Western Poisonization of Tomb Sweeping Day?

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It’s Friday, and my patience is about 1.2 millimeters thick at the moment. So I really shouldn’t read the Global Times when I’m in that kind of mood.

Too late.

As the Qingming Festival (aka Tomb Sweeping Day – see this intro piece in China Daily) is coming up next week, I’ve been keeping an eye on the usual commentary bemoaning the overall cultural state of affairs in today’s society.

This year, for some reason, the idea of online mourning has triggered some discussion/gnashing of teeth (in addition to outrage over rent-a-mourners, electronic firecrackers, and expensive holiday paraphernalia). The idea is pretty much what it sounds like: Interweb alternatives to traveling back home to pay your respects to your loved ones. Online services, online tributes, grave cams (no really, cemetery cameras with Web feeds that you can monitor to ensure that no one is messing with your family member’s plot), and so on.

These sorts of innovations have made some people nervous, and sensing potential sensation, the Global Times asked three “experts” for their opinion on the topic of Qingming observance and recent changes. These opinions are innocuous for the most part, as is the article itself. What made me see red, so to speak, was the “Editor’s Note” displayed under the title, which reads as follows:

The Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb-sweeping Day, on which Chinese traditionally visited their ancestors’ tombs, is coming. But many are worried that China’s cultural heritage is being lost under a tide of Westernization and modernity. Can traditions survive? What’s the value of ancient customs? The Global Times invited three writers to discuss these topics.

I’m willing to look the other way with respect to “modernity,” but what the hell is “a tide of Westernization” doing in there? Are Western cultural practices really to blame? Is the West responsible for turning young Chinese against their ancestors? I was intrigued and read on.

The first opinion was from a lawyer in Shanghai who, curiously enough, never mentions the West at all, and merely posits the thesis that times change and so do traditions. In other words, what’s wrong with online tributes and electronic firecrackers?

So far, nothing about the West.

Next up, an academic argues that if traditions need to change, this should not be done by government fiat, but rather by a more inclusive, grassroots process. The tradition at issue here, once again, is the setting off of fireworks. So what does this have to do with the West? Here’s the connection:

Due to grass-roots insistence and social worries about the extinction of cultural traditions, big cities gradually lifted the strict bans. Some claim that these traditions are outmoded and wasteful. This is a kind of cultural self-hatred, especially when they point to the West as a model.

Okay, hang on a second here. I don’t know about the West being held out as a model for fireworks bans, and I do know that several justifications have been put forward for such restrictions. However, I think it’s safe to say that the major reason for this policy lies with safety, not cost or even air pollution. If someone suggests “Hey, you know a lot of people died in fires this year from fireworks, maybe we should, you know, do something about that,” is your best argument for maintaining the status quo really to invoke “cultural self-hatred?” Please. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

The third opinion, from a Global Times editor, is a rather moving personal account of a death in the family. The point here, which addresses the use of online alternatives to in-person mourning, is a simple one: allow cultural change to run its natural course without “coercive reform.” Once again, nothing about the pernicious influence of Western culture, unless the entire Internet is the tool of the West (hmm).

As I reached the end of the piece, I felt rather cheated. Expecting a chest thumping, jingoistic argument about the harmful influence of foreign cultures, all I was left with was a fleeting reference to regulations about firecrackers, which we all know are about public safety (and therefore hardly based in culture, Western or otherwise). How to explain that incendiary and provocative “Editor’s Note” then? Perhaps it was simply a knee-jerk, default response to an uncomfortable subject – scapegoats are easy. Or maybe it was just a way to pique reader interest? It certainly worked on me.

Serves me right for reading this stuff late on Friday when I should be doing something more productive. I wish everyone well during this year’s Qingming Festival, however you decide to observe it.

8 responses on “Western Poisonization of Tomb Sweeping Day?

  1. Roberta N Abrams

    I, too, remember that monkey, young Luke. Like the article, like the tone. Good job. And remember, no unveiling for your parents’ tomb, sorry. You’re still free to grieve and honor, tho. What is that monkey throwing now?

  2. ST

    Does the west even have any of these threats to China’s cultural heritage? I’ve never seen online tributes, grave cams, rent-a-mourners, or electronic firecrackers in the little corners i’ve visited.

  3. Nathan

    Global Times is the mouthpiece of the beneficiaries of the myth that China needs protecting from Westernization. One of their greatest triumphs is associating ‘modernisation’ with ‘Westernisation’ and thus seeking to minimalise it to maintain their control on China and the benefits accorded them by that position.

    Ironically the people in the interview seem to suggest the exact opposite of this.

  4. W. Tseng

    Relax Stan, you’re getting to be as sensitive & suspicious as they are. I think (like you), it’s just their defensive reflex action. My conservative Chinese parents had the same accusation with my preference for western music/movies over Chinese operas. Now, even with my liberal western education, I still baulk & wonder when my little boy dyes his head green/red/blond, wears his jeans half-way down his bum & refuses to accompany us for grave sweeping.

  5. Rosa

    Wow; I didn’t know that mainland China kept these observances. I thought the Cultural Revolution wiped such things out? Excuse my ignorance as an American Canadian Taiwanese observer. In they way I now see this word, “westernization,” used in context described above, I don’t automatically think Europe, the Americas, or “McDonald’s”. Instead, to me this word now stands for “adjustments/evolution or even “sloppification” of “traditional rituals” by aid of modern day conveniences and technologies. Who knows what’s authentic and what’s not anymore? Don’t get too worked up about what locals tell you… there might be a thousand variations to how the festival should be observed. And I apologize for them (even though I have nothing to do with it) for using the word that way!