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Taiwanese Hakka honor ancestors after Lantern Festival

(The photo is provided by Daphne Perng)

(The photo is provided by Daphne Perng) (Taiwan News photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) - The official Lantern Festival, better known as Yuan Xiao Jie (元宵節), falls on February 11, the 15th day of the first lunar month, marking the end of the lunar new year’s celebrations. In Taiwan, Miaoli Hakka descendants across the island usually return to their hometown on this day to clean the graves of their ancestors and prepare to perform a ritual of commemoration the next day.

As one of Taiwan’s key minorities, the Hakka people (客家人) usually visit the graves of their ancestors right after the Lantern Festival and before the traditional Tomb Sweeping Day on April 5 in the Gregorian calendar. Among the major Hakka communities, the one in Miaoli of central Taiwan traditionally chooses to visit the grave sites on the 16th day of the first lunar month, but if that is a working day, they do that on any weekend of the first lunar month. On this day, they usually clear away weeds and wild grasses, put flowers and offerings in front of the grave, light joss sticks and papers, and pray for prosperity and wellness while holding the joss sticks.

The Hakka, also a subgroup of the Han Chinese, have emigrated to many countries in Asia, notably including Taiwan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Burma.

The Hakka population in Taiwan is around 4.2 million, according to the country’s Hakka Affairs Council, and comes with a different culture and characteristics. Generally speaking, the Hakka people across the island visit the graves to remember their ancestors during the period from the 16th day of the first lunar month and no later than April 5, while the Hakka people in Meinong District, Kaohsiung, customarily start their tomb sweeping activity from the second lunar month.

The rationale of the Hakka people in Miaoli starting earlier has its socio-historical context. According to historian, the ancestors of Miaoli Hakka mostly emigrated from Guangdong, China, during the Qing dynasty, decades late after other Hakka groups who emigrated from Fujian to the island's fertile lands, leaving them not much choice to build a community but in barren hills.

To survive, the Hakka immigrants in Miaoli's mountainous areas were forced to leave their hometown more than a hundred miles away for a better job opportunity in the cities. Over centuries, the Lunar New Year holiday has become the natural choice for the hard-working Hakka people in Miaoli to have tomb sweeping ritual earlier to remember their ancestors before going back to work after the Lunar New Year’s celebrations, instead of traveling for hours back to home again to do so around April.

Traditionally, while visiting the graves of their ancestors, the Hakka people would spread several pieces of long yellow joss papers, also known as Guazhi (掛紙), on either the grave or the gravestone of their ancestors, meaning to give a parting salutation to them.

A Hakka living and working in Taipei City surnamed Perng has recently returned to her hometown in Miaoli County of central Taiwan to perform tomb sweeping on the 16th day of the first lunar month. Perng told the Taiwan News reporter that it is a big day for the whole family to come together to pay its respects to their ancestors, to pass down the Hakka virtues of diligence and fortitude exemplified in their predecessors for centuries, and to remember their Hakka identity.

The photo shows the Hakka people in Miaoli

Taiwanese Hakka honor ancestors after Lantern Festival