“A drizzling rain falls like tears on the Mourning Day; The mourner’s heart is going to break on his way.” That’s the beginning line of a widely-known Tang poem describing the gloominess of Qingming Festival, a traditional Chinese festival to worship the deceased that falls annually on April 5th.
It’s not difficult to tell from this poem that Qingming is an occasion that usually comes with grief over great losses.
I grew up in a small village with less than 200 households. The villagers were quite close and familiar with each other since it’s such a small place, and people will be invited to all the local celebrations such as weddings, and parties for new born babies; occasions I looked forward to a lot (because I was a kid), and funerals, where I barely had access to (also because I was a kid).
The concept of death was something missing to me as a kid, and there was only one thing I knew for sure- it’s a topic that would always come with its euphemisms, and that made it even more of a topic of confusion for me.
I have this memory that there was a nanny always being nice to me. She would tease me every time she walked past our house, and always surprised me with some wild fruits she picked.
One time I accompanied my mom to do farm work in a vegetable field on the foot of a small hill, when we walked past a big tree, with a small slope gated with a stone tablet under the tree. I remember myself asking; “What is that for, mom?”
I can’t recollect exactly what my mom’s answer was, though I think it was something along the lines of; “Remember the Nanny always gave you those wild fruits? That’s where she sleeps now.”
That’s probably the first time I had a conversation about death, though not in a very understandable way. I remember she used the word “sleep” because that’s a common euphemism people use when talk about death.
When I look back, I think the neglect of being taught about this concept of death definitely adds more fears towards it. I still remember the young me being frightening to think what a lonely place that nanny sleeps in, and even more frightening to imagine what if that happens to me.
It seems still the case in Chinese culture that death is a taboo subject. If you search for euphemisms about death, there are nearly a hundred of them. Oral ones such as 没了(méi le)，走了 (zǒu le)，are similar to “gone”; and more written and respectable ones including 去世(qù shì)，作古 (zuò gǔ), generally can be translated as “pass away” in English.
As a day for worshipping the ones we lost, Qingming naturally slips into people’s minds with a certain amount of melancholy. Actually, there is a part of the definition of Qingming that is usually being neglected by people, as it is supposed to be an occasion to celebrate life while worshipping the dead.
Certainly, bottling those feelings up towards death doesn’t take it away, however it would benefit us more if we were able to see through the loss with more courage and gratefulness towards life.
If I could time travel back to that day, I wish I could have been told gently; “That nanny is dead. Death is not a punishment, it happens to everyone. And it’s not the ending, she is having a good life in the other world because she was such a lovely person.” That, I think, would have made the acceptance of my grandfather’s leaving less painful for me years later.
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