Qingming - Tomb-sweeping Festival
The official day for Qingming, or Tomb-sweeping Festival, was set for the following Saturday, April 5, 2014. This weekend’s plan was to get Roger to drop into Zhenbian as soon as we arrived in the area, before he jogged off into the mountains, to help me ask one of the people I knew whether I’d be able to accompany a family on their ceremonial visit.
On this festival families throughout China dress in good clothes and visit their ancestors’ graves. They tidy them, leave decorations, food, fake paper money and some baijiu, the potent Chinese liquor. They’ll have something to eat while they pay their respects.
Twenty metres inside Zhenbian’s gate, I saw Cheng Jingrui chatting to a man on the corner of an alley. Roger asked her about Qingming and she told him the following Saturday would be too late.
“Everyone is doing it now,” she said.
“What about today?” I said to Roger.
“Yes,” she said. “This man is going now.”
The farmer looked across at me and nodded. He was standing next to a small three-wheeled trailer. I expected it to be just the two of us, which was not ideal but it would do. I went out to the car to get my jacket and when I returned four members of a family were getting out of a minivan, carrying bags of food and decorations. They were all well dressed, mostly in black. There was an elderly man, a couple about 40 and their teenage son. They walked across to the trailer and the farmer man said something about me. The woman shrugged, giggled and motioned for me to take the seat next to the farmer. I shook my head and got in the back. They all laughed and climbed in.
We went 100 metres north along the county road then left onto a dirt track. The ride was noisy and bumpy. We went about 200m into the hills then walked another 100m to a sort of plateau before the mountains started to rise. There were five graves there, two with white tombstones. The graves were piles of dirt. These people had been poor. Similar dirt graves dotted the hills around the area but were only obvious around Qingming when strips of plastic were hung on nearby trees. There were no community cemetaries. Families chose their own spots to bury their loved ones.
The family members tidied the graves, tied strips of colourful plastic onto the surrounding trees and, at each grave, laid out fruit, cold meat, cake, glasses and some baijiu.
Before we left we ate some strawberries and bananas, and thought about the ancestors. The grandfather told me his father, mother and an uncle were buried there.
When we were about to leave I asked if I could take a group photo. The driver of the cart didn’t want to be in it. I realised he was one of the old man’s sons.
As I had expected, I was invited in for lunch at the grandparents’ house at Zhenbian. The older brother was there, but he was keeping himself busy with chores and didn't eat with us.
The other son and his family told me they lived 90 minutes’ drive north in Hebei. They couldn’t stay for lunch but urged me to visit them.
I told them through the teenage son, Sam, who had overcome his initial shyness and was speaking a little English he'd learnt at school, that it had been a great honour to be allowed to be with them on such an important family day.
After they left, I sat at the small table with the grandfather, Jiang Shaoqing, nibbling on nuts, sipping on tea and chatting about our lives, with the help of the translation app on my phone. All the while, I watched his wife put together a delicious meal. She prepared the ingredients on a chopping board she put on the end of the kang in the living room.