Ching Ming festival, once branded superstition, is revived as holiday

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 April, 2008, 12:00am

The mainland observes the Ching Ming festival, or grave-sweeping day, today as a public holiday for the first time in its modern history.

The central government decided to cut back the week-long May Day break in November and make national holidays out of three traditional festivals. The others are the Dragon Boat festival in June and the Mid-Autumn Festival in September.

The Ching Ming festival is important to a people who worship their ancestors. But it was not listed as a public holiday when the Communist Party established the People's Republicin 1949. The party considered the festival to be part of a 'rotten' and 'superstitious' old culture.

But calls for the restoration of traditional culture and festivals have gained momentum in recent years. The central government is also eager to revive traditional culture to counter the influence of globalisation and to strengthen national identity.

A recent poll by the Beijing Social Facts and Public Opinion Survey Centre found that about 60 per cent of 1,586 respondents planned to sweep their ancestors' graves today.

The media estimated that more than 10 million residents of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou would honour their ancestors today.

Many interviewees said they would visit their relatives' graves, tend to them and offer the deceased food, flowers and their favourite items.

Tang Nanhua of Guangzhou said yesterday that he was happy to be able sweep his ancestors' graves on the festival day.

'We had to take leave to do it before,' he said. 'The Ching Ming festival is very important to our family. Relatives from Hong Kong or even overseas come back. Now that it has become a holiday, we have more time to worship our ancestors.'

For those who cannot burn tributes at real gravesites, there is always the option of honouring the dead at online cemeteries, where millions of virtual tombs have been established.

'My classmates and I set up a virtual tomb for a female schoolmate who died years ago,' clerk Zheng Yingjie said.

'We left school 10 years ago, and we don't even know where her family keeps her ashes. The website is the place for us to show that we miss her. We just need to click the site and leave some words there.'

The Ching Ming festival, which usually falls on April 4 or 5, was established by an ancient emperor in memory of a loyal official who sacrificed himself to save the monarch's life. The day gradually became a traditional time for paying homage to departed ancestors.

But the festival has also, at times, become political.

During the 1976 Ching Ming festival, about 2 million people gathered in and around Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of Zhou Enlai , the former premier. The gathering soon became a mass protest against the Gang of Four, the group of leaders that spearheaded the Cultural Revolution.

Some contributors to mainland online bulletin board services said the festival would be an opportune time to remember people whose deaths were important in history, such as Sun Zhigang, who died in police custody in Guangzhou in 2003 after being detained illegally. Sun's death led to an outcry against custody and repatriation regulations, and their eventual abolition.