Weeping Walls at Qingming Festival Time —by Jinny Batterson
In early April, Chinese across the country celebrate “Qingming” or “Pure Brightness” Festival. Partly, the celebration heralds the advent of warmer weather in many regions of the country. The holiday also has traditionally included time set aside for cleaning the graves of ancestors and leaving offerings of food and wine to appease their spirits. In 2012, the latest time I was in China, I spent most of a spring term along the coast of the South China Sea, at a small technical school near the beach resort town of Beihai, Guangxi. I got to observe Qingming Festival at closer range than in my previous travels.
When I first arrived in mid-February, I was surprised at how cold it was. Temperatures never quite froze overnight, but there were clouds and mist and chill enough so that a jacket or heavy sweater was often a good idea, whether outdoors or in the minimally heated insides of apartment blocks or teaching buildings. Then, in March, temperatures began to yo-yo. Some days were still cool and misty; others were sunny and warm enough for short sleeves.
Our apartment building began creating its own mini-climate. The first time my husband and I experienced “weeping walls” in our apartment, I assumed it was a short-term condition, the result of an especially abrupt change between cool and warm outside. However, as the moisture became more constant, I began to resign myself to this variation of the springtime “mud season” I’d experienced during a couple of years of living in northern New England in the U.S. There, during the coldest part of winter, the ground froze to a depth of several feet. As days grew longer and the sun warmed the air, the surface of the ground began to thaw. Because it took longer for the frozen layers underneath to warm as well, any unpaved area for a few weeks became a sea of mud.
Our apartment and our school in Beihai had a slightly different pattern, but with the same basic cause. Many dwellings in the southern part of China are constructed of masonry, with interior tile walls and tile floors, at least over substantial parts of their surface. An advantage of this construction practice is that tiles can be wiped or mopped clean more easily to help keep them free of the mold and mildew that often proliferate in warm, humid climates. However, after they’ve been cooled during the chill of winter, such tile-masonry combinations tend to “sweat” profusely when temperatures first increase during the spring. The air warms much more quickly than the walls or the floors and moisture condenses on the tiles.
For a couple of weeks, we’d swab our apartment floors and walls on waking and again before going to bed at night, only to have slick, wet surfaces greet us the next time we stepped anywhere. The hallways in our apartment block became virtual skating rinks. We wiped down surfaces, then wrung out the towels and cloths, but the moisture came back almost as soon as we’d finished. The only appropriate response seemed to be a combination of reluctant acceptance and making a game of our banana-peel clumsiness whenever we needed to venture any distance.
By early April, the masonry underbody of area buildings had caught up enough with the escalating temperatures so that the sweating abated and eventually stopped. We put away our sweaters, dried out our towels and wiping cloths. We enjoyed more and more ambles in the surrounding countryside. We noticed many newly weeded, swept, and decorated graves in the small settlements near our campus.
Perhaps any lingering mischievous spirits near our school had finally gotten their fill of merriment out of watching our pratfalls. Now suitably mollified by care and gifts from their descendants, they had decided to be more merciful—as air temperatures continued to rise, our non-sweaty, cooler tile walls and floors offered welcome relief from the heat.