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There was only one day each year when they looked backward, in April, during the festival of Qingming. The Chinese name translates as "day of clear brightness," and for more than a millennium it's been celebrated in various regional forms across China. Ancestor worship goes back even further. More than 5,000 years ago, the cultures of northern China were venerating the dead through highly systemized ceremonies. Echoes of these traditions still survive today, and during my first year in the village, when the holiday came around, I accompanied my neighbors on their ritual journey to the cemetery.

Only men were allowed to participate. All of them were named Wei, and a dozen members of this extended clan left before dawn, hiking up the steep mountain behind the village. They wore simple work clothes and carried flat wicker baskets and shovels on their shoulders. They didn't make small talk, and they didn't stop to rest. They had the determined air of a work crew—tools at the ready, trudging past apricot trees whose fresh buds glowed like stars in the morning half-light. After 20 minutes we reached the village cemetery. It was located high on the mountain, where simple piles of dirt had been arranged in neat rows. Each row represented a distinct generation, and the men began their work on the front line, tending the graves of the most recently dead—the fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts. They weeded the mounds and piled fresh dirt atop. They left special gifts, such as bottles of alcohol or packs of cigarettes. And they burned paper grave money for use in the afterlife, the bills bearing a watermark that said, "The Bank of Heaven Co., Ltd."

Each villager paid special attention to his own close relatives, working through the rows from father to grandfather to great-grandfather. Almost none of the graves had markers, and as the men moved back in time, from row to row, they became less certain of identities. At last the work was communal, everybody pitching in for every mound, and nobody knowing who was buried beneath. The final grave stood alone, the sole representative of the fourth generation. "Lao zu," one villager said. "The ancestor." There was no other name for the original clan member, whose details had been lost over the years.

By the time they finished, morning light glowed behind eastern peaks. A man named Wei Minghe explained that each mound represented a house for the dead, and local tradition called for them to complete the Qingming ritual before dawn. "If you pour dirt on the grave before the sun comes up, it means that in the afterlife they get a tile roof," he said. "If you don't make it in time, they get a thatched roof."

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