“I was going to ask you if you felt anything. You know, like a haunted presence?”
A friend said this once while visiting Wanfo Temple in northern Xinbei. We had just spent a lot of time looking at brutal and bloody depictions of torture. The temple has a room depicting diyu 地狱 aka Chinese Buddhist Hell. But that was more kitsch than off-putting. My friend was referring more to the small mausoleum we had accidentally walked into. She tends to be a lot more spiritually sensitive than me. To be honest, I had no feelings of foreboding, but once I realized where we were, I decided to stop taking pictures.
I’m only posting photos here, because well, it seems appropriate. Today is Qingming 清明节 in China — Tomb Sweeping Day. It’s a festival to honor the dead and prior ancestors. Comparing this to American Halloween would be a mistake. That’s just a day people dress up like monsters and have a party. It’s much more solemn than that. In fact, it’s much more similar to All Souls Day in Europe. In some countries, like Belgium, it’s a day to go to a graveyard and clean and respect your dearly departed’s burial plot.
Traditionally speaking, Qingming is sort of the same in spirit. How the dead are respected, however, might be a little more different. The mausoleum my friend and I walked into was filled with pictures of the dead. Sometimes, flowers were near these pictures, and other instances sacrificial offerings. Quite often, this takes the form of food or fruit. You see this often in temples — especially altars devoted to Buddha. Only, here, you could also find bundles of “hell money.” Its a special type of Joss Paper printed to look like cash. More often, these bills look like the red 100 RMB note. The idea is that you are giving a form of spiritual currency that they can spend and use in the afterlife.
I found this all quite fascinating to look at — until I recognized one subtle detail near some of these pictures. Behind glass, wooden boxes sat. I quickly realized that these were likely urns filled with ashes. Human remains were all around my friend and I. While I had not had any sense of foreboding before, I was a little unsettled now. I was looking at this place from the perspective of a curious foreign tourist, and I realized it would be best to leave and leave the dead in peace.