Our quality of life has improved considerably since the foundations for the newest mall next to the compound were completed about two weeks ago. No longer are we woken seven days a week by pounding pneumatic drilling around 6.30am. But mornings still have their surprises.
Last Wednesday at 5.10am our sleep was broken by an extremely loud explosion, as if a bomb had been set off outside our bedroom window. Car alarms whined but nothing else happened and we drifted back asleep, and thought no more about it. Unexpected noises are par for the course in China. Then on Friday my Chinese teacher listened by the apartment door to some chanting coming from a flat a couple of floors below. ‘Someone has died,’ she told me. Monks come around to the abode of the dead person and lead ritual chanting for two or three days.
Fireworks seem to mark the rituals of life in China, and it occurred to me that maybe the startling explosion somehow linked to the death. Yona explained that indeed, traditionally, a death is announced by the family lighting a single firework early in the morning. Young friends of hers live on a compound in Ningbo where quite a few old people live and they are frequently woken by the dawn ‘bombs!’ In Yona’s village, the body is carried to the community hall where she had her wedding breakfast, so that local people can pay their respects. The body would then have been carried in procession to the hillside for burial. Nowadays, burial is no longer allowed and everyone has to be cremated, although people still want to put the ashes into the family hillside tombs, where they can be honoured and remembered at Qing Ming, the annual tomb sweeping ceremony in April.
I’ve recently been exposed to the significance of burial customs as a way of tracing my own family history, as my son has discovered a photo of a tombstone that appears to belong to one of my paternal ancestors–Isaac Jacobs, my three greats grandfather. He belonged to the Jewish community in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. The inscription is written in Hebrew and sadly I can’t read it. Despite my Jewish heritage, I know some Mandarin and no Hebrew!
Death rituals have changed in China with urbanisation and the advent of capitalism, and the trip to the crematorium is now usually carried out in a fleet of expensive hire cars – according to Yona and other people I’ve talked to, far more money is spent on them than for weddings. The traditional procession on foot, with people swathed in white mourning and pulling the body on a cart, still survives in some places; a friend showed me photos of one he’d witnessed in Dali in deepest south west Yunnan.
Wedding fireworks of course continue unabated and this morning – a Saturday – we were woken at 6.30 by a series of firecracker explosions, the usual signal of a wedding. I’ve noticed quite a few in the last few days and this is apparently because many people are hurrying to get married before the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, which will take place in mid-February. It will be the year of the sheep – Yang – next year and it seems that nobody wants important life events to take place in a Sheep Year. Even though new government regulations mean that many more families can have two children, pregnancies are being delayed so that the child will not be born as a sheep.
We will be in Australia during Chinese New Year and our Melbourne hotel is right next to China Town. It will be fascinating to observe the CNY rituals there and without any language barrier maybe understand them a little more.