Friday, April 07, 2006

Ching Ming, the Grave-sweeping Festival 清明時節

Ching Ming, the Grave-sweeping Festival

“A drizzling rain falls like tears on the Mourning Day;
The mourner's heart is going to break on his way.
Where can a wineshop be found to drown his sad hours?
A cowherd points to a cot 'mid Apricot Flowers.”

This well known poem by Du Mu of the Tang Dynasty has described well the normal weather condition at Ching Ming – it rains. In fact as far as I have remembered, 80% of the past Ching Ming Festival were raining days. The Ching Ming Festival this year was a bit unusual. It did not rain, just being warm and cloudy with occassional sunny spells, but not a single drop of rain. The even more unusual (and luckily) thing was, there was only 13 reports of hill fire.
For the Chinese, it is a day to remember and honour one's ancestors, and to tend to the graves of the departed ones. It is also the time when spring returns to the good earth and the land is greened again by the newly sprouted, a perfect time for the family to have a stroll among the greenery of the countryside after tending to the graves of the ancestors. The act of strolling in the field in spring time in such occasion was called “Spring Visit” or “Stepping into the Green” in the ancient time. This had been a long-time custom in many parts of the country for Ching Ming Festiival, and hence the other name for the occasion, “The Stepping into the Green Festival”. Some people (e.g. the people of Shantou region) are still following the custom nowadays.

As the weather normally starts to get warmer and wetter around the time of the Ching Ming Festival, it is also the right time for planting trees and corps, there is an old Chinese saying “It is the right time to plant the melon and bean seedlings around Ching Ming, so are the saplings”. Planting trees at Ching Ming was another old Chinese custom.

Sweeping the graves, offering food and libation to the ancestors and departed family members during Ching Ming is still a popular custom followed by many Chinese people nowadays. However, the customs of “Stepping into the Green” and tree planting have long been forgotten by many. Instead, there is a new replacement - “Burn to the ground”.

There are two important dates for remembering and honouring the ancestors in Chinese custom, one in the spring time, namely the Ching Ming, and the other in the autumn, namely the Chung Yang. Six months after the last tending to the graves, they must have been covered by the overgrown again. Due to laziness, some people just set the grave ground on fire to clear all the overgrown. Being careless during the common ritual of burning the offerings made of papers to the ancestors is also another cause of hill fire. But the most ridiculous of all is the intentional burning of the whole surrounding area to the ground by some selfish, immoral and foolish people, just base on the groundless speculation that burning the whole place will bring them good fortune and wealth. This is a crime that not only destroy the vast area of vegetation and all the living things within the area, but also threaten the lives and properties of the nearby villagers and hikers. In 1999, there were a total of 443 reports on hill fire in a single day during Ching Ming, and 300 hectares of hillside bushland was burned to ground. In 2001, 35 hikers and grave-sweepers were trapped by the hill fire and nearly died at Yuen Long.

Introducing such a disaster to nature and other people just for the sake of wishing for their own good fortune and wealth, I do not believe that their ancestors would answer such immoral and evil prayers from their descendants.









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