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Materialistic Offerings for China's Qingming Festival

By Nikki Aaron on Apr 11, 12 07:38 AM in Culture


Last week, people across China enjoyed a three-day holiday to mark Qingming festival. But rather than enjoying a break somewhere nice, or putting their feet up in front of the TV, many Chinese people will have spent the holiday spending time with family or visiting cemeteries to pay respects to their ancestors.

Qingming Festival, which fell on April 4th this year, is also known as tomb sweeping day. It is a day set aside for Chinese people to remember family members who have passed away. Like most Asian countries, family plays a major role in the lives of the Chinese people. Therefore, it is considered essential that Chinese people of all ages make a special effort to honour the dead.

For those that have the opportunity to visit cemeteries on this day, the standard ritual is to burn incense and offer sacrifices to the dead. It has long been a tradition for families to burn fake money, which is peculiarly printed in the style of dollar bills. As the fire eats away at the money, it is believed that the 'money' is passed over to their family members on the 'other side'.

A Chinese friend of mine once told me that his grandmother, who had passed away a couple of years earlier, visited him in a dream. He noticed that her clothes were shabby and her hair unkempt. So, come Qingming festival, he made sure he bought plenty of paper money to burn for her. The next night he dreamt that she visited him once again; this time wearing her lovely new clothes. Rather than query the belief, with questions such as 'is currency necessary in heaven?' or 'where would one buy clothes in heaven?', I choose to respect the belief. The emphasis and consideration that Chinese people attach to the importance of family is admirable and something I consider to be severely lacking in British society today. However, I can't help but smile at how much emphasis cash has in Chinese society. If Qingming festival proves one thing, it's the belief that even in death, money and possessions are indispensable.

Since China's 'opening up' 34 years ago, the significance of money and status have become even more magnified. It is no longer simply a car, apartment, and job that prove your worth, it's also your partner, where you eat, and of course, your mobile phone, handbag, and a whole host of other materialistic paraphernalia. So it came as no surprise when I discovered that this year, it wasn't just paper money that Chinese families were buying as offerings for their ancestors, but also paper Apple iPads and iPhones.

At 80 US dollars per iPad, and iPhones for around 4 US dollars, these paper offerings do not up at a snip. In an attempt to drum up enthusiasm, sellers on popular Chinese shopping site, Taobao.com, offered discounts to bulk buyers. How many iPads does one's deceased relative require? For those really wanting to splash out and treat their deceased loved ones, then paper villas, cars and even houses are also available.

A majority of Chinese people that I spoke to about Qing Ming festival plans told me that they will not be bulk-buying paper iPads just yet. In recent years, as the Chinese people have become more aware of eco-living, people have been encouraged to commemorate relatives on QingMing festival by planting flowers and trees around gravesites. However, the traditional way of commemorating Qingming festival remains the most popular option.

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Nikki Aaron - English language teacher uncovering life in Beijing
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