Monday, 18 March 2013

2 Chinese Ancestral Festivals

This article explores another dimension to the Hungry Ghost Festival (Zhong Yuan Jie 中元節) that I wrote. Since the teaching of Confucius circa 500 BC (contemporary to Buddha), ancestral worship became a big part of Chinese culture. Before the 20th century, wealthy family would have a Ancestral Hall - a building that housed ancestral tablets, dedicated to the memories of their ancestors. In the early 20th century, instead of ancestral tablets, they have photos of the deceased of their love ones. Or maybe a photo in a little shrine at a corner of the house.

Chinese Cemetery
Chinese cemetary during Tomb Sweeping Festival
Hungry Ghost Festival is telling us that the spirits of the departed are coming back to haunt us, and so the living are reminded of them (for a month of the year). Their memories are refreshed, they haven't been forgotten. People think of superstition as chains and shackles, but the same chains could also be thought of as links and safeguard, connecting the past to the present, the dead to the living. The leash on a child is both a safeguard and a shackle. This festival is such a leash to the Chinese ancestors.

I guess if the Festival is done out of fear, it's superstition; if it's done out of respect, it's remembrance. And Chinese does have such a remembrance day for ancestors and it's a national holiday in China that is called Qing Ming Jie (Ching Ming in HK 清明節). It's also called Tomb Sweeping Day (because that's what they do), other names include Ancestors Day, Festival of Tending Graves, etc. Ching Ming (or Qing Ming in pinyin 清明节) literally means 'clear bright', so the day is also known as Clear Bright Day[1] in English. So Qing Ming is about brightness, the positive, and the yang, while Zhong Yuan Jie is about darkness, the negative, the ying.

So these two festivals is two opposite modalities of dealing with the same reality - death. One is motivated by the forces of fear and appeasement, and the other the forces of respect and commemoration. Oh yeah! I was finally able to make up something that make pieces of jigsaws fit!

There is further interesting points about these two polar opposite festivals:
Zhong Yuan Jie is born out of Buddhism's ideas of of reincarnation and suffering; while Qing Ming Jie is originated from Confucianism's idea(l) of social harmony. One is a spiritual religion and other is a humanistic philosophy.

One (Buddhism) is about the pessimism of life, seeking to avoid it and advocate sitting in a remote cave and looking inwards into one's navel; the other (Confucianism) is about the pragmatism of life, seeking to engage fully in it and and conduct with others in a society, and one is defined oneself with one's relationship with others.

Last but not least, since these two festivals are the opposites of ying and yang, inner and outer, darkness and brightness, closeness and openness, their co-existence in Chinese culture is the very essence of Taoism. Taoism is the glue that embraces all contradictions, paradoxes, polar opposites into one harmonious whole. Reality is always a bit messy. The truth is, the whole idea of hell and the deities have lots of Taoist elements in it. So the idea isn't as symmetrical as the Taiji 太極 symbol.

People may not adhere to Hungry Festival because of fear and appeasement, and observe Clear Bright Festival out of respect and remembrance. People might burn some laptops, ipods, hell banknotes, or mobile phones (hand phones for Singaporean, cell Phones for Yanks, mobile phone for Aussie) during Hungry Ghost Festival, this could be out of genuine loving care for their ancestors when they believe that their ancestors will receive and put these earthly materials to good use, while someone attending a Sweeping Tomb ceremony may just be going through the motion, or doing it out of a sense of grudging obligation. It's just all for a show. I guess the point is it isn't so much what you do, is why you do it. In keeping with technology, these days, many of the Chinese simply morn their ancestors online during Qingming Festival when they couldn't attend personally by setting up a mourning blog. The whole industry of e-graves, e-tombs, e-cemetaries spring up for this reason. An example is one called Heaven Cemetery[2]. It's the thoughts that count.

Despite their differences of the two festivals, they are both expression of filial respect, which plays an essential roles in the Chinese Confucian society as well as way of coping with death, and continuation.
[1] The day of the Clear Bright Festival is neither clear nor bright in China as it's fell in the wet season. A well known poem by Du Mu (803 - 852), captured and immortalised this dreary, melancholic atmosphere of the festival.


qīng míng shí jié yǔ fēn fēn
lù shàng xíng rén yù duàn hún
jiè wèn jiǔ jiā hé chù yǒu
mù tóng yáo zhǐ xìng huā cūn

I won't try to translate this poem into an English (I think it's undoable in general). I will only translate its meaning the best I can. I won't get into the details of the poetic nuances.
Rain drizzles in Qingming Festival,
pedestrians' spirits are broken.
When asked where wine can be found,
the young cowherd points to a distant Xinghua village.

"Xinghua" is Apricot Blossom.

I guess it captures the frustration, oppressive atmosphere of the festival: rain is raining on everyone's parade; pedestrians spirits are broken, not just by the event, but by the drizzled rains; when one tries to find some alcohol to drown one's sorrow, it's located at a far away village. Bugger! What's the symbol of apricot blossom? Does it have anything to contribute to the poem. I leave it up to you to ponder.

[2] In Chinese '9' puns with the word 'long', or in this case, meaning 'everlasting'.

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