Dr Archana Verma is a Delhi-based academic.
Societies have always used religious practices to mark their social identities and boundaries in the temporal, cultural and geographical spaces that they live in. however, the 21st century media adds extra meanings to these practices when it represents them digitally, electronically or even in the print. This is because media’s role is not just to bring to light the social practices, but also to contextualise these communities within the broader social, political and global trends of our times. This is becoming more and more relevant in the 21st centuries, in our age of shrinking worlds and increasing globalisation. Following passages show how local practices of ancestral worship in China actually have begun to define the community identities of the emigrant Chinese in the Western world and also their attempt to highlight their ancient history in the context of these practices, when their practice of ancestor worship is represented by the media. There is another dimensions to this media representation. In the regional level, there is a lot of political conflict between mainland China and Taiwan, a nation that doesn’t accept the Chinese dominance, while China doesn’t want to acknowledge Taiwan’s independence. But in the media representations of their religious practices in the Western world, this political tension at the regional level is nowhere highlighted. The media shows a sanitised, harmonious society, where no conflicts exist. Of course, in the TV programme studied below, it nowhere clarifies whether the media persons involved are mainland Chinese immigrants or Taiwanese. Thus, the Western media, as negotiated by the immigrant Chinese population, redefines the community identities and political tensions in East Asia. The fact that this is being done in the geographical space of the West is very important, because this immigrant Chinese population wants to make a statement to the Western or as is popularly called, the “global” audience. They want to communicate an image of themselves as a harmonious, ancient culture that is also immensely modern, with no understatements of any conflicts involved.
Ancestor Worship in China and Taiwan
Ancestor worship has been strong in China since very ancient times. But the most important festival associated with ancestor worship is the Qingming festival, traditionally observed even by the Chinese people living overseas as much as by the mainland China. The legend associated with this festival goes back to the 7th century BCE and the festival is observed on the 15th day of the spring equinox and is observed on the 4th or the 5th of April in China. In Taiwan it is always observed on the 5th of April. For many centuries, China had several days for ancestral veneration, when the elite class people spent a lot of money on ceremonies associated with these festivals. However, in 732 CE, the Tang Emperor Xuanzong laid down the rule that the ancestral worship should be restricted to the Qingming day, so that ceremonial expenses could be reduced. The timing of the festival indicates that this was the beginning of the spring season in China, when the fields were ready for sowing of seeds. Traditionally, the young people also began their courtship during this time. The ceremony for ancestral worship seems to have been integrated with the onset of the spring season, which marked the beginning of the annual cycle for the Chinese.
In modern times, the Chinese living abroad have developed many varied styles of observing this festival, integrating the aspects of their modern lifestyle with the Chinese tradition. For example, digital technology has begun to play a major role in their observing of this occasion. If it’s not a holiday in the country where they live, then they observe it on the weekend closest to the 4th-5th of April period. In the following passages we discuss some of the art forms that have evolved with the celebration of this festival.
Discovering China – Chinese Art on Auction, Qingming Festival, Hanfu Fashion Show by schoolgirls
On the 5th of April 2013, Ben hedges and Alina Wang showed on their TV Program called “Discovering China” some examples of how the Qingming festival was observe in the New York City by the Chinese people living there. The highlight of this TV show was the online auction of the Chinese works of art at iGavel Auctions at New York, due to begin from the 17th of April that year. The date of this show is significant, because it happened to be the date of observation of this festival in China and Taiwan. The iGavel Auction pieces included ancient Chinese paintings of ancestors. This highlighted the association of ancestral worship with this festival. The other important objects being auctioned were the fame historical blue and white porcelain from China. This kind of pottery was highly valued by the collectors throughout history. But beginning from the 14th century, during the Qing and Ming dynastic rule in China, blue and white Chine porcelain became important objects of export across Asia and even to the Mediterranean World. Thus, the iGavel Auction around the time of Qingming festival sought to highlight the art forms for which China was known in the ancient world. The TV program highlighted the historical associations of these art forms and also gave an introduction about how the Qingming festival is observed in China.
The practices include sweeping the tombs of ancestors and offering flowers and incense to them. Papers, bags and other paper models of other objects of daily use are burnt at the tombs. This is because it is believed that the ancestors need these objects in afterlife. The 7th century BCE legend associated with the Duke Wen of Jin was also narrated, which shows how the festival began as a cold food festival when people don’t light any fire to cook. The legend goes that the Duke had to go into exile for some time and during this time, his personal retainer Jie chopped off a piece of flesh from his thigh to feed his master. When the Duke came to power, he forgot about Jie, who went into forest with his mother. The duke realised his mistake and decided to burn down the forest to drive Jie and his mother out of the forest. But they perished in the fire and hence, the grieving Duke ordered that no fire was to be lighted on the day of Jie’s death. This practice was later assimilated into the Qingming festival. Hence, people eat uncooked food on this day. Especially in Taiwan, there is a tradition of eating spring rolls that enclose uncooked cold meat.
The TV show ended by showing a fashion show involving young schoolgirls with traditional Chinese music. This festival thus, has evolved into a blend of tradition, religion and modern lifestyles of the Chinese people around the world. The modern digital technology enables them to showcase and buy their traditional art forms related to the concept of the festival.
Along the River during Qingming Festival
The most famous scroll painting from China is titled Along the River during Qingming Festival, made by the artist Zhang Zeduan either before or after 1127 CE during the reign of Song Dynasty. It is a long scroll painting, showing the daily life in Bianjing the capital city of Northern Song Dynasty. Today it’s known as Kaifeng. The people engaged in daily activities of trade and commerce, ships faring across the river and the landscape inside and outside the city have been very intricately detailed and the painting is regarded as a great masterpiece. Many copies of this painting were made after the Song period, though in different artistic styles. The Song dynasty was the first government in the world to issue paper money, to have a standing navy and to use gunpowder. Maritime trade flourished during this dynasty across East and South East Asia and even going up to the Mediterranean. Hence, the ships faring across the river and people engaged in economic and cultural activities as depicted in this painting are very important historically.
There are divergent views about what this painting depicts. The dominant view is that it depicts the Qingming festival day in the city of Bianjin and it was painted before the fall of the northern Song in 1127 CE. However, some scholars believe that it may not show the exact Qingming festival day. For some time it was argued that the city is not exactly Bianjin, but an idealised city of China. But later it was accepted that the city is indeed Bianjin and the day may be Qingming, though there is a possibility of it being another day in the solar calendar of China.
In 2010, a digital version of this painting was screened, which animated the figures in the painting, with narration in English. This was shown in the China stall at the World Expo in 2010. In the following year it was also shown in Taiwan. This digital version, titled River of Wisdom, can be seen in the Youtube video. It not only explains the minute figures engaged in various activities in and outside the city, but also narrates the historical context of this painting and the various activities being shown. Thus, if the day depicted in the painting is Qingming, then ancient China commemorated it in its painting tradition not once, but several times. In the 21st century, the modern digital technology has helped to bring this culture alive to the global audience. A festival thus, has become the pivotal point for assimilating the history, art, culture and modernity of the Chinese people.
• Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, Cambridge Illustrated History of China, Cambridge University Press, 2010.
• Tan, Shirley (Tr), Chinese Auspicious Culture, Asiapac Books, 2012.
• Zeduan, Zhang and Zhang Wei, Scenes along the River during the Qingming Festival, Shanghai Press, 2010.