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A Letter From China
Qing Ming 2010
This page introduces a new format for Jonno's Letters From China, which we hope you will find more entertaining. The main differences are that we have included thumbnails relevant to text which will open a full size picture in a new window.

Qing Ming (2010)
During March 2010 several special days are observed, most notable of which are: Women's Day (1st March), which is a fixed calendar date each year, but is not a holiday. So it seems women have to work on their special day. However, there is no complimentary men's day so please don't feel so bad girls. This is followed by Long Tai Tou or Dragon Raises it’s Head Festival, which falls according to the lunar calendar and is on the second day of the second month and marks the official beginning of spring. This year that was Wednesday 17th March. The last is Qing Ming, or Annual Grave Sweeping Day which is a solar festival.

Long Tai Tou
It is routed deep in the history and mythology of Chinese people, and predates the earliest Chinese Empires by millennia. It originates in the festival of ‘fu yi shi’. On this day the Queen would cook for the commoners, and the King would soil his hands with farming. This was to ensure full bellies and fields. Huang Di (5000bc), the first great Chinese emperor, widely established the tradition. By the Western Zhou Dynasty (Circa 800bc), the ritual had expanded to include all high officials, getting their court robe hems dirty and dainty palms calloused.

During the Tang Dynasty (Circa 750ad), inevitable taboos crept in. No one dared sew, for fear of poking the dragon's eyes, or ground seed, to protect his skin. However fabled Tang empress Wuzi Tian, in a move to do away with traditional Tang cultural practices, banned Long Tai Tou, angering the Emperor of Heaven, who retaliated by cursing China with three years of drought.

The Jade Dragon had more compassion than his master, and at last took pity on the parched earthlings. In charge of the celestial river, he directed a life-giving rain on the land. Naturally the Emperor of Heaven found out, and punished the Jade dragon by burying him underneath a great mountain. A massive headstone at the foot of the mountain read, "The dragon made rain, disobeying heaven's rule. The dragon will suffer as humans suffer, and may not return to heaven until the golden bean flowers." Image: A Chinese Dragon
Image source Google images

Everyone wanted to rescue the Jade Dragon, as much to ensure rainfall as to repay his kindness, and began scouring the land for a golden bean that flowered. Years passed without success, until some farmers picking at the scant remains of their dried corn noticed that the kernels resembled golden beans. One creative soul remarked that if they made popcorn, the golden bean would come to resemble a flower.

Within a few hours, mounds of popcorn were heaped on family altars, where the Emperor of Heaven would notice them. The Jade Dragon noticed, at any rate, and roared to the skies, "The golden bean has flowered, release me!" The Emperor of Heaven, all powerful though he may be, was nonetheless constrained to his word, and a promise fulfilled, however metaphorically. He freed the dragon and reinstated him to his rain-making duties by the celestial river.

This explains why people still make popcorn on this day, as well as leaving mounds of beans on family altars. It also explains why people rename foods. On Long Tai Tou, dumplings become dragon ears, rice patties become dragon scales, rice dragon seeds, and won-tons dragon eyes. What it doesn't explain is what any of this has to do with a dragon raising its head.

In answer, the Chinese tell another legend. Long ago, but not so long ago as the Jade Dragon's misadventure, there was another drought, in Shaanxi Province. At last a village hero named Shui Sheng set out to look for water. After a week's travel, he came to another village. The eldest man there told him that the task of tending to the celestial river had fallen to the grandson of the Jade Dragon.

A youthful, forgetful magic lizard, the grandson had been sent to dispense rain to parched Shaanxi, but upon arriving had shirked his chore to go cavorting about. Shui Sheng asked the village elder how to put the young dragon back on task, and learned that he would have to fashion a fighting staff from "defeat dragon" wood. Shui Sheng roamed far and wide to find the rare tree, extinct today, which bore such wood. Even after making the staff, Shui Sheng was hard put to find the dragon, as on earth dragons favor caves, mountain tops, and other lairs similarly inaccessible.

But find the dragon he did, and succeeded in beating the stuffing out of the errant rain-maker. Gradually returning to consciousness, the dragon lifted his head and whirled up to the sky, which suddenly filled with black rain clouds and rumbling thunder. A rather elaborate story to justify a dragon's head raising, but powerful enough that on this day a few superstitious souls still venture out to pray at a dragon temple. True, just a few, but many others, equally superstitious, view this day as the first safe one after New Year's to get a hair cut. Ask an old Chinese person or two. They'll verify this.

Huang Di, The Yellow Emperor lived about 5, 000 BC, and he is still highly respected as being the first ruler of ‘China’. He is attributed with instigating Long Tai Tou, which is by tradition the day all Chinese begin planting the annual crops. Given China is a large Country with dramatic changes in weather, then you will not be surprised to learn that in 2010 some areas are still experiencing the snowfalls of winter. Other areas are subject to the worst drought for over 100 years, most notable of which are Southeastern parts of Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guizhou Provinces. This drought has severely affected farming, and is so bad in some areas that 20 million people have no drinking water.

In the local areas of neighbouring Guangdong, my home territories of Foshan and Toisan have abundant water and no frost in any year. Crops such as lettuce have been grown throughout the winter period, and the first rice was planted around the beginning of February. This is seed rice which tends to be bought for growing rice seedlings. Strips of land some 30 inches wide by 20 or 50 yards are prepared on a slightly raised soil platform in which seed trays measuring 30 inches by 25 inches are set. The rice grain is then scattered over the trays, and the rows are then covered with a semi-spherical tent of opaque plastic, which is vented every 10 yards or so to allow draught for ventilation. Once the seedlings are established the plastic tent is removed to allow direct sunlight to tend the trays and encourage vigorous growth and from germination to planting takes about 1 month. Image: Toisan rice seedlings

As with contemporary Western equivalents, the rice grown tends to be one of several popular and reliable hybrids that are drought and disease resistant, and produce heavy crops. This is exactly the same as wheat grown in cooler regions of the world. For much of its long history China has suffered from famine and the oft associated factors of flood, drought, and war. During the early days of the present communist regime, much emphasis was placed on farming and improving agricultural resources. It is during this time that one of China’s foremost unsung heroes changes the course of Chinese history – through sheer hard work and perseverance. His name is Yuan Long Ping, and he invented hybrid rice

“Yuan Longping is a famous Chinese agriculturalist who was born in Qianyang, Hunan Province in 1930. Professor Yuan graduated from Southwest Agriculture College in 1953 and has since devoted himself to agricultural education and research. He is currently hold many prestigious titles, most notably Director General of China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Centre. Please note that this is not a typo, and that Chinese often combine first names into a single word, as they often do with city names also.

Professor Yuan pioneered hybrid rice research in China and made remarkable achievements in this area by developing the first hybrid rice in the world. His achievements greatly resolved food shortages, and have provided one solution to worldwide starvation. He is recognised around the world by the unofficial title ‘The Father of Hybrid Rice’.

Yuan Longping began research on ‘indica’ hybrid in 1964. At the beginning, he discovered male-sterile rice. Then he brought forward a third hybrid paddy and carried out experiments on field grown rice. His pioneering work in hybrid rice production techniques has revolutionized rice cultivation in China, establishing China's world leading position in hybrid rice research.

Yuan went on to solve several following major problems. In 1970, he found another important specie of wild rice for the creation of high-yield hybrid rice species. In 1973, in cooperation with others, he was finally able to establish a complete process of creating and reproducing high-yield hybrid rice species.
Image: Yuan Longping
Image courtesy:

The next year they successfully cultivate a type of hybrid rice species which had great advantages. It yielded 20 percent more per unit than that of common ones, putting China in the lead worldwide in rice production. For this achievement, he was dubbed the "Father of Hybrid Rice."

The new hybrid was tested in many areas of Southern China during 1974 and 1975, and then extended to other areas. China became the first country that was capable of producing hybrid rice. Yuan Longping is the first scientist who successfully altered the self-pollinating characteristic of rice and realized large-scale farming of hybrid rice.

At present, as much as 50 percent of China's total rice fields grow Yuan Longping's hybrid rice species and yield 60 percent of the rice production in China. Due to Yuan's hard work, China's total rice output rose from 5.69 billion tons in 1950 to 19.47 billion tons last year, about 300 billion kilograms more have been produced over the last twenty years. The annual yield increase is enough to feed 60 million people.

The "Super Rice" Yuan he is now working on yields 30 percent higher than those of common rice. A record yield of 17,055 kilograms per hectare was registered in Yongsheng County in Yunnan Province in 1999. From 1976 to 1987, the total cultivated area of the hybrid rice developed by Yuan reached 1.1 billion mu (15 mu=1 hectares), and increased rice yield by 100 billion kg. In 1979, the hybrid rice was transferred as China's first agro-technology patent to the United States. At present, the hybrid rice developed by Yuan is planted on the farmlands all over China, which played an important role in increasing China's grain production. It made possible the feeding of 22% of the world population on only 7% of the world's total arable land.”

