BEIJING, April 5 (UPI) -- How does the world's most populous country deal with its departed? Across China last weekend the ancient annual ritual of Qingming honoring deceased relatives with a family outing to spruce up their tombs at the start of spring was thriving, but the tradition has taken on new twists as a result of the emergent consumer culture.
Pronounced ching-ming, it is one of two Chinese festivals dedicated to placating spirits of the dead. The term, meaning "Clear and Bright," refers to the character of the climate just after winter. Unlike most traditional observances which are determined by the lunar calendar, Qingming falls two weeks after the vernal equinox, April 4-6 on the Gregorian calendar.
The custom typically includes gravesite maintenance chores such as sweeping, washing or weeding, as well as making offerings of food, drink, plus paper images and models of things needed in the afterlife. Effigies of items such as cash or clothes, fancy cars or houses can be transmogrified into something usable in the nether world once the likeness has been consumed by flame.
Burning for Qingming was not permitted at Beijing's 73 officially sanctioned cemeteries this weekend. Citing public safety concerns, municipal authorities encouraged the purchase and arrangement of flowers similar to Western tradition at graveside. The floral industry in China has already profited by the popularity flowers with a different practice originating in the West -- Valentine's Day.
Historians and anthropologists trace Qingming back more than 2,000 years beginning as a sybaritic celebration linking spring with the renewal of life. Over a period of many centuries the original fertility ritual evolved into paying homage to one's ancestors at the time of seasonal change, part of a belief system where the deceased help guide the fate and fortunes of their progeny.
The festival is a time for members of all generations and branches of a family to gather and remember loved ones. There are rare outbursts of sorrow for individuals who have died only a year or two ago, but for the most part Qingming is a pleasant outdoor jaunt in splendid weather enabling Chinese to get in touch with their personal past and ultimate destination.
Prior to the communist victory in 1949, elaborate ancestor worship and funerary practices frequently imposed severe economic hardships in urban Chinese society. It was commonplace for families to go into crippling debt to finance a loved one's farewell ceremony. In the 1950s expensive funerals were banned and regulations mandating cremation in cities were imposed. The Qingming ritual was discouraged as "feudalistic superstition."
The festival started its comeback in the spring of 1976 when Qingming was used as the pretext for the first independent protest to take place on Tiananmen Square in the communist era. Protestors criticized the excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) by commemorating the death of highly popular Premier Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) with greater genuine mourning than was shown or allowed at his state funeral in January that year.
Since then there has been a potential political undercurrent to Qingming celebrations. In the years following the June 4 incident of 1989, there has been a large police presence at cemeteries around Beijing. On several occasions in the past foreign journalists have been prevented from covering the event.
Despite this year's Qingming being the first to commemorate victims of SARS and the upcoming 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, there have been no official reports of disturbance or arrests during the festival.
The state-run news agency Xinhua quoted Jiang Xiaogang, a spokesman at the Beijing Municipal Administration for Burials as saying more than 400,000 people participated in the ceremony on Sunday. The city's largest and most famous cemetery, Babaoshan, was visited by 110,000 people.
There are two cemeteries at Babaoshan, meaning "Eight Treasure Mountain." One is a public graveyard for the wealthy (new plots leased for three years cost US$600-6,000 per year) and the other is the resting place used for communist dignitaries. Both sites have had tombs since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when court eunuchs and concubines were buried at this location.
The growing popularity of privately owned cars created a new phenomenon for travel in celebrating the dead -- traffic gridlock. Radio reports on road conditions Sunday morning and afternoon asked listeners heading to Babaoshan to leave their cars at home and take the subway. Auto emissions cast a light gray haze over the festival called "Clear and Bright."
Official estimates are that 1.5 million people, over 10 percent of the city's population, will participate in Qingming related activities in Beijing between March 27 and April 11, up from 1.44 million in 2003. The 15-day period takes into account people traveling from other places to visit relatives interred in the capital.
At Beijing's Wan'an (Myriad Peace) cemetery where Li Dazhao (1889-1927) the founder of the Chinese Communist Party was buried after his execution by a warlord, UPI witnessed a new variation in the ritual using technology to accommodate a family member unable to attend Qingming in person.
A solitary gentleman in his late 60s (who asked not to be identified) cleaned the headstone of his wife then laid out an offering of strawberries, her favorite fruit, and Red Pagoda, her brand of cigarettes. After this he reached into his pocket, pulled out his mobile phone and called his son. Saying where he was, and that everything was ready, he held the device to the woman's picture embossed on the tomb for several minutes before hanging up.