Tomb Sweeping Reflections

I find it quite difficult where or how to begin this section, so I guess I will just chronicle the events of my week from Monday to Thursday (the most interesting days that I have had in China thus far). So it all started with a very lovely day on Monday. I woke up early, cooked breakfast, had a good exercise, and thoroughly relaxed. I spent the day reading, and practiced Chinese on Rosetta Stone. My best friend, Michael, called me and told me that he was about to head off to the Appalachian trail in two hours. This left me feeling excited for Michael to begin his new adventure and I could only wonder what wonderful stories we will be able to exchange when our futures cross paths once again. For now it meant a real good-bye and as I hung up after we had exchanged our deep appreciation for our friendship, I couldn’t help but smell an adventure for me in the air. At night I went to the KTV karaoke and had a romping good time. Overall my day was very easy, had a good flow, and (in retrospect) helped me have a solid and positive starting point for the next two days that would become quite the adventure for me. 

Tuesday began bright and early for me at 6 am. I got ready and met up with my friend, who is a fellow colleague and English teacher at school, for he was taking me to his hometown about an hour away to perform the rituals of the festival for his ancestors. When we arrived, the road of his hometown that wove through the green rice paddies was just wide enough to fit one vehicle and one vehicle only. Both sides of the road were an open invitation to slide into the paddies. Dogs ran about and ducks and chickens scurried.  An occasional ox in the field would lazily swing its tail while grazing on the short weeds. The fauna of the area was breathtaking. Every direction I looked, there were gentle rolling mountains with small trees and terraced rice paddies. Banana trees lined the paths and exotic fruits grew prematurely on trees everywhere I looked. Flowers were abundant on the spring tress and the old farmhouse buildings, made from mud, were still standing as a testament of a time not too far past. My friends parents had a new style house built next to the old one which revealed how much of the unique Chinese culture and architecture has been lost in the sandstorm that is China’s modernization. As I stood there on a high hill, I couldn’t help but having a feeling of mystery and awe at a land that is the stronghold of the past.

I took many pictures of the structures and nature and learned a good deal about how life used to run in the old accommodations. As a child, Mr. Wu, my friend, had to take buckets down to the local well or stream to gather water to be collected in large urns. This task took hours and was arduous since the house stood at the top of a high hill. I was told about how the old pig houses used to create wonderful feasts for the family in the fall harvest and how tea trees used to dot the landscape for all to use, but due to recent lack of care they had all but died out. We did find a tea tree and picked some leaves and then made some tea with them. It was a delicious spring tasting tea that left me feeling cleansed.

The children of the family were stunned to see me at first and treated me as though I were an exotic animal like a panda. As the day wore on, I did make good relations with the children and there was a time of incessant prodding and poking by them to discover how strong I was. Although slightly annoying, I entertained their curiosity as this might be one of the few times they would get to see a foreigner.

We were to visit three grave sights on three separate mountains that day. They belonged to Mr. Wu’s parent’s great grandparents, grandparents, and parents. The oldest grave was a modest stone in a dug out hillside marking were the ancestor’s lay. No one had visited any of the graves for three years so we had to clear away all the grass, weeds, and trees that blocked the ancestor’s view of the land. Although this work was a little grueling, I felt a sense of peace and solace helping to clear and honor the grounds of my friend’s ancestors. There was also a small marker for his great great grandparent’s bodyguard and who was treated with equal care and respect in clearing the area.

After everything was cleared, we lit candles  that were firmly placed in the ground at the front of the tombstone and left alcohol in small glasses for the dead to have merriment. We lit incense and with three in hand, each person (at least two dozen in the entire family) knelt on the ground and bowed at the waist three times with the incense firmly held between our praying palms. We left old style paper, that was used as currency at the time when the people were alive, around the grave. We burned paper money of 50, 100, and 180,000,000,000 RMB (Fake of course) to give currency to the dead in the afterlife. To finish the ritual at each grave, we laid out a large string of firecrackers around the mound of the grave and lit them to scare off any bad spirits. Of course the firecrackers were red, which in China represents good luck and fortune, and after they exploded, they left a red cacophony of what could be flowers around the grave. The sight went from an uncared for rock with weeds growing all around, to a clear statement to all that could see that the ancestors had been paid their respect and due honor for living.

The ritual was not to put the ancestors on a pedestal or to pretend that they were the most wonderful people, but was to celebrate their life for giving life to us, for better or for worse. For life is a wine that gets sweeter or more bitter as time goes on, but is still a wonderful thing. The ritual was incredibly moving for me and made me feel a pit of emptiness in our culture of respecting the things that are and have been. We did the same thing for two more graves on two separate mountains.

By the end I could not help but notice the power lines and rubbish that had begun to appear in this mystical landscape and then Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are Changin faintly passed through my ears and I felt a the great weight of the unknown. As I stood there on the top of a small mountain, reflecting on what it means to be a human being in this crazy world, a gentle breeze picked up and this time I couldn’t help but hear Bob Dylan’s Blowin in the Wind. On the way back down the mountain, my friend opened up to me about his grandparents and his uncle who was a heartless and affluent doctor. I just listened and felt honored that someone in a culture that is less open about their true feelings would reveal such a painful memory.

The food for lunch was delicious as always and then we arrived back into Wuhua at about 4 p.m. I felt a little tanned after being in the sun all day and thoroughly tired, but a hearty kind of tired. The kind where one's heart and soul feels filled with life.