Thursday, April 1, 2010

Qing Ming Etiquette


This article appeared in “The Star” newspaper today and I think it’s a great article relating to Qing Ming festival.

For those of you who’re not familiar with Qing Ming, it’s literally means “clear brightness”. The winter chill is over and the warmth of the sun and energy of Spring is felt. Over the centuries, the festival which celebrates the renewal of life, turned into a “festival if the dead” marked by grave site worship in remembrance of one’s ancestors. Food and hell money are offered to the dead to keep them happy in the hope of receiving abundant blessings of health, wealth and good harvest.

Below are some of the taboos, superstitions and beliefs surrounding Qingming. Those some are not being practised by the modern generations, I always find it interesting to understand the origins of taboos. Afterall, it’s up to oneself whether you belief them or not.

Wrong Side

The Chinese practise ancestor worship because they are driven by filial piety to care for the souls of their departed loved ones. Sons venerate their departed parents and paternal grandparents, while daughters venerate their father’s side before marriage and their husband’s after marriage. However, some Chinese families refuse to allow married daughters to worship their departed parents and ancestors for fear that they may  “take away” the sons’ fortune.

Family Unity

The Chinese believe that the entire family should go together to perform prayers at the grave site to foster closer ties. Some feel that if the family members go separately, there may be discord in the family. There is also a belief that the person who secretly goes and worships ahead of the others may be more blessed and enjoy prosperity. On the other hand, those who neglect to play homage may incur the displeasure of the ancestors and risk getting punished.

Law of Attraction

Visitors of the graveyards wear bright colours rather than dark colours like black which may attract evil spirits. Pregnant women, babies and toddlers are discouraged from visiting graveyards for fear that loitering spirits might take advantage of the physically weak, hoping to snatch their souls. Young children who accompany their parents are cautioned against making too much noise, thus disturbing other spirits.

To eat or not to eat ?

It is common to see families partaking of food served as offerings to the departed. However, some of the dead set against consuming such food for fear of incurring the anger of the dead. They feel that food offered to the departed should be left behind as a show of sincerity. But others disagree with this notion, and will happily tuck into the food later in the hope of getting blessings and protection from the dead. Some families place joss-sticks on nearby graves as a goodwill gesture to invite the “neighbours” to join in.

Gifts to the underworld

Worshippers are careful not to stir paper offerings which are being burnt, so that the deceased will not end up with a dented car or damaged house. Crates of gold notes and hell currency sent to the deceased must bear the names of the sender and recipient, or they may risk being taken by others.

Wake-up call

Visitors to the graves sites sometimes let off fire-crackers as a “wake-up” call for the spirits. After leaving the offerings at the tombs for some time, the worshippers flips coins twice to check on the progress. Two heads or two tails means that the spirits have not finished savouring the delicacies. A head and a tail means that they have finished their meal.

Kleptomaniacs not allowed

If you see an umbrella on the grave, leave it alone. Don’t even think of borrowing it to keep the sun or the rain out. The umbrella is a symbolic shield for the dead from the thunder and lightning. The visitor who takes the umbrella risks inviting the spirit to his home. Similarly, coins found on cemetary grounds should remain on the ground as it is believed that they belong to the spirits.

Call in the contractors

Cracked tombs must be repaired or misfortune may befall the next-of-kin or future generations. Similarly, water-logged graves are bad feng shui and must be renovated to avert bad luck and misfortune.

Curiosity kills

When scrutinising the tombstones of strangers, do not pass comments like: “Oh, what a pity he died young”. Or, “Isn’t she pretty?” Such remarks may be misinterpreted by the spirit which may follow you home.

Fire or water cleansing?

Before visiting the grave sites, some Chinese would place pomelo leaves and sprigs of pine in their pockets. These leaves are believed to serve as talismans. The leaves are thrown away before the worshippers reach home, to shake of bad luck.

Shoe code

Slippers and sandals are not worn to the grave sites. The Chinese wear shoes, and when they reach home, they would remove the socks and shoes and wash them to get rid of bad luck.

Watch your step

The living should avoid stepping on hell currencies at the grave site lest the spirits feel despised and trampled upon. It is also forbidden for one to walk over or tread on someone’s grave. Old Chinese cemeteries are rather crowded with narrow walkways between graves. If you need to cross over a grave, it is customary to say: “Excuse me. Pardon me for crossing over your abode.”

Forbidden fruits

A banana tree marks the grave of a pregnant woman who died in childbirth. As the banana tree is fast growing, it is planted to appease the spirit of the dead. The belief is that when the tree bears fruit, the spirit will be comforted as the banana is symbolic of a new child to take place of the woman’s unborn child. It is forbidden to pluck the banana as this may cause anguish to the spirit and incur her wrath.

The pineapple is regarded as an auspicious fruit to usher in luck ( ong lai in Hokkien means “luck comes” ). The fruit is offered at the grave site and then taken home. The fruit can be eaten but the crown of the pineapple is often planted in the garden. Some believe that by doing so, the family will prosper.

I find that this article is really informative in providing glimpses of some Chinese customs that have been handed down from generations to generations. Some of us as still practising the customs as our parents and their parents do it. But, not many of us know the reasons these are being practised. I hope by sharing the above article, others also get to learn something new :)

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