The Silent Tradition
Max Wu
Thousand Oaks Chinese School, Oak Park,
True, I could write about the fun and games of Duan-Wu jie (May 5th) or the
excitement of Chinese New Year (month of February), for both of these are among my
favorite Chinese Holidays. But today, I choose neither. Instead, there is another
holiday that deserves greater attention: Qing-Ming jie (April 5th).
Qing-Ming jie is a holiday dedicated to our ancestors. To demonstrate
our,”xiao,” every year on the fifth of April, everyone must pay respect to the deceased.
Traditionally, the day before Qing-Ming is always bustling with energy and exuberance.
Each household must prepare meats, sometimes buying already slaughtered pork and
sometimes picking off the fattest chickens in the backyard. They must also make their
own pastries and other delicacies. When Qing-Ming finally arrives, families hike to the
gravesites, or “ta-qing,” a tradition that originates back to the Tang dynasty. Upon
arrival, all foods are placed in front of the tomb while everyone cleans the surrounding
from all weeds. After the graves have been restored, paper money is burnt. Then
starting from the eldest, each family member takes his turn and bows in front of the
graves to show respect and remembrance for the ancestors. Finally, the family sets off
fire- crackers and everyone has a blast feasting on the carefully prepared food.
Of course, with the Americanized lifestyle, many things have changed. We do
not kill and prepare animals with our own hands. In fact, other than Gracie, our little dog,
we keep no animals in out backyard. But nevertheless, we do bring food for our
ancestors. The day of Qing-ming jie, my mother, my sister, and I simply hop into the
jeep and stop by the nearest food market. There, we purchase not only roasted chicken,
delicious deli, and fresh fruits, but also tasty treats like pudding, cookies, and other
prepackaged American junk food. Of course, mom never forgets to buy the big bouquet
of beautiful flowers.
After this delectable excursion, I always have to wait for my uncle’s family to
join us. Living fifteen minutes away, uncle, auntie, and my cousins Derek and David
would always come prepared with enough food and drink to feed everyone in the
By the time everyone gets together, it is almost noon. We all pile into our cars
and drive merrily to Monterey Park, a city almost 2 hours away. Not only is the Rosehill
cemetery located their, but my grandmother also lives nearby. We first pick up
grandma, who wants to cook for us grand kids and inadvertently delay our schedule.
After dragging her away from the stove and getting her in the jeep (my cousin’s Volvo
cannot carry grandma since it is already too packed with food), we drive to Rosehill
hoping to find a good parking space.
The grave we are visiting belongs to my grandfather. Graduated from Beijing
University, he was not only intelligent, but was also dedicated to his family and country.
During World War II, my grandfather risked his life working for underground forces
against Japanese invaders. Then after the war, he married my grandmother, started a
family, became a professor, and influenced many future generations. When he died in
1993, I was in third grade. Though he was bed-ridden during the last ten years of his
life and did not spend too much time with my sister and I, I shall always look up to him as
a role model.
The line of cars heading into the cemetery is especially horrendous during the
weekend of Qing-ming jie since most people buried here are Chinese, and all are eager
to visit the deceased. Even though it is nice to know that so many people care about
their predecessors, the twenty-minute wait for a parking space always annoys me.
But, once we find parking and step into the crisp cemetery lawn, all our worries
and exasperation evaporate into thin air. Because Rosehill is located on top of an
elevated plane and has beautiful deciduous trees scattered; the air just seems cleaner,
the sky bluer, and everyone happier. Everywhere I look there is a group of people with
flowers gathered around every nameplate. Everybody have a content expression on
their faces, and all are relaxing from the hard work and complications of everyday life
down in the cities by sitting and chatting on the grass with their family members close by.
Because the cemetery is maintained so well, there is little we can do enhance
grandpa’s resting place other than cleaning his name and pulling some weed here and
there. After the little chores, we prayed to grandpa and asked him for his blessing.
My favorite part comes right after the formalities. We unpack our food and
have a picnic right beside grandpa. With the breathtaking country scenery and the
quiet laughter of nearby visitors, the tranquil and therapeutic ambience not only relaxes
our bodies but also makes the food much more enjoyable.
After satisfying our hunger, we drive to my grandma’s apartment and spend
some quality time together as one big family. The adults are usually very busy with
career and family. So on the rare occasion when they get together, there always seem
to be so much to talk about. Of course, the same cannot be said for us kids. Instead if
sipping tea and talking about anything and everything, Derek, David, and I usually
moved into one of my grandma’s room to do homework (Oh the torture we endure for a
straight A report card).
By the time the grownups finish talking about the government, the economy,
and the kids, it is time for dinner. Sometimes I truly believe my family’s activities
revolve around food. Since Monterey Park has just about the best Asian cuisine in
Southern California, we often end up in a big Chinese restaurant, ordering everything
from beef and pork to fish and sea cucumber.
During the long ride home from my grandmother’s apartment, my mother would
always tell me stories about the lives of her parents, siblings, and all who lived before her.
In each one of these stories, however, she never lectures me about the “moral” or the
“lesson” to be learned. Though I know there are purposes behind the story telling, it is
not until very recently that I finally realize the reason for her lack of explanation. “Life”
itself is made up of nothing but choices and it’s consequence whether good or bad, right
or wrong. And since “life” is essentially one big “cause and effect” diagram, one can
conclude an infinite amount of “lessons” from a single lifetime. By relating my
predecessors’ stories to me, she hopes that I will be able to draw from their experiences,
learn from their mistakes, and ultimately make the right decisions for myself.
Though it lacks spectacular entertainment and widespread celebration,
Qing-ming jie still stands as one of the most important days in Chinese history.
Through remembrance of the ancestors’ lives and deeds, each person can become
more aware, more perceptive, and more knowledgeable. Consequently, when citizens
strive to better themselves, the nation, as a whole, will also evolve to become stronger
and wiser.