Ching Ming a bow to rationality and tradition

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am

Mainland Chinese were more easily able to observe the Ching Ming festival yesterday, as it was made a public holiday for the first time in more than half a century. This is a welcome development.

For decades, the central government denounced the ancient practice of worshipping ancestors on grave-sweeping day as superstitious. This was despite - or rather, precisely because - it is one of the three most important traditional Chinese festivals during the year. Beijing has wisely now reversed course. It has made Ching Ming, the Dragon Boat festival in June and the Mid-Autumn festival in September public holidays as part of a programme to promote a revival of traditional culture. Millions took advantage of the new holiday yesterday and provincial officials joined the celebrations, holding lavish ceremonies to mark the festival.

But designating the new national holidays is also practical in that it helps to shorten the chaotic 'golden weeks', during which half a billion people move around the country. Every year, the mandatory holidays have stretched roads and transport services to breaking point. They can make going on holiday an ordeal, instead of a relaxing time. Shortening the 'golden weeks' of the Lunar New Year, Labour Day and National Day will take some of the pressure off not only the transport systems, but also millions of migrant workers and their families. Already, some better-off mainland families are taking advantage of the new long-weekend holiday at this time of year to enjoy short tours to tourist destinations within China and across Asia.

But more importantly, people were for the first time able to visit their ancestral graves yesterday without having to take leave from work. This is a privilege that Hong Kong people have long taken for granted because Ching Ming has always been a public holiday here.

Despite the government's past refusal to recognise traditional festivals, they have remained significant occasions for Chinese people on the mainland. This is especially the case with Ching Ming, when people wish to pay their respects to the dead. There have been times when this festival has, for some, taken on political overtones. Some 2 million people gathered in Tiananmen Square during the 1976 Ching Ming festival, ostensibly to mourn the death of premier Zhou Enlai. But the gathering soon turned into a protest against the Gang of Four, leading to the eventual downfall of the masterminds behind the Cultural Revolution. The June 4 tragedy in 1989, again in Tiananmen Square, began as a political gathering of university students during Ching Ming to commemorate the passing of reformist party chief Hu Yaobang . By turning the festival into a national holiday, the central government has removed some of the political sensitivities surrounding it. The government has finally recognised the grave-sweeping tradition which never died and, indeed, gathered strength over the years. This comes as mainland people slowly shed their atheistic ideology as the economy and society generally are liberalised.

Over the years, concerns have arisen that China has lost its soul in its headlong rush to wealth. The government has, therefore, taken to reviving Confucianism and the values it espouses such as responsibility and duty to family and country. Remembering and paying respect to one's elders and ancestors is a key factor.

Ching Ming is, therefore, very much a part of this spiritual revival. And with the creation of a new holiday, it can be a time of fun and relaxation too.