Ashes to ashes, Bones to iPhones: Qingming Festival in Modern Culture and Classical Text

China celebrates one of its many public holidays today, though this one sounds of the more macabre sort. Qingming Festival, as it’s known in China and other parts of Southeast Asia, where it’s celebrated, also goes by the names “Tomb Sweeping Day” and “Bone Polishing Day.”

Don’t worry; it doesn’t entail dusting off femurs or sipping green tea out of skulls. Instead, it’s marked by fireworks—let off to ward away evil spirits—and paper effigies. The burnt effigies symbolize the material goods that can be used in the afterlife. Paper cars, money, and food are all examples of offerings made to one’s ancestors. But there’s a new trend to keep up with at the bustling graveyard…

This year, thousands of Southeast Asians will honor their ancestors with gifts of paper iPhones and iPads.

What’s even more uncanny is that stocks of these $2 versions, much like their real life counterparts, are selling out of stores, leaving some unlucky customers to peruse over the less desirable paper Blackberrys and Androids.

Will the ancient Chinese ancestors appreciate the new iPad’s enhanced retina display, let alone be able to use it? Who knows. Maybe we should get cracking on that ancient Chinese translation of eNotes–you know, for when the spirits aren’t too busy playing Fruit Ninja or Scramble with Friends in the afterlife.

On a more literary note, the Qingming Festival is frequently mentioned in Southeast Asian literature. Below is a beautiful excerpt from the Vietnamese epic poem “The Tale of Kieu,” written at the beginning of the 19th century. It describes the setting of a pivotal moment in the tale, when the protagonist encounters the ghost of an old lady on the day of the festival.

Swift swallows and spring days were shuttling by;
Of ninety radiant ones three score had fled.
Young grass spread all its green to heaven’s rim;
Some blossoms marked pear branches with white dots.
Now came the Feast of Light in the third month
With graveyard rites and junkets on the green.
As merry pilgrims flocked from near and far,
The sisters and their brother went for a stroll. (Nguyễn Du, 1820)