Adapted from:

Today's farmers have benefited greatly from Yuan Long Ping’s efforts, which have since been refined, with versions of rice being developed to suit differing regions and conditions around China. Many foreigners have a mental picture of waterlogged fields and peasants planting rows of rice by hand. This type of rice is what I will term “Water-logged” rice; and is perhaps more correctly a representation of Cambodia under the harsh Khmer Rouge regime. Whilst rice remains a water intensive crop, modern Chinese rice is normally of the shallow sown variety.

Spring in Toisan
This year the first rice sown in the fields south of Toisan was during January, although planting in my wife's village is a few weeks later. Baba still prepares their plots using a traditional Ox drawn wooden plough with metal share. Other residents are now embracing the modern soil cultivators that are quite similar to British rotorvators. I think Americans call them something else that is similar, cultivators perhaps? These are the front part of a Chinese tractor with the truck body being replaced with a plowing attachment that can be ridden. These are currently supplied by contractors, who will plough a field for payment. Smallholder's in UK still use the same method for some cropping, such as renting a combine harvester for a day or two. Image: Chinese plough as used in Toisan

Image: Baba's Ox

Image: Irrigation Channel
In Toisan the rate is Y300 (£30) per Mu, or Y75 per paddy field. We therefore now know there are four paddy's in a Mu (Cantonese ‘Mo’), and a Mu is equivalent to 0.165 acres or 0.06’ hectares. Therefore: 1 acre = 6 Mu, and 1 hectare = 15 Mu (there, that's easier isn't it).

Water is delivered to each Paddy field via a complex system of irrigation ditches that bear the hallmarks of both Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Heath Robinson. My in-law’s village is located to one side of a wide plain that appears to be totally flat, and is perhaps 5 miles wide by 20 miles long. The area is defined by mountainous outcrops that ring the western head of the plain and mark its sides as it gradually widens on its meandering expansion southeastwards. The juxture of hillside and plain is marked by a major canal, from which smaller channels take water to the immediate villages.

Whilst your immediate perception is that the land of the plain is totally flat, this is in fact an illusion. Over the width of a mile, the height of land may fall by as much as 5 feet. This is managed by a series of interconnecting channels and fields. It would therefore be normal for 5 or 15 paddy's to be ringed by a small drainage channel. Each paddy is enclosed in its own small dyke a few inches high. This can be broken in a suitable place to allow water to enter, or exit. This in turn enters other small channels that are set at a level perhaps 9 inches lower than the preceding one above. Whilst it might be reasonable to expect human labour to level an area of say one acre over time, it is not viable to do this on a larger scale. Therefore the plain is in fact a very carefully interwoven mix of levels and irrigation channels.

Of course, all this water has to go somewhere, and allowing for evaporation, the large remainder eventually flows out to village fishponds, or finally into another major canal set at the lowest local altitude. This may in turn become a high level feeder for other areas set further to the southeast. Great skill and planning are required in formulating the layout and managing the fields – as all water is manipulated in ways that can affect other irrigation channels and field systems lower down.

At a practical level, Baba has 4 adjoining paddy's set in a field system of perhaps one dozen paddy's This is bordered on two sides by a small irrigation channel that supplies water to the field. Baba is able to broach this in a suitable place to flood his paddies individually, and he can also broach the wall of each paddy this flooding all of his land as required. The breaches are then repaired thus cutting off the water feed. A neighbouring paddy has a sub-channel which allows water to reach more inaccessible paddies in the centre. These are very important to local farmers, as not all are as fortunate as Baba, and some may only have one or two paddies's scattered around in the centre of larger fields.

With the paddies flooded to a height of a couple of inches, the land is then ploughed repeatedly until it is made ready for planting. The soil is allowed to settle for a few days, when any excess water is allowed to drain into a second ditch set at lower level for the purpose. They aim to have a water coverage of about 1 inch only at planting time. Trays of seedlings are then taken from the nursery seedbeds described above, and by walking around the paddy, seedlings are separated and individually thrown into place from a standing position. I bet you thought they planted them by bending over and setting nice straight parallel rows? So much for Hollywood, this is how it actually occurs in real life! Image: Toisan Paddy fields in January 2010

Chinese farming communities are run by village collectives, which today have a relatively large autonomy. Whilst they are held responsible to local government, which in turn is duty bound to town and city government’s in turn; they can determine things as which crops to grow (Within the larger framework of national policy). Therefore if a village or group of villages decided they would benefit from growing tea instead of rice, then they could do so. Often such changes are suggested by local or regional government; and often develop through external intervention. However, the basic economy of most regions is based upon the value of rice. This is set by central government through its provincial offices, and guarantees each Province a set reward for a standard quantity of harvested rice. Without confusing you with traditional Chinese weights and measures, it is indicative to state that each Mu of land will produce ‘X’ amount by weight of rice on average; and that each sack of rice is worth a specific amount or Renminbe. The Central government fixes this price for each Province; and Collectives or regional distributors are not allowed to sell this to collection centres in other Provinces. This acts to regulate the local market economy and offers stable prices for consumers within any given Province. This is highlighted in my local Province, as Guangdong is one of the richest areas of China. By comparison, neighbouring Guangxi is a poorer Province, and guaranteed price for rice is lower. Of course, a regional economy is far more complex, so as the price of rice is the major factor governing household budgets, it is not the only one where regulation is employed. In Guangxi for example, 1 Mu of land will yield rice to the conservative value of Y600 (ie. A poor harvest). In Guangdong this figure is nearer Y800 per year, based upon only one crop of rice annually. Guangdong usually produces 2 crops each year, but there is a fallow year every few years.

Throughout Chinese history, local farming communities have changed little, although the means of their administration has varied over the centuries. In early times this was based upon feudal models, with specific political flavours as powerful empires became undermined by local warlords and influential landowners – who given time also were themselves replaced in the annals of history. Much of this was politicking and of little or no concern to the local farmers who tilled the fields. It would be obvious that some periods and administrations were preferred to others by the peasants concerned; but essentially life went on in similar fashion down through the ages.

You would imagine that a major change gripped the nation with the overthrow of the Qing Empire circa 1911; but from a peasant farming perspective, not a lot altered. Regional power still rested with the same people or their successors. When the Japanese invaded China during 1937, heralding the dawn of WW2, local peoples lives were already compromised by the on-going civil war and life had become that of survival. However, many communities were left untouched by the ongoing civil war that sandwiched the Japanese incursion, whilst others were devastated. You can read more about this confusing and very interesting period of Chinese history in our complimentary supplement “Modern Chinese History”. Image: Chinese Tractor

Therefore it would be an indicative generalisation to infer that the lives of ordinary Chinese peasant farmers had not changes substantially over millennia. This did change in 1949 when Chairman Mao become China’s first communist president. Mao's aspirations were grand and very practical: “Mao's first goal was a total overhaul of the land ownership system, and extensive land reforms. China's old system of landlord ownership of farmland and tenant peasants was replaced with a distribution system in favour of poor/landless peasants.

Mao laid heavy emphasis on class struggle and theoretical work”. He instigated major reforms, based upon 5-year plans. The first significant one was in 1958, and called ‘The Great Leap Forward’. The theory was great and resembled a ‘make it at home’ stance. However, due to local intensified mini-steel co-operatives, workers were taken from their fields, and harvests withered un-gathered. This in turn led to a famine, with China’s birth rate halving due mainly to malnutrition. Ordinary farmers were set a specific goal of yield, which was always met. However, there was no incentive to harvest extra produce, as they would not be allowed to keep any of it and be donated for the greater good of the people.

Mao's other two major initiatives: ‘1966: The Cultural Revolution’ and ‘The Anti-Rightist Campaign’, resulted in cementing a rural peasant version of China. Famine continued, exacerbated by floods and droughts, whilst crops that could be grown or harvested were not, due to the quota system. Basically there was no incentive for anyone to work for nothing. I am trying very hard not to be political here, and simply state facts as I have researched them. These views are not expressly my own either.

Policies were adjusted after Mao's time, and a series of reforms coupled with the advent of the ‘Policy of Openness’ (The brainchild of China’s other great modern leader: Deng Xiao Ping), has given rise to the village collectives that produce a staple crop such as rice. This is supplemented by the market economy allowing collectives and individual farmers to increase their annual income by producing as much as they can for reward, and in other more diverse ways.
Image: Chairman Mao

Image: Deng Xiaoping

Returning to a practical daily situation at home in Toisan, this effectively means that whilst there remain intensive periods of farming activity - obviously based around sowing and harvesting seasons, there is much room for other endeavours during intervening periods. Regards my own Chinese relatives, the immediate close group of families work co-operatively to ensure basic household food supplies, with one perhaps focusing on particular crops, whilst another produces something else. This is extended by maintaining small stands of sweet bamboo (Think sugar cane here), mango trees and other fruits and vegetables. For instance, Baba produces a large amount of potatoes for the greater family all year round. More than is required is often grown, the extra being sold at local wet markets. Also, all land that does not come under the direct control of a farming collective or administrative jurisdiction is classified as belonging to the people. Therefore small allotments spring up everywhere to sustain the needs of a home.

