The Day for Sweeping Tombs

China seeks a greener Qing Ming Festival - TODAYonline

Today is a major festival in China and if you can’t go outside to celebrate it as usual (because of the virus) you can perform your duties online.

It is Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping Day, the occasion people visit their ancestors’ graves to tidy the tomb, offer them their favourite food and drink, and burn incense.

Rising temperatures and increasing rain signal the start of the busy season for farmers so the first step for families is to make sure their ancestors will bless their efforts. They visit the family graves (usually on mountain sides) and respectfully request the ancestors’ cooperation.

But what do you do when there is a pandemic shutdown?

Today you can make your offerings online and do ‘cloud tomb sweeping’.

Some sites provide your own family ’mourning hall’ where family can log on and join in expressing concern. They can even light a candle.

Other sites provide on-line cleaning services which, I presume, means someone will go and clean the tomb for you and not just the webpage.  In Shanghai, 87,000 signed up in the first week on one site.

In Wuhan there have been over 2,500 deaths since the epidemic began so the Day will have added poignancy.

One man posted, ‘Old traditions are deeply rooted, but it is quite understandable that we cannot visit the cemeteries because we are in a special period. I will pay virtual respect and visit the tomb once the epidemic ends.‘  

We do live in unusual times.

At present priests, Sisters and lay people in China are contributing to an on-line collection for anti-viral masks to be sent to the Columban priests living in Dalgan Park and the Columban Sisters in Magheramore.

So far they have collected E5,000.

Those contributing have been sponsored by the Columbans in recent years to study a variety of subjects in Ireland, Rome and the USA.

Now they are all back in China serving Catholics there.

One hundred years ago, when the Maynooth Mission to China (now known as the Columban Fathers) was founded, the Irish people contributed their pennies and shillings to help the people in China suffering from famine, disease and the devastation of wars.

The Irish at that time were not rich, just as the majority of Chinese are not rich today.  However as China begins to recover from the Corona virus those who have come to know Ireland are quick to show their concern and offer what they see as most urgent at this time.

In the early 1950s China broke off contact with the rest of the world, the Columbans were expelled and there was no news of what happened to the friends they had left behind. From the 1980s the country began to open up again and contacts were renewed.

One of the services the Columbans offered the Church in the New China was to help in the further education of Church leaders. The fruits of this are to be seen in the gift of masks at a time of need from their friends in China.

Remembering SARS

As the invasion of Covid-19 escalates, I try to recall how it was in Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic of 2002-3.  It seemed to have caused far less social disturbance.

Of course the scale was smaller. There were only 8,098 cases and 774 death in 17 countries (fatality rate: 9.6%) but Hong Kong, where I was living, was one of the centres. Eventually 299 people died there.

The virus has come from the nearby mainland on 21 February 2003 when a when a ’super-spreader,’ Dr Liu checked in to the Metropole Hotel, five doors from our apartment. He stayed on the 9th floor and infected 23 people.

It took us some time to realise what was happening. The first mention in my records was on 24th March when I noted an increase of people wearing masks. On the 26th I made a planned visit to teachers in Chongqing, on the mainland, thinking nothing of it.  When I returned on the 29th, half of the people I met were wearing masks. However, no one seemed especially alarmed. 

Early in April anxiety begin to spread but life in Hong Kong went on much as usual. I started sending regular up-dates on the situation to our teachers in mainland universities. By the 8th the American Peace Corps has pulled out all its teacher from China, using helicopters in some areas.  I told our teachers to decide for themselves whether they would stay or leave. All opted to stay even though the universities were in lock-down.

On 25th April Beijing was shut down but nothing as dramatic was happening in Hong Kong. People hoped the epidemic had reached its peak. However it was not till 23rd May that the WHO declared the emergency over. 

On 1 July I felt it was OK to depart for home on a scheduled vacation. I wore a mask till I got through immigration in Hong Kong Airport but after that there were no masks and no mention of SARS, quarantines or checks.  It had taken three months for the ‘all clear’ to be raised.

Since 2004 there have been no more SARS cases recorded. I hope it will be the same this time.

Chinese Tourists in Ireland

100,000 Chinese tourists came to Ireland last year and Failte Ireland (the national tourism board) was well prepared.

