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China II: Qing Ming

The cemetery occupies a series of hilltops at the edge of the city. Normally it is an empty, bleak place: serried ranks of tombstones marching over hills to the horizon; no presence but the dead. In the distance, the city is a haze of white blocks, everything apparently built yesterday, everything flashy, though closer inspection reveals the hulks of abandoned factories and sudden patches of unimproved housing where conditions look spare in the extreme. The river a distant grey strip.

But today is the day after QingMing, the tomb-washing festival, and it seems yesterday the entire city descended on this place, forming endless tailbacks of traffic up the winding road that, past the brown countryside where dry trees lead to hills topped with tors of shattered granite.

So today, the cemetery has some colour in her cheeks. Each of the thousands of tombstones here has a garland of plastic flowers sellotaped to it, and the remains of a small bonfire at its feet. The archaeology of what has now joined the dead as an unseen presence in the air is discernible in these little ash-piles: an offered meal (dumplings, fruit, some breads, say); paper money specially printed for such occasions. Mostly this looks like money from old china, inscribed with jokey messages such as ‘hell bank note’, but occasionally there is modern money and even US dollars, always with some conspicuous misprint of message to demonstrate its function. They will have washed the tombs, and painted in the names of those who died recently, and each members of each family group will have genuflected a few times before leaving. The atmosphere will have been sober, but not religieuse: people are happy to take mobile phone calls, or to chat quietly while they do all this. It’s a tradition kept alive by family feeling, a way of marking those who have passed who mattered and are missed, rather than an active belief in an afterlife. Nevertheless, people have tied red rags to the dry bushes that line the way out of the cemetery in an attempt to keep ghosts within rather than without its bounds. They peter out at the bottom of the hill, where a few stallholders eke out a living from plastic flowers and tissue paper money, a business with a one-day annual season.

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