Image: Brush  Also evident is the wide use of natural resources. At appropriate times of the year, firewood and tinder is collected, dried, and stored for future use. Tinder is often bracken, which is a bit of a large weed, as prevalent in my Blighty home of Staffordshire. Brushes are still made by hand when necessary using local materials such as brushwood – perhaps where the word originates? Whilst most homes have a reel of modern plastic string at their disposal, most families still use reeds or stout grass with which to tie produce for market or storage. Also evident are the traditional skills of keeping eggs, salting pork, and dried salted fish
Dai Lo (Big Brother, or Number 1 Brother), is traditionally the one to follow in his Father’s footsteps, and carry on the family business; and maintain family values and traditions. You could view this as him being the one responsible for continuing the family line. His first duty is to provide a son with a suitable and approved wife. Siu Ying's Dai Lo has followed his own path in life, and now has a very good job in the sister city of Hoipeng (Kai Ping in Mandarin). They have a nice modern home, one male child, and possess a car and other contemporary comforts. Whilst still acknowledged as the heir of the family, he is a little outside of the main family's daily lives in the village. During Qing Ming (Which I will eventually get to below), he was first to perform certain specific and symbolic acts, but not all of them. Yee Lo and I played similar important parts that I considered to be a little unusual. Obviously Dai Lo in his absence is making very good money, so he supports the greater family in other ways that do not require his personal attendance on a daily basis. I do like him a lot, and we recently met by chance in Toisan, which is another story and not for this missive.

Yee Lo (Number 2 Brother in Cantonese), is a most personable and likeable guy. He is quite chilled and speaks Cantonese quite well and in a way I can understand. I had a great time with him and some other local likely lads a while ago; when we went off with a few air-rifles and shot sparrows at midnight down one of the nearby lanes. That is detailed in another missive entitled ‘Village Life in Guangdong’. Previously Yee Lo lived in Toisan City (Tai Shan in Mandarin), and was a chef by profession – and he is a very good cook! When I first met him a couple of years ago, he was living in Toisan City proper, whilst his wife was away working in USA for a year. He was left holding the baby, or should I say ‘Loi Loi’ his 2-year old daughter. Whilst it was obvious he is a very nice and outgoing guy, it did not take me long to work out that there was an imbalance in his life.
Image: Dai Lo and Family

Image: Yee Lo and Siu Ying in Toisan

Becoming practical about issues; his parents are in their 50’s and still working very hard in life. His Mother raised his daughter, and is now doing so with my own. You could say that by profession, she is a highly skilled Mother. His Father still works the land every day, and is highly experienced as to crops and seasons for planting. He intuitively knows what the weather will bring, and adapts accordingly. Yee Lo has now forsaken life in the city, and returned to the homestead to work alongside his parents in the fields. His wife is now returned from USA, and now works in Toisan. Ho-hum!

What is interesting is that Loi Loi now attends kindergarten, and has done since age three. She leaves the home between 7.30 and 8am on all five weekdays, returning 10 or 12 hours later. Chinese schools and kindergartens provide all food and beds for midday nap. Many are boarding institutions and it is common for secondary school children to only return home at weekends, or even for Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning only! I would estimate they spend about twice as much time studying as their western peers. Meanwhile Yee Lo spends his days learning his Father’s knowledge on the land, and cooks whenever there is a special meal planned. Image: Be Loi, Loi Loi and Nonni
He is taking over household ‘Boy’ duties from his Father – like tending the Chinese Aga. Therefore, whilst his Mother is in total control of the home, he has the responsibility to ensure there is fire in the stove … interesting!

Now when you follow this statement through, this also means he is now in charge of ensuring there is enough combustible material to keep the stove working all through a hard winter. That in turn means gathering and drying enough supplies of suitable materials. Not quite so easy then? He also has to maintain the cooker = clearing out the soot from the chimney periodically, and using the soot and ashes suitably and where needed on the fields. In Blighty I know about this, because I was raised upon a farm with solid fuel hearths. This could represent a parallel universe for many western teenagers.

Yee Lo’s wife is the breadwinner, in the sense that all the money she earns goes into their private savings, which in turn will buy a house. Perhaps you would consider that she has a ‘proper job’.
Yee Lo funds her expenses, funds Loi Loi’s kindergarten (About Y1, 000 for 20 weeks), and makes all the money his family live on – outside of continuing the family business. This means that he has developed his own business based upon supplying prawns to a local trader, a regular contract that sees his food on tables at local schools. However, this also means that at 8 o'clock at night, he then goes off to tend to his own business – trolling the local ditches for prawns. He also catches other things, such as: crabs, snakes and eels. These all have a value, and I now know that an eel 6” long by ¼” wide is worth Y2. His day often finishes around midnight or 2 am, when the rest of the household is fast asleep. Image: Yee Lo's Wife and suckling pig

However, the point of these paragraphs is to relate how Yee Lo has taken over the role that would have been expected of Dai Lo, had he remained at home to continue the family business. Therefore during Qing Ming it was Yee Lo that did a lot of the organising and attended small rituals. However, for the major events it was Dai Lo who took control. I will now turn to Qing Ming itself, so lets move on to next part of this missive.

Qing Ming
This annual festival is also known as Grave Sweeping Day, and is basically a day for attending to graves for annual maintenance, and for honouring the family ancestors. This day is not universally fixed throughout China, and can fall anywhere over a two-week period, even in Guangdong.

Officially, Qing Ming should fall on the day after Cold Food Day, which itself is 105 days following the winter solstice, which then falls on either April 3rd or 4th of any year. My good friend Uncle Sam related that his Hong Kong family festival fell on Friday 26th March. My own Chinese family in Toisan reserved Tuesday 23rd this year, although I am sure the actual day varies each year. I asked Mama about it last night, and she waxed lyrical in Toisanwha (Taishanese). Then she pointed at the dates: 7th, 14th, 26th, and 29th as all being related to this years date. I readily admit to losing the plot on this one, and with no translator handy at the time (Well, it was close to midnight), I thanked her and made a hasty retreat. However, it was patently clear that there was a lot more to this, so when I have the facts I will replace this paragraph with the updated information. This could take a while, so don't hold your breath – just know it will be so eventually.

Image: Cold Goose To understand the modern Qing Ming Festival, we need to delve deep into the annals of Chinese history, and begin with Cold Food Day. Again I will adapt from other materials found on the internet by way of explanation:

“Qingming, meaning clear and bright, is the day for mourning the dead. It falls in early April every year and corresponds with the onset of warmer weather, the start of spring plowing, and of family outings. Before we talk about Qingming, we must say something about another ancient event, Hanshi, which nowadays comes one day before Qingming, and is the reason Qingming came into existence.

Hanshi literally means ‘cold food’. It is said that in the seventh century BC during the Spring and Autumn Period, Duke Xiao was the monarch of the state of Jin. His eldest son, Shen Sheng should have inherited the throne upon the death of his father. But Duke Xiao had other plans. He wanted the son of his favorite concubine, Li Ji, to succeed him as the ruler of Jin. Not exactly a loving father, Duke Xiao had Shen Sheng murdered and would have done the same to his second eldest son, Chong' er, But Chong' er got wind of this plot and fled.

For 19 long years, Chong' er and his entourage of loyal officials and servants wandered homeless, and were no strangers to cold and hunger. One day, Chong' er was actually starving and close to death when one of his most faithful followers, Jie Zitui, cut a slice of muscle from his own leg and served it to his master, thereby saving his life. Finally in 636 BC, Chong'er managed to take the throne that was rightfully his; and also took the official title of Duke Wen of the state of Jin.

After becoming the ruler of the state, Chong' er decided to reward the officials who had stayed loyal to him throughout his years of wandering. But he forgot about Jie Zitui who had sacrificed the flesh of his leg. Jie Zitui was heartbroken and disappeared. Later Chong' er remembered Jie Zitui's sacrifice and sent people to look for him. Eventually they found him. Chong' er went in person to apologize and ask him to return to the royal court. But Jie Zitui left them and went deep into the mountains so no one could find him again.

Someone advised Chong' er to set fire to the area in order to force Jie Zitui into the open, where he could be talked into returning to the comforts of life in the royal house. Chong' er took this advice and set fire to the mountain where Jie Zitui was believed to be hiding. The fires raged for three days and Jie Zitui was found leaning against a large tree, carrying his old mother on his back. Both Jie Zitui and his mother were dead. From this you should imply that they were burned to death in the fires.

Chong' er was deeply saddened by this tragedy. He ordered that a temple be built in memory of his most loyal follower. He also ordered that no fires were allowed on the anniversary of Jie Zitui's death. So people had to eat their cold food on that day, or the Day of Hanshi as it came to be known. In addition, people began to visit Jie Zitui's tomb and pay their respects to his memory. It was not until the Qing Dynasty about 300 years ago that the practice of Hanshi or eating cold food was replaced by that of Qingming , which had now become an important occasion for people to offer sacrifices to their ancestors.

