This week was a holiday here in China – the Qing Ming, or tomb-sweeping festival. This is one of the holidays of the changing seasons that mark the main ritual patterns of China (including the Spring festival or Chinese New Year).
The night the holiday Fi stumbled on the name of a temple not far from where we lived, so we decided to head off early the next morning (Qing Ming itself) only to find somewhere that was as good as anywhere we have been in China – Hua Yan temple.
The monastery and temple complex covers a fair area, with pagodas, different temple buildings – we listened for a while to a line of people chanting the Buddha’s name – but it’s most recognisable for its golden seated Buddha. Interesting the main pagoda seemed to be intimately connected to ancestor worship, for the first time in China we saw gravestones and it was bustling with people celebrating the holiday.
As I think I’ve mentioned expats often hear “Oh, well China has a 5,000 year history” and respond with the (internal) question, “well, where is it?” While it’s not exactly a fair response it does move towards the truth. Living in China it feels rare to see glimpses of a culture that isn’t broadly equivalent to any other.
Some differences one sees as an outsider are: people spit, people are pretty friendly to strangers, physical contact is not scary to people, staring at your phone most hours of the day is expected, and so on. Nothing particularly which screams “5,000” year history.
Hua Yan temple showed us something distinctly Chinese – the veneration for the dead. The central pagoda was filled with families finding spaces to light incense, pray, burn and give offerings to dead relatives. They carried little shrines, found a place and set up different things. Bottle of alcohol, cigarettes, the favourite foods of the people they were remembering.
There was emotion but no undue solemnity, there were tears (partly from all the smoke) but there was joy, families were celebrating family. It helped one understand more the central role of family in Chinese culture minds, and how to be without family is to be isolated from the people with whom life goes on and who brought you to where you are.