Sunday, April 7, 2013

Qingming, or, Normal Life is Back in China

In the west, we focus on the economic side of China's reforms, and you often read that the Communist Party has allowed economic freedom but kept its power in other areas. There is a trade-off, you read, between economic growth and political oppression. In China, though, you more often hear people thanking the government for something more basic: leaving them alone. Mao's state was constantly drafting the people into crusade after crusade, seizing their time for meetings and "actions" that often involved destroying some part of the nation's heritage.

Left alone, as long as they stay out of national politics, Chinese people have returned by the millions to customs Mao tried to suppress. This week China celebrated the festival of Qingming. During Qingming, Chinese people burn offerings of fake money and checks to their ancestors, and travel to their tombs to clean and tidy them. The communists banned the festival as part of their drive against hereditary wealth and power, but Deng Xioaping ignored it and it was legalized again in the 90s. This year 520 million Chinese people visited graves during the festival.

As you can tell from the pictures, graveyards in China are crowded. One of the ways traditional Chinese society showed its respect for ancestors was by siting graveyards in particularly favored locations, with good feng shui. The existing cemeteries near China's cities are now filling up, and the government has not been able to find many new spots for more. This has spawned a technically illegal business of private cemeteries, some of them very expensive, others said to be sleazy, fly-by-night affairs. Given the resurgence in the display of filial piety, the people will no doubt insists that some solution be found, but since China's people, industry, and best farmland are all crowded into the same small percentage of the country, it will not be easy.

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