Musings on the impending Chinese festival, Qing Ming, also commonly known in Malaysia by its Hokkien dialect pronunciation, Cheng Beng. Of ghosts, superstitions, honouring ancestors passed and being 5 foot tall.
The Qing Ming festival is upon us.
Qing Ming (Cheng Beng), in case you didn’t already know, is also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, and originated from Hanshi Day, or “day with cold food only”, which is a memorial day for some guy called Jie Zitui who died in 636BC because he cut a chunk out of his thigh to make soup for a duke in exile.
After the duke regained power, he set out to reward the people who had helped him along the way but he could not find Jie Zitui, who had moved into the forest with his mum (presumably due to the shame of being rejected from China’s Next Top Pilgrim Model for having a deformed leg).
The duke sent his men into the forest but they could not find Jie Zitui. In the end, determined to reward Jie Zitui, he came up with a brilliant plan, which was to set the forest on fire so that Jie Zitui would have no choice but to come out. Jie Zitui and his mum died in the fire. So much for gratitude.
It is said that the duke felt bad afterwards and ordered 3 days without fire (hence the cold meat) to honour Jie Zitui’s memory.
If you ask me, the duke was probably just trying to avoid being responsible for any further atmospheric effects from more open fires. If he was sincere, and I’m sure Jie Zitui would agree, he would have put everybody on a 3-day vegetarian diet.
Anyway, following that incident, the Chinese began this tradition of honouring their ancestors, and along the way, the Qing Ming Festival was born. Some people carry willow branches around during Qing Ming to ward off the evil spirits that they believe are hanging around during this time.
I’m sure you’ve also heard of the Hungry Ghost Festival, which is when the gates of hell are open and all the ghosts are allowed come out and eat as much food as they like. Apart from big feasts at temples prepared for the ghosts, many performances such as singing, drama, and burlesque are also organised in honour of the hungry ghosts. The Chinese believe that this particular type of ghost has a long thin neck because it has not been fed by its family, or is being punished in such a way that it is unable to swallow. While it’s unfortunate, I think it also makes sense for them to have long necks so that they can watch the performances over the crowds of people who are not hungry ghosts but hang around during performances anyway. Being only 5 foot tall, I’ve certainly struggled in the past.
I always know when Qing Ming and the Hungry Ghost Festival are happening because that’s the time my parents start telling us not to go out as much, especially at night or to dark places “because there are a lot of ghosts everywhere.”
It is also the time my father tells us many stories about ghost sightings by people we know. It’s the same stories every year, told with the same degree of enthusiasm. Like many an old school Chinese businessman, my father thinks it’s better to avoid “bad luck”, as some ghosts are actually homeless ghosts waiting to intrude on your life and it’s bad luck when they do.
Apart from the ghost stories, we are also given lessons on how to deal with a ghost if we happen to meet one. Now, I’ve not met a ghost, and have no idea whether these are tried and tested, but in case you have a ghostly encounter, you may want keep these in mind:
1) If you’re with a group of people and you happen to see a ghost, don’t call out to any of your friends. Just round them up and run away because if the ghost hears a name, it will remember it and follow that person around forever.
2) If you smell anything like Jasmine, or spot any flowers sprouting up where they wouldn’t normally, that means there’s a ghost there, and if you make any comments about the flowers, it will follow you around because it will think you fancy it.
3) You should try to keep fit and healthy because ghosts tend to go after people who have a weak aura. If you have a weak aura, you should get a dog and take it wherever you go because dogs can see ghosts and will whimper when there are ghosts around so you can get the hell out of there.
4) If you are menstruating, you should stay away from the prayer table because you will attract dead foetus ghosts who like to gather underneath the prayer table waiting for a moment where no humans are looking so they can eat the food. (Ghost vision is amazing and they can see what’s on offer even though they are hiding under the table behind the table cloth)
I have read that Qing Ming is also a time when people are supposed to go on family outings, start the spring plowing, sing, dance, and where young couples start courting. Another thing people are supposed to do at Qing Ming is to fly kites in the shapes of animals or characters from the Chinese opera.
But I guess I can’t do any those things “because there are a lot of ghosts everywhere!”
LoyarBurok Editorial Note: The 2010 date for Qingmingjie or Qing Ming Festival is 5 April.