Every year in early April, the Chinese celebrate Qingming. Across the globe, they commemorate their ancestors by visiting their graveyards, sweeping the tombs, removing weeds, and burning incense and paper money. However, going through the motions of a ritual only becomes meaningful when we think about what lies behind it. What happens when we take a closer look into our ancestry? Who were our ancestors and what can we actually learn from our roots?
Roots are never merely in the past. Even a closer look at the roots of Qingming itself reveals some remarkable parallels between China then and China today.
TANG DYNASTY – EMPEROR XUANZONG
Some 1300 years ago, in the year 732AD, Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuanzong declared Qingming ancestral worshipping day. The reason for this was not that people needed encouraging; it was exactly the opposite. Many Chinese had begun offering ancestral sacrifices as often as every two weeks, spending so much money on the ceremonies that it had started adversely impacting China’s economy.
Emperor Xuanzong presided over perhaps the most prosperous period in China’s rich history. His key political achievements included increasing government efficiency and reducing corruption. The talented emperor managed to cut down government bureaucracy, raise officials’ accountability and government transparency, strengthen supervision of local governments, and improve mechanisms to appoint and remove county magistrates. Economically, Emperor Xuanzong was successful in shifting land ownership from local governments to peasants, allowing farmers to buy and sell their own land.
FAST-FORWARD SOME 1300 YEARS
In November 2013, with China’s growth at the center of the world’s attention, the country’s Communist Party Congress announces its most sweeping reforms in decades. As if copied from Emperor Xuanzong’s achievements, key areas of reform include the institutional make up of government bodies, China’s judicial system, and rural land trading mechanisms to restructure land ownership. Analysts left and right agree that a key challenge of today’s China is getting local governments to enforce central level reform policies.
The parallels do not end there. Qingming was established during the Tang Dynasty in order to contain out-of-control ceremonial spending patterns, often status-related. Today’s Weibo (China’s Twitter) is bursting with people’s complaints about lavish lifestyles by the new rich.
Let’s hope these historic parallels do not continue into the future. After decades of being a strong and wise ruler during the peak of China’s political, economic and artistic prowess, Emperor Xuanzong became self-indulgent and witnessed the start of the Tang Dynasty’s decline.
History would not repeat itself if we studied, remembered and learned from the lessons of our forefathers. Besides, would that not be the best way to honor them in the first place?