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Sweeping graves

7 April 2020

The how, and the how many, of mourning the dead in China

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Cemetery staff place flowers in memory of dead people during a remote tomb-sweeping ceremony at Xianling ahead of the Qingming festival. Yang Bo/China News Service via Getty Images

Cemetery staff place flowers in memory of dead people during a remote tomb-sweeping ceremony at Xianling ahead of the Qingming festival. Yang Bo/China News Service via Getty Images


Last Saturday, 4 April, was China’s Qingming festival, the day for “sweeping graves.” Normally people all over the country would visit cemeteries to weed burial plots, burn incense and offer food to their ancestors. But this is not a normal year, and admission to cemeteries was being tightly controlled, where they were open at all. Many people simply paid for the rites to be undertaken for them by cemetery staff, with the proceedings live-streamed into their homes. Others — nearly half a million in Beijing — went online to create bereavement sites. Some are simply waiting till the cemeteries are open again. In Wuhan, that won’t happen till 30 April.

All this explains why one of the most important days in the Chinese ritual calendar passed very quietly this year. Traffic across the country was down nearly 17 per cent on the same day last year. With people staying at home, sales of fresh flowers and festival foods were no doubt much slower than usual.

In other ways, the observance of Qingming this year was scaled up. Flags were at half-mast across the country. In Beijing, Xi Jinping lined up with other Politburo members to bow, as well they might. Mass media next day carried the photo: twenty men in suits, each with a white flower in the left button hole. Absent from the line-up was vice-premier Sun Chunlan, the only woman in the present Politburo. Sun directed the central response to the pandemic in China, much as Wu Yi, the sole woman in an earlier Politburo, managed the SARS outbreak of 2003.

Sun passed the Qingming festival in Wuhan, where she led 500 mourners in the official ceremony at Jiangtan Park in Hankou district. The mourning site is just a few kilometres away from the infamous seafood market where the pandemic is supposed to have started. Smaller ceremonies were conducted in hospitals across Wuhan. News reports showed the no-doubt-traumatised staff in their white coats, masks on every face, lined up shoulder to shoulder, heads bowed.

Qingming, a festival of considerable antiquity, is not normally a day for weeping and wailing. Weather permitting, it can be more like a picnic. People take food to the graveside, present it to their forebears, and then take it away again to eat. In the past, it was a day of temple fairs, a time when normally secluded wives and daughters would venture out of doors. The festival always falls in spring, when trees are beginning to blossom and the sun to have some warmth. It is the closest thing to Easter in the Chinese year, marking both death and life.

Yet Qingming, as a day of mourning, also has the potential to create problems for the government. In China, mourning is a flashpoint for political unrest. The Tiananmen protests and subsequent massacre in 1989 grew out of mass mourning for former premier Hu Yaobang. After the death in 2005 of Zhao Ziyang, who fell from power during those protests, the government contained the news and kept the burial low-key in order to avoid another Tiananmen. A much earlier Tiananmen protest, again on a considerable scale, had marked the death of Premier Zhou Enlai in 1976, and in fact erupted on Qingming day that year.

The association between mourning and protest may have been an element in the 2007 decision to make Qingming a national holiday. It was not the only festival to be elevated to holiday status, but the fact that it lends itself to the performance of patriotic ceremonies made it the most important. Over the past twelve years, the Beijing Museum of Resistance to Japanese Aggression has used the festival as a day for remembering fallen war heroes. This year, it combined commemoration of the war dead with mourning for coronavirus victims. Aligning the two blunts the potential of the pandemic to be politicised.

With thousands of bodies to be disposed of in the wake of the virus, the government had reason to be worried about popular disquiet during Qingming this year. The sustained need to control transmission has enabled it to avoid what might have been nightmarish scenes at cemeteries in Wuhan, with crowds of people attending new graves, clustering around columbaria, and looking around to assess how many recent deaths there might have been.

Controls were not limited to keeping cemeteries shut. In the fortnight leading up to Qingming, Chinese social media was alive with chat about censorship and the concealment of data. Long queues outside crematoria and the large numbers of funeral urns being delivered to the city have caused speculation about the number of dead, which officially stood at 3326 on Saturday. How could the figure be this low if identification of the virus was late, knowledge of it suppressed and the shutdown — harsh as it was — delayed? How many people died of pneumonia without having been tested?

The very act of censorship has sharpened doubts. Who is deleting the pictures of queues for collecting ashes? Who is stopping them circulating? Who is giving the orders imposing public security and curfews? And beyond the questions of how and who lie questions of why. Why is the government paying the bereaved 3000 yuan to keep quiet about the burial of their dead? Why are videos shown of coffins lined up in Italy and Spain, while comparable images in China are deleted?

All of these questions point to sensitivities about the number of people who have died of Covid-19. Numbers are an old and familiar problem in the history of the People’s Republic. In the Great Leap Forward in the late fifties, the reports of productivity were too high; in the ensuing famine, the reports of deaths were too low; when the Nanjing Massacre Memorial building was opened, it featured a round 300,000 in large numerals, as if the well-attested 200,000 deaths did not quite make the grade; and after the Tiananmen massacre, there was no credible accounting at all.

In the case of the famine, the tens of millions who died eventually showed up in population statistics because of the long-term effects of the massive population loss. In the case of Covid-19, alternative estimates of the death toll, based largely on the activity of crematoria, come to between forty and fifty thousand in Wuhan alone. But in the context of China’s huge population, figures of that order are unlikely to show up in future demographic data. How many died, and who they all were, may never be known. •

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