QINGMING (TOMB-SWEEPING DAY): HISTORY, PRACTICES AND BANS

QINGMING (TOMB-SWEEPING DAY)

20111123-Wiki C -Five_coloured_papers_on_a_grave Qingming Singapore.jpg
colored paper on a grave

Qingming (Tomb Sweeping Day or Day of Clear Brightness) is a day when Chinese traditionally honor their dead ancestors by visiting their graves and tidying up and sweeping the grave sites. Participants sometimes place flowers on the graves, burn ghost money, and make offerings of fruit, chicken, pork and sometimes beer. In rural areas, tombs are painted, grass is cut and the areas around the graves are swept clean. The holiday also marks the beginning of the busy agricultural season, when the fields are prepared and seeds are planted.

Qingming is observed by the Han Chinese in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, and by ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and elsewhere in the world to varying degrees. It a recognized holiday in Taiwan and Hong Kong but for a long time was not on the mainland, where the Communists long tried to discourage ancestor worship. It became a public holiday in mainland China in 2008, where people have traditionally enjoyed qingtuan, green dumplings made of glutinous rice and Chinese mugwort or barley grass. In Taiwan people eat caozaiguo or shuchuguo, a d. A confection made with Jersey cudweed.

Qingming usually falls on April 5th, a date set by the solar calendar rather than by the lunar calendar. Qingming has traditionally fallen on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar. This makes it the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, either 4, 5 or 6 April in a given year. In Taiwan, the public holiday was on April 5th in the past in honor the death of Chiang Kai-shek, who died on that day in 1975, but with Chiang's popularity declining the tradition is no longer observed.

Observing Qingming

Dai Wangyun wrote in Sixth Tone:“During the Qingming, millions of Chinese people will dust down the graves of their ancestors. I will return to my hometown near Shaoxing, a small city in eastern China’s Zhejiang province that’s famous for its rice wine. There, after tending to my family’s graves, I will breathe the crisp country air laden with the scent of spring bamboo, eat delicious qingtuan — bright green balls of glutinous rice — and stroll through golden fields of rapeseed. [Source: Dai Wangyun, Sixth Tone, April 2, 2018; Dai Wangyun is a Ph.D. student at East China Normal University focusing on folk customs, body culture, and medical culture]

“The customs of Tomb-Sweeping Day speak to two contrasting emotions. When I pay my respects to my ancestors, I feel a profound sense of melancholy and nostalgia. Dutiful Chinese tomb-sweepers will tidy the family graves, clear off any wintry weeds and twigs around the tombstones, and lay out fresh flowers for the deceased. The ta qing custom of roaming in the hills after tidying up as reflected in many works of fiction, has traditionally been an for men and women to meet and fall in love and even have sex.

Describing the celebration of the holiday in a village outside Beijing, Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “Each tomb is nothing more than a mound of dirt, and the villagers cover the piles with fresh dirt...The men chatted idly as while they worked. It was communal: a man took particular care with the tombs of his own ancestors, but everybody added a little dirt to every tomb. After the shoveling, they burned money for the dead to use in the afterlife. They bills looked like official Chinese currency, but were labeled, in English, “The Bank of Heaven Company, Ltd.”

On a village Qingming festival ritual journey to the cemetery, Peter Hessler wrote in National Geographic, “Only men were allowed to participate. All of them were named Wei, and a dozen members of this extended clan left before dawn, hiking up the steep mountain behind the village. They wore simple work clothes and carried flat wicker baskets and shovels on their shoulders. They didn't make small talk, and they didn't stop to rest. They had the determined air of a work crew---tools at the ready, trudging past apricot trees whose fresh buds glowed like stars in the morning half-light.” [Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, January 2010]

Day of Qingming Procession


Procession with xingshen (traveling image of a god)

Hessler wrote: “After 20 minutes we reached the village cemetery. It was located high on the mountain, where simple piles of dirt had been arranged in neat rows. Each row represented a distinct generation, and the men began their work on the front line, tending the graves of the most recently dead---the fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts. They weeded the mounds and piled fresh dirt atop. They left special gifts, such as bottles of alcohol or packs of cigarettes. And they burned paper grave money for use in the afterlife, the bills bearing a watermark that said, “The Bank of Heaven Co., Ltd.”" [Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, January 2010]

“Each villager paid special attention to his own close relatives, working through the rows from father to grandfather to great-grandfather. Almost none of the graves had markers, and as the men moved back in time, from row to row, they became less certain of identities. At last the work was communal, everybody pitching in for every mound, and nobody knowing who was buried beneath. The final grave stood alone, the sole representative of the fourth generation. "Lao zu," one villager said. "The ancestor." There was no other name for the original clan member, whose details had been lost over the years.”

