Rites and Reunions: Zhuang Tomb-Sweeping Day

By Evan

*See all of Andy’s great tomb-sweeping pictures here

The Nong family going through the tomb-sweeping ritual for their deceased father in Guangxi, by Andy

So picking up back in Guangxi, we spent the first rest day of our new 5-day cycle plan in the county seat of Jingxi (靖西縣). Fate, seeing us on a tight schedule, decided to strike Alexis down with an intestinal malady that kept us in place an extra day… the best laid plans, as always. The next morning, he had regained most of his energy, and it was decided that we should progress an easy 30 km to a new town after the requisite coffee stop.

Now, that plan was made in full knowledge that this was the third day of the third month of the Chinese lunar calendar (三月初三), the most important holiday of the Zhuang people (壯族), through the heart of whose territory we happened to be passing. We had heard only that there was a holiday and had no preconception of what form it might take, but we hoped we could join in some sort of festivities that night.

The mountainsides were full of tomb-sweeping processions for 3/3, by Andy

Only a short distance from Jingxi, we began witnessing the unusual spectacle that typifies the day. Hundreds of small groups, between five and twenty strong, were either wandering in long, single-file lines on the sides of the road or like lemmings into the fields. Most of the older women of the groups were balancing dual baskets on long bamboo rods on their shoulders. The groups no longer in transit were parked at seemingly random intervals amid the giant rocks along mountain slopes or between calf-high new corn. Flung over the shoulders of several of the women were long, bushy streamers of white and pink, resembling overgrown pom-poms. Fireworks exploded in every direction, like a mini Chinese New Year.

Old Nong at center with his brothers front of a relative's tomb in the middle of a sugar cane field, by Andy

Finally the curiosity was too much, and we stopped to beg enlightenment from the elder head of a fifteen-person line of peasants meandering down a dirt path toward the highway. The man, wrinkled like a prune but straight backed and sturdy in his matching gray beret and Mao suit, told us that the 3/3 holiday is for the Zhuang people the equivalent of Tomb-Sweeping Day (清明節) for the Han, and that the locals were out paying homage to their forebears (祭祖). Just as the tail end of the column crept onto the highway and began to encircle us like a human python, a busted old white van puttered alongside  us, and a young man with a round, dark face popped his head out at us yelling, “Come with us while we pay respects to our ancestors! (來跟我們一起拜山吧![我們後來發現所講《拜山》乃是粵語的《掃墓》,廣西人的語言似乎深受鄰省的語言影響])” It would have been a bizarre invitation on any other day, in any other place, or to any other group of bicyclists, but for us it was one we just couldn’t refuse!

Evan with the "chicks" of the Nong family, by Andy

So we reversed direction and followed the van a kilometer down the highway and up a steep, dirt path to the middle of a cluster of clay brick houses, where the van sputtered to a jerking halt, and our new friends burst out to meet us. The driver, who had initially called to us, introduced himself and his family, the Nong’s (姓農), most coincidentally since their village is named Danong, or Big Nong (大農村). Old Nong, as we called him subsequently, was wearing a tattered, earthy gray jacket, ripped in several places, and his hair was longer in the middle of his head, styled in a straight streak like something out of a redneck Saturday Night Fever. His older brother, an agricultural goods merchant visiting for the day from the county seat of Jingxi, was dressed top-to-bottom in camo (迷彩服) and accompanied by his wife, his son of 14, and a slew of other nephews and nieces he referred to as his “chicks (我的雞仔).”

Old Nong led us to the home of his parents and uncles, a long red brick and wooden structure divided into three sections for three brothers, set off a good distance from the next house and surrounded by tall pines and a massive lychee tree. We tucked our bikes into the foyer of the left-most division under an ancestral shrine and headed back to the van, still in full gaudy biking regalia (仍穿引人注目的扎眼單車服裝). The van refused to return to life, but no matter, said Old Nong, it’s better to walk anyway.