It had held seminars on how to welcome the Chinese.

It started with the usual advice: don’t house them on the 4th floor or in rooms beginning with 4. This is like warning people in China, ‘Do not put the Irish on the 13th floor or rooms beginning with 13.’ The Chinese are likely to be more concerned about where the nearest Chinese restaurant is and the Irish with where they can get a nice cup of tea.

Other advice includes, ‘Offer documents with two hands’ and ‘Never put a business card in your pocket without looking at it.’ In fact Chinese tourists will not expect Westerners to be familiar with ancient Chinese customs that are not always observed in China.

Another:  ‘Don’t discuss negative things like the weather.’ This might apply to anyone from anywhere, especially when they come to Ireland!   

‘Don’t reproach them for being too noisy’ could be a request about Irish tourists abroad.   Ditto for ‘Don’t consult anyone about changes in the schedule except the leader.’     

However it seems the Chinese tourists like us for our clear air, blue skies, open green spaces and hospitality.  (Note the ‘blue skies.’) Bord Failte didn’t mention that most Chinese tourists may never have heard of Ireland till they got here, may think they are still in England and cannot be expected to appreciate our cultural heritage as they have no idea of our history.

More importantly, they will come in groups of forty, be shepherded around in buses and unlikely to spend much as they come from a virtually cashless society where everything is paid by their  ‘wechat’ phone.

Hopefully the virus threat will be gone soon and they will be back again. The easiest way to make their day is to smile at them and wave them a welcome.   Just don’t do it in fours, or four times.  

Coping With the Virus in Wuhan

This is the fifth week since transport was halted in Wuhan and people started confining themselves to their homes.

In the evenings they open their windows and yell, ‘Wuhan, jia you’, the shout of support for their football team.

Food is still available, though body temperatures are checked when you go outside. The only entertainment is on TV which has endless suggestions on staying healthy despite being confined indoors.

People remain cheerful and cooperate in a massive collective response to the coronavirus.

The Irish Columbans have many connections with Wuhan.  It was not only where they had their first diocese in China but the Columban Sisters ran a hospital there which is now named Wuhan No 5 Hospital and is one of those designated for coronavirus patients.

The Columban’s enterprising spirit is reflected in a young man in a parish some distance from Wuhan who recently opened a face mask business in eight days and is doing quite well.

There are usually 1.2 million university students busily studying in Wuhan. It’s where I spent five months learning Chinese some time ago so I can feel an alumni bond.

Theses day all universities in China are shut but classes continue over the internet on chat rooms. You can attend even if you are abroad!

Following up on that idea, it seems the Ireland v Italy rugby match is being called off here because of the virus. Could they not play it on schedule by Skype?

Photo 1, the empty streets of Wuhan. 2, The foreign community in Wuhan.

Valentine’s Day in Wuhan

Valentine’s Day is likely to be quiet in Wuhan. With everyone confined to their apartment there will be no romantic get-togethers. Chocolate shops, flowers stalls and cinemas will be closed anyhow.

Fear resulting from knowledge that the threat of the coronavirus (now known as COVID-19) is all around them puts Valentine in perspective anyhow.  

Besides the danger of infection entering their home, people’s patience will also be stretched after having to live in close proximity with family members for longer than normal. Apartments are small and family members usually spend most of their time outside at school or work. Often the only time they see each other is at meals. Now they have been shut in together since the Chinese New Year. Usually the third day of the New Year was the day when they went out to visit their friend because, it is said, by then tensions within their own house were already strained.

Valentine’s Day has caught on in China in recent years, encouraged (as elsewhere) by the retail and restaurant trade. Offering flowers and chocolates is common. However giving an umbrella or shoes as a present should be avoided. The word san for umbrella can also mean ‘break up’ and giving shoes might indicate you want the person to move on.    

Everyone hopes that the virus will move on soon. So far there have been 1,369 deaths, though only two outside China. 5,576 people have recovered. The next few weeks will tell how far it will spread and how long it will last.

Our thoughts are with the people in Wuhan on Valentine’s Day and the weeks ahead.

Wuhan virus

As I listen to reports of the progress of the coronavirus in Wuhan, I cant help thinking of the SARS outbreak in Feb 2003.

