On April 5, 2015, while the Christian world was celebrating Easter, China was celebrating the Qingming Festival, also know as Tomb-Sweeping Day. There is, as one would assume, no connection between the two.
Tomb-Sweeping Day is celebrated on the 1st day of the fifth solar term on the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar, also know as the Han calendar. This is the 15th day after the Spring Equinox. This year it fell on April 5. (In Taiwan the holiday is always celebrated on April 5 to mark the anniversary of the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975.)
The Qingming Festival can trace its roots back to the Cold Food Festival (Hanshi Festival), first celebrated in 636 BC but which took on its present form in AD 732 when Emperor Xuanzong declared that ancestral respects could only be paid once per year during the Qingming Festival.
It is, as the name implies, a time to pay respect to your ancestors. Families typically gather at gravesites, which are frequently conical mounds of dirt, particularly in the countryside, to both pay respect and to let the ancestors know that the family tree still lives on.
And because the Chinese spiritually claim little distinction between life and death, except where it unfolds, they often leave food and alcohol at the gravesite for the deceased to enjoy.
They also burn Joss paper money, otherwise known as ghost money, to bring wealth and good fortune to those who can not earn it on their own.
Other articles made of Joss paper may also be offered. You can buy paper Ferraris, iPhones (Yes, the iPhone 6 debuted this year.), and mistresses.
While the Qingming Festival goes back a couple of thousand years it only became a national holiday in the People’s Republic of China in 2008. Chairman Mao Zedong was not a fan of superstition and wanted to rechannel many such Chinese traditions into a stronger commitment to the State.
All of this undoubtedly seems very strange to most Westerners. How, many undoubtedly wonder, can the Chinese continue to be so superstitious in this era of science and technology?
Superstition, however, is a decidedly deductive concept. According to Webster’s College Dictionary a superstition is “an irrational belief in or of the ominous significancre of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, etc.”
‘Rational’, of course, is the operative word and what is rational to the inductive reasoner and irrational to the deductive deductive reasoner can be virtually identical. They oppose reason from the opposite direction.
Frankly, I don’t believe the Chinese even think about whether or not the offering of money and mistresses has any impact on their ancestors at all. It is tradition, and to the inductive thinker tradition is sacred because life is circular.
And I have to wonder, although I disclaim any expertise on the topic, if the Ferraris and the iPhones aren’t so much for the living than the dead. Perhaps they want to show their ancestors that the family thrives. Or perhaps they believe that their ancestors, if pleased, can help the living to attain these things.
Whatever their true beliefs, Tomb-Sweeping Day, like virtually every Chinese holiday, is a family holiday. It is a time when families gather over food and drink to both celebrate the past and to grease the wheels of future prosperity.
I happen to like it. I wish I were as diligent in honoring my own ancestors. And what does logic matter in the end when you can’t honor your ancestors in any tangibly ‘real’ way anyway.
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