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Babaoshan 八宝山

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Babaoshan 八宝山

Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery 八宝山革命公墓 is located in the west of Beijing. It is the national cemetery of China. Those who served in the revolution or gave great service to the government have the right to be interred there. It is a modern cemetery founded in 1951.

The land and some of the buildings had been part of a Daoist (Taoist)Temple established in the early 1400's during the Ming Dynasty. The temple was a place where eunuchs, in particular, could retire following their service to the Emperor. It continued as a temple for 500 years and continued to be a place of refuge for the eunuchs. In the early 1900's when the Republic of China was established and the last emperor, Puyi, left the Imperial Palace, many eunuchs came here to live. They made their living by farming and providing the usual temple services to the local population. When the government bought the land and buildings, the monks were relocated to two other Daoist temples.

The temple buildings were refurbished and additional structures have been added over the last fifty years. Trees and shrubbery have been planted to create a garden atmosphere. The cemetery is divided into sections by walls and buildings to create more intimate spaces. The sections also separate different ranks. The ordinary soldiers are interred up the hill and across the road from the sections devoted to officers, leaders, and heroes.

Most of the people interred are in niche walls. The niches are divided by rank. Those of the highest rank are in the main building and room. These are people who achieved high rank in the military or central government. Those who served at the provincial level are in another room. The position of the niche in the wall, centered or to the side, higher or lower is also determined by rank. I don't know what happens if a very important person dies and the wall is full. I didn't care to ask. Additional space is provided outside along sheltered walls. Space is so limited that many of the niches have time limits. After 10 or more years the remains are moved to either another cemetery or removed by the family to inter them in their home town. It is considered a great honor to have a place in Babaoshan.

Those of high political or military rank may have grave sites. Not all of those who have that privilege choose to do so and are interred in the cremation niches. The size of the site is also defined by rank. The smallest graves are arranged in rows of matching stones. The designs of the stones vary from row to row. The plan increases the visual appeal as opposed to uniformity. The inscriptions and calligraphy on the stones are individual. Some include brief biographical inscriptions and others, poetic couplets.

Among the higher ranks, where the sites are larger, the stones and memorials are unique. The pathways are wider and the terrain rolls gently. In addition to military and political leaders, those who are viewed as having made significant contributions to the Chinese people can be found. Poets, entertainers, writers, and foreigners from Germany, Vietnam, the United States, and Poland to name a few. The expatriates include Eva Siao, Hoang Van Hoan, Israel Epstein, George Hatem, Agnes Smedley, Dr. Hans Muller, and Anna Louise Strong.

Toward the back and on a slight hill there are a number of extremely large monuments. These are granted on a case by case basis by the government. Normally the largest sites are about 24 feet square. Some of the special monuments are much larger, but they remain consistent with the garden setting.

Qingming Festival 清明节

The photographs show elaborate floral decorations because they were taken on the first day of the Qingming Festival. The Qingming Festival occurs at the beginning of April, 15 days after the Spring Equinox on the Lunar Calendar. Qingming is one of the 24 divisions of the Chinese year and lasts about two weeks. It is a time for new growth, a time to smell the flowers, and a time to plant crops. The next division of the solar year is Gu Yu 谷雨, a time of rain. The tradition is to send something to your loved one before the rains come. (A description of the solar terms of the Chinese calendar.)

The origins of Qingming lie in prehistory. By the time of Confucius filial piety had become an integral part of society. Confucius formalized and defined it. Each generation reveres the previous generation and owes them duty. This extends to the family line. It is the basis for honorable behavior. You want your life to honor those of your ancestors, to bring value to your family.

One external manifestation of honor was paying your respects to the dead through ceremonies and offerings at the grave sites. At times during history this resulted in elaborate tombs being built so that the next generation would build one for you. If you don't honor your father, your son will not honor you. The idea is simple but has far reaching implications. By the 10th century, during the Tang dynasty, enormous amounts of resources and time were devoted to tomb building and ritual. The rituals were repeated through the year, often requiring days of preparation culminating in sacrifices and prayers at the tomb. Finally, the emperor severely limited the rituals and defined Qingming as the specific time to care for tombs. In those days rituals were more elaborate, as were ours, but over time and changing beliefs, they began to simplify.

