Before sun down on New Years day we walked out to the family cemetery to honor the Shang ancestors. The cemetery itself mixes in with the wheat, cotton, and corn fields. There is no separation between the burial plots and the harvest land. They simply plant around the head stones. Eric told me that his relatives are buried in wooden boxes so their bodies can return to the land. The direct connection between death and rebirth (crops) is necessary for a farming community that has no need, or money, for expensive coffins.
We walked up to the field as members of the group held strands of lit M80's in the air. I don't know if this was successful in scaring away the bad spirits but it sure got my attention. The abrupt loudness of the explosions led to an intense silence that matched the stark midwinter landscape. Husks of the crops poked up from dusty soil to make an eerie back drop for the headstones. Everything about this scene said "STOP. Pay attention."
The men of the extended family made burnt offerings of food, fake money, and rice wine. (Women weren't allowed to come except for one teenage girl.) These offerings are a symbolic gesture of respect and sacrifice. When I asked Eric if they were Buddhist in nature he replied "No. This is older than Buddhism. This is the Chinese way." (If this could be verified these ancestor worship traditions would predate the 1st century AD arrival of Buddhism. Click here for a brief history of Buddhism's migration out of India.) I find this to be a common statement. There seems to be a collective knowledge that lives in the minds of modern Chinese. Many of my friends refer to this "Chinese Way" to explain their cultural beliefs. As an outsider, these beliefs look like religious mysticism but there origins seem to have been erased by the Communist suppression of religious practice. After the offerings we walked back to the house to have dinner.
The experience was both casual and intimate. It wasn't sad but it also wasn't a celebration. There was very little verbal interaction among the participants. I was afraid the presence of my camera would alter the sincerity of the moment but they seemed happy to invite me to participate. I got the feeling that they had been doing this on New Years day for so long that even a curious westerner couldn't disturb them.
To read more about the Shang family and their life in the Da Shang Cun village please visit the other two posts in this mini travel series.
Boom Town- Life in Da Shang Cun Pt 1
Boom Town- Jiaozi Love Pt. 3