'Tomb-sweepers' for hire during Qing Ming in China

Boon to those too busy to perform ritual; others say filial piety declining

BEIJING - Can money buy filial piety? Apparently it can - in China.

Chinese too busy or unable to pay their respects at the graves of their parents and ancestors have hired "tomb-sweepers" to do so on their behalf during the Qing Ming Festival, which begins today.

The annual tradition, which is also called Tomb Sweeping Festival, sparks traffic jams across China as millions of people head out to fulfil their familial duties.

On the Taobao online marketplace, there are at least 200 postings offering "tomb-sweeping" packages starting from as little as 300 yuan (S$60) and shooting up to 3,000 yuan.

For about 30 minutes, the tomb-sweepers will light joss- sticks and burn incense papers before bowing to the dead. They will also clean up the gravesite, hence the term "tomb-sweeping".

Those who want to show they are more filial can pay their proxies 300 yuan for 10 minutes of crying or the same amount to recite religious scriptures for half an hour. Videos and photos of the ceremony will be sent to the clients to show the services have been rendered.

One tomb-sweeper is Beijing-based logistics businessman Zhang Zhongwu, 45. His two clients are forking out about 500 yuan each for his services.

One is a disabled Beijing resident while the other lives in Shanghai and cannot find the time to come to Beijing, he said.

Mr Zhang said his own experience led him to come up with the unusual business idea. Since he moved to Beijing in 2008, he had been guilt-stricken for not returning to north-eastern Heilongjiang province to tidy his parents' graves.

"I see it as providing a public service to those too busy like me to pay their respects to their loved ones," he told The Straits Times.

For now, many Chinese are lukewarm to the idea.

Most of the "tomb-sweeping" advertisements on Taobao had zero take-up.

The Straits Times contacted five people offering the tomb- sweeping service. They are professional errand-runners who help clients, for instance, to buy a gift. Two who agreed to talk said they had not been hired.

Still, the idea of tomb-sweeping by proxy has raised concerns about the commercialisation of the festival and declining filial piety.

Beijing-based publishing businessman Zhang Jiandong, 46, is one of those worried about declining filial piety.

"Tomb-sweeping is supposed to show one's love for the deceased. If one can be so lazy as to hire others to do it, there is no filial piety at all," said Mr Zhang, who will travel to the outskirts of Beijing where his father, who died last year, is buried.

A netizen who slams the idea wrote on the Sina Weibo microblog site: "Those who hire tomb-sweepers are more despicable than those who don't even bother to sweep the tombs."

But at least one person sees tomb-sweeping by proxy as practical.

Said a Weibo user who used the moniker "Dragon": "I was planning to hire a tomb-sweeper this year as I really have no time to return home. But my family got upset... What did I do wrong?"

Even scholars are divided. Renmin University sociologist Feng Shizheng thinks it is the heart that counts. His colleague Zhou Xiaocheng calls the idea "ludicrous".

"Money cannot buy everything, like feelings and emotions," Prof Zhou told the Beijing Evening News daily this week.

"If commercialisation goes over the top, the country and the society will collapse."

kianbeng@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 4, 2013

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