Burning Paper Maids

The ancient (and now legal) tradition of Tomb Sweeping Day

Dear all

For the third of the world’s population that call themselves Christian, tomorrow (April 4th) is the important celebration of Easter Sunday. About 1.5 billion Chinese people will be celebrating a festival that is even older than Christ, one that has bounced back from the dead in recent years to become one of the most popular Chinese traditions: Qing Ming, or Tomb Sweeping Day. As always please remember to like, share and subscribe.

Thanks for all the feedback I had following last Tuesday’s rather depressing post (Spiralling Down to Cold War 2). Although relations between the West and China seem to be dropping daily – the BBC’s John Sudworth has just fled the country after he had had enough of the “grim reality of reporting in China” – it is clear to me that it’s more important than ever to try and bridge the understanding between the two sides. This newsletter is my small attempt to do just this.

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Qing Ming is the annual occasion when Chinese families come together to honour their ancestors. Graves are cleaned and swept, flowers are placed, and the dead plied with food and gifts that they might be able to use in the afterlife. 

Money and paper offerings are traditionally burned at the graveside. Sometimes more extravagant paper shapes are used, such as cut-out cars, and even paper versions of maids. In these times of Covid, a shop near Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia (which is about 22% Chinese) is selling paper masks and goggles in the hope that their ancestors can use them to fight the virus in the afterlife.

The origins of Qing Ming are obscure, but the general consensus is that it became part of the calendar in the Spring and Autumn Period (around 771 BC – 475 BC). 

The story goes like this. In the seventh century BC there was a man named Jie Zitui, a loyal retainer of an exiled prince called Chong’er. After a long time wandering the land the prince was close to starvation, but Jie had a plan: he boiled up some water, adding meat from his own thigh to make a hearty soup. Chong'er wondered where his retainer had obtained the central ingredient, and when he found out he was so moved that he promised to reward him one day.

A couple of decades later and Chong’er had retaken his throne. He had, however, forgotten about his former savour Jie. When he was reminded about how his life had been saved by his self-mutilation, Chong’er (now called Duke Wen) decided to find Jie and reward him. His efforts didn’t, however, go to plan. 

The Duke was told that Jie was living in the wild, but despite a strenuous search the former companion could not be found. So determined was the Duke to find Jie that he ordered the woods he was hiding in to be torched so as to force him from his lair. Perhaps predictably, the flames instead had the effect of killing Jie, along with his mother.

So upset was he by the result of his actions that Duke Wen ordered Jie buried with dignity – and when he came to visit the grave the following year, Qing Ming was established. 

Qing Ming might be two and a half thousand years old, but it is only just back in fashion. Like most old traditions, Qing Ming fell foul of Communist Party contempt and so was banned. It became even more contentious in Beijing’s eyes when, in 1976, a low-level attempt at celebrating Qing Ming was used as cover for protestors to show their displeasure at official indifference to the death of the former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. Zhou was the popular former premier of China and right-hand man of Chairman Mao, but despite being one of the founders of the People’s Republic, he suffered a fall from grace during the Cultural Revolution. In a small-scale rehearsal of the 1989 Tiananmen Square unrest, thousands of Qing Ming protestors overturned cars and torched a police post. No one was killed, but dozens were arrested and sent to labour camps.

The most notable fallout from the incident was the dismissal of Deng Xiaoping, who was blamed for organising it. Deng of course would rise again, and not long after became the Chinese leader and kicked off the reforms that have led to forty years of economic growth.

Like Deng, Qing Ming has also been rehabilitated. With the CCP confident of its position atop Chinese political society, it has over the last two decades or so brought back to life many of the ancient customs, including Tomb Sweeping Day, which is now a public holiday.

One man who would have been glad to see the return of Qing Ming was the person who did more than anyone else to create such a strong ritualised sense of the past in China, Confucius. Next time we will look at Confucianism and examine its role in the China of today.