Sunday, 17 April 2011

Chinese graves

On a recent visit to China, I spent very little time hanging around graveyards, but I felt you necrologists and Reaperphiles might find food for thought in a couple of comparative obervations.

It was the Ching Ming festival the day we left, so we didn't see it in action. Ching Ming was, apparently, instituted by an emperor thousands of years ago because people were spending too much time on ancestor veneration (presumably not working hard enough to generate tax revenues, not being sufficiently on hand to die on the battlefield for the Emperor's glory etc.) so he said that it would only be permitted on one festival day each year. Chinese people will sometimes travel a long way to visit the family graves, tidy them up, make offerings etc. If they can't visit, they may carry out ritual activities at home or maybe at the temple to link them with the ancestors.

I was interested to note that many graves looked to be in a pretty wild state. The graveyards were not in a separate tidy enclosure cf UK, but were grouped together out in the countryside, often on a hillside (de rigeur, apparently. Maybe fung shui dictates.) In a subtropical region, this meant that natural vegetation encroached somewhat. This grave was an exception. It was slap bang in the middle of a village, as you can see, and pretty well-groomed. So these ancestors were right there to keep an eye on things.

The Ghost (or Hungry Ghost) festival is sometimes lumped in with Ching Ming but it seems there is a difference. The Ghost Festival is about easing the lot of any spirits that are moving between this world and the next, at the time of year when the gates between the two open. (cf All Souls, Dia de los Muertos, Jour des Morts, which may ostensibly be about easing the passage of souls in purgatory but also seems to contain, historically, a lot of placating of the returning spirits? I'm no expert here, I merely seek to offer morsels for further reflection.)

So Ghost Festival is in general about the spirits of the dead, and is placatory. Ching Ming is about venerating one's ancestors, as the ultimate shore of filial piety, that cornerstone of Confucianism. People often refer to ancestor worship as being very Chinese; it might be more accurate to say that ancestor veneration is the point. Gran isn't worshipped as a divine being, she is venerated for having been a matriarch etc. Family records and photos are often stored on display in the neighbourhood temple. (Sorry, no photos allowed.)

There has been some interesting stuff in recent months over on the Good Funeral Guide and its commentariat about shrines and the family. I don't know about visiting graves and lighting joss - most or many UK graves don't seem to me to get a lot of visiting, and I remember reading somewhere that the average for a grave to get visited and tended is ten years. But I increasingly like the idea of family shrines, and some kind of regular family day, to tie in the living with their ancestors. Maybe more and more of us value our ancestry and our family (vide TV progs on the subject) and maybe it helps us deal with the pace of social and technological change - sheet anchor stuff.

Ancestor veneration, filial piety and Confucianism in general (even Mao couldn't stamp it out) are often blamed for the perceived stagnation of Chinese culture and techology during the last Imperial dynasty. I wouldn't know, but there's nothing stagnant now about the way China is amassing economic and political power, at huge environmental cost...and the ancestor business still seems to be going strong. We'll see if capitalism and the consumer society destroys what Maoist totalitarianism, murder and starvation couldn't.

How ancestor veneration goes if you have a ghastly ancestor, I don't know. Presumably the ancestors of mass murderers get little veneration. I understandhat the party line in China is that Mao was right 70% of the time and wrong 30% I'm not quite sure that ratio's quite right....

The whole ancestor veneration/ghost festival stuff may look like a lot of superstitious irrelevance, colouful but nonsensical. I find it more useful to mull over its significance, for the living here and over there.

Meanwhile, this little village in southern China gets up each morning and finds a presumably venerated ancestor (and a memento mori) right by its front door.


  1. Straying slightly, but overlapping I think:

    In Thailand I saw that there lots of "spirit houses" which were small houses, or temples rather like dolls houses outside everyone's house. Usually raised up and mounted on a plinth.

    They had the combined use of giving shelter for passing spirits and also acting as a place where it is possible to leave votive offerings.

    A place to appease and appeal to the spirit world. I agree with you that it might seem odd to the western eye,but if you think of it as being a way of connecting the living with the mystery of being,it makes more sense.