"By the time they finished, morning light glowed behind eastern peaks. A man named Wei Minghe explained that each mound represented a house for the dead, and local tradition called for them to complete the Qingming ritual before dawn. “If you pour dirt on the grave before the sun comes up, it means that in the afterlife they get a tile roof,” he said. “If you don't make it in time, they get a thatched roof.”"

Three years after my first Qingming, only seven villagers made the journey up the mountain to the cemetery. At the top, a new grave stood in the first row, decorated with a candle that said, "Eternally young." I asked my neighbor who was buried there. "Wei Minghe," he said. "You gave him a ride home a few years ago. He died last year. I don't remember which month." Another man spoke up. "This is the first time we're marking his grave." "Last year he poured dirt on other people's graves," somebody else said. "This year we pour dirt on his." I picked up a shovel and contributed to the mound. Somebody lit a Red Plum Blossom cigarette and stuck it upright in the dirt. Wei Minghe would have liked that touch, and he would have appreciated the timing. We were gone before dawn’the ancestors, at least for another year, could enjoy their roofs of tile.

Qingming and the Afterlife

Dai Wangyun wrote in Sixth Tone:“The first two characters, qingming, refer to the fifth solar term in the traditional calendar. Literally, the characters mean “purity and brightness,” and signify winter’s final demise. Taken together, they represent the idea that although death is the end of an individual life, it gives way to new forms of being. In Chinese art, the time around Tomb-Sweeping Day is usually depicted with verdant hills, clear mountain streams, fluttering warblers, green willows, and red peach blossoms swaying in the rain. [Source: Dai Wangyun, Sixth Tone, April 2, 2018; Dai Wangyun is a Ph.D. student at East China Normal University focusing on folk customs, body culture, and medical culture]

Although the Chinese have tended their ancestors’ tombs since ancient times, the customs of Tomb-Sweeping Day were not formalized until the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Traditionally, people also leave food and liquor nearby for their ancestors to enjoy and burn paper money and effigies of expensive gifts for the dead to use in the afterlife. “But the complex feelings that arise when we contemplate death are quickly offset by the associated tradition of taqing, or spring outings, when I will wander through the town where I grew up and bask in the seasonal sunshine. This is the beauty of Tomb-Sweeping Day: At its heart, it celebrates life in the face of death.

“Traditional Chinese conceptions of the afterlife envisage a society with similar structures to the living world. The dead still eat food, wear clothes, and need money to live comfortably, hence the fruit, liquor, and candies that festoon family graves on Tomb-Sweeping Day. And just as the living world is ever-changing, so too are our ideas of the afterlife constantly in flux: Modern offerings include paper Porsche sports cars, paper Louis Vuitton bags, and paper Apple MacBooks.

Qingming Story

According to the Freer Gallery of Art: “This story begins many years ago in Taiwan, when Kenneth Chiu and his wife, Carol, were dating. Kenneth and his family paid respects to their ancestors each year with ceremonies and offerings. One year, Carol happened to be visiting Kenneth during one of the ceremony days. She was a Christian and didn't understand the significance of the rituals. Kenneth responded to her questions by asking for her ancestors' names and their land of origin. Then he took some paper "spirit" money, sealed it in an envelope, and burned it as an offering to her ancestors. [Source: Interview of Carol and Kenneth Chiu, April 2001 Freer Gallery of Art asia.si.edu ^^]

“The next morning, Carol's mother, who had just arrived from China, began to talk about a strange thing that had just happened to her. She first told Carol something that she had never mentioned before: ever since the death of her own mother (Carol's grandmother), she had been haunted every year by her ghost. This happened on Qingming jie (Grave Sweeping Day). In the recurring dream, her mother stood before her, looking at her, but never saying a word. She was always wearing the clothes she had been buried in, now worn and tattered, and she was always frowning, seeming sad and unhappy. Every Qingming jie for twenty years, Carol's mother had this dream. ^^

