Qingming Festival


In acts of filial piety, the Chinese remember their dead by sweeping tomobs, and paying their respects to the ancestors that went before them…

Death is honored, remembered and, yes, even celebrated in myriad ways. The Jews light yahrzeit candles; at emotional wakes the Irish drink copious amounts of whisky; the Chinese sweep tombs to honor those that lived before them. It is said that during Qingming Festival, the living visit the dead, while during the Ghost Festival, the dead visit the living.

Qingming Festival (清明节Qīng míng Jié), aka Tomb Sweeping Day or Pure Brightness Festival, is one of the few traditional festivals in China which almost (yes almost) falls on the same Gregorian date every year. This year it falls on April 4. Qingming ceremonies vary in different regions of China and even in different families, with the Chinese prioritizing ‘filial piety’(孝xiào)—a respect for their parents and ancestors. Tomb sweeping is seen as a representation of their virtue. A dirty tomb with dead leaves and weeds all around is said to have bad children. And the act of filial piety is carried out by men, the “family blood carriers.” Thus, women, especially unmarried women, usually do not have to go tomb sweeping with their families.

When visiting older styles of tomb, families will sweep, weed, brush, and wash the outdoor area of the tombs. They will also remove the piles of soil and grass that formed on the pagoda the previous year, replacing them with fresh offerings. The family offer anything from food and wine, through to rice, pastries, meat and fruits, all varying from family to family and place to place. Roasted suckling pig is the most common meat offered for worship in Guangdong.

These days even paper iPhones get burnt, as presumable, even in the afterlife people have to get their WeChat fix.

Family members will also light incense and burn joss paper, sometimes called “hell money”, as it is believed ancestors still need money in the afterlife, and it’s their descendants’ responsibility to supply the money by burning it. Relatives also burn replicas of material goods, such as paper models of expensive cars, luxury villas, designer clothes, and beautiful servants, all excellent gifts to show care and generosity. These days even paper iPhones get burnt, as presumably, even in the afterlife people have to get their WeChat fix.

However, Qingming is not an entirely somber occasion. It marks a start of Spring, and when Qingming arrives, the weather become warm, flowers bloom, and it’s a time for farmers to get out their hoes and start planting crops for the year ahead. Families often get together, enjoy the countryside, and after tomb sweeping they will have a meal together. Mourning ancestors who have been long departed has long been an excuse for people, having rested for a whole winter, to enjoy the spring. And so in honoring death, new life is appreciated too. This going out into nature is called Tàqīng (踏青), meaning“treading on the greenery” and is carried out by millions of families throughout China.

In Guangdong, this is particularly loved because, as in many other parts of China, many tombs are found in the mountain or forest areas. In Cantonese, tomb sweeping is called baisan (拜山), which literally means “mountain worship”. Tombs are built on the side of mountains because it is believed that people buried in the mountains lead better after lives. In eastern Dongguan and in the New Territories of Hong Kong, many of these tombs can be seen in the hillsides, as you drive along the expressways.

In Dongguan, ancestors’ bodies aren’t buried under their tombs. Traditionally, five to ten years after they are buried (somewhere on a mountain), during Qingming Festival families will open the coffin, pick out the bones inside, and put them in a big urn. Locals call it “pick up golds”, and the urn is called a “gold pagoda”. They will be placed together with other ancestors’ pagodas in the family tomb and worshiped twice a year.

But things have changed in recent decades. As the city develops restlessly and many mountains are torn down rapidly, few people are informed about the demolishment of their tombs. Huangqi Mountain (Qifeng Park) was once home to the graves of many Guancheng locals. As the park expanded, merged and renovated over the two last decades, the tombs were ruined without the notifications of their owners. So, right now most Guancheng locals do not need to sweep their tombs over Qingming Festival as there are no tombs left to sweep. A tragic fate for those already dead.