Condos, Cash and Comestibles for the Dead
Qingming 清明 happened earlier last week.
Wikipedia describes the festival thus:
The Qingming Festival …… Pure Brightness Festival or Clear Bright Festival, Ancestors Day or Tomb Sweeping Day is a traditional Chinese festival on the 104th day after the winter solstice (or the 15th day from the Spring Equinox), usually occurring around April 5 of the Gregorian calendar …… The Qingming festival falls on the first day of the fifth solar term, named Qingming. Its name denotes a time for people to go outside and enjoy the greenery of springtime (踏青 tà qīng, “treading on the greenery”) and tend to the graves of departed ones.
My family, ever thinking ahead, has made a tradition of sweeping our tombs a couple of weeks in advance of the actual date, so as to avoid the prodigious crowds that tend to show up at Choa Chu Kang cemetery around this time. The paternal grandparents are buried in different parts of the site. Grandpa – Hakka immigrant from the village of Dabu in Guangdong, China; opium addict; unseen presence in my life, having passed on in the ’70s – is buried in the older, Chinese section of the cemetery. Grandma – daughter of durian money from Kukup, Johor; pillar of strength; dispenser of two-dollar bills to the grandkids and dearly, dearly missed – was laid to the rest in the Protestant graveyard.
A legion of us headed out with bagfuls of paper offerings to visit the paterfamilias first. His grave (below), like countless others in this part of the cemetery, follows the design of a headstone fronting a burial mound – a departure from the traditional semi-circular ‘armchair’ grave favoured by southern Chinese communities, examples of which can still be found in China, Hong Kong and parts of SE Asia (below, bottom). The history of, and preference for, this particular design has been explained as such:
Nevertheless, most Chinese, especially those in southern China, have regarded the form of an armchair as the ideal shape of the grave … An armchair gives a sense of wealth, comfort and dignity. In historic times, only the elite class or the mandarin Chinese could afford armchairs. Moreover, armchairs symbolise authority and power, for in the olden days the armchair was the seat for the magistrate when he presided in court. By erecting the grave in the armchair shape, people believed that their ancestors in the yin world could enjoy comfort, dignity, and pride. The interaction between the yin and the yang would thus be harmonious and beneficial …… The history of building graves in the armchair shape can be traced to the years of the Northern Song Dynasty, 960-1127 A.D. In pre-modern times … an illustration that first appeared in the 1830s, shows, the grave resembled an armchair in shape, with higher turf protecting its three sides, on its back, as well as to its left and right. The front was left open to the field …… This armchair shape for graves has thus persisted for a long time, reflecting its acceptance by the Chinese as a desirable way for the construction of yin houses [i.e. graves].
(Read the essay in full here.)
An armchair-shaped grave in Kuching, Sarawak. Image from My Thoughts, Stories and Articles.
Unlike the mandarin’s armchair, Grandpa’s mound – appropriately enough – resembles a bed rather more. Appropriately, because he’d spent a large part of life lying on one, puffing away at his opium pipe. I’m not kidding. It sounds like something one reads about in history books, but as recently as the 1970s he was still indulging the habit. God only knows where he managed to procure the stuff. Aunt Nancy, who married into the family shortly before the old man passed on, recalls being shocked at meeting an actual opium smoker … that he was her father-in-law to be probably didn’t help.
The headstone consists of a central column bearing the deceased’s name and place of origin (Dabu county in Guangdong province, China, where the Lee family also trace their roots to), flanked by two shorter columns inscribed with the names of his children, and set before it is an altar space inlaid with cerulean-blue mosaic patterns and boasting an incense burner carved from granite. What surprised me were the features in the low walls emanating from either side of the headstone: images of landscapes painted on ceramic tiles, tranquil, serene vistas of a sea-girded, snow-peaked mountain that I’m assuming is the Mt. Penglai of Chinese fable, an enchanted nirvana where the elixir of immortality was said to be found. Legend has it that the man who first unified China, the Emperor Qin, obsessed with the idea of eternal life, dispatched several missions to locate this magical Never Never Land, but to no avail. (One such delegation reportedly stumbled onto Japan instead.) Penglai also plays a big part in Taoist mythology, being the home of the Eight Immortals. I’m not sure if its representation is common practice in Chinese burial tradition, or more of a local adaptation; in any case, its presence is likely a straightforward reference to the desire for everlasting life. My grandfather’s grave, though, was also decked out like a home, which in essence it is, a yin dwelling 阴府 for the dead: a pair of stone guardian lions (below), with marbles for eyes, stood at attention at both ends of the wall, and at one corner was a small shrine dedicated to the Earth God, or tu di gong 土地公. The lions are an ubiquitous architectural component of grander Chinese structures, their most famous manifestation, of course, being at the Forbidden City; the Earth God is worshipped in many homes, with a small altar located to one side of the main entrance, as the one here is. Perhaps these signifiers of the domestic, along with the conjuration of the immortal playground of Penglai, indicates that the grave itself was intended as a specific abode for the soul’s life after death ?
