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Melissa Block

Grave Sweeping Day

Bumper to bumper traffic, as people head out of Chengdu to visit their ancestors' graves. Melissa Block, NPR hide caption

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Melissa Block, NPR

Chengdu

April 12, 2008

We were lucky to be here last weekend for the traditional celebration of the Qingming Festival, or grave-sweeping day. On Qingming, the Chinese pay respects to their ancestors by tending to their graves. It's been a practice for millennia here. But this year marked the first time since the Communist Revolution in 1949 that Qingming was officially recognized by the Communist Party as a national holiday. It's quite a symbolic shift.

In the past, Qingming was denounced by the central government as a superstitious or "rotten" practice. It was condemned during the Cultural Revolution starting in the 1960s as a symbol of the reviled "four olds" — old ideas, old customs, old culture, and old habits.

But now China is starting to loosen its constraints on belief and faith. And this year, because Qingming was declared a national holiday, many millions of Chinese took to the roads to travel to their ancestors'graves.

Liu Guang Lian tends to the graves of the Yang family's ancestors. Melissa Block, NPR hide caption

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Melissa Block, NPR

So last Friday, we found ourselves in mind-boggling traffic jams as we headed southwest from Chengdu to the ancient rural village of Shangli.

In Shangli, we followed the sound of firecrackers up to the family tombs of the Yang family, which has lived in Shangli for 22 generations.

Fragrant smoke wafted from sticks of incense set in front of the pink sandstone graves. Red candles were burning, and piles of fake money offered to the ancestors had turned to ash. Liu Guang Lian clasped her hands together and bowed her head toward the graves, offering blessings to the spirits of the dead.

Here's a modern twist on an ancient tradition: Those who couldn't make it to real gravesites could go online to honor their dead at "virtual tombs" in cyberspace, typing in words of tribute and remembrance. The State Forestry Department must be happy about that. Last year during Qingming, according to government officials, the burning of offerings to the dead led to some 1,400 fires, with three people killed.

— Melissa Block

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