Chinese New Year’s Eve Tomb Attendance

Guide to Procedure in Youxian County, Hunan, China

Today (January 30th 2014) is the Eve of Chinese New Year, and at an appointed time in the morning, tradition dictates that men, accompanied by (generally male) members of the family, attend their parents’ and/or grandparents’ tombs to give offerings and generally show respects. As a foreigner married to a Chinese woman, I have the honour to attend with my father-in-law when staying in the home town for Chinese New Year (Spring Festival).

The following list of steps is based on attendance today and in previous years. Traditions and the sequence of steps vary between families but in this village in rural Hunan all mostly share the points below. The timing is dictated differently each year by calculations by some calendar-master: this year we set off at 8am making it a pleasant time for a walk although very foggy with the clouds all down in the valleys from the night time.

Equipment to take to the mountain

  • Chicken (live; carry hanging by its tied-up feet)
  • Sharp knife
  • Bundle of incense sticks
  • Red candles
  • Strings of firecrackers
  • Bowl or bag of fruit and snack foods
  • Bowl with meat (roast pork belly)
  • Bowl of rice
  • Cloth to cover the food on the way
  • Pitcher of rice wine
  • Cups
  • Paper money
  • Basket for above
  • Scythe or machete
  • Lighter

Steps

  1. At home, gather equipment as above; double check as mountain is some way off;
  2. Walk through village back paths and up onto the mountain paths; exchange remarks with other families also trekking up;
  3. Locate correct general area on slope, use scythe and sticks to hack through thick undergrowth;
  4. Back out and repeat because you can never find the right place the first time;
  5. Having cleared a path to the correct tomb area, hack through overgrowth to clear all bamboo, branches, grasses, leaves, etc off the tomb (which in our case is concreted for a reasonable space around the igloo-like tomb enclosure itself, with a curved rear wall and inscription stone at the back, as well as stone lions at the two front points with further inscriptions);
  6. Light two candles and stick in the ground in front of the tomb “entrance” (which is in fact just a small sealed decorative “door” at the front)
  7. Using the candles, light whole bundle of incense sticks: give three to each subsidiary attending person;
  8. Holding the sticks in both hands, together face the tomb and bow three times;
  9. Plant the sticks in the earth in front of the tomb;
  10. (Usually just the main celebrant: ) Take three sticks to the next side of the tomb, bow three times, and plant in the ground or in a hole in the tomb wall brickwork; Repeat for the other two points of the compass;
  11. Place the bowl of meat in front of the tomb, and the bowl of rice behind it;
  12. Lay out three cups in a line in front of the bowls, and part-fill each with wine;
  13. Lay out the snack food next to the other bowls;
  14. Spend a few moments in reflective silence;
  15. Optional but likely: smoke a cigarette;
  16. Top up the wine cups a little;
  17. Take out some of the paper money and place on the ground;
  18. Take the chicken and bend its neck back; pluck the feathers off its throat;
  19. Cut the throat of the chicken and drizzle its blood over the paper money and across the ground in front of the tomb;
  20. Discard chicken (it will likely flap its way a little way down the slope: do not forget to collect later);
  21. Take the bloodied paper money and place atop the tomb entrance with a stone on top to keep it in place; (Keep back some bloodied money if needed for further tomb visits, assuming most families will only take one chicken;)
  22. Top up the wine cups again;
  23. Lay out firecracker chain and light: jump quickly back to avoid bullet-like cartridge cases hitting legs; demonstrate manliness by not covering ears and watching deafening fusillade with impassive expression;
  24. Take out more fresh paper money and set alight; drop in front of the tomb and add more paper money on top to make a good blaze;
  25. [Step observed particularly diligently this year possibly because of recent government admonitions:] Use the scythe to control the fire and make sure it all burns out in one place and does not spread off into the woods;
  26. Stand and watch fire; optional second cigarette; optional further cleaning of undergrowth and stamping of smouldering leaves on the ground;
  27. Gather up food, chicken, and other bits into basket;
  28. Pick up wine cups and pour onto ground in front of tomb; (some will pour over the tomb structure itself;)
  29. (Repeat entire procedure for each additional tomb;)
  30. Withdraw down mountain; cajole other families coming the other way for being late.

At pause points during the proceedings the following conversation topics are likely:

  • Reflections on which ancestors’ tombs’ locations are no longer known;
  • Comments that younger generation is lucky to have healthy grandparents still around: older generation often did not meet their grandparents;
  • When in combination family-tomb-areas, ask neighbours doing their own celebration whose tomb they are at, receive two different answers, then listen to them arguing among themselves about which tomb is which;
  • Observations of pride at how much bigger / better-built / cleaner / well-positioned our family tombs are than others;
  • Chinese father explaining matter-of-factly his requirements for his own tomb and (more emotionally charged) wishes that we will keep up with the sweeping and above sacraments in due course;
  • Explanations of why it is important to have more money in the afterlife; if city folk are present, default sardonic commentary about requirement to bring more paper money to account for inflation;
  • Resolutions to really make a definitive clearance of the bushes and bamboo “next time”, which is not likely to happen since the next visit will be Qing Ming and the “lost in the jungle” search will be repeated at that time.

Notes

  • Wear boots for mountain paths and walking through jungly areas; stand back from spraying chicken blood or be prepared to wash boots later;
  • As foreigner, generally avoid making random remarks in elementary Chinese due to possibility of saying something inauspicious;
  • Sons and daughters returning home to the village from Shenzhen are requested to park their Porsches and Mercedes SUVs neatly to allow others clear passage through the narrow lanes;
  • Back at home, chicken is plucked and, whole, put on a plate with other items to be held up before lunchtime to the compass points amid further firecrackers and additional candles/incense by the pictures of the parents/grandparents in the hallway shrine.

In respectful remembrance of late Grandpa and Granny Hong.

——

@georgebaily