Fears that people burning offerings to honor ancestors could spark forest fires amid dry climate
During Qingming Festival－or Tomb Sweeping Day－residents in North China's Shanxi province were told by the local government to use safer methods when paying tribute to their ancestors and deceased family members.
The requirements were proposed due to the high risk of fire and the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Traditional practices during Tomb Sweeping Day, which falls around April 4, include clearing weeds in graveyards and burning incense, candles and paper sacrificial offerings as well as setting off fireworks.
The burning of things and fireworks are highly risky in forests and on grasslands, especially in the dry weather of spring.
According to a domestic media report, a forest fire in Xichang, Sichuan province, on March 30, killed 18 firefighters and a local guide.
The accident rang the alarm for governments throughout the country, including Shanxi.
On April 4, the provincial government of Shanxi started a weeklong campaign to prevent fires in forests and grasslands.
During the first fire-prevention weeklong event in Shanxi, officials in various regions spread fire prevention advice among residents via TV broadcasts and mobile phone text messages.
The province's law enforcement institutions have also dispatched task forces to patrol near graveyards, to prevent risky practices.
In Qinyuan, a county boasting the highest forest coverage in Shanxi province, the government made the highest level of fire response.
The county has established a smart fire monitoring and early warning system, using helicopters and drones on 24-hour patrol and 48 infrared cameras on watch towers.
During Tomb Sweeping Day, the county also mobilized firefighting officers, officials and forestry workers to carry out various fire-prevention tasks.
A fleet of 800 vehicles patrolled the county, while hundreds of forestry workers have been on duty at 100-plus watch towers and at more than 380 checkpoints.
The county's 390 forestry firefighting officers, 1,200 officials and more than 3,600 volunteers have been in place to deal with any emergencies.
Heading the task forces is Jin Suojun, Party secretary of Qinyuan. He visited the county's 14 townships to make sure all fire-prevention measures had been carried out.
In Yangqu, another county with high forestry coverage, there are manned checkpoints on the roads to forest areas. Their duty is to ban kindling and inflammable materials being taken into forests.
At Wanbailin forest farm in the suburbs of Taiyuan, the provincial capital, all kinds of smart equipment are used in fire prevention.
At the fire monitoring center of the forest farm, a big screen is divided into 16 sections, showing images caught by cameras in different areas.
Lu Tong, head of the monitoring center, explained how the system works.
"Every camera is placed at the highest point of an area and can take pictures of locations within a radius of 5-20 kilometers during the daytime," Lu said.
"During the nighttime, the cameras will shift to infrared mode, which can identify spots of fire or smoke in 5-10 km," he said. In the case of an emergency, the big screen shows the exact location immediately, he added.
The official said the 17,500-hectare forest farm used to rely on 180 patrolling workers for fire monitoring and prevention. He added that one worker can only walk around a dozen kilometers a day in some cliff areas, so the smart system has greatly improved work efficiency.
While increasing manpower to monitor forests and grasslands, local officials also advocated safer ways of tomb sweeping.
In Changzi county in the southeast of Shanxi, local authorities called on residents to lay flowers instead of burning paper sacrificial offerings.
Yu Bo, who has run a flower store in the county for five years, said his sales increased heavily during this year's Tomb Sweeping Day.
"I began to receive orders a week before the festival. Flowers like white and yellow chrysanthemums are the most popular," Yu said.
Li Quanfu, a civil affairs official in Taiyuan's Wanbailin district, suggested tomb sweepers offer cold food as tribute to their ancestors.
"People always believe it's a tradition to burn incense sticks and paper-made sacrificial offering during Qingming Festival," he said.
"However, offering cold food is an even longer tradition, as we have celebrated Qingming together with Cold Food Festival for more than 2,500 years in China. And both festivals are dedicated to our ancestors,"Li explained.
In Shanxi, tomb sweeping in large public cemeteries was affected by the novel coronavirus epidemic. People are advised not to visit cemeteries in a bid to avoid crowding and cross-infection.
In this circumstance, people can ask cemetery workers to sweep tombs for them or pay homage to the deceased on cemetery websites.
"The workers can visit the graves, clear the weeds around the tombs, present flowers, fruits and food and deliver memorial speeches for people who apply for the service," said Yang Yong, a manager at the Yong'an Cemetery in Taiyuan.
"All the rituals of tomb sweeping will be recorded by video cameras and sent to the clients," Yang said. He added that more than 200 clients ordered the service.
"To mark their great contributions during the COVID-19 outbreak, we offer free tomb sweeping services to medical workers in Shanxi," Yang said.
Wang Chong, a folk culture researcher in Shanxi, noted that Tomb Sweeping Day is an important occasion for Chinese people.
"It is a common practice in China for people to travel thousands of kilometers to pay tribute to their ancestors during the festival," Wang said.
"However, Qingming is not the only occasion in the year for this purpose," he added.
Wang noted that the Zhongyuan Festival on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month and the Winter Clothing Festival on the first day of the 10th lunar month can be options for people to pay tribute to their beloved ones in another world.
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