Qingming values remain the same
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. firstname.lastname@example.org.