Qing Ming Jie

This year, Qing Ming Jie fell on April 5th. I look forward to the day because it’s a time to remember my late grandfather and great-grandparents. It’s also that one time each year where four generations in my family gather for a hike.
Qing Ming Jie (or Clear Brightness Festival) is also called Tomb Sweeping Day. It is supposedly a day which marked a rebirth, an announcement of spring, and in the olden days, people celebrated with dancing, singing and kite-flying. Over the years, the celebration aspect has been toned down and somehow it has now come to mark the day when Chinese all over the world remember their departed relatives. The tradition of offering food and paper ingots came about because we Chinese believe that happy, appeased ancestor spirits augur well for descendants. One does not have to go on the Qing Ming day itself. My aunts tell me that one can go 10 days before or 10 days after the date. Usually, Sundays are the best days to go because everyone’s not working.
Well, each year, we try to beat the traffic jams along Mt. Erskine (that’s where the graves of my ancestors are situated) and promise each other to meet in Grandma’s house by 6.30am. I’m not a morning person so this is excruciating for me. But I take it in good spirits. After all, it’s only once a year that we get to do this. Four generations of us meet finally – and three separate cars to transport us all to the graveyard. That’s my Fifth Grandaunt, her two sons, my Third Grandaunt’s son, wife and two teens, my aunties, my uncle, my cousins and I. As you can see, it’s a mixed bunch of people of varying ages – most of them are above 50 years old but they’re happily arriving, always anticipating the climb.
This three-car convoy of people is not all there is to my Grandma’s family. Two other carloads of people will join us later, for these are the late-risers, cannot climb hills-type and cannot stand the hot sun-type of people. Later means we’ll meet at my Grandpa’s grave. Confused?
First things first. Before we can go up the little hill (basically it’s a higher piece of land but everyone thinks it’s a hill…OK, let’s just call it a Hill), we have to pray at the Tai Pak Kung Temple, on the foot of the hill. Everyone holds 3 joss-sticks and we offer prayers, but what we’re praying for, God knows. It’s become quite a ritual, but one to follow, nonetheless.
This five-minute ritual over, we start our little trek.
At this point, the guys come in handy – they must carry the gold paper ingots, the food, fruits and shears. We make it a mini-marathon going up the hill, which takes all of 15 minutes, really. What makes it tough for the senior citizens is the slippery rocks, the wet ground and the steep inclines. They don’t huff and puff so badly this year.
Hiking up
We heave a big sigh of relief when we reach Great Grandpa’s grave. But what a view. From his grave, we can see the sun just rising on the horizon. The view is expansive and gorgeous, bathed in golden morning light. He’s got taste.
The grave with a view.
I am documenting all the following procedures because I worry one day I would have to carry them out. The one day might not be too far off as most of my aunts and uncles are in their 50s. One day it would be up to me and my cousins to undertake this yearly trek. And I don’t want to foul it all up.
Four generations
The weeds and grasses growing on the grave have to be cleared, and this unpleasant task falls into the hands of my Uncle’s teenaged sons. My aunts set about lighting two red candles and joss-sticks, to pray to the Thou Dei Kong or the Earth Guardian. He has a special place on the right side of each tombstone, and it is polite to ask permission before one starts the praying ceremony.
This is a close-up of the Earth Guardian.
Once this is done, we can start laying out the offerings we brought. Some people offer vegetarian dishes but we’re a carnivorous clan so we often offer meats like steamed chicken, roasted pork, and Ayamas roast chicken.
This year, we omitted the Ayamas roast chicken because it’s too tedious to re-heat in the microwave in the morning. Aside the meats, we also bring fruits, hardboiled eggs, and Nyonya kuih such as ‘ang koo’, ‘kuih koci’ and ‘pulut panggang’. Oh, and not forgetting the ‘samsu’ or Chinese wine. We arrange them and place three pair of chopsticks, and three dainty wine cups (with wine) in front of these offerings.
Next, we light joss sticks and candles. Fifth GrandAunt hands us each three joss sticks, and we pray. We’re not told what we must say so I often pray that my Great Grandpa, dear old Goon Phoon Choong, has been reincarnated and reborn in a better realm. I mean, I don’t want him to be forever stuck in Hell or something like that. Sometimes, we also get a bunch of joss sticks and go around the neighbouring tombstones and stick three each into the ground. Good neighbourliness I suppose.
The next big thing to do falls on my Uncle. He has to ‘teep pui’ to ask Great Grandpa if he has ‘eaten’ and finished his meal completely. This he does by using 2 twenty sen coins, placing them together and throwing them to the ground. If both fall heads or tails, it means No. If one is heads and one is tails, it means, Yes, he’s done. At times, he has to do this three times to really confirm if the answer is Yes. The wine from the cups are poured in front of the tombstone, to symbolise the drinking of the wine.
All ready for praying
When it is affirmative, Fifth GrandAunt then piles up the folded paper ingots, Hell money, and more onto the ground just in front of the tombstone. We used to get Great Grandpa things like shoes, shirts and Great Grandma earrings and cosmetics (all made from paper of course). One year on a whim, my Aunt bought Hell notes, credit cards, cheque books and air tickets but we figured that Great Grandpa would not have known how to use a credit card.
This whole pile is lit up like a bonfire and we watch as it is reduced to ashes. The next fun bit starts though some people cringe at it. We devour the food we brought. It’s breakfast and it lightens our downhill load. We don’t eat everything (later, the food will be distributed amongst us at home) but we sample the pork and eggs.
The next curious tradition is to halve an egg, scoop out the edible yolk and white (someone has to eat this) and then pour wine into the two halves, placing the halves on the top of the tombstone. I’ve never been able to figure out why we do this.
Egg shells
Finally, when the sun is just rising and the heat is descending on us, we say our goodbyes to our greatgrandparents, pack up and start our trek downhill.
Another year, another Qing Ming Jie.

4 thoughts on “Qing Ming Jie”

  1. Enjoyed reading this Pei. Maybe next time, we should get the reasons for everything that’s done and the meaning of all the symbolisms. I feel strongly that tradition should be continued and understanding the reasons for these traditions makes it more enjoyable and meaningful. I guess I belong to the over 50’s but since I’m an “in-law” as well as a “foreigner (barbarian?)”, I can claim ignorance like the “younger” clan members. Send us more of these, Pei, really appreciate it!

  2. Hi Auntie Nina
    Glad you enjoyed it. I think I am growing foggy in the head (otherwise known as ‘maturing’). 😉 Thanks for dropping by!

  3. ” …because it’s too tedious to re-heat in the microwave….”some one is very unhappy!
    “Hell notes”:In college days a student wrote an essay similar to your post and the professor was puzzled why there is no “heaven note”
    No, I didn’t not meant to offend you, thanks for the post. I grew up in another culture, so, I was never exposed to traditional Chinese grave visit. .

  4. Hi Cooknengr
    Ha,ha..nah …I think my Great grandpa would understand. We were all too tired and we forgot some stuff too! Talk about
    awful and lazy descendants!
    The Chinese are pragmatic people. Not everyone can fit into Heaven so why kid ourselves about it? So that’s why we have Hell notes and not Heaven notes. By the way, Heaven is paradise and everything is provided for so I guess there is no need for any money at all. 😉


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