More than 5,000 years ago, the Chinese venerated the dead through focused and highly organized ceremonies. Mere shadows remain today, remnants of ancestor worship. For 1,000 years the Chinese have celebrated the annual festival of Qingming, translated as “the day of clear brightness,” a form of the old ancestor worship ritual.
On this day, only men, all named Wei, are allowed to participate in the rituals, which consists of hiking to the local cemetery, the place where the ancestors are buried. Here the mounds of dirt are organized in neat rows, each row representing a distinct generation. The work begins on the front line, which are the most recently deceased, such as mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles. Then, the work progresses to grandfathers, great-grandfathers and so forth.
Each worker will especially pay attention to his own relatives, weeding the mounds and piling fresh dirt on top. Special gifts, such as cigarettes or alcohol are given for the benefit of the dead. Sometimes, specially made money will be burned for use in the after-life. Eventually, towards morning the men, named Wei, will get to the oldest grave plot, where it becomes less certain whose ancestor is buried beneath. The work then becomes less personal, and more communal in nature.
Each mound represents a house for the dead, and if Wei completes the work within the time-frame given (Qingming must be finished before dawn,) it means that the dead ancestor will receive a tile roof on their house. If they are late, the dead will only receive a thatched roof. So, it is expedient that Wei works quickly and efficiently, without spending time visiting with his neighbor.
Archeologists have discovered that the graves of the Chinese are immaculately organized and hold a vast array of wealth. The tradition of burying bodies with material wealth goes back as far as the fifth millennim B.C., where some of the graves contained pottery and jade. It has been from about 1600 B.C. that written evidence surfaced which helped archeologists understand how the Chinese viewed the after-life.
The Chinese used a form of communication, written on turtle shell bone to send messages to dead ancestors, asking for help. For instance, if someone had a health problem, the problem would be presented to the relative because they were considered to have a great influence in these matters. As well, ancestors held great power over small, even inconsequential daily activities. Unfortunately, unhappy ancestors were thought to cause illness and disaster, if they weren’t appeased just right.
Excavation by Archeologists have found written bone evidence referring to human sacrifices that were meant to appease the maddened ancestors. Tombs in Hanan Province were found to have more than 1,200 sacrificial pits, mostly filled with the remains of human beings.
The rituals, from a cultural perspective, was simply a well-organized calendar of events where certain sacrificial days were devoted to a particular ancestor. The purpose of the dead ancestor was in seeking his favor, not about remembering how he lived his life. The more recently dead dealt with small matters, while more responsibility for bigger issues was given to the longer deceased relative.
Thankfully, of course, the living sacrifices eventually died down to being sacrifices of a more spiritual nature. Objects called mingqui (spirit objects,) such as ceramic sculptures were used in place of the old-time sacrifices. In our current day, ceremonial fervor has died down, leaving only Qingming as a remembrance. Fewer participants show up every succeeding year. However, some elements of the old ways still remain, such as the giving of gifts to appease the ancestors.
As I learn about another mans culture, I try and remain objective, realizing that to the individuals involved, Qingming has great spiritual meaning. I try to be understanding and thoughtful. Still, there is a part of me that rebels against erroneous belief. Where human sacrifice was involved, does it require my tolerant understanding? As I reflect upon my American culture, I realize that many of us, having been raised under false belief systems are, for all intents and purposes, a living sacrifice.
I now have an understanding that the religious institutions which have stolen lives in their quest for money, are just bizarre twists of pagan ancestor worship. Religions who insist that putting money in their coffers will “get uncle Jack out of Pergatory,” (Catholicism) or “being baptized for the dead,” will help Aunt Judy go to heaven (Mormonism,) are each similar in nature to the Chinese ancestor worship. No matter how sincere the individual is, no less the victim they are. Yet, freedom lies within the hand of the adult individual, to either continue man-made tradition or do what many Chinese have done. The Chinese only moderately practice Qingming today, and some think it may eventually die out altogether. Maybe there is a lesson in that.