By Hanny Kee
Every year, around 4th to 6th April, the Chinese will celebrate a unique festival known as Qingming where we pay respects to our ancestors by cleaning their tombs and offering prayers and items such as fruits, incense and paper-based sacrifices. The ritual can be observed ten days before or after the actual date of Qingming itself so my family went to Ipoh city in Perak, about 160 kilometers away from Kuala Lumpur, to visit my maternal grandfather’s resting place in the Perak Cave Temple.
Before we headed to the temple, we made sure to stop at a special shop where Chinese prayer items were sold.
During this festival, the prayer shops usually offer bags of joss-paper folded into the shapes of golden ingots to signify the amounts of wealth that we are giving to our ancestors as well as Hell bank-notes that range from $100 to $2 billion! The shop that we visited also had International Hell passports along with the usual incense sticks and candles.
Now it must be addressed that we Chinese actually believe that everyone passes through Hell when we die. This is not a place of eternal punishment however; it is merely another stage in the cycle of death and rebirth. Hell is a place where the sins and merits of our lifetimes are judged and thus our punishments are meted out to us in any one of the torture chambers (they number 18 in total), depending on the severity of our sins or, we are given the reward of being reincarnated into higher planes of existence if we have accumulated enough good deeds.
There is also another Chinese belief that Hell is just another plane of existence and actually resembles our world. This carries the notion that Hell is only a part of the Afterlife and hence, our ancestors would need every comfort they would need there. The Qingming Festival, being a time where we honor their memory, has also evolved into an occasion where we “gift” them things like clothes, shoes and even cars, as shown in the picture above.
Here is the entrance of the temple – built into the façade of a cave opening. I would love to show you the interior of this limestone cave temple but it is considered taboo to take pictures of the ancestral tablets, urns containing ashes of the deceased, and the statues of Chinese deities. To give you a general idea of the place, it is located in a chamber with walls about 20 feet wide and 15 feet high; filled with shelves separated into little compartments with doors; and a marble urn and tablet with a photograph of the deceased both occupying each shelf. We filled the altar with my grandfather’s favorite dishes and also placed his favorite can of beer next to his tablet and offered incense to him.
Glutinous rice cakes (bee goh), an assortment of fruits, egg cakes (geh nui goh), and rice flour muffins (huat kueh)
Depending on family traditions, the dishes offered during prayers may or may not be eaten afterwards. Mine usually eats them. We also bought 3 sets of clothes and trousers, a pair of new shoes and a new mahjong set for my grandfather, apart from the joss-paper and incense that we usually offer to him.
Although not considered a major festival in China, participating in the Qingming Festival is considered a family obligation for the Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora. It is a time when we remember and honor our dearly beloved ancestors. I personally did not know my maternal grandfather before he died but through this festival, I’ve come to realize that he was a loving father who made many sacrifices in order to support his family.
Because it is a festival steeped in tradition, Qingming is the same every year. Of course, the amount of Chinese people taking part in the festival has decreased due to their hectic lifestyles and even conversion to other religions like Christianity but I am proud to do it every year because it brings the family closer in spite of their current planes of existence. Those who are alive will surely learn more about the departed while the departed may get to know their descendants better by accepting their offerings, wherever they may be.