So to interpolate for you readers, it took about 2, 000 years from the original day of remembrance, for this to become a day of mourning and respect for all Chinese peoples. Bear in mind also, that these related events took place in what is regarded as Northern China, but in reality is a fairly small area between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, east of Xi’an and West of Beijing (About where they come closest to each other on a map). The later city did not exist then, and neither did the Chinese Empire. In fact, it is not until the Mongol invasion that modern China takes its modern shape, and this was in the latter Empire under The Kublai Khan – who incidentally built his ‘Pleasure Dome’ just outside what is modern Beijing. Image: Cold Food at Qingming, Toisan

In ancient China, Qingming was by no means the only time when sacrifices were made to ancestors. In fact such ceremonies were held very frequently, about every two weeks, and in addition to other important holidays and festivals. The formalities of these ceremonies were in general very elaborate and expensive in terms of time and money. In Guangdong the Spring Festival = Chinese New Year and the 15 days following, is a time for family remembrances, honouring family forefathers, and cold food for 3-days out of respect. You can see by this how over time, the original ‘Cold Food Day’ has expanded its role to cover all periods of ‘Family Time’, whilst Qingming has become the special day for attending family shrines.

In an effort to reduce this expense, Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty declared in 732 AD that all respects would be formally paid at the tombs of ancestors only on the day of Qingming. This is the custom that continues to this day. People will visit their ancestors' graves. They will tidy up, remove weeds and sweep away leaves. This is why Qingming is also known as the Grave Sweeping Day. However, the day is also important for the living, who carry food and wine to share with their ancestors – leaving it for them to take their fill first – before eating and drinking the remains themselves. This can actually turn into a party in many respects – so perhaps it would be fair to summarise that the day begins with mourning and honouring departed souls. Then there is a lot of work to be done cleaning and tidying the graves. Then a fabulous picnic for the extended family … which can sometimes degenerate into a fully blown party, celebrating just how good the family as a whole is -well, look to the ancestors for guidance. In this way it can be something akin to an Irish Wake. The term ‘Wake the Dead’ actually comes from this Irish tradition, and is a pun on the two distinct meanings of the word ‘wake’.

Nowadays in modern Hong Kong, Qingming is not just a day of remembrance; it is also a day to celebrate the coming of spring, often by going out for a picnic. With the coming of spring, nature wakes up, dressing the world in green. All is new, clean and fresh. However, I also see where this has come from in my annual visit to my Chinese family during Qingming. But in reality, the switch from winter to spring is actually a couple of weeks before, at Long Tai Tou Festival = pretty meaningless for well to do city folks.

The welcome transition from winter to spring represented by Qingming was an inspiration for many Tang Dynasty poems. The following one by Han Hong is an example.

Cold Food
By Han Hong

All over the capital catkins flew wantonly,
A scene of the spring so significant,
On Cold Food the east wind willfully,
Made the imperial willows slant;
Now as the dusk approached quietly,
Within the Han palace candles glowed,
Towards the five mansions of nobility,
The silvery smoke of the tapers flowed.
Image: Dragon Parade and celebrations

Qing Ming has also been a favorite subject for painting. Zhang Zeduan of the Song Dynasty produced one of China's most famous works of art: ‘Qingming Shanghetuor Life Along the River at Qingming’. This silk scroll is now exhibited at the Imperial Palace Museum (Forbidden City) in Beijing. Almost five and a half meters long and a quarter of a meter wide, it is bursting with life: riverside roads full of traffic, fairs in farmers' fields, lively village, noisy city streets crowded with all kinds of people, officials, merchants, soldiers, scholars, porters, men and women, young and old. There are about 550 people in the painting, as well as scores of different animals, carriages and sedans, bridges and boats. It is a vivid record of the festivities and hustle and bustle of the special time of Qing Ming.

I personally love this scroll, and have a full-sized copy at home. My wife think’s I am very crazy (Me?), but it is so very detailed and amazing. You can see the whole scroll from the Palace Museum Beijing here:
Image: Zhang Zeduan, Qingming Shanghetuor Life Along the River at Qingming

and the modern interpretation (Housed in Taipei) here
Image: Modern version housed in Taipei

These are both extremely long paintings, and begin at the right, not the western default left of scroll. You may have to increase zoom by a factor of 10 clicks or more to view them properly. Therefore to view them in detail you will need to save the linked images to your computer and use your system image application to increase the zoom. If you need a good one, then we advise you download Irfanview

These images are reproduced from Wikipedia under Collective Commons Licence, and the Wiki page is here:

Why are Kites associated with Qingming?
Springtime, especially in North China, is the windy season, just right for flying kites. It is not surprising that kite flying is very popular during the Qingming season. The history of the kite in China is very interesting. It is said that the kite was invented by the famous legendary carpenter Lu Ban over 2,000 years ago.

The earliest Chinese kites were made of wood and called Mu Yuan. Mu means wood and Yuan means sparrow hawk, a type of bird. Therefore: Mu Yuan means: wooden sparrow hawk. The invention of paper did not escape the attention of kite makers and soon the kite was called Zhi Yuan. Zhi means paper, so Zhi Yuan means: paper sparrow hawk. Kites were not just used for fun. They were also used for military purposes. There are historical records describing enormous kites, some large enough to lift a man high in the air to observe enemy movements. About 1,500 years ago, Emperor Wudi was surrounded in Nanjing by the rebel troops. He used a kite to send out an SOS for outside help.

During the Tang Dynasty, people began to attach thin bamboo strips to kites. When the kite was high in the air, the wind would make these strips vibrate, producing a low-pitched twanging noise, very like that of the Zheng, a Chinese stringed instrument. Thereafter, another popular Chinese name for kite was Feng Zheng, which means ‘wind Zheng’.

In the Qing Dynasty, people would fly their kites as high as possible, then let go of the string. Off went the kite, taking with it bad luck and illness. Conversely, to pick up a kite lost or released by someone else could bring bad luck. Some enthusiasts enjoy flying kites at night. They hang small coloured lanterns on the string with candles burning inside. With dozens of kites up together, arc lines of flickering multicolored lights decorate the night sky.

Visitors should go to “Tiao'anmen” (Tiananmen) Square to see kites of all shapes and sizes. The biggest could be a hundred meters long, made of a hundred sections to form a dragon or even a centipede. The annual Weifang Kite Festival held every April in East China's Shandong Province has become a major event, attracting thousands of tourists and kite flying competitors all over the world.

China also has Fighting Kite tournaments, where the winner is the last person left with a kite still flying. These kites are usually small and highly manoeuvrable, and often have: powdered glass, sharp sand, ground pottery, or even sharp knives are attached to their strings. The object is to cut competitors strings and this requires great skill. Whilst it sounds like great fun, would probably be banned in the West for health and safety reasons.
Image: Sound Kite

Image: Dragon Kite

This thing about good luck and bad luck, does immediately relate to ghosts in Chinese psyche. In this respect, Chinese people are incredibly superstitious, and even my wife has come trembling into our home after ‘seeing’ a ghost. I never have, but then, I am not superstitious, nor Chinese. Chinese fire crackers were invented to scare away ghosts, and these are deployed after visiting Chinese graves at Qingming. I think the theory goes something like this: We have awoken our ancestors from their slumbers and brought them food and drink. Now they need to go back to sleep, and we also may have awoken other malevolent being who should not be here at all. Now is the time to send them back to rest, or scare outsiders away – Bang, Bang, Bang…

Travelling to Qing Ming
I traveled to my Chinese family home on Sunday 21st, so as to be in good time for the festival on Monday. Ahha! This was actually to celebrate ‘Cold Food Day’ on Monday; as I subsequently found out. Their own family Qingming was on Tuesday 23rd, and was also a day when all food was served cold. Hmmm; cold, cooked, Cos lettuce? Yummie! Western vegetarians haven't a clue what culinary delights they are missing … probably?

On Sunday I had arranged to meet a local family for lunch in their home, very near the ferry ramp in Gaogong, and one of the very posh places nearby. David met me from the ferry and escorted me to his nearby home. He is a great person whom has become a very good friend of late. I receive a phonecall from Uncle telling me he is stuck in traffic at the major island interchange (Which is being re-routed today), and he will be late. This is one mighty fine gaff, and we enter via a courtyard passing the fishpond full of expensive Koi Carp, and enter the main reception room directly. I am greeted by his wife, and many kids ranging from babies through to college years. We shake hands and say ‘Hello’, before they all disappear off in shyness. Meanwhile the parents are encouraging them to practice their English with me. This is basically a non starter, as they appear to view me as a mouse does a hungry snake. Asi es la vida! I do try and be amenable to them, but shyness is overwhelming – that is apart from their 3-year old daughter who did the same to me the first time we met, but now seems to think I am rather cute and good to play with.

