Death · relationships


The Qingming holiday, otherwise known as the Tomb Sweeping  or Pure Brightness holiday, has just ended in China. It is a time to commemorate one’s ancestors and typically falls in early April. After the festival, the temperature often rises, along with rainfall and much ploughing and sowing. It is a time of sadness as well as happiness. During this official three day holiday, the Chinese remember their ancestors by visiting shrines and burning paper money (some offer paper iPhones) as gifts to the dead. To me, this holiday is like many others – a vacancy in time that I rarely observe, and only notice when I need to contact government offices or banks and find out they’re closed.

We often forget about those who have left us, but memories do not vanish; they sleep until roused, like photos removed from a dusty box. On the last night of Qingming I dreamed of my grandmother, Ida Baker, and my brother David. They had been dead for years. My younger brother was killed in a motorcycle accident in Nairobi at the age of 16. Ida passed away a few years later. I do not remember when I had last dreamed of them.

As I slept, I saw myself with Ida in her home in Newton, Massachusetts, where David was also living. ‘Where’s the milk. Where’s my bed?’ I asked, and was led to a refrigerator in the living room, and then to a small room with a tiny bed. I turned to complain about the size, and it immediately changed into a bed the size of a California king. Next, David and I took a walk in a vast park, where there was a shimmering lake. Mandarin ducks swam next to piles of bleached rocks. Throughout my dream, David didn’t utter a word. Sometimes I could not see him, but I sensed him beside me. By the lake’s placid water, trees clustered in brilliant autumn hues. I looked down. The shore was covered knee-deep with water. People strolled through it nonchalantly, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. I was enveloped in the sounds of rushing water and the colors of the rainbow.

江南江北雪初消,  jiāng nán jiāng běi xuě chū xiāo,

漠漠轻黄惹嫩条。  mò mò qīng huáng rě nèn tiáo。

灞岸已攀行客手,  bà àn yǐ pān xíng;háng;xìng kè shǒu,

楚宫先骋舞姬腰。  chǔ gōng xiān chěng wǔ jī yāo。

清明带雨临官道,  qīng míng dài yǔ lín guān dào,

晚日含风拂野桥。  wǎn rì hán fēng fú yě qiáo。

如线如丝正牵恨,  rú xiàn rú sī zhèng;zhēng qiān hèn,

王孙归路一何遥。  wáng sūn guī lù yī hé yáo。

South of the river, north of the river, the first snowflakes melt

The mist, a yellow haze, absorbs your tender shoots

Already profuse on the Bi River’s shores, brushing the visitor’s hands

Chu’s palace did not interrupt, as this slender concubine danced

On the day of the departed the rain carries over the Guan highway

Strong evening winds shake the village bridge

They hang straight like silky threads, hating to move

This king’s grandson has no path back home! [1]


Musical Interlude: One Prelude composed and played by Mark O. Ndesandjo

This composition builds on the pathos and melancholy of the great Franz Schubert, whose late works I have begun to study recently. There are few composers who have become so old so young.

[1] Li Shang Yin claimed his family had ancestral links to the royal family

Featured Image Credit

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