By Emma Lu and Haimei Ou
The line of people climbed up the mountain for about 25 minutes, drawing close to the center of the low mountain. A grand scene was before them: a huge crowd of people were busy praying, the puppet show of the Chao Opera was playing in front of the graveyard, and innumerable firecrackers were hung to be set off.
It was all for the grave of Mrs. Zhuang. The grave was at a high position with various meat offerings in front of it, and dozens of big burning incense sticks inserted into the soil which covered it. Paper money and incense burned together, filling the air with smoke.
This was the grand ceremony to honor Mrs Zhuang, who lived in Song Dynasty. It brought hundreds and perhaps even thousands of her offspring to worship together. The celebration falls near the traditional Chinese festival of Grave-Sweeping Day, a day when departed ancestors are honored and their graves cleaned.
The celebration for Mrs Zhuang is not on Grave-Sweeping Day, but on the February 8th of the lunar calendar, which is close to the Grave-Sweeping Day.
Grave-Sweeping Day is an important traditional festival in China. It is usually around April 5th each year. People go to their ancestors’ graveyard to honor the dead on this day. In the Chaoshan area, the day holds great importance. People serve lots of Chaoshan food as an offering to their ancestors, as well as invite some Chao Opera groups to perform at their ancestors’ grave sites. They not only go to worship their close family, such as their parents or grandparents, but also go with some more distant relatives to worship their ancient ancestors.
This year, on the early morning of the Zhuang clan gathering, cars and motorbikes, as well as several buses, pasted with placards reading “Zhuang’s Ancestor Worship,” went up Peasant Road. The road led to low mountains, called the Sangpu Mountains, where the Zhuang graveyard lay. Several policemen were standing by to manage the traffic. A banner reading “Welcome to Overseas Clan Member for Ancestor Worship”was hung at the entrance to the graveyard, greeting the many overseas Chinese that had come back for the festival.
The departed ancestor being celebrated, Mrs Zhuang, was a heroine whose story is one of family devotion and bringing her descendent glory.
A 2004 book named Chaoshan Cultural Reporting by Xinrong Hu, explains the story: more than 700 years ago, Mrs Zhuang hung herself from a beam for the sake of acquiring the precious graveyard where she is lying now.
The Chaoshan people have a deep-rooted belief in feng shui, and regard it as very important to one’s fortune. Mrs Zhuang’s father-in-law discovered the Sangpu range by accident, and believed that if a dead person could be buried in this place, his offspring would be glorious and affluent. However, he was troubled with the fact that the place did not belong to him, but belonged to Mrs Zhuang’s father’s village. So, by the logic of local traditions, if Mrs Zhuang went back to her father and mother’s home and died there, the father-in-law would have a good reason to ask for a grave site in the Sangpu area for Mrs Zhuang.
At that time, Mrs Zhuang was just over 40 years old. When she heard of her father-in-law’s wish, she took her own life. She was buried in the Sangpu Mountains, and the clan she had married into acquired the precious burial site.
The book “Chaoshan Cultural Reporting” says that the shape of the Sangpu Mountains is like the a sleeping female dog, called a sleeping dog aperture, and the graveyard of Mrs Zhuang lies on the genitalia of this female dog. That is why Mrs Zhuang’s offspring have been so numerous, traditional belief holds.
The book also said that now thousands of Mrs Zhuang’s offspring live mainly in the east of Guangdong and Hong Kong, and the east and south of Asia. Some of them are very successful: Shiping Zhuang, is the former vice chairman of the Overseas Chinese Association in Hong Kong and one of the important founders of Shantou University; Jing’an Zhuang, who was a successful businessman in Hong Kong and was the father-in-law of Li Ka Shing; Lixiang Zhuang, who was the former Party Secretary of Shantou city.
Every year, on the February 8 of the lunar calendar, all the Zhuang clan come from different places to worship Mrs Zhuang, because they think that their clan’s rapid development has something to do with the good feng shui of the burial ground. Those who come to the burial ground have developed a ritual to honor their ancestor.
“The Zhuang clan members usually come to pray at midnight. Because they believe that if they worship during the first hour of Mrs Zhuang’s death day, which indicates their loyalty to the ancestor, it will make it easier for their wishes to be granted,” said Kailong Li, a teacher of Cheung Kong School of Art and Design at Shantou University who teaches a course on Chaoshan folk art and is an expert on local culture.
“I don’t think it is a kind of superstition, but I think it reflects the Chaoshan people’s mind of tending to live a safe and happy life,” he said, of the Zhuang family celebrations. “On the other hand, as the grave is on the ‘genitalia of the female dog,’ it is particularly “efficient’ for the wish of producing male babies, which is a very popular wish for Chaoshan people.”
Mr Li said the worship for Mrs Zhuang was one of the most large-scale memorial ceremonies in Guangdong Province. However, the ceremony has become smaller and smaller in recent years. “Maybe because the importance of producing a male baby is changing, they would prefer to commemorate Mrs Zhuang as they do other ancestors.”
The Zhuang family gathering was followed in the weeks after it by the formal Grave-Sweeping Day, the first year the traditional ceremony was designed as a formal public holiday recognized by the government.