In early April, millions of Chinese across the country visit the cemetery, cleaning ancestors’ graves, bringing food, flowers, and burnt incense and paper. They do this for the Qingming Festival, celebrated on either April 4th or 5th depending on the lunar calendar. Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, or Pure Brightness Festival, is a day to visit and remember family ancestors. Qingming translates to “clean” and “bright,” and it is also a day to celebrate the beginning of spring. People enjoy outdoor activities during this three-day public holiday. Tomb-sweeping Day is not only observed in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, but also in other countries with large Chinese communities, like Malaysia and Singapore.

qingming festival tomb incense candles
Colored papers, incense and candles placed on a grave for Qingming.
Photo credit: Jack Lee

Importance of the Qingming Festival

Qingming Festival may sound similar to other holidays celebrating the dead, like Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The family plays a central part in many Asian cultures, and holidays that honor family ancestors are very common. Some examples are P’chum Ben in Cambodia, Obon in Japan, and Chuseok in Korea.

In China, the importance of family and filial piety (xiào), comes from Confucius teachings. Xiào teaches to love one’s parents and elders, and expressions of love come through respect, support, and obedience. Parents give children life and provide a home, school, food and the like, so children will always be indebted to their parents. Children can attempt to repay their parents by taking care of them when they are old, working hard to make them proud and obeying their wishes. This sense of duty is why many Chinese continue to live with their parents or grandparents into adulthood, unlike Western young adults who often move away from home in their late teens or twenties. Even after death, the Chinese feel there is a responsibility to respect and take care of their elders, and this is one reason Tomb Sweeping Day is an important holiday in China.

Legend

The origins of Qingming Festival date back over 2,500 years ago, during the Zhou Dynasty. According to Chinese legend, a lord named Duke Wen of Jin was forced into exile to prevent him from becoming the next Emperor. This lord had a loyal servant named Jie Zitui. During this period of exile, they faced extreme starvation, but Jie cut off a piece of his leg, secretly made it into a soup and saved Duke Wen’s life.

Nearly 20 years later, Duke Wen returned to a position of power. He realized that he had forgotten Jie’s sacrifice during his exile and wanted to reward him. However, Jie hid in the forest with his mother and refused to see the duke or accept his accolades. The legends say that Jie was a humble man who did not want medals or titles but only wanted to serve his master and help him return to power. To force Jie out of hiding, Duke Wen had the forest burned, but Jie never revealed himself. Jie and his mother’s bodies were found in the ruins.

Despite his aggressive actions, Duke Wen deeply respected Jie and gave the bodies a dignified burial. The next year, the duke came to pay his respects and found willow trees, which had been burned in the fire, regrown and healthy again at the grave site. He cleaned the tombs and declared that none of his subjects could use fire and would only eat cold food on this day. It became known as the “Cold Food Festival,” and then later the Qingming Festival or Tomb Sweeping Day.

Like many historical legends, scholars debate the veracity of the tales. Although Duke Wen is a real historical figure, the actual events most likely did not happen as the legend describes. Over the years, ruling powers may have altered the facts and created a story they could use for propaganda purposes. Younger generations of Chinese may question this strange tale of cannibalism and an overzealous leader, but the original meaning of the Qingming Festival, respecting the dead, continues as a central part of Chinese culture today.

tomb sweeping day burn money
Joss money (fake money) is burned to ensure wealth for your ancestors in the afterlife.

How is the Qingming Festival celebrated?

As the English name, Tomb Sweeping Day suggests, one of the most important traditions is to visit the cemetery to clean family members’ graves. Relatives pull up overgrown weeds and bring flowers or food. They also burn incense, fake paper money, paper models of houses, cars, and even iPhones so that their ancestors can enjoy these luxury goods in the afterlife. Chinese believe their ancestors watch over the living family members’ prosperity and health, so it’s important to keep them happy and make sure they have everything they need.

Some people used to wear willow branches or place willow branches on front doors to ward off evil ghosts. This practice is not common these days. One reason for this tradition may be from the Qingming legend when Duke Wen found willow trees over Jie Zitui’s grave. He began wearing a willow branch to remember Jie and his mother, and it became a popular symbol among his followers.

Another name for Qingming is Taqing Festival, or “Spring Outing.” The weather is usually warmer, with beautiful spring flowers and more greenery after winter. Most people have a few days off from work and take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy springtime. Some may visit national parks, travel to another city or return to their hometown and visit their families.

Kite flying is also a common tradition during this time. Young and old enjoy flying kites during the day and night. At night, people hang lanterns on the kites, so they look like winking stars against the black sky. Usually, the kite strings are cut and allowed to float free. People believe this will bring good luck and fight off disease.

qingming festival green dumplings
Qingtuan (green dumplings) filled with salted egg yolk

As with many Chinese festivals, there is no shortage of food. Qingtuan, green dumplings made from glutinous rice powder and Chinese barley grass, are a favorite food during the Qingming Festival, especially in the southern part of the country. The dumplings are traditionally filled with sweet red bean paste, but nowadays it’s also popular to have pork floss or salted egg yolk fillings. Another commonly eaten food is Chinese snails. These are small, freshwater snails cooked with soy sauce, ginger and cooking wine. These snails are in season during the spring, which means they are perfect for enjoying during the Qingming Festival.

Modern Changes

Tomb-Sweeping Day has evolved with the changing times. Recently, many cities across China have begun to ban burning paper during the festival due to safety and environmental reasons. The local government encourages people to leave food or flowers on the graves of loved ones instead. While paper burning is now less common in the cities, those living in the countryside or rural areas still keep this tradition alive.

Amber Lu, Director of Academics at Innovation Academy in Shanghai, says “Most young people do not see the importance of traditional holidays like Qingming Festival due to modernization. Nowadays, many Chinese may put more emphasis on the “spring outing” aspect of the holiday rather than the tomb-sweeping.” The Chinese Tourism Administration shows that in 2017, more than 93 million people went on tours and excursions throughout the country during the festival.1 However, these changes do not necessarily mean that modern Chinese have forgotten the value of family. Amber says she personally doesn’t celebrate the holiday, but during her time off, went to spend time with her parents and family.

On a personal note, my Chinese American family never observed this holiday. I am not sure I believe that by burning a paper iPhone or Lamborghini my great-grandparents will zip around the afterlife sending smiley emojis. My high school friends who are first-generation American said they never celebrated the Qingming Festival either, although sometimes their parents went to the temple. Nevertheless, I like the idea of paying respect to one’s ancestors during the Qingming Festival. No matter your background or no matter the day, whether it’s Day of the Dead, Tomb Sweeping Day or even Halloween, we could all take a page from the Chinese and dedicate a time to remember our parents, grandparents, and relatives who loved and cared for us.

1 宋静丽. “Top 10 Most Popular Cities during Qingming Holiday.” Top 10 Most Popular Cities during Qingming Holiday – Chinadaily.com.cn. April 11, 2017. Accessed April 02, 2019. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201704/11/WS59bb8337a310d4d9ab7e94d2.html.

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Tara Martin
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Tara Martin

Another great article. Very informative! On Memorial Day in America, our family pays tribute to family members both who were and were not in the military on this day.

Brandi Graham
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Brandi Graham

Thank you for this article! It’s amazing to see customs and traditions transcend cultures. In America it’s customary to decorate our graves with flowers, and mementos as well.

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