As anyone who has participated in Qingming knows, quite a few trees have to give up their lives for all the paper that’s involved. Coupled with that fact that most of these offerings are openly burnt, the festival is really one huge middle finger in the environment’s face. Janet Scott Lee’s For Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors: The Chinese Tradition of Paper Offerings (Hong Kong University Press, 2007), a scholarly tome entirely devoted to the subject, has this to say of their use in ancestor worship:
Burning paper offerings to the ancestors satisfies the requirements for the sacrifices which are, and were, a significant way to maintain the ongoing relationships between ancestors and descendants … In his edited volume on death ritual, Watson has observed, “A central feature of Chinese funerals and postburial mortuary practices is the transfer of food, money, and goods to the deceased … In return the living expect to receive certain material benefits, including luck, wealth, and progeny” … Individuals who were loved and provided for in life are also provided for when they leave this world, and reciprocal relationships maintained. A common perspective is that the condition of ancestors directly affects the fortunes of their living descendants, for burning funeral goods allows the givers to claim the deceased’s property … or allows the deceased to become a “property-owning spirit, as a person without property cannot conceivably become an ancestor” … Descendants also benefit materially, a theme appearing in studies of Singapore funerals, where mourners, at least privately, understand the benefits:
“I suggest that what is important is not simply the inheritance of the property of the deceased, but also the potential for greater benefits that motivate the descendants to spend so much money. It is believed that by converting the deceased into a rich ancestor, the now well-off ancestor will see fit, and is in fact expected, to return the favour and reward descendants with even more wealth.” …
if this most persuasive and instrumental line of reasoning be true for Hong Kong, then it would add an explanation for the great variety of paper items available, the seemingly endless array of goods that can be offered to the ancestors (and also to the gods and even to the ghosts). In simple terms, it would be an echo of what has been termed the “hardnosed view of the Chinese ancestral cult” … a form of reciprocity in which one gives to receive something in return …… This combination of spiritual conspicuous consumption and an emphasis on egocentric gain should be sufficient to explain all this burning and point to the real meaning behind offerings.
…… [However] Worshippers interviewed saw no automatic link between the quantity or quality of offerings and ancestral blessings. At least, they did not have the conscious intention to benefit materially. Some respondents said that, while they vaguely remembered hearing of that benefits could be gained in this way (although they could not recall just when or where they had heard about it) they did not believe it to be true, while others said that they saw no direct relationship between burning to the ancestors and obtaining any benefits whatsoever; they had separated the two concepts … The reasons respondents provided for giving paper offerings included providing for the ancestors expressed one’s devotion and respect, giving offerings reflected one’s sincerity, gave psychological comfort, and eased one’s heart. What is significant, as one lady expressed it, is that, “Offerings are necessary to show our sincerity and devoutness and the ancestors need them. We must respect them and help them to have a better life” … In short, worshippers did benefit from giving offerings, but in a spiritual way far removed from the concrete rewards of this world.
(Lee, pp. 228 – 31.)
I dunno if I agree with that last bit, especially where my family is concerned. Sure, reverence for Grandpa definitely played a part, but er, requests for good fortune, good grades (where necessary) and winning lottery numbers also got bandied about – even if only half-jokingly. The variety of offerings did not include anything so elaborate as miniature houses and cars, but money there was a-plenty, ranging from imitations of silver and gold taels, to paper notes featuring Yama, the King of Hell, to Buddhist paper charms folded into the shape of ingots (below). That day we certainly made millionaires of Grandpa, Grandma and First Aunt – though where the latter was buried no one seemed to be able to recall …
The personal touch, though, cannot be denied. The food offerings were real (below), and apparently included some of Grandpa’s favourite makan. I asked about a small dish of salt place among the plates of sticky rice 糯米饭 and buns and fruit, and was told, “Ah Kung (Grandfather) likes it salty.” Okay. So now I know where I get that from. And cousin Chris actually lit a cigarette on one of the candles and left it there, smoking away, as an offering – opium and excessive salt intake weren’t the only vices Grandpa enjoyed.
Oh, and before I forget, here’s Lee on the Chinese practice of burning offerings, the reason for which has always puzzled me (aside from the practicable fact that paper burns very well):
Burning changes the nature of the offerings, for in their original form they cannot go anywhere; burning accomplishes the vital transformation which sends the items to the ancestors, the gods, or the ghosts. as Sangren explained for the burning of incense, also an integral part of worship, “A tarnsformative process is represented, and it is fire that possesses transformative power” …This transformative process is even more pronounced for paper offerings, for example, funeral offerings. “Effigies made of coloured paper are burnt at the graveside in the hope that they will be translated into the spirit world for the assistance of the manes of the dead” … Even earlier, De Groot noted that silver money for the ancestors, “These sheets … are, according to the prevailing conviction, turned by the process of fire into real silver currency available in the world of darkness, and sent there through the smoke to the soul …” … paper offerings possess a shape and a form within the world of the living, and can be handled, measured and recorded using the same methods as are other artifacts and items of material culture …… However, these same offerings are only tentative, replicas in a state of becoming, and it is burning which transforms them into real objects as their destination in other worlds.
(Lee, p. 20.)
In other words, alchemy for the dead.
One last point: furthering the intertwining of grave and home, death and domesticity, I’m sure the parallels between the crowded, cramped nature of CCK cemetery and the almost indistinguishable likenesses of the graves themselves, and the high-density nature of public housing hereabouts and the modular, standardized look and layout of HDB blocks, have been noted. If one considers the columbaria that are increasingly taking the place of burials in land-scarce Singapore, with its individual niches divided up into ‘blocks’ not unlike apartment buildings, then the correspondences between accommodation for the dead and the living really begin to take on eerie – even erm, uncanny – resemblance. (See this blog, for one.) Similarities aside, however, housing estates for the dead are shared with wild fauna in a way that has been eradicated by the nation’s post-Independence urbanization, situated as they are in the largely uninhabited regions near the island’s Western water catchment area. The balance between Man and Nature seems in some ways to have been restored by the open, lush, unperturbed landscape of CCK cemetery and its reversal of humanity’s dominance over our animalian fellows, resulting – literally – in a heterotopic idyll, as Foucault imagined it …