Qingming val­ues re­main the same

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

Since an­cient times, Qingming, or Tomb Sweep­ing Fes­ti­val, has been a time for honor­ing an­ces­tors and mourn­ing de­ceased rel­a­tives. Al­though it is still re­garded as a se­ri­ous and solemn fam­ily cer­e­mony in mod­ern China, its na­ture is chang­ing due to the trans­for­ma­tion of so­ci­ety.

In old days, the Qingming fes­ti­val was a solemn oc­ca­sion, a time for pay­ing one’s re­spects to the dead, and it was closely re­lated to the land-ori­ented and kin­dred struc­ture of so­ci­ety. An­ces­tral me­mo­rial tem­ples and graves were ma­jor rit­ual spa­ces dur­ing Qingming, while large and sta­ble clan fam­ily groups en­sured con­ti­nu­ity in the rit­u­als.

How­ever, these rit­u­als were more than just an­ces­tor wor­ship, as they fo­cused on en­hanc­ing the sense of kin­ship within the clan and re­mem­ber­ing its his­tory. Al­though the rit­u­als were mainly pri­vate ac­tiv­i­ties, the par­tic­i­pants usu­ally per­formed the cer­e­mony on a clan ba­sis and as such the cer­e­mony served the func­tion of strength­en­ing author­ity within the clan dis­cus­sions and de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Mean­while, the an­ces­tor wor­ship also re­in­forced one of the most im­por­tant Chi­nese virtues – fil­ial piety.

But Qingming has changed as so­ci­ety has changed, and the dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics of mod­ern life are the “dis­tances” be­tween people, their sep­a­ra­tion from the land and the weak­en­ing of the clan iden­tity.

The ever-de­clin­ing per capita land re­sources due to the huge pop­u­la­tion pres­sure, sev­eral rounds of land re­lated re­forms and ur­ban ex­pan­sion, and the rapid ur­ban­iza­tion process in re­cent decades have re­duced people’s ac­cess to land. The shrink­ing of land re­sources has force­fully changed the tra­di­tional Chi­nese cus­tom of bury­ing the dead. As the pop­u­lar­ity of cre­ma­tion and other new eco­log­i­cal ways of dis­pos­ing of the dead, such as sea buri­als, grows, the rit­ual space of Qingming has changed from the grave­yards in fam­ily lands to pub­lic ceme­ter­ies, mourn­ing halls, even the ocean.

The mod­ern­iza­tion of people’s minds, the ur­ban­iza­tion of people’s life­styles, the ever-in­creas­ing mi­gra­tion from ru­ral to ur­ban ar­eas since re­form and open­ing-up, and the tran­si­tion in the fam­ily struc­ture from large fam­ily groups of the same clan to nu­clear fam­i­lies, all make Qingming a dif­fer­ent and more in­di­vid­ual fes­ti­val than be­fore. Even in the ru­ral ar­eas, the power of clan con­scious­ness has de­clined in daily life as people’s way of life changes and they be­come more and more re­moved from their land and their fore­fa­thers.

Al­though cer­e­monies com­mem­o­rat­ing the dead still ex­ist due to the lon­glast­ing tra­di­tion of fil­ial piety in China, to­day people mourn their close rel­a­tives – gen­er­ally within three gen­er­a­tions – rather than their re­mote “an­ces­tors”. For the ma­jor­ity of people nowa­days, Qingming is a time to con­vey their sad­ness at their lost loved ones; it has be­come a time for mourn­ing rather than wor­ship.

Since 2008, Qingming has been a statu­tory hol­i­day, which is a pos­i­tive move to pre­serve Chi­nese cul­ture, main­tain so­cial stan­dards and ad­vo­cate tra­di­tional Chi­nese moral val­ues. Fil­ial piety and fam­ily val­ues, among the var­i­ous and even con­tra­dic­tory moral val­ues in con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese so­ci­ety, are still the ones that have the most con­sen­sus. Even though many Chi­nese tra­di­tions have faded away with the pass­ing of time, mod­ern in­di­vid­u­als, even most young­sters, still solemnly prac­tice tomb sweep­ing in some form or other.

But the fu­ture will wit­ness more changes in people’s mourn­ing rit­u­als dur­ing Qingming as Chi­nese so­ci­ety continues to change, and the in­creas­ing short­age of land and pop­u­la­tion mi­gra­tion will make it more and more dif­fi­cult for the Qingming cer­e­mony to main­tain any ves­tige of its tra­di­tional form. People’s mourn­ing be­hav­ior will grad­u­ally move be­yond the re­stric­tion of rit­ual spa­ces.

For ex­am­ple, some young people are be­gin­ning to hold vir­tual me­mo­rial cer­e­monies on­line for their beloved de­parted, in­stead of mak­ing of­fer­ings at the gravesite. The change in fam­ily struc­ture will also af­fect the form of cer­e­mony. Be­fore the first sin­gle-child gen­er­a­tion grows up, even if the nu­clear fam­ily has be­come the typ­i­cal form of the Chi­nese fam­ily (es­pe­cially in ur­ban ar­eas), tomb sweep­ing is still a fam­ily group ac­tiv­ity of­ten in­volv­ing three gen­er­a­tions. Al­though it’s not a ma­jor gath­er­ing of the clan as it was in an­cient times, Qingming is still an im­por­tant oc­ca­sion bring­ing the fam­i­lies of sib­lings to­gether. How­ever, when the post-1980s gen­er­a­tion be­come mid­dle-aged adults and have to deal with their par­ents’ fu­neral af­fairs, China will wit­ness a turn­ing point in the in­di­vid­u­al­iza­tion of the mourn­ing cer­e­mony.

The re­cent ad­just­ment of the fam­ily plan­ning pol­icy that al­lows cou­ples to have a sec­ond child if one spouse is an only child, in­stead of if only both spouses are an only child, which was the case pre­vi­ously, will change this phe­nom­ena again. But con­sid­er­ing the speed and ways China’s so­ci­ety is chang­ing, es­pe­cially the trend of ag­ing so­ci­ety, it’s pred­i­ca­ble the mourn­ing cer­e­mony will not re­turn to its for­mer in­car­na­tion.

How­ever, it doesn’t mat­ter what form the mourn­ing cer­e­monies of the fu­ture take, what re­ally mat­ters is whether we main­tain the core val­ues of this an­cient tra­di­tion: fil­ial piety and fam­ily kin­ship. The au­thor is a writer with China Daily. wangy­iqing@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

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