Lunar New Year

A cultural revolution as customs are revived

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

After being left out in cold for decades, traditional culture is back in vogue on the mainland.

Millions flocked to sweep the tombs of their ancestors on the Ching Ming festival yesterday on a national public holiday set aside specifically for the tradition - the first time the Communist Party has made such an arrangement.

In Beijing alone, the number of the people visiting public cemeteries more than tripled to 600,000 yesterday from last year's festival, according to Xinhua. A national comparative figure was not available.

Beijing resident Tong Wensi, 58, said her family went to visit her mother's tomb every year around the festival.

'We burn incense, bring food tributes and repaint the characters on the gravestone. This year we were eight people, many more than previous years, because the young people had the day off,' Ms Tong said.

'It's a good family gathering. We worked out a plan beforehand about the transport and meal arrangements. It's a quality family reunion. Contacts with relatives have been fewer and fewer these years. The young people always have too many things to keep them busy.

'Ching Ming is not like the May Day and National Day holidays and the Spring Festival. No one plays cards or mahjong. We just talk and share thoughts.'

And this was the point of reviving traditional festivals, said Chen Jing, director of Nanjing University's folk customs research centre.

'The value of Ching Ming is to consolidate family bonds, respect those who have passed away and cherish life,' Professor Chen said.

'After decades of pursuing economic development, it is time for people to slow down and think about what matters the most.'

In addition to tomb sweeping, hundreds of years ago Chinese would spend the day flying kites, playing on swings or playing games. But little of that tradition was left, and even worse, many people today were confused by flamboyant government-sponsored ceremonies in tribute to Chinese ancestors, he said.

Provincial governments have been pouncing on the legacy of mythical ancestors and promoting themselves as the most authentic places to hold memorial ceremonies.

Shaanxi and Henan, the cradles of Chinese culture, have been competing to honour Huang Di, deemed to be the first ancestor of all Han Chinese. At the same time, the city government in Shaoxing, Zhejiang, has squandered more than 200 million yuan (HK$222.37 million) on a ceremony for Da Yu, another ancient emperor, while Zhushan county in Hubei has spent 15 million yuan paying tribute to Nu Wa, a legendary heroine.

'It is a good thing if they really want to pay tribute. But in fact, they are competing with each other to attract tourists. They take advantage of the festival to pursue economic interests. It's destructive of the culture,' Professor Chen said.

Critics in internet chat rooms said grand events satisfied local governments' desires for spending sprees.