Their gaff is very fine, and similar to my last pad in Foshan city; re intricate woodwork to walls and ceilings, matched by contemporary marble floor tiles. However, this is new, modern, and a couple of hikes up the ladder from what I had before. If you can imagine a wood such as Teak, modeled with intricate designs and marble insets of white and slightly striated, then this is about what I walked into. I love this place already. Large and roomy, with 90 inch plasma TV screen in the first room, which later reveals a common plan to the second reception room, which is more like the adults ‘Den’. Then I notice there is a 12-seater dining table tucked away in the far corner of the room. Behind the adjoining wall, a woman is working very hard cooking and timing lunch. She is very nice, but extremely busy, and is the family's cook and nanny to three children. I'm pretty sure you could hold a Basketball tournament using these two rooms, as they are both light and airy. I am seated in their leather couch and offered drinks and nibbles.

Image: Allotments at the ferry ramp, Gaogong  One is yellow chunks of something, and turns out to be a large bowl of fresh pineapple which is delicious. Meanwhile the kids are introduced to me again, by seniority, and I play a game of Hide and Peak with the young girl. She seems to be getting the hang of foreigners now, although it does appear she is not keen on the other one in these parts. This is later confirmed in Cantonese conversation after lunch (Which I understand), where they decide I am very likeable, and the other foreigner does not have time for people. What made me chuckle was, that after talking about this for 5-minutes, most of which I readily understood, they then related the translation as being: David wants to be your Brother.

This is a typical Chinese family home, in that David's parents live with them and look after the children when the housekeeper has other duties. We both received txt and phonecall's from Uncle re his progress (1 Mile away), meanwhile the kids have all disappeared (Excepting the young daughter who is still playing ‘peek-a-boo’). Having met David three times, I then discover he is a social smoker, and he offers me one of Shanghai’s finest brands. I had never seen the packet before, but he informs me it is a new brand, and a gift from a company he visited there recently. He then gives me both packets. They are ok, but not Chinese ‘B&H’. Later I offer him one of mine, which is when he brings out the ‘Shanxi’ smokes, which are the local stalwart = he is a Guangdong Boy.

As conversation progresses, it turns out he used to be a bit of a wild child. After Uncle rocks-up, he shares some private things about his life with us, and we gave offers to help him. Obviously everything is not perfect in paradise, and the problem regards his eldest brother, and the contents are none of your business. However, to have a Chinese person open himself so readily is very refreshing, and we both (Uncle Sam and Myself) offer to assist in our own ways.

Ahha! Yes Uncle did eventually arrive, and subsequently went through the same greetings I did. He has again brought with him his real and elder sister, who I quite like. I think Uncle Sam is 67 this year, and his sister is a good bit older. However, she likes a drop of beer and eats meat; something Uncle has forsaken since he became quite a strict Buddhist. He doesn't say much about his standing, although relates to every and anyone about Chinese Buddhist teachings: Don't eat meat, don't drink, don't smoke, don't chase the girls; etc… sounds pretty boring to me, but what do I know?

Image: Uncle Sam and Friends  He used to do all this before in Hong Kong of course when he was younger, but now is a very much reformed character. He also has a way with him that demands much respect. I don't understand half of it all, but we are very good friends all the same. His sister is very good company, and more to thinking the way I live my life: If there is a beer, then I will drink it, if there is meat then I will eat it. We get on well together. However, people sort of form their own cliques, and then lunch is served. We have ended up with 16 people at the table, so the kids and housekeeper set a new table for themselves, thus allowing all room for manoeuvre, and the kids also get to watch cartoons on the plasma TV.

The meal was superb! Obviously it was normal Chinese cuisine, but very well cooked with the best of ingredients. It ranks as one of the very best meals I have ever eaten in China; and do you know what? I cannot describe one dish without making it sound ordinary. There was simply great subtlety in the flavours which made the whole lunch very memorable.

Everyone is aware that my personal plan is to catch a coach to Toisan around 2pm. This is not written in stone of course, but the general idea is there. Therefore at 1.30, it becomes time to leave. David offers me his personal private driver to take me to Toisan, and the guy is waiting patiently at my side. This is crazy! The bus is fine for me, and I already have a plan to meet my wife to go shopping on Toisan City anyway's. Eventually he gives way on this offer, but does insist on driving me to the bus stop himself. I actually decline the offer, stating that first I need to visit an ATM to withdraw funds – as I am brassic just at the moment. Apparently this is not an option, as first Uncle, and then David offer me some money. This is off my radar, as I have money, just not in my wallet at this moment. I actually need to withdraw funds to support Siu Ying in Toisan, plus dosh to fund my own expenses and commitments. It is in the bank already, so all I need is to be delivered to the one and only ATM that functions with an international visa card in this small town. I give up, and David over-rules Uncle Sam, so we head for the main road. I have to direct him, as I am sure he has never caught a coach to Toisan before in his life.

The vehicle is pukka – a Toyota Landcruiser! I first came across these beasts in Blighty during the 70’s; a time when Brit's and Americans were arguing over whether a Landrover or Willis Jeep was the best in the world. No contest! Landcruiser every time – those things were phenomenal! I am taking about the original Jeep version here. David does not own one of those, but he does drive one of the next generation (Before they became ‘Kiddie-wagons’). It has the full air intake pipe going above the roofline, and is absurdly phenomenal across bumpy tracks. He apologises because the vehicle is old, whilst I really love this thing and hanker after putting it through its paces!  Image: Toyota Land Cruiser

However, in recent weeks Toyota has really been stuffed through the mill internationally, and I am not sure everything is fair? Well, you see, this happens a lot in motor industry circles. A small fault is found, identified, recalled for correction, and everything is fine again. Unfortunately, the US motor moguls, one of whom is directly responsible for the current ‘Smoking is bad for your health’ scam, (that all governments worldwide are accepting incidentally), having been bankrupt but bailed out by the US Treasury; are now using diverse protectionist tactics – which basically means that Toyota as the world’s largest vehicle producer, is in for a very rough ride through the American ‘Sue’ courts culture. Who wins? The lawyers get even richer for lying, and USA regains its motor industry. Who loses? The consumer, but then, did consumer choice ever matter to global businesses?

Meanwhile, both China and India have long-since copied, and are now determined to produce true eco-friendly cars for the future. You may remember at this point that the world’s oil resources are scheduled to expire before 2030 – in 20 years time. You can also be assured that what oil resources remain will be shepherded buy the world’s major countries = for defence and to deliver warheads of mass destruction. Well, they will also need oil to make new warheads also.

So let’s look to around 2023 for the major shift in machinery that uses oil. My daughter will just be in secondary education by then. As responsible parents, we are already planning her University finances … but what if the world has run out of oil, and we have to walk her to UK or USA from China – in order for her to study? No cars, no aeroplanes = all gone. No oil to power them.

China is now the world’s largest investor in ‘Green Solutions’. In 2009 they invested 10 times more in this field than USA. Now, please get your mind right: USA is generally run my oil and auto moguls. Their products depend on an infinite supply of oil; and as we know – this will run out before my baby finishes schooling …and I wonder?

But let’s return to the present, where David has dropped me off at the bus stop, and then decided to wait with me. The bus I wanted to catch actually passed us as we joined the main highway, so I know I will have 20 minutes to wait for the next one. I eventually convince David that I am fine and know exactly which bus too catch. He wants to take me somewhere else to catch a posh coach – but I do need to arrive at a particular bus station to meet Siu Ying, and he eventually accepts this. I then convince him there is no need to wait in this hot and dusty place, so he departs. The bus duly arrives and I head for Toisan.
Image: Green Beer

Arriving some 80 minutes later (These really are the fastest coaches in the whole of China!), I know Siu Ying will be late – simply because she always is. I settle in a nearby street restaurant and order a nice cold beer. They are pretty amazed I speak good Cantonese, and much hilarity follows. The bottle is almost finished by the time my wife arrives, and it is very good to see her again. I think she likes meeting me here as it gives her a great excuse to escape from the confines of the village for a while. I relate about the cash, and that I still need to go to an ATM (David kindly let me have Y500, whilst I need to withdraw about Y4K). Having decided she would go off shopping locally whilst I would be forced to have another beer, she then says that Toisan is used to international currency, and there are bound to be cash points here. She talks to the restaurant owner, and is pointed to one that suitable. We catch a cab, and ten minutes later are deposited at the main shopping mall in town. This is not the pedestrianised area which I like so well, but it is handy. We find the Bank of China, which has three CRS machines (China cards and banks only), one bank book machine, and one international ATM. Trying my visa card first, the machine whirs into life, and immediately gives me funds. Blimey! I then try my Hong Kong HSBC Company card, and it also works first time. Crikey! This is quite bizarre and an extremely welcome experience.

I give Siu Ying her monthly pocket money, and we head for the nearby supermarket. Inside she buys girls things, whilst I buy a couple of loaves of edible sandwich bread. We then meet-up again and go off to buy her mother a large melon, and some yellow things that must be a fruit of some description? They look a little bit similar to yellow chicken livers. Then she asks me to help her choose the best melon. Hello? I am a boy. Then I remember that succulent melons should give slightly at one end. Meanwhile Siu Ying is testing them by tapping the outside, selecting the ones with the highest and hollowest sound. Both methods appear to bring forth similar results, which I find quite encouraging. We eventually agree that one of them is the best, and have it weighed whereupon a price sticker is attached.

