Although Chinese and Japanese tombstones do not have the vast repertoire of funerary symbols as do those from European cultures, they do have some interesting and significant symbols and traditions. Chinese symbolism is seen more in the funerary rituals than on symbols that appear on tombstones.
The most significant Chinese tradition is the observance of Ching Ming, translated roughly as pure brightness. Ching Ming occurs on April 5 (106 days after the winter solstice), but is sometimes moved to the first weekend if April 5 doesn’t fall on a weekend. On the first day of Ching Ming, a priest conducts a 34-step ceremony called the Three Presentations Ceremony at the oldest grave in the cemetery. This ceremony’s most memorable aspect is, no doubt, the 34th step, which is the lighting of more than 10,000 firecrackers.
Another name for Ching Ming is tomb-sweeping (or cleaning) day and refers to the cleaning and maintenance of the graves of one’s ancestors. It is important to maintain and honor the graves of one’s ancestors because of the Chinese belief that all fortune or misfortune stems from the reverence or lack thereof of one’s ancestors. These departed ancestors still have similar physical needs (hence, the leaving of food, drink, and gifts) and can assist those still bound to the earth.
The most common Chinese symbol seen in the cemetery is Fu Dogs or Shih Tzu of Fo.
These mythological animals, special guardians of the Lord Buddha, teach patience and the subjugation of the ego and its passions. The male, seen here with a ball under its paw, is always located on the east. The ball is hollow, a symbol of the emptiness of the mind in Buddhist spiritual beliefs. The female dog-lion, on the west, has a baby under her paw. These paired creatures also represent the opposing forces of Yin (female) and Yang (male).
The dog-lions and the positioning of other elements and statuary are part of the Feng Shui of the site, an art based on the belief that a harmonious relationship between our environment and nature’s forces affects our disposition and luck.