A long-standing battle of the Chinese Communist Party with costly traditional funerals and superstition here has transcended secular boundaries and leapt into cyberspace.
IPS – 7 April 2002 – People marking the Qingming Festival – China’s traditional day for sweeping the graves and remembering the dead this week – are being encouraged to pay homage through Internet instead of burning paper money and arranging sumptuous feasts on the hillside tombs.
As China goes modern and the number of Internet users is growing rapidly, the authorities are hoping that on-line tributes to the dead and even on-line cremations might prevail over traditional burial and homage practices.
“I think the idea of setting up an online cemetery is a fantastic thing as it can last an eternity,” Ding Xiangquan said in opinion posted on government-funded Earth Village online cemetery at www.ev991.com [n’était plus accessible en décembre 2002].
The site promotes its free services for commemorating the dead as an easy way of holding memorial ceremonies by offering spiritual sacrifices, rather than the usual roast piglet and joss money.
Nevertheless, Xiang Dingquan, one of those who visited the site on April 5, the Qingming Festival, suggested that graphics of fruits should be added to the online memorials to give them a more “earthy look“.
For thousands of years, Chinese people performed elaborate ground burials and transferred food, money and goods to the deceased. In some Chinese burial ceremonies, rice was placed in the mouths of the dead so that they will be free from going hungry in the underworld.
In deeply-rooted belief that spirits of the ancestors had to be looked after and ritually appeased, every spring on Qingming Festival people would pay homage by visiting their tombs with offerings.
Paper money is burnt for the wandering ghosts in order to satiate their need to consume in the nether world. Other paper goods, being anything from a shirt and tie to a luxurious car, are also transferred to the dead by burning them.
These traditional ways were condemned when the communist troops of Mao Zedong took power in China in 1949. The communist doctrine disapproved of the idea of supernatural world and branded the homage practices as superstitious.
Five decades later, the ideological battle is far from over. These days, the old ways are spurned also as wasteful and extravagant in the face of concern about the amount of land used by traditional cemeteries.
In 1956, Mao Zedong and all other veterans of the Communist Party’s Long March signed a proposal to put a halt on all burial practices and perform cremations. But the proposal never became a law.
Resistance toward cremation is rife among the elderly and especially in the countryside, where traditions from the past have persisted despite the ideological campaigns. Chinese statistics show that while 90 percent of city dwellers who die are being cremated, only 15 percent of rural residents choose cremations.
Even the personal example set by the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (1905-1997), whose last wish was to be cremated and his ashes scattered in the sea, did little to fight popular fascination with burial and grave homage.
In Beijing alone, some 1.1 million people took the subway to get to their ancestors’ tombs in the week of Qingming Festival last year, according to a Beijing Metro Co official.
“Who can mourn on Internet?” asked Zhen Guangya, 48. “Only young people who know how to use a computer. People of my generation are still going to buy some paper-made gold ingots and burn them.”
When the government-funded Earth Village online cemetery was set up in 2001, the Ministry of Civil Affairs issued a notice requiring local governments to promote the new on-line method of homage.
The authorities argued that traditional forms of tribute waste money, cause fires and encourage superstition. According to the ministry figures, Chinese people spent 16.2 billion yuan ($2 billion) a year on funerals and paying respects to ancestors.
Yet some point out that Communist Party cadres and government officials are among those who spend most readily on wasteful funerals and tributes, while admonishing the public to be frugal and modest.
In February, the capital of Hebei province, Shijiazhuang, held an unprecedented meeting of 600 provincial and municipal leaders to tighten Party discipline and warn against holding funerals and weddings in “a sumptuous, extravagant and luxurious manner“, theLegal Daily reported.
“Such conduct will only separate the Party from the masses,” the deputy-party secretary of Shijiazhuang, Jiang Ruifeng, was quoted as saying by the paper.
Article from Inter Press Service, distributed by the Global Information Network. Posted on Religioscope with permission.