Old Nong's mother kneeling before a sacrificial platter, by Andy

And so we set off toward the tombs, which Old Nong warned us were, “scattered all over the place (哪裡都要去拜拜).” We had no idea just what that could mean at the time. Just as we had seen along the highway, the duty of carrying the bamboo baskets and old rice bags full of sacrificial objects fell to the womenfolk, namely the older sisters and sisters-in-law of Old Nong dressed in relatively modern Chinese peasant attire and his mother and Aunts dressed in deep gray Mao-era button-up shirts, some with what looked like kitchen towels ornately tied around their heads. We tried several times to help carry something since we felt like bums walking around with empty hands, but the women — and the men — insisted that we, their guests, should do no such thing.

Just before we finished the five minute walk to the first tomb, the son of Old Nong’s camouflaged brother, thirteen-year-old Xinwei (新偉), grabbed ahold of me and started into a frenzy of questions, “Where are you from? Are you journalists? Do you like China? What about soccer? I love soccer the most! Are you going to put our little place on the internet? Because that would be too cool! (你們從哪裡來?是記者嗎?喜歡中國嗎?那足球呢?我最愛踢足球!你們會不會把我們的小地方放到互聯網上?是的話就太牛了!)” I had to dodge the last question for fear of who might be listening, but this turned out to be the beginning of a day long exchange with the bright little kid, in whose single-minded curiosity and slight social awkwardness I could see traces of myself from twelve years ago. He finished the first machine-gun Q&A session by insisting we “make a trade (做個小交換),” upon which he produced from his pocket — appropriately — a two-inch, olive green die-cast plastic machine-gun, which he placed in my hand. I had nothing on me to give him in return, but he didn’t mind at all, “Don’t worry. Since you’re my friend, let’s just say this is my gift to you (沒事,因為你是我的新朋友,就算是一個禮物).” Such a gracious kid I don’t know where you’d be able to find anywhere else!

The women busy themselves with the rites while the men look idly on, by Andy

Presently we arrived at the outer corner of the village, where a group of over twenty, half children and half adults, had already accumulated around a row of tombstones, and our Nongs set about the ritual for which the entire family — down to the last baby — had dutifully returned home to perform. First, Old Nong, the only man not standing idly on the side, removed his coat, attached the short-handled scythe (小鐮刀) hanging from a wooden sheath slung around his waist to a long stick, and worked up a sweat hacking down the weeds from around the tombstones. Then the three oldest women, all similarly donning towel head wraps, removed red plastic platters from their baskets and aligned them neatly, two before each tombstone. On one platter went two whole cooked chickens, and on the other a bowl of fatty pork, two bowls of five-colored glutinous rice cooked just for the occasion (五色糯米), and some oranges and apples. On that latter platter they laid out three tiny, brass-colored goblets, which they filled with home-made moonshine (自釀酒). Next to the goblets they stacked tall piles of fake paper money, legal tender in the ever-after. All a while some of the middle aged women and older men set about attaching the pink and white pom-poms to the tops of headstones, so that they fluttered gently in the wind. An uncle of the family explained that the colors are actually white, to represent preceding generations, and red (though I swear it’s pink), for the generations to come. Other women would scrub the surfaces of the tombstones, while yet others lit hundreds of pink incense sticks to be planted around the tombs. Once the incense fire was lit, they removed the paper money from the platter and burned it sheet by sheet and let the smoke drift idly to the gray heavens.

One of the young mothers shields her baby's ears from the explosions, by Andy

Once everything was perfectly in order, and all appropriate flames lit, the young men finally came in to perform their part: lighting cylindrical firecrackers the size of Raid cans that exploded in a deafening boom and shot confetti all over the field. Much to my wonderment, everybody took the bangs in unflinching stride, except for the animals and the dumb foreigners, who were startled as all hell. Once enough gunpowder had gone to get the message across to the dead and any unfriendly ghosts that had been thinking about hassling them at their graves (video 1 and video 2), it was time to take the show back on the road. All the booze was poured neatly back into the pots, and the food and platters all neatly repacked into the baskets. The congregation then proceeded away from the village, leaving behind only the paper streamers, which they would allow the rain to wash away in due course, and the remains of the confetti grenades and their paper payloads.