A mainland guest at a hotel just seven doors away from our residence introduced SARS to Hong Kong and started the international alarm.

We had 40 Aitece volunteer teachers in China at the time, four of them in Wuhan though it was not seen as a centre of the outbreak then.  While other Westerners pulled out, all our teachers volunteered to stay in China though they were confined to their campus. Fortunately all escaped infection.

At present there are five Aitece teachers assigned to Wuhan, two of them Irish. However they had left for the winter break early in January and are now wondering when it will be safe for them to return.

Irish missionaries have a special connection with Wuhan.  It was in Hanyang, one of the three divisions of the city, that Bishop Edward Galvin and his comrades from the newly founded Columban Missionaries established their first Chinese diocese in 1920. Before they were expelled from there in 1952 they endured recurring cycles of floods and military attacks. The outbreak of the coronavirus is just another in the list of disasters that have dogged Wuhan.

Columbans and ex-Aitece teachers have many friends and co-workers in Wuhan and pray for their safety and the city’s quick return to normality.

Photo 1 The pop-up hospital being constructed for Coronavirus victims in Wuhan.

2. The ‘SARS Hotel’ in Hong Kong, five doors from the Columban Apartment, where the SARS outbreak began in Hong Kong in 2003.

Election Time

I pity the electioneering teams in our area. The short cold winter evenings must be testing their enthusiasm. People are not likely to stand long with their front door open to discuss local and national politics.

The most talked-about issues are complex and need more discussion than a few minutes on the doorstep. I doubt if many canvassers are invited inside for a cup of tea and a chat.

This is how democracy works in Ireland (at least at election time) and it took us many years of struggle, even physical, to get this far.

I can’t help comparing it with the situation in Hong Kong, China and other parts of the world where elections, if they exist, are a lot different.

In Hong Kong the recent demonstrations have not been about the right to vote, they already have local elections for local issues. As a permanent resident I voted there for a number of years.  What they now want is freedom to have a say in the big issues, like choosing the officials who make laws and try to balance the budget.

In China some experiments have been made at district level but precautions are usually taken to make sure the Party candidate wins.  National elections are a long way off.

In other parts of the world, the struggle for both local and national elections is just beginning.

Here, you hear complaints about people who would cross the ocean to fight for democracy but won’t cross the street to vote. Or is it the other way around?

New Year: Ireland and China

The daffodils are out in our garden already.

Every year I am amazed by their sudden appearance. We did nothing to deserve or encourage them, yet one dark rainy day, there they are!

It is the first sign of Spring and the ‘New Year Festival’ celebrated in China and elsewhere on 25 January, is in Chinese, the ‘Spring Festival’.

It is still a big occasion in China – this year over 440 million trips will be made on the 217 mph high-speed trains alone as people struggle to be reunited with their families in the countryside.

The bond is still strong as there are many first generation city dwellers whose memories and ties to their ‘old village’ remain alive. It used to be like that in Korea but as people get more settled in the cities the link is weakening.

The New Year has got off to a bad start for the government. Taiwan voters showed they are in no hurry to be re-united with the Motherland though they are not seeking a complete split either.

The good news is that China has made considerable progress in reducing water and air pollution. This is one area in which it is in agreement with the rest of the world.

A Fresh Approach to Studying Chinese Culture

In a Chinese city, surplus funds were left over after a project was completed and the local Party standing committee met to decide whether to use them to renovate the elementary school or the prison. Everyone had a different opinion.

Finally, one experience committee member set everyone straight: “In this life, how many of us are likely to have to attend elementary school again?”

There was silence. Some people wiped sweat from their brows. Others drank tea.

Soon after, everyone reached an agreement: Fix up the prison.

This is an example of Chinese humour and studying humour can be a good means of learning a language and understanding the local situation.

Is Oriental humour much different from Western? You can judge from the above.

It might be a help to know that Party leaders are under constant threat of investigation to test their loyalty, often the reason given is corruption.

However it may be hard to collect other examples of Chinese humour. The government takes it very seriously. Humour is now almost absent from the annual Chinese New Year TV extravaganza knows as ‘the Gala’.

Humorous sites are also quickly shut down. One had an estimated 200 million followers, mostly workers.      

Sadly, that window for studying Chinese language and local culture is unavailable for the present.