Featured image – A taoist priest as seen in a film.
I want to cover this topic now, as Tomb Sweeping Day seems the most appropriate time of year to push this blog post through, and there’s definitely more than enough cultural background to keep readers interested and amused.
What I’m refering to is the tradition of entire public streets and walkways occupied by giant awning, where underneath lies the coffin of the deceased, waves of guests come and go to chat, eat out, drink alcohol, all over card games and mahjong at the numerous tables set out. At hourly intervals, even during the night, taoist priests perform a dance and song ritual around the coffin as they clang gongs at spirit wakening volumes, often right under the balconies and windows of neighbouring tower blocks. On occasions in the past in Hechuan, I have been woken up for the final time that morning by the grimly familiar recording of a funeral brass band blasting out of a set of speakers at 6am.
This practice was stamped out a long time ago in Chongqing, in fact, I don’t ever recall witnessing one of these in the city itself, but up until just a year or two ago, these were a familiar sight in the less developed satellite cities and counties in the municipality.
Slowly, however, the authorities are no longer allowing this tradition, and stipulate that the rowdy participants move the show to the nearest funeral parlour殡仪馆 (Bin yi guan).
A personal account
Despite the slightly grim nature of the topic, my hope is that readers will understand and see that there are deep rooted traditions worth exploring, and that the matter overall is a much less solumn affair in China.
The personal account I wish to convey now is based on a close relative of my Chinese wife, and I attended every last stage of the three day public ceremony, precisely the style that I described above and is now slowly disappearing.
In his day, he was a high ranking public offical with the authority to appoint or promote anybody to virtually any government position. A power that the rural population coveted greatly was his approval to transfer a household from rural to urban, and in fact, the mother in law’s side of the family was only able to make this transition in such a way.
During the 70s and 80s, car ownership was virtually unheard in Hechuan County of that time, yet he was taken everywhere in a personal chauffeur driven Volkswagen. Each and every day consisted of meetings and lavish banquets with plenty of rice wine.
Eventually, though, this lifestyle over which he really had little choice in the culture of those decades caught up with him. After he suffered a debilitating stroke, the last few years of his life were spent in an unchanging cycle of sleep, TV, meals, and occasionally a little Mahjong.
For a reason I’m not quite sure of, he had difficulty swallowing and often choked on his food. I was always quite astonished that doctors never suggested a liquid diet, but the day came where he was served something unadvisable, and I needn’t describe the rest.
After receiving the phone call in Chongqing, we were in Hechuan within two hours. He was lying on a metal stretcher on the living room table, and a fairly large crowd of friends, relatives and neighbous had gathered around.
A group of taoist priests intermittently performed a ritual where they danced around the body singing hyms and clanging their gongs. At other times, they sat talking to the guests and wrote out Chinese prayers onto decorate strips of paper. As soon as I entered the apartment, a relative pinned such a strip onto my t-shirt sleeve (It was a very hot June evening!). When the song and dance commenced, I was instructed to hold a batch of incense sticks along with other immediate relatives and follow the priest in circles around the table.
In these parts of China where ancient tradition is most well preserved, there are companies and groups who offer an all inclusive package for such occasions. At a call and beckon, your local taoist priest will come with all the hardware and paraphernalia required, like strechers, refridgerated coffin, tents, awning, furniture, candles, incense, gongs, speaker systems and resident band.
A colourful Chinese expression to describe an all in one service is 一条龙服务(Yi tiao long fu wu), a whole dragon service, including head, tail and everything else.
Once the venue had been prepared, three male relatives and myself took a handle each of the strecher, and carried the body down two flights of indoor steps, across the communal gardens, out the back gate, down another large flight of steps leading to the pavement below, and finally taking firm hold of a limb and placing him inside the coffin. Empty space around the sides were filled with afterlife money, the lid was securely fastened, the generator turned on, and the refridgeration started.
Never in my life had I experienced anything like this in such a direct and hands on manner.
Despite the short notice, a huge crowd of family friends and acquaintances came to take the microphone and pay their respects, including many who owed their present fortunate circumstances to strokes of his pen back in the day.
Every family or individal that attends lays a giant wreath stood on legs around the coffin and inner tent. At the centre is a calligraphy style 奠(dian), signifying offerings to the deceased. Around the edges, personal messages and wishes are written on red ribbons hung from the wreath.
When the priests were taking a breather, the resident band took over while guests occupied the rows of chairs and tables, drinking, eating and chatting away. The atmosphere was not solumn in the least, but actually quite jolly.
Though it is technically the filial duty of male relatives to host the proceedings until dawn, I held out as long as I could possible stay conscious, until the others eventually told me to go inside and get some sleep at some point in the early hours. The next two nights thankfully went the same for me without any objection.
At 6am, I and the entire residential complex woke up to the grim sounding brass band funeral march blasting out of the sound system, that one tune that I have heard so so many times around Hechuan and sometimes on TV whenever a figurehead is being seen off.
I love how something that no neighbour in England could ever tolerate goes on so naturally with zero complaints about disruption to sleep and obstruction of entire public streets and pavements.
The daytimes went by. Guests came and went, offering gifts of money, tucking into the food and drink delivered to the tables, listening to a few tunes and rituals, before making their way.
Nothing really new happened for three days. In the very early hours of the fourth morning, the cremation was arranged at a site out of town. The whole family rendez-vous-ed in their cars, and we set off in a long convoy behind the head car.
When all the cars had left, the tents and paraphernalia were packed up and moved. By the time we returned, there was no sign anything had taken place except for a scorched patch of bricks blackened by the paper and candle burning.
Once at the crematorium, we sat in a waiting room while the logistics were been sorted for us. When our turn arrived, we were led into a room where we all walked around the body three times to that same brass band music. After that, we followed the staff as they lay the body on the automatic strecher to be cremated.
I’ll finish this post a little more briefly. The bones came out for everyone to inspect. A staff member crushed them up and put them into an expensive urn for us to take away with a cremation certificate booklet.
All the wreaths from the past three days were burnt together in a fire outside.
As the convoy drove to the cemetery, a passenger in the front car dropped afterlife money out of the window, note by note, every few seconds for the entire journey.
The taoist priest used his geomancy skills to calculate the best direction for the urn to face. The grave was covered over, flowers, candles, incense placed, firecrackers set off, and that was it. Everyone went their own ways, and that was the end of the matter.
This all happened about four years ago, so my memory is a little hazy on some of the fine details.
My main feelings after the event were mostly fatigue from the long days and nights, but in a way, the atmosphere had been surprisingly lively, and nobody went short of entertainment, alcohol or refreshments.
The wife and siblings took some considerable stick from the elders for not playing a lead role in organising the event, but the fact of the matter is that younger urban Chinese generations don’t understand the traditions like their elders, and simply don’t know what they’re expected to do.
Whenever we go back to Hechuan, the exact spot on the pavement outside the residential complex that was scorched by all the paper and candle burning is still there as a reminder.
As I mentioned at the start, I hope my readers see through the grim topic and take in the cultural aspects involved. I’ve wanted to share my experiences from this time with you, and though the Tomb Sweeping Festival was the best opportunity.
I promise everything else that follows in my blog will be more cheerful.