Tomb Sweeping Festival was a rather different affair this year. While China is officially an atheist country, and the major organised religions only have relatively small numbers of followers here, the majority of the population belong to a patchwork of local folk religions with a strong emphasis on ancestor worship. As such, Qingming (Tomb Sweeping Festival in English) is an important part of their calendar, it is a time for the living to honour the dead.
They honour their ancestors, but it is also a time for families to commemorate the lives of their departed relatives. They visit them in the cemetery, clean their tombs or gravestones, and offer food and symbolic money in a solemn ceremony of remembrance. While there are folk religious elements to this, like lighting a changming lamp or burning paper money to ensure the dead can travel safely to the next world, the way these rituals help the living break free from the shadow of the deceased and come to terms with the reality of death are important, even for the non-religious.
This year, however, many were not able to observe this tradition, even as the country was collectively grieving for all those killed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Out of fear of further outbreaks many cities still have bans on mass gatherings, which includes the crowds normally found in cemeteries during this particular festival.
For many this was the first Qingming since the passing of a relative, Covid-19 related or not. It must have been particularly heartbreaking for them to not be able to take part in their traditional rituals. Even more so for those who lost loved ones to the virus, who due to the infectious nature of the disease didn’t get to say goodbye – no last kisses or clasped hands during the final hours.
All over the country relatives could be seen trying to view their loved ones final resting place from a distance. Many funeral parlours have turned to online services, including virtual reality visits to cemeteries and digital flowers and candles. Many offered to clean tombs and leave flowers for the deceased, free of charge. We can only hope that the cancelling of these rituals and internment services will not leave family members of the deceased unable to come to terms with their loss. Funerals and memorial services are, after all, important for ensuring the mental health of surviving family members.
This year, timed to coincide with Qingming, the government announced a national day of mourning for those lost to the pandemic. At 10:00 on Saturday, Chinese people all over the country observed three minutes of silence, while car horns and air raid sirens wailed in grief. The previous day, the Hubei government had honoured 14 victims of the virus, front line medical workers including the previously reprimanded Li Wenliang, as martyrs.
In China, and all over the world, this loss is being felt collectively. Burials, funerals and other rituals after major disasters are a way to say farewell to the dead, console the living, and heal the wounds of personal and collective pain. They shape our memory of the event into a shared social legacy; they can be a lesson, a warning, and a source of emotional encouragement or spiritual motivation.
These rituals are usually one of two kinds: the personal (things like funerals and tomb sweeping activities) or the public (top down orchestrated public services). Both are needed at times like this. Of course, the Western media propaganda machine never misses an opportunity to spread fake news about China, even during times like this they are up to their usual tricks. I’ve seen the public mourning services being reported as something sinister, designed to further control how the people are able express themselves.
Now in the past the Chinese government might well have put too much emphasis on public mourning at the expense of personal mourning. I have a difficult time believing they did this for sinister or ulterior motives and, regardless, modern China is markedly different from its past. The Communist Party learns and evolves.
Take the Tangshan earthquake as example, which in 1976 killed at least 240,000 people. Immediately after the quake, state media focussed on residents’ “anti-earthquake spirit”. At the time the party viewed traditional rituals and burial services as part of the nation’s feudal past. The dead were buried quickly, often in unmarked graves. Those who lost loved ones in the disaster quietly burned offerings of paper money on silent streets.
Over the years these individual expressions of mourning and memory persisted in the city, especially around Tomb Sweeping Festival and the anniversary of the quake. A business man, sniffing out a way to cash in on the massive loss of life, unveiled a memorial wall on which relatives could carve the names of their deceased – for a price of course. Despite the crassness of the project, and its blatant commercialism, thousands of orders were placed by people looking for a place where they could visit their loved ones, touch their name, or simply cry. Eventually the government ordered the wall torn down and unveiled a free one of its own, a move indicative of the authorities changing attitudes towards personal grief and mourning.
Holding a national day of mourning or building a statue to Li Wenliang (as one Hubei politician has called for) can be a powerful way to remember a disaster. It is also vital to allow traumatised individuals a means to vent their emotions, find hope and preserve personal memories. I want you to know that contrary to what is suggested by Western media, in China these means do exist and are allowed. Take Li Wenliang’s final Weibo post (Weibo is the Chinese equivalent of Twitter). Netizens have turned it into a sort of shrine, a place where they can spill their thoughts. Some thank him, some say they miss him, some tell him Wuhan has finally contained the virus, some talk of bewilderment and some talk of courage.
In the coming months other countries around the globe will be having their own public mourning services, and countless individuals will be processing their own personal grief. Our emotions and memories that we take forward with us from this period are all a part of the collective legacy of this disaster.