Grindstone Mountain

Money to burn but no tomb to sweep – by Mark Treacher


Flames lap around the banknotes as they shrivel inside a rusty old oilcan, wisps of black smoke spiralling up into the overcast sky. Squatting down on his haunches, Lee peels off a few more 10,000 yuan bills from a fat bundle and offers them to the fire. His teenage son, father and stepmother Auntie Zhang follow suit, holding out the money until it catches alight. Lee’s downcast face is compelling: his mother died in 1985, of heatstroke on a broken-down train near Wuhan. Lee had just graduated; he was very close to his mother.

Suddenly the fire spits, leaping the gap to Lee’s fingertips, making him yelp and drop the money to the ground.  “Nide mama chu lai le!” hisses Auntie Zhang – “Your mum is here!”

It’s qingmingjie, tomb sweeping festival, when Chinese honour the departed. Lee is my wife’s jiefu, her older sister’s husband, and he has invited me to come with him to a cemetery on the top of Grindstone Mountain near Chengdu to pay respect at the grave of his mother – or at least that’s what I assumed.


A few days earlier I had arrived back in Chengdu after almost a decade away from China, an absence that had been caused by a concatenation of family issues back home in England.  The jetlag hadn’t worn off yet, not to mention my nine-year psychological hangover – a deep frustration at not getting to spend my thirties in the world’s most interesting country. Whereas previously I had felt ahead of the curve in first coming to China in 1998, now, returning in April 2011, aged 41 with wife and son in tow, I felt I had missed the boat.

Back then I had been living my version of the China Dream. In three years I had racked up significant NGO experience in the Sichuan countryside and worked as a mountain bike tour guide. I had a lucrative and flexible job with the British Council, done voice work and been published in the Guardian. I had worked on a research project that included a 2,000km journey across the Tibetan plateau researching wild fungi, in particular the lucrative trade in “winter-insect summer-grass”, caterpillar corpses infected with the Cordyceps fungus. On millennium eve I had met my then girlfriend and future wife, Scarlet, in a Chengdu dive. In short, though I failed to appreciate it, I had never had it so good.

Then one day in September 2002, the phone rang. It was my dad on the line from England, telling me that my mum had been in the back garden of the family home in Gloucestershire when she had lost the power of speech. Medical tests had confirmed malignant glioma – an incurable brain tumour. It was time to go home.  I took with me some of the caterpillar fungus that I had been researching – it is claimed to combat cancer – but it just upset my mum’s stomach. There wasn’t going to be any miracle cure, and I was going to be away from China far longer than I expected.


A couple of days after my return to Chengdu Lee invited me to go to Grindstone Mountain. The following morning I caught a bus to the leafy street in south Chengdu where Lee’s father and older sister still lived in a decaying housing compound. Lee was waiting there with his son Haihai, who when I left in 2002 had been a jovial little 8 year-old, but was now six-foot tall and built like a nightclub bouncer.

Lee went into the compound to fetch his father and emerged guiding ‘Old Cao’ by the arm as he shuffled across the busy road. Old Cao’s health was now “a candle guttering in the breeze”, as the Chinese phrase goes, but he was unfailingly cheerful.  With them was the still sprightly Auntie Zhang, Old Cao’s second wife, who was carrying bags of offerings and incense with her.  I helped Old Cao into the backseat of the car, failing to persuade him and Auntie Zhang to wear seatbelts. Haihai nabbed the front passenger seat, Lee fiddled with his satnav, and we were off.

Within minutes we were lost. It was Lee’s first time back in Chengdu for two years, and in his absence a whole new city of glass and steel had sprung up to the south. “I don’t recognise any of this,” said Lee, leaning forward over the steering wheel, craning his neck upwards as we drove along an elevated road lined by thirty-storey monoliths. The road was relatively new but its concrete surface was already breaking up badly. It bore us east, away from the brave new world of south Chengdu into a bumpier, dustier hinterland.

Half-built motorways on stilts stalked a dismal landscape; cranes tended massive tower blocks topped with faux temple-roofs; viaducts criss-crossed underneath and overhead, and our satnav was lost in a fantasy world of her own. Already jet-lagged, I lost my sense of direction, time and scale. Narrowly avoiding a collision with a truck, we turned onto a dual carriageway that cleaved a hamlet in half.  Here the countryside resembled a battlefield – rubble-strewn and covered in dust. After nine years out of China, what the hell was I doing back? And why had I been so keen to return?


At the foot of Grindstone Mountain, roadside houses sold incense, funeral money and candles. Rows of wreaths leaned against breezeblock walls, each wreath with the character for mourning, 奠, writ large. Higher up, before we reached the cemetery proper, the road skirted a patch of litter-strewn woodland. Among the sickly trees I glimpsed a family group standing solemnly around a small fire; behind them, lying face-down next to a small stream, was a life-size pink paper woman.

The cranes were already at the cemetery walls, and what must have once been a fine view was muffled in murky shades of grey. There were only a few cars in the carpark – we had come a few days early to beat the crowds and pretty much had the place to ourselves. In this land-scarce country it came as no great surprise to discover that there wasn’t actually a tomb to sweep. Instead Lee collected a tiny key from reception, walked a few yards up the hill and stepped into a shed-sized building made of glass. It was an ossuary, immaculately clean and lined from floor to ceiling with small perspex compartments, each with a small ornate casket inside, containing ashes.

Lee stepped back outside and carried his mothers ashes to a complex of drab, roofless concrete cubicles. Once inside he placed the casket on a concrete altar, Auntie Zhang quickly flanked it with two tiny plastic cedar trees and set down three bearded figurines. Candles and incense were lit, fruit and cakes were piled in front, and then each family member bowed to the photo of Grandma Cao on the front of the casket, before picking up some funeral money and holding it out to the flames in the rusty oilcan-cum-brazier.


The flames spit. Lee shakes his singed fingers, retrieves the smouldering banknotes that he had dropped, and after a brief moment of contemplation, tosses them into the brazier.  I hover awkwardly on the periphery, taking photos through the concrete palings. Next to Lee, his father sighs heavily. Aiya. Then, for the first time in many minutes, Lee raises his head, looks me in the eye and says, “Mark, you can pay respects to your mother too.” I blink. The thought hadn’t even occurred to me.

There is a point on the route of my dad’s daily constitutional walk near his home in the Cotswold Hills where, while passing through a beechwood, the path briefly bifurcates before converging again a few dozen yards later. It was here, at the base of a tree standing by one of the two paths, that my mother’s ashes were scattered. My dad could decide whether or not to walk by the spot – to look forward or back, depending on how he felt that day.

Now, six thousand miles away in the cemetery on the top of Grindstone Mountain, I make my choice. I lower my head, put my camera away, step into the cubicle and for the first time in a decade I properly re-enter China. Lee hands me some smoking incense sticks, which I clasp in front of me as I bow awkwardly towards the altar. Eschewing the gaudy “Bank of Heaven” notes, I choose some of the traditional paper funeral money and offer it to the flames. On this grey day, the fire’s heat is comforting. Wisps of smoke wrap around me, firecrackers erupt nearby. My throat tightens, and tears come to my eyes.

Mark Treacher is a British NGO and enterprise consultant based in Chengdu. He has previously been published in the Guardian and China Daily