“Carol still hadn't spoken a word before her mother continued with her story. The night before, the eve of Qingming jie, the dream had occurred again. The same spirit approached her, but this time her mother was smiling! She had a look of contentment and was richly garbed with glowing, beautiful robes. Carol's mother finished her story with a look of awe on her face. Then Carol fully realized the importance of the paper "spirit" money that Kenneth had burned as an offering to her dead ancestors. Her grandmother, as a spirit, had acquired the money in the offering.” ^^

History of Qingming

The Qingming Festival has been observed by the Chinese for over 2500 years, although observances of it have changed a great deal over the centuries significantly. The festival grew from the Cold Food or Hanshi Festival which honored Jie Zitui, a nobleman of the state of Jin (modern Shanxi) who lived during the Spring and Autumn Period. (771–476 B.C.). he was known for his loyalty to his master, Prince Chong'er, supposedly once even cutting flesh from his own thigh to make soup for his lord. [Source: Wikipedia]

In 636 B.C.,Chong'er became the leader — the duke — of Jin and quickly forot about Jie. Jie retired to the forest around Mount Mian with his elderly mother. Later Duke Chong'er went to the forest but could not find them. He then ordered his men to set fire to the forest in order to force Jie out. When Jie and his mother were killed instead, the duke was overcome with remorse and erected a temple in his honor. The people of Shanxi subsequently revered Jie as an immortal and avoided lighting fires for as long as a month in the depths of winter to honor him. This practice was so harmful to children and the elderly, local rulers tried unsuccessfully for centuries to ban it. A compromise between the rulers and local people was worked out to restricted the observation to three days around the Qingming solar term in mid-spring.

The present holiday is credited to Emperor Xuanzong (A.D. 685–762) of the Tang Dynasty. During his time wealthy citizens in China reportedly held too many extravagant and expensive ceremonies to honor of their ancestors. To curb the practice, Xuanzong declared in 732 that such respects could be formally paid only once a year, on Qingming.

Dai Wangyun wrote in Sixth Tone:“ From the Tang onward, people started commemorating Tomb-Sweeping Day by flying kites and playing cuju — an ancient Chinese sport similar to modern soccer — once they had swept their ancestors’ tombs. Many thought that food offered to the dead would be blessed, and some people later ate it to nourish the living. Today, millions of Chinese people work far from their hometowns, and Tomb-Sweeping Day is one of the rare occasions when they make a trip back. For younger children, the sweeping ceremony might be the first time they learn about their ancestors or talk about death. In recent years, the Chinese government has presided over a revival of traditional culture while large numbers of migrant workers find jobs in cities. So what happens when modern life gets too hectic and you can’t make it home? If only there was a way to commemorate the dead remotely, you might wonder. [Source: Dai Wangyun, Sixth Tone, April 2, 2018]


boat about to crash in "Along the River During the Qingming Festival"


"Along the River During the Qingming Festival"

“Along the River During the Qingming Festival” (also known as “Up the River During Qingming” and and “The Spring Festival Along the River”) is arguably China’s most famous painting. A massive handscroll painting by the Song dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145), it captures the daily life of people and the landscape of the capital, Bianjing, today's Kaifeng, from the Northern Song period. Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “ This painting is considered one of the most valuable in Chinese art history for its high level of technical quality and the liveliness with which it portrays the myriad details of urban life. It is generally interpreted as portraying the city environs of Kaifeng, the Northern Song capital, and some of the surrounding countryside.” The painting is considered to be the most renowned work among all Chinese paintings and it has been called "China's Mona Lisa."

