Melissa Block

Grave Sweeping Day

traffic jam Chengdu

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

toggle caption Melissa Block, NPR


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.

blessing dead

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

toggle caption 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




Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Well, it happens. There are more fires during spring festival. So that's why playing with firecrackers is forbidden in some areas of the city.

Sent by Song Qiuying | 9:55 AM | 4-12-2008

You are, of course, aware of the torch relay chaos in London, Paris, and San Francisco. I have debated with quite a few Americans about the life of ordinary ordinary Chinese people, who believe we are treated like "animals" by the government and have an unbearably repressive society.

Whenever I tell them my experience and my friends' experience, they say I'm brainwashed or have sold my soul.

I wonder if during your time in China you can speak to a cross-section of ordinary Chinese folks and share your findings with your listeners?

Sent by Charles Wu | 7:03 PM | 4-12-2008

Qingming is often celebrated in the United States, too. My family has been visiting the cemetery to practice this tradition since I was born and many years before that in San Francisco. It's a big part of our culture even as Chinese-Americans.

Sent by Jenn | 12:39 PM | 4-22-2008


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