麦青) or aicao(艾 草), which are only edible in the spring.
According to Chinese traditional belief, “When someone dies, his spirit goes to the afterlife, where it lives on, doing much the same things it did in life.” Luckily for everyone, the spirit world does not use normal money, which the dead apparently need piles of. Qing Ming rites involve the burning of fake money, usually a plain white piece of paper with a little gold foil in the middle, but there are also a number of bills that look something like U.S. dollars or Chinese yuan. They range from $1 all the way to $1,000,000,000,000 (this does make me wonder about inflation in the afterlife). The Chinese Consumers’ Association reports that more than 1,000 tons of paper products are burnt as offerings for the afterlife during each Qingming, costing more than 10 billion yuan. This is all burned in the hope that the deceased are not lacking food and money.
While young people rush to get the latest iPhones and iPads, the deceased can also enjoy these trendy high-tech devices, although theirs will be made of paper. Shops in Shanghai selling sacrificial offerings have already put paper-made versions of Apple products on their shelves. This year, a package of one iPad and one iPhone, paper- made and in different colors, starts from eight yuan on Taobao. A paper MacBook laptop costs around 10 yuan. The logos of the products printed on the package closely resemble the printed names of iPhones and iPads, but the brand is mingwang, or the king of the dead. Other popular items are paper versions of Panasonic LCD TV sets, and every electrical home appliance one can think of, clothes, wine, air tickets, designer bags, seafood, cars, villas and cosmetics including perfume, lipstick, facial cleansing cream, lotion and shampoo. For only RMB50, your ancestors can even get “Celebrity Marriage Certificates” to marry any superstar in the afterlife.
Today’s modern generation and mobility means that many people live far from ancestral villages. Some young Chinese have already started paying their respects online, through virtual tomb sweeping websites, one of the leading ones being Wangshangsaomu.com. The sites allow users to conduct a variety of rituals including presenting bouquets of flowers, offering incense, lighting white candles and planting trees, all without leaving their chairs, or fighting the long lines at local bus and train stations.