    My Dad's grave is a little uncared for now, I think I will give it a bit of a tidy next time I'm down near Gloucester.

    Hope you are having a good time.

  2. Lovely time thanks Arkers, back in dear old Blighty (etc) now.

    On the spirit houses: maybe what's interesting is the functionality of such beliefs for those who hold them, rather than the degree to which one agrees with them or not? I.e. respond to function and outcomes rather than trying to demolish what one doesn't agree with?

    Provided of course the beliefs don't result in unacceptable actions. As has been said, your freedom of action ceases two inches from the end of my nose...back to the old argument: why should I respect someone's beliefs if they are dangerously dysfunctional in our society? Can't see any harm in a few spirit houses, meself. Unlike hypothetical virgins waiting in heaven to console suicidal psycopaths. Allegedly.

    Bit early in the day for the old humanist(esque) soapbox, sorry - time for coffee!

  3. Welcome back GM! You have been missed. I hope your trip was as good as it sounds...
    I too like the idea of family shrines and a regular 'family day' (although not quite to the extent of a place I once read about in, I think, South America, where the dead are literally dug up each year and seated around the family table when there is a special occasion to celebrate, such as new babies or marriages. Yikes!).
    I did have the notion recently to organise a 'gathering' for friends that was specifically about remembering family/friends we had lost. We'd talk about them, look at photos, play their favourite music, each bring a dish they loved to cook or eat, celebrate their lives. It would (in my rose-tinted world) be a happy, up-beat occasion – lots of funny stories, laughter, perhaps a few tears that would be greeted with hugs of comfort from people you feel you can be yourself with... But I got cold feet (excuse the pun) and thought everyone would think it a bit odd. But the idea is still bubbling away nicely on the back burner...
    As far as shrines are concerned, I know that many of our graveyards in the UK are being turned into colourful corners, each with a unique collection of toys, flowers, wind chimes, picture frames, balloons etc. Much to the annoyance of the council and traditionalists. It's not really for me, but each to their own I say. Our regimented rows of granite that sit in towns and cities are so soul-less to me, that there isn't really an alternative that I'd suggest. So, in the case of my granddad who is buried in such a corner of Hertfordshire, I have made his 'shrine' a corner of my home, with one or two favourite pictures. And, even though it isn't where his last remains lie, a daily smile as I pass him near the stairs is better than a monthly visit to his headstone.
    Thanks for a really interesting post...

  4. Thanks for this uplifting comment CB. I'd say you have got it right - a daily smile at the photo corner is worth an infrequent visit to a dull municipal cemetery. As for remains, maybe what really matters is the remembering and the sense of linkage, rather than a specific location. The resonant location might be the front room family photo shrine, it might be an open hillside or whatever. Perhaps that depends on how one feels about remains in general!

    But either way, what we're doing in these acts is creating meanings which sustain us. How we do that (grave in the middle of the village, photos by the stairs) we can now choose.

  5. I thought you may find this of interest from the gut-blogs I read.

  6. Very nice to have you back, GM. I hope you had a lovely time.

    I think these Chinese do well by their rootedness in the past and the consequent sense of themselves as being on a continuum. It helps them to know they won't be lodging here long; it acquaints them with their mortality. Most of us (unless we're aristos, I suppose) have little sense of family history beyond grandparents or great-grandparents. The ave time time of grave visiting here is reckoned at 15 years average, btw. And they say that all memory dies in a generation. We're socially dead after 25 years.

    Or are we? There's a big fad for genealogy at the moment. I can see the Chinese nodding knowingly at that.

    Must check out Arkayeff's link now.

  7. Thanks Charles, yes, a marvellous time for reunions and explorations.

    Maybe Chinese people would say, of our current genealogy fad, "about time too, you'll find it helps." Of course, the nobs always did genealogy, family portraits going back to the Royal Bottle-Washer in 1543 who married the daughter of the 8th Duke of Somewhere etc, but it's interesting to see how us hoi polloi are getting into it too. Must be some need there.

    Rootedness, continuum, mortality and "nowness" - a sea-change in everyone's feelings and beliefs in such areas would surely be a Good Thing.