On Tomb Sweeping Day (Qingming Jie) Chinese people visit the graves or burial grounds of their ancestors. We visited the Wanan cemetery in the west of Beijing together with the Li family: Li Yaoming, a retired medical practitioner in the army, his wife Zhang Liping, a retired editor at a publishing house and Li Yu, their daughter, a student in Chinese language and also my (much appreciated) assistant.
Today’s post is written by Li Yu, photos and editing by Anton Hazewinkel.
The Wanan Cemetery was built in 1930 and is one of the oldest cemeteries in Beijing. It is located at the south side of Wanan mountain. The cemetery is divided into five main areas according to the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water). Each area again is divided into different sections based on Feng Shui, Taoist concepts of Heavenly stems and Earthly branches and the “Thousand Character” classic. Translation of the photo above, on the right: “Wan You Ping An”, which means “being blessed and peaceful”.
The cemetery is known for being the burial ground of many famous people, including the drama writer Cao Yu, the calligrapher Qi Gong and one of the founders of the Communist Party: Li Dazhao (a memorial museum dedicated to him is on the same premises).
We visit the grave of my grandmother, Wang Hui (she died in 2007 at the age of 84) and my grandfather, Xiang Ming (he died in 2008 at the age of 93). On the grave stone are engraved, according to Chinese customs, the names of all the descendants.
Wanan Cemetery offers various kinds of services: a place in the cemetery wall, at the cemetery or in the Columbarium. Spending several thousands of RMB, you can put the cinerary casket in the wall with a tombstone sealing the cave for some time. However, the cinerary casket will be removed if nobody pays the management fee after a couple of years. Today, we met an unlucky guy who lost his family’s cinerary casket because his family failed to pay the management fee (he is not pictured). He was smoking quietly in front of the cemetery wall, sadly staring at the flowers he brought and placed in the empty cave. Sad as it is, he is still able to honor his family with an empty cave; if someone rents the cave, he will have nowhere to go when he misses his family.
Normal graves at the cemetery are like my grandparents’: 1 – 1.5 square meters with a tombstone. You can put four cinerary caskets inside the grave. On the front of the tombstone, there are names of dead people, the birth date and the date of their passing, the names of their children and grandchildren. If a child already passed away, workers would mark their name with a square (pictured 2nd to the left on the sixth photo below). Usually, Chinese will bury their parents together in the same grave and they will carve both of their names on the tombstone. If one of their parents is still alive, they will paint the name of the parent that did not pass away in red (the deceased name is in black and when his or her partner would die, his or her name will be changed from red to black). Before 1949, when the new republic of China was founded, many Chinese were still polygamous, thus you can see some tombstones with more than two names carved on it. In those cases the husband’s name has the biggest size, while his first wife’s name is smaller on the left, and the other wives’ names are even smaller on the right.
Some people won’t carve anything on the back of the tombstone, while others prefer to carve a brief biography, a poem or a few words to honor their families. Characters in small sizes for biography usually cost 4 RMB per character and big size characters for poems or single words cost 20 RMB per character. We met a worker carving a short biography today, he printed the article on the stone in red and then carved it according to the shape of characters. After that, he will paint all the characters in black or gold (see second picture second row below).
My grandparents’ grave costs 78,000 RMB for a lease of 20 years. We will need to repay the management fee for another 20 years.
There are some cemetery plots for big families at the entrance. They are usually as large as a private vegetable garden, thus it’s possible to set up quite a few tombstones there. Therefore, all the family members can be buried together. “Family” is the most important concept in China, one may spent his or her life somewhere away from family, however it’s comforting for Chinese to be buried together with all their relatives, who truly care about them. It’s like coming back home again.
We saw some people sitting around a table, with a cinerary casket on it, chatting with their families next to the Columbarium. They deposit the cinerary caskets inside this brick-made two-story building. People can only deposit cinerary caskets in the Columbarium for three years and the price varies from 90 RMB – 210 RMB. It’s the cheapest to deposit on the first and the 10th layer, while the middle layers are the most expensive ones. According to the website of Wanan Cemetery, the Columarium was fully occupied by March, 2008. In the middle of the photos above is the mailbox for sending letters to the deceased. Alternatively emails can be used as well to send messages to the beloved ones that are not with us anymore.
The management of the cemetery charges 3,000 RMB per year per square meter for cleaning. Families who don’t pay for this have to clean it themselves. Like many families, my family takes care of the tomb sweeping ourselves.
The normal procedure for tomb sweeping these days is to buy flowers at the flower store near the cemetery (the price for flowers varies from 20 RMB – 200 RMB), get some water in the cemetery at the taps that are placed around the tombs and clean the tombstone (visitors usually bring their own containers and cloths), place the flowers, desserts, drinks, or even alcohol and cigarettes in front of the tombstone. After that, people will talk with the dead for a while, about what happened recently（or just talk in silence）. Finally, all the families would bow for three times to show their honors (or pray with hands clasped together).In the past, many people would fire paper money for the dead; nowadays most people just put the paper money in front of the grave for an environment-friendly alternative. Nevertheless, in front of the entrance a truck of the fire brigade stands by in case something goes wrong with the burning of the paper money.
After sweeping the tomb of my grandparents, Anton asked my parents a few questions.
My father said that Tomb Sweeping Day is the second most important festival in China; for all the families are able to get together. That’s also the reason why it is so crowded everywhere. My father’s hometown is in Jiangxi, where people maintain the most traditional way for tomb sweeping. Usually we go with more people on the Tomb Sweeping Day, but the other relatives are out of town at the moment, we will repeat the ceremony of sweeping the tomb and honoring my grandparents in May this year.
When asked how they celebrated tomb sweeping day before my grandparents passed away, my mom said that since she’s not a native Beijinger and her relatives are in Shanghai, Beijing, Wuxi and other provinces, they didn’t visit each other very often because they are getting old. Thus, they never exercised tomb sweeping before her parents passed away.
According to my parents, an increasing number of people go to cemeteries since 2008, when the government announced it a three-day holiday.
My mom has volunteered for organ donation after her death. She says that there is a special tombstone for people who have donated their organs, but she does not want it because she has a family grave. She also emphasizes that more and more people are willing to plant trees in the cemetery to honor their dead families these days, which is a new and environment friendly way to honor the dead.
While walking around the cemetery we see some graves that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (at that time the government appealed the public to break old traditions, and graves were one of the four traditions that were to be destroyed). Some of the destroyed graves have been repaired by their offspring, some are still in ruins.
In recent years, the management of the cemetery has come up with new ideas to honor the dead in an environmental friendly way (as opposed to burning paper money). One of the new ways of honoring is to attach tags with personal messages held by red and yellow treads to bamboo stems.