Chinese Tomb Sweeping Day

The myths, legends and traditions of Chinese Tomb Sweeping Day


Today marks the historical Qingming Festival in China. Fondly known as Ancestors Day or Tomb Sweeping Day, it is a day that commemorates the onset spring and the occasion to remember ancestors by visiting their graves. The festival takes place on the 15 th day from the Spring Equinox, which falls on either the 4 th or 5 th April of the Gregorian calendar.

Astronomically, ‘Qingming’ is one of the Chinese solar terms. A solar term is any 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 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.

The 24 points on the solar calendar

The 24 points on the solar calendar. Image source .

Origin of the Qingming Festival

The Qingming festival has a tradition stretching back more than 2,500 years and originated from Hanshi Day ("day with cold food only"), a memorial day for Jie Zitui, a loyal man who died in 636 BC. According to legend, Jie cut a piece from his own leg and fed 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. The lord came back to his position nineteen years later, but 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 honour 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 honour Jie’s memory, he found that the willow trees had revived, so he gave instructions that the day after Hanshi Festival was to be Qingming Festival, a day to honour the dead. Later, the two festivals were combined as one and the two traditions of eating cold food and honouring ancestors became attached to the Qingming Festival. The city where Jie died is still called Jiexiu ("the place Jie rests forever.")

At the Qingming Festival people sweep and clean the graves of their ancestors

At the Qingming Festival people sweep and clean the graves of their ancestors. Photo source .

Traditional Customs of Tomb Sweeping Day

The Qingming Festival is a time of many different activities, among which the main ones are tomb sweeping, taking a spring outing, and flying kites. An ancient custom also included wearing willow branches on the head in honour of Jie Zitui.

Tomb sweeping is regarded as the most important custom in the Qingming Festival. Cleaning the tomb and paying respect to the dead person with offerings are the two important parts of remembering the past relatives. Weeds around the tomb are cleared away and fresh soil is added to show care of the dead. The dead person's favourite food and wine are taken to sacrifice to them, 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 festivities.

A 12th century tapestry by Zhang Zeduan of the Qingming Festival

Featured image: ‘Along the River during the Qingming Festival’, a 12th century tapestry by Zhang Zeduan. Image source: Wikipedia

Modern Trends

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 on Qingming for family members to give as offerings. 

Another modern trend has seen more than 20 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 modernising the interpretation of old customs. They argue that this motivates the young ones to preserve tradition.

Featured image: A depiction of the ancient Qingming Festival. Image source .

By April Holloway


The Culture of Qingming Festival – Cultural China

Qingming Festival (Tomb-sweeping Day) – Travel China Guide

Qingming Festival - Paying Respect To The Dead – Malaysian Digest

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