The theme is often said to celebrate the festive spirit and worldly commotion at the Qingming Festival, rather than the holiday's ceremonial aspects, such as tomb sweeping and prayers. Successive scenes reveal the lifestyle of all levels of the society from rich to poor as well as different economic activities in rural areas and the city, and offer glimpses of period clothing and architecture. As an artistic creation, the piece has been revered and court artists of subsequent dynasties made re-interpretive versions, each following the overall composition and the theme of the original but differing in details and technique. Over the centuries, the Qingming scroll was collected and kept among numerous private owners, before it eventually returned to public ownership. The painting was a particular favorite of Puyi, the Last Emperor, who took the Song dynasty original with him when he left Beijing. It was re-purchased in 1945 and kept at the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City. The Song dynasty original and the Qing versions, in the Beijing and Taipei Palace Museums respectively, are regarded as national treasures and are exhibited only for brief periods every few years. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Zhang Zeduan's "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" from the early 12th century in the late Northern Song period is universally recognized as one of the great masterpieces of Song genre painting. It depicts scenes of prosperity along the banks of the Bian River in Kaifeng, the Northern Song capital. With its realistic techniques in painting and legendary history in collecting, the scroll not only captured the attention of connoisseurs and collectors through the ages but also later became the focus of art-historical research in modern times. Often with numerous opinions but little agreement among scholars, "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" has even become a formal subject of study. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Zhang Zeduan (style name Zhengdao), a native of Dongwu, was skilled at painting vehicles and boats, markets and bridges, and buildings of all types...The title of this painting on the subject of "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" derives in part from Commentary on the Book of Changes: "With ease it is easily understood, and with brevity it is free of labor." In other words, something is easy to understand when its content is plain and straightforward. The artist here therefore probably intended for the viewer to grasp the full scope of prosperity in the capital by simplifying elements of the painting. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Digital Qingming

In recent years it has become popular to honor the dead online by clicking into “memorial halls” for the dead and lighting virtual candles and joss-sticks and sending flowers and messages. The government has encouraged the practice to reduce air pollution and waste caused by the burning of hell money and funerary objects . Some Internet companies offer “e-Tomb Sweeping.” Dai Wangyun wrote in Sixth Tone:“ Online tomb sweeping — also called “cloud tomb sweeping” — allows family and friends to upload the deceased’s life stories, photos, audio files, and videos. Platforms like Netor.net, whose website boasts more than 20 million visits, charge you to give virtual “offerings,” burn cyber-incense, or send flower emojis over the web to honor your dead. Some people even attach a scannable QR code to their ancestor’s real-life tombstone so that friends or family who come to pay their respects can take part in the ongoing online memorial. [Source: Dai Wangyun, Sixth Tone, April 2, 2018]

Stephen Chen wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Some canny mainlanders have discovered a way to liven up their trips to the cemetery with a bit of modern technology. Those visiting tombs of relatives during today's Ching Ming grave-sweeping festival may be surprised to see others at nearby graves huddled around a mobile phone, possibly shedding a tear - or having a good laugh. Interactive memorials, featuring a simple QR (quick-response) code that can be scanned to access digital information, photos and even videos about a person, are finding a niche audience among the tech-savvy who may not want trips to the graves of friends and loved ones to be solely about quiet and sombre reflection. [Source: Stephen Chen, South China Morning Post, April 4, 2013 /~/]

“With the space on most headstones limited, QR codes allow access to a vast databank of memories and information about loved ones, or even complete strangers, via a simple scan. Across the nation, more cemeteries are offering the option of placing matrix codes alongside, or in the place of, epitaphs. Understandably, some folks, particularly the older generations, might express disapproval, even outrage, over the incorporation of logistics technology into memorials. But the voices of dissent are being matched, particularly by younger people, with strong interest. /~/


bridge in "Along the River During the Qingming Festival"


“The sales manager of the Jiufeng cemetery in Yinzhou district, Ningbo, told the South China Morning Post yesterday that they launched the service a few weeks ago, but it had already sparked debate among customers seeking a resting place for their loved ones. "We launched the service for the simple reason that we wanted to give customers a new option in the digital age. We didn't expect so much controversy," he said, declining to be named. The matchbox-sized codes direct mobile phones to websites dedicated to the deceased. The sites are usually maintained by the cemetery for about 300 yuan (HK$370) a year. They can contain poetry, music, photos and videos, and may be accessed by the public or with a password. /~/

Proxy Tomb Sweeping

Dai Wangyun wrote in Sixth Tone:“If you can’t bear the idea of your family grave going untended during the festival, an alternative is to hire someone to sweep the tomb on your behalf. Certain private cemeteries, as well as sellers on Chinese e-commerce behemoth Taobao, will visit the grave, take photographs, and even livestream the entire ceremony for a few hundred yuan. Basic services range from incense-burning and laying flowers to reciting eulogies, but some netizens claim that for a higher price, your proxy mourner will kneel, kowtow, or weep at your request. [Source: Dai Wangyun, Sixth Tone, April 2, 2018]

“Online tomb-sweepers have been accused of divesting themselves of the effort required to conduct, or at least attend, a memorial for their dead family members. Opponents of the practice claim that the application of rapid, convenient internet technology to an age-old tradition like tomb sweeping prevents people from putting aside the time to consider life, death, and rebirth. Others criticize the commodification of traditional events, decrying the transformation of Tomb-Sweeping Day into a collection of services to be rendered rather than the solemn communion with our ancestors that it is meant to be.