We depart the store a short time later and take a crazy motorcycle taxi back to the same bus station. Here it is I that spies the charabanc we need to catch = pretty impressive I think, especially as all the characters are in Chinese, and I haven't learnt this one yet : -)

Qing Ming in Toisan 2010
Returning to the village, things appear as before, except Nonni has grown noticeably. We eat alone as the others have already had their fill. I have options of goose, prawns, chicken, and meats. They are all delicious, but my favourite is the crackling pig, which is cut into long strips about 2 inches wide. I'm not quite sure how to eat this and get quite messy trying to break bits off with my fingers; before an intelligent person hands me a sharp knife. Hey Ho! This night I enjoy the last hot food for this visit, and we retire to bed early as by 8.30 I am dead beat.
Image: Siu Ying and Rhiannon

I wake at 3am, and manage to pass an hour before Nonni awakens for feeding. I then depart and write a lot of this missive on my laptop downstairs. I'm sure the family think I am a little crazy, but that's not the way I see it – and do I care = ‘no’. I make a coffee and kill two cockroaches ahha! Zero tolerance prevails! Later the family frog hops around as I am typing away, and having met me on several previous occasions, he knows me to be no threat. However, by contrast a few days later when Mama was at our home on Hoi Sao Doh, we replaced the gas cylinder and disturbed my own kitchen frog. Mama was horrified and mimed that I should throw it out of the window. I have a sneaking suspicion she does not know her own kitchen has one also?

I don't know what Chinese kitchen frogs eat, and cockroaches would be far too big for them, so hope they eat mossies and the like. Yummie! I then become aware of a rather large spider on the wall, which is trying to avoid one of the ceiling newts. The newts are excellent value, and a sign of good luck. The spider on the other hand is far more disconcerting. Its body is about 1-inch across, and has legs of around 3-inches long. All spiders are poisonous to certain degrees, and I am not sure I like this scenario, but am also unsure whether to squash it or not. It is not posing me any direct threat, so I decide to monitor it with my peripheral vision, a lot. It disappears off up to the shelf above where the ancestors live, and then reappears 20-minutes later. It seems to live underneath the corner table that is never used, so I leave it be … if only for this visit. Dawn is now breaking, heralding Cold Food day. Yippie!

Image: Hao Dor Soi Village Shop  Nothing much of note happens this day, and certainly all is covered in previous missives. The girls cook great food, which is then presented to the shrines around the home for the ancestors to enjoy. This is accompanied by offerings of rice wine and joss sticks. We later eat what is left-over ourselves, and when it is stone cold. This time the ancestors do not appear to be very hungry and as far as I can tell, they have not eaten anything. Perhaps in time I can relate more about what ancestors like to eat, presuming I will eventually become one myself – though not quite sure how I will be able to tell you all on this mortal coil - when that time comes to pass: Hahaha!

Siu Ying awakens, and later decides to show me where Baba is working. The whole family excepting herself are extremely busy planting rice these days. This year Baba has 1 Mu of prime land located near the main road (Cart track). This is represented by four paddies, and I later discover Mama and Yee Lo tending these. Yee Lo has semi-drained one of them by breaking the small retaining dyke, which he then repairs again and leaves shortly after we arrive. Mama is sowing seedlings – which is nothing remotely like your mental picture I am sure. She gathers a couple of trays of seedlings in her arm, and simply separates the individual plants from each cell, and throws them into place from a standing position. The water depth is average ½ inch, meaning some patches are above water level, whilst others may be 1-inch underneath. They are sowing Yuan Longping hybrid rice (See above), and a version that is not the waterlogged kind. Baba is somewhere else at this time. That was exciting then, but perhaps quite interesting for you. We never did catch up with Baba, as it appears he was doing something else, somewhere else. Later in the afternoon Yee Lo’s wife arrives, and I have an animated conversation in Chinglish from a local villager and Siu Ying's ‘Sister’, about her life and times in Liverpool. Unfortunately she appears to support Everton, and whilst understanding ‘Cod and chips with curry sauce and mushy peas’; doesn't actually speak a great deal of anything I recognise – so we mainly converse in Cantonese. That night I manage to go to bed late after watching a good romp style Jackie Chan ‘Gongfu’ (Kung Fu) movie in Cantonese. Yee Lo arrives back from tending his prawn farm as I head for bed, so I leave the TV on for him.

I do not sleep well, as all this day Yee Lo and Mama have been arguing about something. Baba has also been involved, and although my Toisanwha is not very good, there appears to be a small matter of Y880 vs Mama’s Y920, or 40 RMB to you and I. This goes on forever! Baba gets out a notebook and does ‘sums’; again. Mama continues to press for whatever it is she wants adding – which I eventually work out as being a large joss stick, or fire cracker. Meantime I also learn that the suckling pig is bought and delivered, and will cost around Y600 of the total for tomorrow’s budget. 60 quid = awesome! I love this stuff!

A little later Siu Ying confirms that Baba is paying for all of this greater family respects this year … and tentively enquires if I would like to foot the bill next year. No problem! At this very moment I would gladly give Mama Y1K to stop her whining about whatever it is that has her going! I joke, but seriously, China does move in mysterious ways, and this is actually an invitation from Baba = be a part of the family for real. I accept and will pay for the festivities next family Qingming … I just hope the ancestors like Big Mac and fries to go?

I am joking of course, but it may be interesting for me to offer a bottle of Whiskey or Pusser's Rum instead of rice wine. You can rest assured, there will be the largest suckling pig ever, and I have a fancy we will roast it ourselves the night before over a hand-powered roasting spit. I guess we better do two, as this could be a real local community party! Now, a lot of people talk profanely about cultural exchange, mostly Marketeers; and those rich souls desiring extra dosh. For me, hosting Qingming at my Chinese parental home gives me a little leeway to make this a truly multicultural event; and you already know I am always open to the left side…

Next daybreak heralds Qing Ming, and the first thing I hear is a lot of banging from firecrackers, followed by the drums and cymbals. Uh-ho. I guess the village ‘Lion’ is doing his rounds again. Having not slept well at first, I let this pass for this year, but you can read what this is all about in the missive ‘Village Life in Guangdong’.

Eventually Rhiannon decides it is time for us to be awake, and I go downstairs where I find is Yee Lo is sorting out his catch from the previous night, as the guy is coming to collect his prawns very soon. The catch has been stored overnight in composite enclosed nets, and reveals many large prawns. Smaller ones are set aside for family use or local sale. There are also many small crabs about one inch across the body and these are not regarded as being edible, and are later returned to the water farm Yee Lo has established. He has also caught a few small snakes, and by the way he handles all bar one of these, I presume most are not poisonous. There are also several eels about 15 inches long by an inch wide. These are put in a separate bin with a little water in the bottom. The snakes have something similar going for them also, but with a deft net canopy to prevent them escaping. Then there are two small eels, about 6” long and ¼ “ wide. These are put into another container with a little water, and I learn they are worth Y2 each at the local market. The catch is completed by a couple of small, nondescript toads, which are set aside for return to the water channel, as they are too small to command monetary value. Yee Lo has just about finished sorting out the catch when the buyer arrives on his motorcycle, complete with large water tank attached to the rear of his machine.

Yee Lo and his wife then proceed to grade the prawns for size, with most being of acceptable dimensions. Those that are too small are again sorted, with the family retaining the shrimp sized ones, whilst the remainder (1-inch or less, but more than 3/8ths inch) are headed for the local market.
Image: The local 'wet market' near The Village

Image: Descaling and filleting fish

Image: Chinese Spare Ribs

If you are a ‘Metric’ person, then I make no apologies, because when I went to school, Metric measurements had not been invented (regards UK). In fact I grew up and had to learn that 1£ is composed of 20 Shillings, and 21 Shilling make a Guinea. 12 pennies make one Shilling, and there were also happenies, farthings (1/4th penny) and mites (1/8th penny). Silver threpenny bits were legal tender in UK, as were Groats (Silver 4-penny piece). I also learned that 20 drams make an ounce; 16 ounces make a pound weight, and 14 pounds make one stone. My Mother used ‘gills’ as a cooking measure for fluids. I guess you have no idea what I am talking about?

However, rural China today also uses its own unique and similar measures, of which mathematical bases: 12, 16 and 20 are very common. These measures relate to ordinary peoples daily lives, and not some French divination of dividing the circumference of the world into abstract arbitrary measures based upon nothing remotely useful to peasants daily lives. The Chinese also use native measurements for length, so a Chinese foot is about 10” long. A British foot is actually 12” long, which just happens to be how long my own bodily foot is. The width of my palm is 4-inches, which is called a ‘Hand’, and is still used for measuring Horses to this day. Now there's a coincidence! It is a practical measure, which has always been my problem with metrification = it does not relate to ordinary peoples lives. Now, I can use my own hand to measure a horse, but you will need a suitable tape measure to define the girth of a moving horse (4” = 0.1016 meters by the way. And this is useful?). Anyway, Blighty is now for better or worse (?), a european country, and I will do politics another time – which I am very much looking forwards to writing hehehe! I may even try to write this before the upcoming General Election in UK, but we will see; as I have much else in other respects to administer on my desk just now.

