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Sacrifice and care on Chinese Tomb Sweeping Day. Source: tuayai / Adobe Stock

The Myths, Legends and Traditions of Chinese Tomb Sweeping Day


Every year, the Chinese celebrate the historic Qingming Festival. Fondly known as Ancestors Day or Tomb Sweeping Day, it is a day that commemorates the onset spring and the occasion when families show their respects to their ancestors by visiting and cleaning their graves. Tomb Sweeping Day takes place on the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, which falls on either the 4th or 5th April of the Gregorian calendar.

Astronomically, Qingming is one of the Chinese solar terms, one of 24 points in traditional East Asian lunisolar calendars that matches a particular astronomical event or signifies some natural phenomenon. The points are spaced 15° apart along the ecliptic and are used by the Chinese to stay synchronized with the seasons, which was crucial for agrarian societies. Qingming sits at 15° longitude and means “clean and bright.” It is the time when temperatures begin to rise and rainfall increases, indicating the crucial time for sowing seeds. However, Qingming is not only a seasonal symbol, it is also a day for paying respect to the dead.

A depiction of the ancient Qingming Festival. Traditions Cultural China

A depiction of the ancient Qingming Festival . Traditions Cultural China

Origin of the Qingming Festival

The Qingming festival has a tradition stretching back more than 2,500 years, originating from Hanshi Day, which means “day with cold food only,” a memorial day for Jie Zitui. According to legend, Jie was a loyal man who died in 636 BC. He has been remembered for having cut a piece from his own leg and feeding it to his hungry lord, Duke Wen, who was forced to go into exile when the crown was in jeopardy. His lord promised to reward him one day for his action.

When the lord attained his position once more, nineteen years later, he had forgotten the good deed of Jie Zitui. Later, Duke Wen felt ashamed and sought out Jie Zitui in order to reward him, but by then Jie had gone to live in the forest with his mother. Duke Wen went to the forest, but could not find him. Heeding suggestions from his officials, Duke Wen ordered men to set the forest on fire to force Jie out. However, Jie died with his mother in the fire.

Feeling remorseful, Duke Wen ordered three days without fire to honor Jie's memory. This meant that only cold food could be eaten. Hence the day Jie died became the Hanshi (Cold Food) Festival. The second year, when the lord went to the mountain to honor Jie’s memory, he found that the willow trees had revived, so he gave instructions that the day after the Hanshi Festival was to be Qingming Festival, a day to honor the dead.

Over time, the two festivals were combined into one and the two traditions of eating cold food and honoring ancestors became attached to the Qingming Festival. The city where Jie Zitui died is still called Jiexiu, which translates into “the place Jie rests forever.”

Qingming Festival at Chonghe Dong Cemetery, Kolkata. (Rangan Datta / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Qingming Festival at Chonghe Dong Cemetery, Kolkata. (Rangan Datta / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Traditional Customs of Tomb Sweeping Day

The Qingming Festival is a time of many different activities, the main ones being tomb sweeping, taking a spring outing, and flying kites. Another custom, passed down from ancient times, was that of wearing willow branches on one’s head in honor of Jie Zitui.

Tomb sweeping is regarded as the most important custom in the Qingming Festival. Cleaning the tomb and paying respect to the ancestors with offerings are the two important parts of remembering past relatives. Weeds around the tomb are cleared away and fresh soil is added to show care towards the dead.

The person's favorite food and wine are taken as a sacrifice, along with paper resembling money. This is all burned in the hope that the deceased will not be lacking in the afterlife. While there is much sadness surrounding Tomb Sweeping Day, there is also happiness, celebration and a festive atmosphere.

Burning money and offerings during the Qingming Festival. (ThamKC / Adobe Stock)

Burning money and offerings during the Qingming Festival. (ThamKC / Adobe Stock)

Modern Trends at Chinese Tomb Sweeping Day

While it's customary to offer food and wine as a sacrifice to ancestors, some of the more tech-savvy youth believe their deceased ancestors would appreciate a modern-day gadget more. This has led to a new commercial market for selling cheap replica iPhones, Wi-Fi routers and other gadgets so as that family members can give them as offerings during the Qingming Festival.

Another modern trend has seen more than twenty online stores offering “tomb-sweeping packages” for people who are too preoccupied or busy to mourn their ancestors themselves. Companies are now advertising professional mourners to grieve in their stead. Packages range from simple tomb-sweeps to more comprehensive packages which include services such as bowing, giving gifts and sobbing at the grave.

Unsurprisingly this practice has drawn criticism for being a shameful way to put a commercial face on a sacred festival. Nevertheless, some of the younger generation have expressed that there is a need to strike a balance between traditions and current trends by modernizing the interpretation of old customs such as that of Chinese Tomb Sweeping Day. They argue that this motivates the young ones to preserve tradition.

Top image: Sacrifice and care on Chinese Tomb Sweeping Day. Source: tuayai / Adobe Stock

Updated on April 06, 2022.

By April Holloway

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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