Qing Ming Festival is a day in which Chinese families head to the graveyard and clean the tombs of their ancestors. It is interesting because it helps us understand how traditional Chinese ideas about death survive in modern China despite Mao’s efforts to eliminate them.
It can be said that the Chinese used to believe the spirits of their ancestors were in three places: the grave, the ancestral tablet, and in the Chinese afterworld. It’s not correct to refer to it as heaven or hell, since the afterlife was in most ways the same as their temporal one.
It was also believed that ancestors had the ability to help our hurt one’s situation in life. If the tomb was not swept on Qing Ming, if offerings were not made, or if the ancestors were in any way left wanting, they could ruin your life. Choosing a gravesite was of the upmost importance and would require the assistance of a Fengshui master (really).
Ideally the site would be on the side of a hill overlooking a body of water. This was meant to create an optimal resting place that would ensure the prosperity of later generations. This makes a lot of sense pragmatically, since these locations are difficult for farming or building upon. In the countryside it is very common to see burial mounds in the middle of fields, but I’m at a loss for a practical explanation of this practice.
If the family came upon hard times they would again consult a Fengshui master (usually a different one than before). Based on this new consultation they might move the grave to a better location to try to alter their luck. The practice continues to this day, as I had a friend whose family was considering moving a great-grandfather after two family members died in accidents.
These ideas about death help us to understand why Mao’s efforts to promote cremation remained unpopular in China.
For Qing-Ming Festival the husband’s family will gather together at the ancestral gravesite to clean the tomb and perform a variety of ceremonies. These acts are meant to keep the spirits happy and ensure good luck for the next year.
One of the most important acts is to send a variety of objects that the deceased “need” in the spirit world. The method for sending these items is by burning them.
Luckily for everyone, the spirit-world doesn’t use normal money, which the dead apparently need piles of. In the markets this time of year vendors will be selling stacks of different kinds of spirit money often called “Hell Dollars”. The most plain is a white piece of paper with a little gold foil in the middle, but there are also a number of bills that look something like dollars or RMB. They range from $1 all the way to $1,000,000,000,000 (which makes me concerned about inflation in the afterlife).
They also burn drawings or paper models of other items that the dead might want. Typically mansions, cars, or new clothes, although lately there have even been paper computers and i-Phones.
Anthropologically speaking these acts are important because they serve as a time for the family to come together and strengthen their clan bonds, since their ancestors would be buried together. Today as Chinese families move further apart, Qing Ming is more important than ever.