Meanwhile back in Toisan, the motorcycle guy tops his prawn tank up with old water and departs. Mama then sets about honouring the ancestors, ably assisted by Yee Lo’s wife. Tables fill with fantastic food are prepared and presented in the middle of the main room. All the family shrines around the home are also suitably honoured with fruits and sweetmeats. Then a cacophony of exuberant diligence heralds the arrival of the suckling pig.

This is one awesome piece of meat! My closer inspection reveals it was oven cooked, and not spit-roasted. How do I presume this? Well the back is totally crispy, whilst the sides are … pliable. I took some photographs for your understanding, but this is the central offering to the ancestors, and is accompanied by Goose, sundries, and rice wine served in special ceremonial cups. Nothing is too good for the ancestors, or so it appears. We then have a late breakfast at 12.30, which includes an elderly couple who are introduced by Baba as being his parents. I am not quite sure this is factual, and perhaps they are very important family members on his side of the family. It is times like these I wish I could speak to them fluently, or at least have a translator. As it is, we treat them as honoured guests, and I notice Baba choosing select morsels from the table for their enjoyment. I also do the same for his wife – who is really taken aback (In a nice way) that I had worked out she preferred the 100-year old eggs. Her husband who must be in his late 80’s, smokes like a trooper and honoured me with curious looks and a peculiar smile. It would be safe to assume he was born in the latter years of the Qing Dynasty, and perhaps his own Father was afflicted by the atrocities the British and Allied powers inflicted on China some few decades before. However, there is only curiosity between us, and perhaps a longing to say more. Whilst my Cantonese is very limited, my pronunciation is excellent of the few words I know, and over the meal (Mainly in Toisanwha) his look changes to one of enquiry.

After the meal he finishes his cigarette and small glass of rice wine, and I assist Baba with their departure. Dai Lo and Yee Lo have already gone, and it seemed the right thing to do. They are too frail to join us at the grave sites for the afternoons coming festivities, but have made a great effort to attend the home and family shrine, so their duty is done. We subsequently tidy away and finalise preparations for departure before making tracks for the nearby hillsides around 2pm.
Image: Setting the Suckling Pig offerings

Image: Suckling Pig as presented to the Ancestors

Image: Mama carrying the offerings

I personally think that the idea of setting one specific day aside each year to pay respects to dearly departed is an excellent idea. In the West we sort of muddle through, and try to visit graves on either Birthdays or the anniversary of the day of death. This is often a small and personal thing done by one or two family members; and comments like – ‘I must find time to put some flowers on the grave today’, spring immediately to mind.

How different is Chinese honour, when each year a whole day is set aside specifically to respect every ancestor. This is exemplified by Mama, who being offered a lift in Dai Lo’s car forsakes this and chooses to carry the burden herself on foot to the family sacred areas. This is a short bamboo pole that has a handmade wicker basket at either end. She carries this on her shoulders and walks very quickly, so quickly that we arrive at the first grave site after Mama and Baba. I also wanted to walk, but this wasn't allowed.

We always go to this one first, but it is not the main internment. I think this is related to Baba's ancestors only, and perhaps next year I can invite a translator, so I can fully comprehend proceedings. As in previous years, Baba leaves the rest of the family here, and ventures further into the mountain. He respects personal ancestors, not immediate family ones; which also tells me there may be more to his life than I know. Nobody nearby will attempt to explain this phenomena to me; but Baba returns to our fold earlier than in previous years. I have an unspoken question here, but ride with what is happening all the same. This year I am married to Siu Ying, so start to perform my family duties for the first time (last time I was not married, so was an observer only).
Family duties appear to be sticking bits of white paper on top of mounds of earth, and then using three large joss sticks, bowing 3-times at various places. Whilst the family always comes to this place first, I am not sure of its significance, as the last one we visit is sacred for their immediate parents. However, Baba is very active around hereabouts, so I presume this is some personal stuff for himself only. Meanwhile, we move along, and Baba rushes up to me and indicates I need to be safe-keeping some wicker baskets. Ok Kay. Baba then disappears off again to a remote area to clean and honour yet another grave. He asks for help from a local peasant and they set off with a goose and other small offerings plus a hoe. By way of explanation, the peasant woman I refer to here is of a low class and not a main resident. It is likely she is an itinerant worker coming to work in these parts. These people are usually available at Qing Ming to assist families tend the graves, often doing all the hard labour. I notice Baba gives her Y5 for her labours, paid up front. I think she wanted less, but Baba is insistent.

Siu Ying now needs to breast feed Nonni and finds a quiet spot to do this. Nonni is a hungry girl, so before she finishes, Mama requires the baskets Baba left behind. She then decides Nonni needs changing as well, and this is accompanied by the child being held over a small ditch whilst Mama makes Sh-ing sounds through her teeth. This encourages the infant to pass water, and is extremely effective. I leave them to it and carry these on a traditional bamboo pole; something others find enlightening. It appears I do a good job, as people applaud me = not what I was looking for whilst performing a family duty. However, I did do it right and gained much genuine respect during the process. Cummon: I was an Exhibition Chippy for several years, so do know how to carry stuff. Mama soon leaves to attend to Siu Ying and the Baby, so I carry on with the task in hand. ‘Mo-men-tai’ = ‘no problem’; and the burden is actually relatively light.

Having walked just a short distance we pass another grave area, and I am required to attend for a few moments and bow etc. This is in fact the family ancestors from Baba's Sister in Law’s side of the family, as one of the younger people explains in Cantonese. As this is not a main root of our part of the family, I only stop a minute here before pressing on with my labour. Reaching the main area, which indicated the immediate families parents graves, and others directly associated, I set down my burden near the central grave site, which is well tended and delineated. Later this may evolve into a concrete based shrine as I have seen elsewhere. Dai Lo, Yee Lo and I all perform central duties, as does one of the other men. Baba arrives a lot later, and is not central in proceedings here, which is curious. I think what is happening is that Baba's ancestors are remembered at the first place we visited, whilst these are Mama’s ancestors. In fact, I lot of Baba's relatives have lived in Malaysia for centuries, so this must complicate things also. Therefore the first area must be a memorial, and not a burial site. I’ll let you know once I have established this as fact of course, but usually my instincts serve me very well in China.

As others are also taking snapshots, I also add a few of my own; taken with a poor quality Chinese ‘Nokia’ mobile phone – so whilst quality is not what I would like, they do offer first hand witness to proceedings. The offerings process takes about 20-minutes, and I am one of the first in line behind the elder brothers. Once everybody has attended, another man who is probably a Butcher by trade, starts hacking the suckling pig, and then the goose into portions. Yee Lo hands me a drumstick of goose leg, which is totally delicious. As I am finishing someone comes around offering plastic protective eating gloves. Bit late for me really. Then I am looking forwards to sampling the pork crackling, but am given some amazing ribs instead. To tell you the truth, I am pretty stuffed with all this food, so it is not a problem when I discover the chopped crackling has all been eaten. Only the part from the centre of the pigs back was chopped on this occasion (About 1/3rd), the rest being saved for later. There are also traditional cakes and sweet breads on offer, plus water or canned tea. Later Baba sits near me and eats what was reserved for him.
Image: Ancestors burial site 1

Image: Ancestors burial site 2

Image: Chopping the Suckling Pig

Image: Mama making sure everything is perfect for the Ancestors

Image: Beware The Reaper

Image: This is my view of the land

Image: Ancestors mountain in the background

Of interest is a group of three people who sit separately to one site and appear to be migrant peasant workers. However, they are not here to work, as we have passed another nearby who is clearing other grave sites nearby. I do enquire, but nobody is forthcoming with any information. Therefore I will again use my intuition by way of explanation backed up with observance. These three, two women and a man, have brought their own food and drink as offerings, but sit adjacent to us and do not intrude. In fact, no verbal exchanges take place between us; but an outsider would say we were all within the same group. They arrive slightly after we do, and did so last time I was present also. They then set their offering in a vacant piece of land, and offer joss sticks, bows, wine, and everything we did. They then eat, and hurriedly depart just before we do. So what is this all about? Well, whilst it is possible their family interconnects in some way – say a concubine or bastard child. I think it more likely that they are simply a very long way from their parental home and so join with this family at Qing Ming to send their honours home. Perhaps in time they will have their own family grave site in this area?