When Jesuits such as Matteo Ricci went to China in the 16th century they saw the respect for family and the honor of ancestors as a belief in life after death. They proposed to incorporate many of the rituals into Catholic ritual as had been done with the customs of other cultures. When the Dominicans, in a power play within the Church, succeeded in having the Jesuits recalled and took over the Asian basin, the situation changed. The Dominicans were promulgators of the Inquisition and took it with them to China. Any belief or practice that did not conform to their narrow definition of Christianity was branded pagan. It is from the Dominicans that we got the term ancestor worship. For them, there was no similarity between our respect for the dead and that of non-Christians.

Before I talk about the traditions of Qingming I want to remind you that grave robbing has been a problem well into the 20th century in Western countries because people buried their loved ones with jewelry, watches, and money. Type genealogy into Google and you will find that we are obsessed with finding out about our ancestors - everyone would like to have a famous ancestor. We don't have rituals to remember those relatives we never knew, but we talk to and honor those we did know.

Qingming is often expressed in English as "tomb sweeping day". This is not a translation - the literal translation would be qing = “clear, green, fresh” and ming = “bright”. The English expression comes from the tradition of visiting the graves of relatives during the season and cleaning and decorating them. In the countryside weeds may be pulled, trees tended to, and the stone washed. In city cemeteries practices are adapted to the situation. In addition to flowers, various fruits, candies and wine may be brought, depending on the family and the tastes of the departed. Peaches are very common, and, as they are a symbol of longevity, they are also brought to living relatives and friends as gifts during this period.

For a couple of weeks before the festival the daughter-in-laws and widows in the family will cut symbols out of special yellow paper as gifts for the departed. The daughter-in-law is considered a member of her husband's family. Once she marries, she no longer joins her mother on Qingming, but her husband's family. This tradition continues today, but it is fading. Many families visit the parents and grandparents of both the husband and wife, alternating years when distance is a problem.

The paper figures are of all sorts of things that you wish you could share. Cell phones, large screen TVs, cars, computers, refrigerators - all of the interesting new items of a modern life. Paper money is also traditional. The paper figures and money are taken to the tomb and burnt after the grave is cleaned. Incense may also be burnt. The smoke takes the prayers to heaven. This part of tradition is not permitted in Babaoshan, and it is also gradually being modified elsewhere. The new generation finds their own way of honoring their parents and grandparents, including web based memorials.

There were many tombs that had no decorations at Babaoshan. Some families will visit later during the season. Some live outside Beijing and only come to the grave every few years. Others are traveling to visit the graves of family in other provinces. On one tomb at Babaoshan there was a piece of notepaper taped to the stone. It was a handwritten letter. Loosely translated it read: "Dad, I am sorry we won't be with you this year. We are all well, but we are going to your hometown. The town is going to dedicate a memorial to you and they have asked us to come. I am so very happy for you. I miss you and think of you often."

If you cannot visit the grave, the paper figures can be burnt at an intersection with a true south orientation. In Chinese, south takes precedence over north. The ritual only takes a few minutes. Daughters accompany their mothers. For the most part this is a duty of the females in the family.

After the revolution, the government abolished the Qingming holiday but the traditions continued. In 2008, the holiday was reestablished. Schools, government offices and most business are closed, but the stores remain open.

The observance of Qingming remains strong. Coming back from Babaoshan, the subway was packed. It would be that way the entire day. The visit to the grave doesn't take long and it is also traditional to enjoy the rest of the day. It isn't a mournful holiday - it is a time for family to get together. Following the visit to the tomb, the family will often gather for a large meal. When there are children in the family, a visit to a park, sports, or other entertainment is common. Shopping is also popular. The day and the season is also a time to have some fun after a long winter.

One of the traditional activities of Qingming is kite flying. Kites are another method to reach out to the departed. It's hard to tell if anyone is flying kites for that reason. Kites are flown all year round anytime there is a faint breeze. It's a highly skilled sport in China. However, the tradition has resulted in a number of kite exhibitions being scheduled across the country during the season.

That's what my friends and I did. As we drove out of Beijing to the suburbs to attend a kite exhibition, the expressway and then the road was packed well past the city limits. We were caught in a traffic jam for over an hour. I feared that everyone in Beijing was going to see the kites. But, suddenly, we were free and had the road to ourselves. The other cars had all turned off to go to a local lake.

Last update: July 2009
© Marilyn Shea, 2009