Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Making Idols of the Dead: Tomb Sweeping Day

One of my current projects is some research on Matteo Ricci. An open-minded, early Jesuit missionary to China, who helped convert famous agronomist, mathematician and astronomer Xu Guangqi to the Catholic faith, Ricci wore the robes of the Chinese gentry and suggested that it would be okay for Chinese Catholic converts to continue with some of their traditional spiritual practices. Initially, this idea had some papal support. In a decree signed on 23 March 1656, Pope Alexander VII accepted practices "favorable to Chinese customs", reinforcing 1615 decrees which accepted the usage of the Chinese language in liturgy, a notable exception to the contemporary Latin Catholic discipline which had generally forbidden the use of local languages. The Dominicans, Franciscans, and Augustinians disagreed, however. Subsequent Popes opined and, ultimately, around the time when George Washington was born, China's longest reigning emperor was so infuriated by the papal bull that he himself made an announcement:

Reading this proclamation, I have concluded that the Westerners are petty indeed. It is impossible to reason with them because they do not understand larger issues as we understand them in China. There is not a single Westerner versed in Chinese works, and their remarks are often incredible and ridiculous. To judge from this proclamation, their religion is no different from other small, bigoted sects of Buddhism or Taoism. I have never seen a document which contains so much nonsense. From now on, Westerners should not be allowed to preach in China, to avoid further trouble.
So what are Chinese rites? The main bones of contention were what to call God, whether Chinese Christians coming from a Confucian background could participate in the season rites, and whether Chinese Christians coming from a Taoist and Buddhist background could use tablets with the forbidden inscription "site of the soul" and to follow the Chinese rites for ancestor worship. Veneration of the dead on Veterans' Day and other holidays throughout the West, including All Saints' Day, is not alien to Catholics. Indeed, one could make an argument that the elaborate process for the induction of saints comes dangerously close to idolatry if easily misinterpreted by practitioners. Nevertheless, these foreign practices of the Chinese were not to be tolerated...and so Christian preachers, in turn, were not to be tolerated.

Today is Tomb Sweeping Day. Wikipedia reports, "The Qingming Festival is an opportunity for celebrants to remember and honor their ancestors at grave sites. Young and old pray before the ancestors, sweep the tombs and offer food, tea, wine, chopsticks, joss paper accessories, and/or libations to the ancestors. The rites have a long tradition in Asia, especially among farmers. Some people carry willow branches with them on Qingming, or put willow branches on their gates and/or front doors. They believe that willow branches help ward off the evil spirit that wanders on Qingming.

"On Qingming people go on family outings, start the spring plowing, sing, and dance. Qingming is also the time when young couples start courting. Another popular thing to do is to fly kites in the shapes of animals or characters from Chinese opera. Another common practice is to carry flowers instead of burning paper, incense or firecrackers." In the old days, people would bring a whole rooster to the site of their ancestors' graves.

I am going off to throw clay pots and play badminton.