Un­der­stand­ing cul­tural prac­tices

The Chi­nese re­gard it a fil­ial duty to honour and re­mem­ber the dead dur­ing Qing Ming, or Chi­nese All Souls Day, to­day.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Living - Sto­ries by MAJORIE CHIEW [email protected]­tar.com.my

DO you know why there are pieces of red-streaked pa­per flut­ter­ing from tombs and grave­stones in Chi­nese grave­yards to­day?

It’s be­cause to­day is Qing Ming, the day when Chi­nese peo­ple visit the graves of de­parted loved ones to pay their re­spects.

But why the red-streaked pa­per? Tra­di­tion­ally, the red came from chicken blood (a rooster’s, prefer­ably); the Hakkas hang these “chicken blood pa­per” (“kwa huet zi” in Can­tonese) on graves to cre­ate a bar­rier against neg­a­tive en­er­gies or un­wanted souls, ex­plains lo­cal feng shui mas­ter Jessie Lee.

She adds that, “The pa­per acts like a tal­is­man, pro­tect­ing the liv­ing and stop­ping an­gry spir­its from dis­turb­ing the ances­tral wor­ship”. Now-adays, a printed ver­sion of this pa­per is used in­stead.

This is why Qing Ming, or “Sweep­ing the Tomb” day, is also called “Hang­ing Pa­per” day, or “kwa zi” in Can­tonese, says Lee.

Some peo­ple, she says, hang five coloured pa­pers to rep­re­sent the five el­e­ments (wood, fire, earth, metal and wa­ter) in five di­rec­tions (north, south, east, west, and cen­tre).

What­ever the de­tails of the rit­u­als, gen­er­ally, all Chi­nese take the time to re­mem­ber the dead by vis­it­ing grave sites or colum­baria to say prayers and make of­fer­ings.

While Qing Ming gen­er­ally falls on April 4 or 5, tra­di­tion­ally, a longer time frame is set aside for such wor­ship. It can be be­tween 15 days (a week be­fore and af­ter the ac­tual day) and 21 days (10 days be­fore and af­ter the ac­tual day).

Ac­cord­ing to the Chi­nese so­lar cal­en­dar, the Qing Ming so­lar sea­son is from April 4 to April 19. This is be­cause each so­lar sea­son lasts 14 days, in­clu­sive of the first day of the sea­son.

The prayer rit­ual, Lee says, usu­ally starts and ends with the throw­ing of “pa­per money” all over the grave. This is to sym­bol­ise that the tomb has been in­spected for dam­age and that fam­ily mem­bers have vis­ited to pay their re­spects.

Tombs with­out the hang­ing pa­pers or pa­per money are said to be “lonely tombs”.

Scat­ter­ing pa­per

Leg­end has it that the rit­ual of strew­ing the tomb with pa­per started dur­ing China’s Han Dynasty (roughly 206BCE to 220CE). Liu Bang, the dynasty’s first em­peror, re­turned af­ter a war to find that he can no longer find his par­ents’ tombs – grave­yards are cov­ered in weeds and most tomb­stones are bro­ken af­ter years of con­flict.

In de­s­pair, Lee says, the em­peror re­sorted to throw­ing bits of pa­per into the air and im­plor­ing the heav­ens to guide him by let­ting the pa­per fall on his par­ents’ tomb. Sure enough, he found the ances­tral rest­ing place. Af­ter the story got about, the pop­u­la­tion be­gan to fol­low suit by plac­ing pa­per at their ances­tral graves to in­di­cate that they have been vis­ited.

Mar­ried daugh­ters

Tra­di­tion­ally, a mar­ried daugh­ter is not al­lowed to visit her late par­ents’ or ances­tral tombs. The su­per­sti­tion is that the mar­ried daugh­ter will take away the good qi (en­ergy) to ben­e­fit her hus­band’s fam­ily.

In the old days, tra­di­tion favoured the sons in the fam­ily; they were the ones that drew what­ever luck or wealth and good qi was around. This was why fam­i­lies would al­low only male de­scen­dants to mark Qing Ming.

But in the much smaller fam­i­lies of to­day, what if the mar­ried daugh­ter is the only child? Lee raises this thought-pro­vok­ing ques­tion and goes on to say that it is good that peo­ple are be­com­ing more open-minded nowa­days and see these tra­di­tions merely as a means of ex­press­ing fil­ial piety.

The newly de­parted

Fam­i­lies do not ob­serve Qing Ming if their loved ones die close to the day it­self; how­ever, Lee ex­plains that peo­ple might not re­alise that prayers can still be per­formed at new graves in the first two years, just on dif­fer­ent days.

“A dif­fer­ent type of pa­per money is used – shops sell­ing Chi­nese prayer para­pher­na­lia can ad­vise fam­i­lies on what to buy,” she says.

Within the first year of the death, the new grave should be “swept” (that is, Qing Ming should be ob­served) af­ter Feb 4 – which is lap chun, or the be­gin­ning of spring – but be­fore April 4. In the sec­ond year af­ter the death, a date af­ter March 20 but be­fore April 4 should be cho­sen. And from the third year on­wards, nor­mal prac­tice re­sumes.

Leg­end of Jie Zhi­tui

Feng shui mas­ter Yap Boh Chu of­fers another ori­gin story for Qing Ming, this time in­volv­ing the leg­end of Jie Zhi­tui.

Jie Zhi­tui be­comes fa­mous for be­ing a par­tic­u­larly loyal de­fender of the noble fam­ily he serves; but he is a mod­est man and, want­ing to shun fame, he re­tires with his el­derly mother to nearby Mian­shan Moun­tain (aka Jie Shan, or Jie Moun­tain) in Shanxi Prov­ince.

Duke Wen (697BCE–628BCE) be­comes im­pa­tient with Jie Zhi­tui hid­ing in the moun­tain so he or­ders it set alight to drive the de­fender and his mother out into the open – trag­i­cally, the loyal man and his mother per­ish in a cave un­der a wil­low tree. Af­ter bury­ing the pair, an an­guished Wen or­ders his peo­ple to eat cold food on that day and avoid light­ing a fire as a way of re­mem­ber­ing Jie Zhi­tui.

The fol­low­ing year, when Wen hikes up the moun­tain to com­mem­o­rate the death, he sees that the burned wil­low tree has re­vived and flour­ished. As he re­mem­bers Jie Zhi­tui’s noble char­ac­ter, Wen is so moved that he sweeps the tomb clear of fallen leaves and de­clares the fes­ti­val of Qing Ming.

The ‘chicken blood pa­per’ that is hung on graves and tombs on Qing Ming. — LOW LAY PHON/The Star

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