Proceedings wind up after perhaps an hour, and we pack up and head for home. Siu Ying and Nonni, plus several kids pile into Dai Lo’s car, whilst I choose to walk and am successful this time. I need the exercise after eating two meals within two hours. I also want to take some snapshots of things for this missive and partake of the countryside for a short while. Baba is also walking, and at first we are in stride. Later he tarries as he also has land and more seedlings in this area. During the walk I pass by a goose farm and take a snapshot for your benefit. There are several of these scattered around, often being stocked with ducks instead. Image: Goose Farm with Ancestors mountain in the background

Arriving back in the village with relatives, I meet Siu Ying who is worried about me, and once seeing I am ok, leaves to do something else. Cummon! It’s about a mile down a country track with the village in plain site. Chinese are a bit weird in this respect, but it is water off a duck’s back to me now.

I am seriously up for a nap, but before I can get into motion, Siu Ying rushes in and asks for my help with cooking. What, again! Once Siu Ying has cooking under control, we head off to watch Dai Lo and his wife plunder Baba's cabbage patch. This reminds me instantly of my own parents, who were always offering me things to take home – mostly food of one sort or another. They already have a large carrier bag full of weeds from the local verges, and now have a second full of what looks like red plantain, but is actually a type of cabbage. We sit down to eat again at 6pm. So that means three meals inside six hours. Chinese are like this. The food is great, and I am completely stuffed now. This meal was unusual in that the family next door (Baba's brother’s wife and children) also join us. Yee Lo sites this one out, quite wisely as I later discover him tucking into fresh ceremonial suckling pig; which was not on the table for our meal. Drat! Missed it again!

Au San's restaurant on the Hoi Sao Doh Island where I live is actually very good. You may recall from previous missives that there main business is a fish farm with large holding tanks set in the river. Here they raise fish and buy from local water traders, most of which are fishermen and their families who usually live on board these small vessels. Au San and his wife sometimes net fish in the river to add to their stock. They also have a regular supply of prawns and softer shelled crabs than we are used to in Blighty.

They supplement this by running a crazy restaurant, completely manned by just themselves. On my last visit a few weeks ago the place was rammed, with extra tables being set outside on the patio, and a relatives family being called upon to assist. You can read more about this restaurant in the missive "Carry On Up the Restaurant". Anyway, the point of this inclusion is to relate that they make one of my favourite dishes in China. It is very simple and has sliced Chinese potatoes and chopped suckling pig in it. And that's about it. The taste is truly phenomenal, and it has no bones in it. Yippie! The top picture was taken that day, which is around mid March 2010, and shows Au San gathering cabbagey things for our lunch. Now that's what I call fresh vegetables!

The second picture is what you may call sliced suckling pig, but I know as 'Siu Yuk'. I bought this fresh this morning by coincidence, and half is already gone! The remainder shown is about 8 inches long by a country inch wide. It cost me Y7, or 70 pence to you I guess. I usually pay a little more for better quality version with very crispy rind, but seeing as this is official Qing Ming, many local traders are having a well deserved day off.

Dai Lo then departs and the others leave also. Siu Ying, Nonni and I are in bed my 9pm, and later wake around midnight and have a hearty ‘couple’s discussion’. I will leave early the next day as I have work to attend to. My dear friend Dave is in China again a few days later, and I asked if she would bring Nonni to meet Dave, Candy and Lawrence. Mama agrees, and so it is set. I was not actually expecting this, as it is three hours by the bus they will use (Not my fast one that isn't posh, but is driven by total maniacs and covers the distance in 2-hours).
Image: Au San picking cabbage

Image: Suckling Pig

Image: Cold Cheung Choi soup

Back to the story...

So next morning I depart and Siu Ying is my wife again. This living in different places is putting a small strain on our relationship, and is something I need to address in the near future. Our plan is to rent a gaff in Toisan City, so we can again live as three people, whilst being a short bus ride from her Mother. I have no problems with living in this city, as it is very ok and something new. However, having lived in 10 different locations in the last 8 years, moving home is becoming irksome to me. This is complicated by the fact that whilst the decision is easy to make and the right call i.e. move to Toisan. In the future we may travel to Blighty for an extended stay, and I see no reason to move home for a few months, only then to pay rent out on an empty gaff for 6-months, whilst also funding living expenses in England. Doesn't make sense until we have a definite plan in place, does it?

This in turn brings into the situation other necessities, like: getting a UK visa for Siu Ying – and this in its turn is greatly helped by her having a foreign holiday somewhere else first, like Thailand for instance. For her visa, we need to show both Chinese and British governments she intends to return to China; and this is an unofficially approved means to do that. Its also an excellent excuse to visit one country on my 'to do' list. Siu Ying is also looking forward to meeting my ex Yupa, who lives in Bangkok. Yupa is also very up for this, and I find it a bit weird. No doubt they want to talk about me behind my back - no problem hahaha!I was also hoping my great American friend Jim may still be in those parts, but it seems he may be in either Namhoi or Seattle by then. As es la vide!

Well that's a bit of money gone. If Nonni travels with us to Blighty, then I first have to decide her Nationality, and get appropriate papers processed. This decision also has ramifications re her education and citizenship, and everything in these realms costs a couple of thousand RMB; and takes time. So, its not quite as easy as you would imagine. However, my gut feeling is that we will actually go to UK next May (2011), in which case renting for one year in Toisan makes a lot of sense. It would also allow me personal insights into writing a true city guide for this famous worldwide city. For information it was the Cantonese from Toisan that physically built the twp great American transcontinental railways, and in 1920, 90% of all Chinese living in USA were from Toisan City. In 2008 Toisan City district had a population of just over 600, 000; whilst overseas Toisan people numbered One and a Half Million. You may have guessed I have already started my research on this very famous City. No doubt you will read what actually transpires regarding my own life in this column at a later date.

Meanwhile, I am still left with the comprehension that dedicating one single day each year to remembering your own family ancestors is excellent. However, this does entail travel and commitment. On the other hand, you do get to meet your immediate relatives annually, and of course what grows from this is a sense of belonging and composite family history dating back a very long way. Chinese people know all about their own family, and this is reinforced over many years at Qing Ming.

By contrast, I know of all four of my Grandparents, and met one Great Grandmother when I was very young (Great Nan). I do know where all my Grandparents are buried, but nothing more before their time. Well, I do actually know a little more detail, but it is a tad scant. Great Nan was a Victorian figure, and always wore long black clothes. I recently discovered we had a relative, who I am pretty sure was either a cousin or my Mother’s, Father's, Brother’s wife (?). The relative, Miss Margaret McKee of Derryogue, Kilkeel; lived in China during the Boxer Uprising. How bizarre! I discovered a couple of her letters relating to that time whilst sorting through my own mother’s personal effects. I also have a poem 'wot she wrote' at aged 90, in which she misses the Mountains of Morne She died of fever in China, presumably near Tianjin. However I am still trying to unearth corroborating facts about her life (Another missive in the making).

Being Qing Ming I thought it fitting to scan the image of Great Nan and add it to this tale. It was taken in her home at Newport Road in Stafford Circa 1950, and has my own parents wedding picture in the background. I wonder how many readers have a photograph of any of their Great Grandparents?
Image: Great Nan

Given that cousins from my mothers side mainly life in Ireland, Brazil, and Scotland, whilst my fathers side goes back a generation to Pershore fruit farmers and nautical men who travelled the world from Gosport; it is hardly surprising that I have ended up here in China now. Apparently one of my Father’s, Father’s, Brothers was a ‘black sheep’; and I find this fascinating!

But here lies the crux of the matter, because I do not have a name for any of them, and do not know where they were born nor buried. Meanwhile in Toisan, they can name every individual family member dating back for centuries, and show you either their burial mound, or memorial. This is significantly divergent from modern western culture. I have also met several family elders who would wax lyrical about their dearly departed – except we can hardly understand each other. My own Mother used to do the same, but at the time I never thought to write any of it down, and neither did anybody else. By the time I did, I was living in China, and she was too old to wield a pen with any pleasure.

Just so you should know: on this Qing Ming I also stood aside for a moment and remembered my own Mother and mourned her passing in my own small way. It was good therapy, and perhaps next year I will understand all this enough to make a small private mound to honour her individually on my own, but preferably with Siu Ying and Rhiannon also.

In this world of globalisation, it is often regarded as stupid and a waste of money by corporate resources and company moguls; to offer any time for living family, let alone the dearly departed. Modern China is I think, several steps ahead in this respect; and it has come to my attention that we as individuals often share many features about our being with particular Grandparents. We should know these people better, a lot better; and also their own Grandparents – for that is our core being translated into this modern world. The Chinese take this one step further, and learn from the particular traits of any ancestor that is in tune with their own soul. Sometimes this is bravery in battle or skills in arts: Creativity. At other times it represents mistakes that if known, can be avoided by future generations.

I will finish this missive with a short question: “How well do you know your own ancestors. What did they do in life?”. All Chinese people can answer this question immediately from memory, and trace their family roots back several centuries. I consider our own bowls to be less full without this inherent knowledge.

Thank you for your tolerance of my ramblings, and know we will pick up life in China again very shortly.

"Bai San" as we say in Foshan Cantonese...
(Lit: 'Attend Mountain' = Respects and best wishes for Qing Ming Festival to you, your family and ancestors)
This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from my work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.
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