Tomb Sweeping Day (清明节, Qīngmíng jié) is a one-day holiday that has been celebrated in China for centuries.
What Is Tomb Sweeping Day?
Tomb Sweeping Day is a one-day Chinese holiday to commemorate and pay respect to a person’s ancestors. On Tomb Sweeping Day, families visit the gravesite of their ancestors to show their respect. Tomb Sweeping Day is also known as Clear Brightness Festival and Taqing Festival.
The alternative name Clear Brightness Festival comes from the weather, which is usually clear and bright during the third lunar month (April) when Tomb Sweeping Day is celebrated. The festival was originally the Cold Food Festival that began during the Early Zhou Dynasty, but it evolved into a tomb sweeping festival during the Tang Dynasty when the Tang emperor would gift fire to his officials. The emperor would light a fire and light branches that he gave to his officials. While the fires would be extinguished by the time the officials made it to their homes, they would leave the branches on their doorsteps. During the Song Dynasty, candles were used instead.
In addition to visiting cemeteries, people also go for walks in the countryside, plant willows, and fly kites on Tomb Sweeping Day. Those who cannot travel back to their ancestors’ gravesites may opt to pay their respects at martyrs parks to pay homage to revolutionary martyrs.
When Is Tomb Sweeping Day?
Tomb Sweeping Day is held 107 days after the start of winter and is celebrated on April 4 or April 5, depending on the lunar calendar. Tomb Sweeping Day is a national holiday in China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan with most people having the day off from work or school to allow time to travel to ancestral gravesites.
What Is the Origin of Tomb Sweeping Day?
Tomb Sweeping Day is based on the Hanshi Festival, which is also known as the Cold Festival and Smoke-Banning Festival. While the Hanshi Festival is no longer celebrated today, it has gradually been absorbed into Tomb Sweeping Day festivities.
The Hanshi Festival commemorated Jie Zitui, a loyal court official from the Spring and Autumn Period. Jie was a loyal minister to Chong Er. During a civil war, Prince Chong Er and Jie fled and were in exile for 19-years. According to legend, Jie was so loyal during the duo’s exile that he even made broth out of the flesh of his leg to feed the prince when they were short of food. When Chong Er later became king, he rewarded those who helped him when times were tough; however, he overlooked Jie.
Many advised Jie to remind Chong Er that he, too, should be repaid for his loyalty. Instead, Jie packed his bags and relocated to the mountainside. When Chong Er discovered his oversight, he was ashamed. He went to look for Jie in the mountains. The conditions were harsh and he was unable to find Jie. Someone suggested that Chong Er set fire to the forest to force Jie out. After the king set fire to the forest, Jie didn’t appear.
When the fire was extinguished, Jie was found dead with his mother on his back. He was under a willow tree and a letter written in blood was found in a hole in the tree. The letter read:
Giving meat and heart to my lord, Hoping my lord will always be upright. An invisible ghost under a willow Is better than a loyal minister beside my lord. If my lord has a place in his heart for me, Please make self-reflection when remembering me. I have a clear conscious in the nether world, Being pure and bright in my offices year after year.
To commemorate Jie’s death, Chong Er created the Hanshi Festival and ordered that no fire could be set on this day. One year later, Chong Er went back to the willow tree to hold a memorial ceremony and found the willow tree in bloom again. The willow was named ‘Pure Bright White’ and the Hanshi Festival became known as ‘Pure Brightness Festival.’ Pure Brightness is a fitting name for the festival because the weather is usually bright and clear in early April.
How Is Tomb Sweeping Day Celebrated?
Tomb Sweeping Day is celebrated by families reuniting and traveling to their ancestors’ gravesites to pay their respects. First, weeds are removed from the gravesite and the tombstone is cleaned and swept. Any necessary repairs are also made. New earth is added and willow branches are placed atop the gravesite.
Next, joss sticks are placed by the grave and lit and an offering of food and paper money is placed at the tomb. Paper money is burned while family members show their respect by bowing to their ancestors. Fresh flowers are placed at the tomb and some families also plant willow trees. In ancient times, five-colored paper was placed underneath a stone on the grave to signify that someone had visited the grave and that it had not been abandoned.
As cremation is gaining popularity, families continue the tradition by making offerings at ancestral altars or by placing wreaths and flowers at martyrs’ shrines. Due to hectic work schedules and the long distance some families must travel, some families opt to mark the festival earlier or later in April over a long weekend or assign a few family members to make the trip on behalf of the entire family.
Once the family has paid their respects at the gravesite, some families will have a picnic at the gravesite. Then, they take advantage of the usually good weather to take a walk in the countryside, known as 踏青 (Tàqīng; hence the name Taqing Festival) and some people wear a willow twig on their heads to keep ghosts away. Another custom includes picking shepherd’s purse. Women also pick herbs and make dumplings with them and they also wear the shepherd’s purse flower in their hair.
Other traditional activities on Tomb Sweeping Day include flying kites, playing tug-of-war, and swinging on swings. It is also a good time for sowing and other agricultural activities, including planting willow trees. In the past, fires were not permitted so people celebrated by eating cold foods and drinking cold drinks.