Intrigued, I asked Old Nong what the significance of it all was. “It’s all just old people’s superstitions; I don’t believe any of it! But, it’s also our tradition, and it’s a duty I wouldn’t dare leave unfulfilled! (這些都是老人家的迷信,我一點都不信!可是就算是我們的傳統責任,我不敢不負!) Whether or not he believed that the sacrifices were being received by his deceased family members in the afterlife, he was certain that it’s essential to keep the traditions alive, or else there whole family structure would crumble. As tribal and outlandish as it all seems from looking at it, I could see essentially no difference between him and an American father who has no interest in Christianity but keeps the Christmas traditions alive for the sake of tradition.

Old Nong pouring the wine for his deceased father, by Andy

Old Nong also gave us a little of his own story at the same time. As dedicated to his family and the festival as he is, Old Nong is also the rascally underachiever of the bunch. Having worked intensive jobs for three years driving a truck in Fujian and two in a Guangdong factory, he saw what the outside world was like — “too damn hard (太辛苦了)” — and came back home for good to his 26-year old wife, incidentally pregnant with his second child, and his 10-year old daughter (do the math on that one!). Nowadays he’s “too lazy” to plant sugarcane or corn like everybody else, but he makes ends meet sometimes driving a coal truck or doing odd jobs. “I just want enough money to make it, you know! I don’t need too much, just a good life is enough for me (錢夠自己生活就夠啦,不用太多啦,只要日子過的舒服一點就行啦!).”

Anyway, it turned out that what we had expected would be over very fast was actually just the beginning of an entire afternoon of the exact same ceremony performed six times at tombs spread out at great distances, “Wherever anybody could find good land for a burial (哪裡有好地方就在哪裡埋葬),” as Old Nong told us. We wandered through vast fields of budding sugar cane, around big volcanic rocks strewn throughout the entire valley, across villages and roads, to wherever an ancestor was buried. “We can’t miss any of them (一個都不可以缺少),” said Old Nong. As we moved through the fields, we passed countless other family groups, some of whom our Nongs acknowledged, and some of whom were strangers out from a neighboring village. Sometimes we were the strangers in the neighboring village. Everywhere the sound of fireworks and the smell of gunpowder suffused the air. By the third tomb, the women were teaching the little girls how to lay out the food and incense, and the men were letting their sons light the fireworks.

The third Nong brother preparing a long spool of fireworks for his father's grave as his uncle looks on, by Andy

Between tombs, the five Nong brothers repeatedly thanked us for coming with them for the rites. We kept on answering, don’t be crazy! We should be thanking you for sharing something like this, something we’d never be able to experience without you! After a while the second oldest Nong brother, a jovial man with a big belly who had bused home twelve hours from his factory job in Shenzhen for the occasion, explained. “The more people we have, the more respect it shows to our ancestors. And to boot, it’s an honor to have foreign guests accompany us! (跟我們一起拜山的人越多就越是尊敬祖先,而且能夠有外國客人陪同,我們真的很榮幸)” I still can’t get over how open and happy they are to accept us into their lives, just as at the funeral of Mr. Le’s grandmother in Fujian.

By and by, we wound down through grandpa and grandma and finally to the last and most important tomb, the father of the Nong siblings, who passed two years previously. It was here, nearing five o’clock already, that the family was the most meticulous with the offerings and lit by far the most fireworks, including a ten minute extravaganza that almost deafened us. The chickens and rice were covered in dirt by this point, but we imagined Dad probably wouldn’t complain too much after the pyrotechnics. Finally and for the last time, everything was wrapped up, all obligations for the day settled, and the entire cavalcade marched back to the homestead, to begin the preparation of the night’s feast, detailed in the next post.

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