Today (April 5) is Qing Ming Jie, or Grave Sweeping Festival in China. It’s sort of like Memorial Day in the US, but with a lot more religious overtones. On this day, Chinese are supposed to tend to the graves of the ancestors. But this is done out of much more than respect, but as a way of actually caring for and looking after the departed ancestors. In traditional Chinese folk religion, the deceased enter the realm of the spirits, and continue to exert influence and control on the living. In other words, they’re still there. And in a Confucian society, the obligation to not only worship, but look after the spirits of the decieased remain. One motiviation is the duty-driven notion of filial piety, that each generation venerates and cares for the generation above it. Another is a bit more pragmatic. Since these spirits have powers, it’s best to stay on their good side by caring for them and their graves.
Besides tending to the graves of the ancestors, Chinese traditionally used this day to send the deceased things they might need in the afterlife, but that apparantly are not available. Money, of course is the main thing. So on this day, traditionally, the living would burn paper money that would be carried to the afterworld in the smoke and ashes. But since no one actually wants to burn real money, there is special "hell money" that is sold in the days and weeks preceeding the festival. Vendors selling it suddenly appear everywhere. In modern times, it’s not just money that is sent, but other things the ancestors might need as well, such as paper cars, paper bank books, paper villas. All of which are burned on the streets in the evening.
All over town tonight, people will make small fires on the streets to burn the money and things to send to their ancestors. It’s an interesting contrast to the upcoming Fuhuo Jie (Return to Life Festival).
Here’s a link to a local newspaper article about how modern Chinese are using the internet to honor their ancestors. The times, they truly are a-changing!