Qingming tradition continues in US

Updated: 2012-04-04 02:20

(China Daily)

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Qingming tradition continues in US

Tunney F. Lee and his family pay tribute to their deceased relatives ahead of Tomb-sweeping Day at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts, the United States. [Provided to China Daily]

There's an upsurge of interest in Tomb-sweeping Day in the US as Chinese Americans honor their ancestors, Kelly Chung Dawson reports in New York.

Once a year, Chinese families gather at the graves of deceased relatives, bearing food, wine, joss sticks and paper replicas of worldly delights that their loved ones left behind.

The celebration of Qingming Festival, or Tomb-sweeping Day, which falls on April 4 this year, is generally a private affair, but for Chinese Americans, there are numerous ways to celebrate, and a history that demonstrates a long-standing commitment to tradition. The holiday originated with the story of Prince Chonger (697-628 BC), a young royal forced out of the imperial court by a conniving concubine. Accompanied by a loyal government official called Jie Zitui, the prince lived in exile for three years before eventually ascending to the throne. Later, as king, he summoned Jie to his side, but when his previously loyal companion refused to accede to the request, the king burned down the mountain on which Jie lived to force him out. Overcome with remorse, the king designated a day on which Jie's memory would be honored.

Thousands of years later, the holiday bears little resemblance to its origins. But the sentiment remains unchanged: To honor those who came before us and made life possible.

"It is incredibly important to us that we honor our ancestors," said Tunney F. Lee, an urban planner and former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"For first- through third-generation Chinese immigrants in America, it continues to be an important annual tradition."

On Qingming, Lee's family visits the graves of his grandfather and mother, who are both buried in Boston. The family brings chicken, iced wine, incense and paper money. Each member of the family bows three times before the gravestone, lighting incense in honor of the deceased and pouring wine on the ground. In the past, food might have been left at the graves, but "we're practical people", Lee said, with a laugh.

Terry Abraham, former head of the Special Collections library at the University of Idaho and author of Chinese Cemeteries and Burial Practices in the Pacific Northwest, described the ritual as an exchange between the living and the dead.

"In a sense, the families are saying, 'We provide you with certain objects and representations of objects, and we are asking you to provide us with your support and good fortune,'" said Abraham. "There is an exchange taking place, and the common sentiment is that people who have died and have gone beyond to the next world are not really very far away at all. They're shadows around the corner, just outside the vision of your eyes, and you can provide them with what they need."

For some families, there is a deeply superstitious element to the ritual.

"In my family, there is an elaborate process of burning joss sticks and bank notes, both when you arrive and when you leave," said Silvia Pan, a student at Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York, and a third-generation immigrant. "There is a feeling that if you leave without paying, your ancestors will follow you when you leave, and you don't want spirits to follow you. It's really bad luck, so if you don't do everything you're required to do, you'll have bad luck in the next year."

The negative connotations of this superstitious aspect of the holiday may be a contributory factor to why younger generations of Chinese in the US are less interested in the holiday, Pan said.

"I think that because the holiday is centered around the belief that ancestors will give you bad luck if you don't worship them, there's a negative feeling, from an American point of view," she admitted. "It's very superstitious, so I'm not really sure if the younger generations will want to continue celebrating the holiday."

For many third-generation immigrants, whose relatives may be buried on the Chinese mainland or Hong Kong, there is a weaker connection with the past, Pan said.

"For my generation, it's not emphasized at all because all the ancestors we do know are often buried in different places. For my parents' and grandparents' generations, there was much more of a sense that it was a responsibility that you had a duty to fulfill, but I think that feeling is diluted here in the US," she added.

One method by which Chinese immigrants are combating the distance between the deceased and the living is the shipping of burial remains from China to the US, to be reburied closer to the family, said Sue Fawn Chung, professor of history, and the chair of Asian studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and co-editor of Chinese-American Death Rituals: Respecting the Ancestors.

"There is a belief that the spirit stays with the ashes," Chung said. "Some families will accept a memorial tablet, but for many, the memorial tablet isn't sufficient and the bones of the ancestors must be honored directly."

In "The Chinese Mortuary Tradition in San Francisco's Chinatown", Linda Sun Crowder reported that mortuary directors in the Bay Area have noticed a substantial increase in cases of remains arriving from China for burial in the US.

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