Note: This article was first published in 2016.
This weekend, thousands of Hongkongers will visit their ancestral graves to pay their respects on Ching Ming. For many, the traditions are elaborate. That was the case for George Bayley, a long-time British-born resident of Hong Kong. The last time he accompanied his wife and her family on Ching Ming, they climbed up a hill to their family tomb.
“It was very overgrown, so they hacked away at the undergrowth to clear it,” he recalls. “My father-in-law then lit two candles and placed them at the tomb entrance. After that, he lit a bundle of joss sticks off the candles and handed three to each person, who all bowed three times to the tomb and planted them in the ground, as you would a god in a temple.” That was followed by three more joss sticks on each side of the tomb, along with a bowl of rice left at the back. Three cups were lined up in front and filled with wine. Ghost money was put on the ground. Then his father-in-law cut the throat of a live chicken, splashing blood over the money. Firecrackers followed. Finally, he says, “the food was picked up and the wine poured over the ground in front of the tomb. When we got home, the food was presented to the ancestral tablets at the family altar.”
There is a reason behind each of these rituals. The offering of pleasant smelling incense, food and wine is to please the ancestor. The blood sacrifice of the chicken is an ancient practice intended to curry favour with the gods, in this case perhaps to ensure that the ghost money finds its way to the dead. 金紙 (gam1 zi2) or ghost money, is paper money burned for the dead. The act of burning it, sends it to the departed in the underworld, where they have just as much need for money as the living. After seeing to the grave, the family then tend to the ancestor tablets at the home altar.
Bayley’s experience is not necessarily typical, but it gives us insight into the rituals that will be conducted on the holiday, when many of Hong Kong’s Chinese families head to the hills for Ching Ming to visit the places where their antecedents are interred. Whether it’s a small box in a wall or a grand horseshoe grave, Hongkongers will honour their ancestors.
Ancestor worship sits at the core core of Chinese spirituality, which makes Ching Ming an especially important date in the traditional Chinese calendar. Also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, cing1 ming4 zit3 (清明節) literally means Pure Brightness Festival. It is a day for the living to honour the dead and it has been a significant holiday since the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC). Ching Ming falls on the first day of the fifth solar term in the Chinese calendar, 15 days after the spring equinox. As the first term of spring it signifies clearness and brightness, an auspicious time. By 732 AD, the rituals surrounding ancestor worship had become particularly elaborate among China’s elites, stretching on for several days. Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, the ruler at the time, decreed that all rituals be restricted to the first day of Ching Ming in order to curb over-glorification of elite family ancestors.
Tomb Sweeping coincides with the ancient Cold Food Festival, hon4 sik6 zit3 (寒食節), a traditional three-day observance. In the Spring and Autumn Period (771 – 476 BC), Duke Wen of Jin was deposed. During his 19 year exile, only one man, Jie Zitui, stuck by him. When Duke Wen finally regained his throne, Jie, not interested in status, hid in the mountains. Duke Wen wanted his friend to share in his glory and had fires lit to flush him out from the mountains, accidentally killing Jie. The Duke, in his sadness, declared that nobody could use fire on those three days of each year, effectively stopping people from cooking food. The tradition of eating cold food is rarely observed these days, but some people still eat cing1 tyun4 (青团), cold glutinous green rice dumplings, during Ching Ming.
Traditionally, when someone dies, the services of a geomancer (also known as a feng shui master) are required. The location of a grave in the landscape determines how good the fung1 seoi2 (風水) of a site is. Chinese people conventionally placed their ancestor in the best location in order to ensure a good harvest from their lands and prosperity for their family. The thinking is that as the landscape affects us when we are alive, so it does when we are dead. As we are connected by blood to our family, their happiness — even in death — has an effect on us. The act of caring for the tomb of a family’s predecessor is therefore a vital task each year.
Ancestor reverence at Ching Ming is not restricted to actual tombs. Many families keep altars in their homes, which house the spirit tablets of five generations of ancestors. These receive daily offerings of wine or tea and incense throughout the year. Ancient Chinese thought proclaims that a person has a two-part soul. The bok3 (魄) or yin part of the soul, descends into the grave with the body and the wan4 (魂), the yang part, ascends from the body to be contained in a san4 zyu2 paai4 (神主牌) or spirit tablet. While caring for the grave is important, so is looking after the tablet. After five generations have passed, tablets are moved from the altar in the family home to the ci4 tong4 (祠堂), the ancestral clan hall. In the hall, there is row upon row of tablets for people to make offerings to all of the clan’s ancestors. While the ancestral hall tradition is slowly dying out in Hong Kong, some beautiful examples remain, like the Tang Clan Hall in Ping Shan, the King Law Ka Shuk in Tai Po and the Leung Ancestral Hall in Pat Heung. These buildings were used for honouring the ancestors as well as being a community space for meetings and teaching students.
The ancient practices of ancestor worship were crystallised by Confucian teachings. Kongzi, known to us as Confucius, lived in the Chinese state of Lu in the 5th century BC. He was a man from an aristocratic background, whose family had fallen on hard times. He was a traditionalist and believed in a return to old ways and long rituals. His teachings were not much respected in his own lifetime, but slowly seeped in to Chinese political thought throughout the reign of various emperors. Confucius created a doctrine that promoted respect for moral authority and reverence of ones parents and ancestors. He and his successors laid out a series of complex doctrines and rites that have survived into modern times, including much of the ritual regarding how to care for spirit tablets.
Space is a premium in Hong Kong, which means traditional burial plots are prohibitively expensive. Most people are now cremated and their remains placed in a small vault in a temple or columbarium and sealed with a stone cover. These little tombs can be found in the larger Taoist and Buddhist temples in the New Territories. Buddhists put their remains in the care of Ksitigarbha, known in Cantonese as dei6 zong6 (地藏), the guardian of the dead. Taoists trust their ashes to the countless array of gods and immortals who affect the fate of the departed person. Many Hongkongers visit their ancestors at places such as Ching Chung Koon in Tuen Mun.
Ching Ming today
Not all rituals are as elaborate as those of Bayley’s family. Shirley Kwan, a young, well-educated Hongkonger, sees Ching Ming as a time to connect with family. Shirley’s day is quite typical for many people in Hong Kong: “My grandma usually prepares barbecue pork for worshipping purposes,” she explains. “We visit my ancestors in the temple and then have lunch with my family afterwards. It’s a day to visit my ancestors and have a family gathering. Its a family tradition and we show respect to our ancestors.”
While Ching Ming is many things to many people, it is first and foremost a day for the living to connect to the dead. It is not a mournful time, but one of reverence combined with happiness. While not as grand a celebration as Chinese New Year, it is an opportunity to gather relatives together and remember where they came from and where they are going. Ultimately, it is about one thing: family.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.