“But for advocates, sweeping by proxy ensures that somebody — anybody — is there to pay their respects on Tomb-Sweeping Day instead of neglecting the deceased altogether. No matter whether you think online tomb sweeping is a genuine show of filial piety and emotion, the fact remains that an hourslong schlep halfway across the country isn’t a feasible option for many city workers, especially on a holiday that, in recent years, has been celebrated with diminishing intensity.

“So I don’t judge those who commemorate their dead on their smartphones instead of in person. But for me, the significance of the Tomb-Sweeping Festival transcends the customary visit to the family grave. The modern world doesn’t give us many chances to muse on the nature of existence, and that is what makes my energy-sapping journey worthwhile.

Chinese Allowed to Pay Respects at Grave of Jiang Qing But No Zhao Ziyang

During Qingming In 2021, Communist authorities were allowing people to pay their respects at the grave of Jiang Qing — the much reviled wife of Mao Zedong and Gang of Four member — at Beijing Futian Cemetery but did not allow them to do the same at the grave of ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, who fell from power after Tiananmen Square crackdown [Source: Qiao Long, Radio Free Asia, April 7, 2021]

Radio Free Asia reported that “One Beijing resident said a state security police detail guarded the grave of Zhao Ziyang. “People aren’t allowed to pay their respects at Zhao Ziyang’s grave, and yet Jiang Qing’s grave is open to the public,” she wrote. “The CCP is afraid of whom the public might admire most.” Jiangsu-based rights activist Zhang Jianping said most of the visitors to Jiang’s grave were “leftists,” supporters of a command economy, collective ownership and cradle-to-grave state support for individuals. “There were a lot of leftists at the grave of Li Yunhe this Qing Ming,” Zhang said, using the birth name of Jiang Qing. “This is indicative of a divided society, not an open and pluralistic one.”

During Qingming in 2016, Radio Free Asia reported”: Beijing “authorities have detained dozens of people as they headed to a Communist Party cemetery to mark a traditional grave-sweeping festival, as activists elsewhere were warned off visiting the tombs of politically 'sensitive' figures. "There were a lot of us [on Sunday]," participant Wang Shufen told RFA on Monday. "Some of us had already got as far as Babaoshan [cemetery], while others hadn't got there yet and were still at the southern railway station [in Beijing]." [Source: Yang Fan, RFA, April 4, 2016]

“She said those detained were mostly petitioners, ordinary Chinese in Beijing to pursue complaints against their local governments, and that they were taken to the Jiujingshan detention center on the outskirts of the city. "There were people from right across China, and they are still being taken away from Babaoshan today, busload by busload," Wang said, estimating that each bus could carry at least 70 people. "We saw more than a dozen, maybe 20 buses leave there," she said. "They were being taken to Jiujingshan, where they were released." She said the petitioners had intended to walk through the cemetery, laying wreaths on the graves of well-known political figures. "We weren't going to cause trouble," she said.

“The Sichuan-based Tianwang rights website said police are now demanding a grave-sweeping permit from anyone visiting Babaoshan during the Qingming festival, when graves are traditionally visited for cleaning and ancestral offerings. “Fellow petitioner Wang Lijun said security is extremely tight in the capital ahead of the festival, which is often used by activists to honor key figures in the political mythology of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

“Security was also tight around the grave of President Xi Jinping's father, revolutionary elder Xi Zhongxun, where more than 100 people flocked with wreaths and flowers, participants said. “Meanwhile, authorities in the central province of Hunan ordered family members not to visit the grave of democracy activist Li Wangyang, whose death in June 2012 sparked a public outcry. Thousands of people signed an online petition calling for an independent probe into the death of the veteran 1989 pro-democracy activist after official claims that he killed himself while in police custody were disputed by activists and even a Hong Kong official. Li, 62, died at a hospital in Shaoyang city in the custody of local police in June 2012. When relatives arrived at the scene, his body was hanging by the neck from the ceiling near his hospital bed, but many believed his 'hanging' death was staged.

Image Sources: Taiwan Tourism Office, Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021


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