Saturday, April 4, 2009

Life and death in China Part Two: Qingming - Grave sweeping festival

Funeral wreath 

Qingming picnic in Yunnan ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Death is as significant as life and today is a very important day in China, it is Qingmingjie 清明节 - the Clear Brightness Festival or as it is more widely known in English the Grave Sweeping Festival. Qingming falls 104 days after the Winter solstice (usually April 4th-5th) and is the time to honor the dead and reestablish contact with families members who have passed away. It is deeply rooted in the strong family ties and family values that exist in Chinese culture. Where ever there is a grave or gravesite, today is the day to visit, clean away old flowers, weeds and rubbish, light incense and candles, commune with the dead - even eat a meal beside the grave, letting the dead eat a favourite dish too or maybe even drink a symbolic glass of baijiu or smoke a cigarette, whatever they might have preferred in the past. Paper money (joss) is burnt and firecrackers are set off - not only to scare away unwanted spirits that might be lurking around the grave but also to announce that you have arrived and want to show your respect. Triple kowtows are made on the ground and time is spent speaking with the family members and ancestors that no longer share this existence: you should inform them of what has happened in the family during the past twelve months, how everyone is doing but also telling them not to worry too much about those still alive, you might even like to ask a piece of advice or two. The traditional and superstitious  feel that if this ritual is not performed then the spirits have the  power to wreak havoc in your life. It is maybe no coincidence that Qingming, the day to honor the dead, is also a day when spring, rejuvenation (time to start planting crops) and young love is also honoured. 

I'm sure for many in Sichuan today their thoughts will be turned toward the dead who all share the same day of death: May 12th, 2008.

Qingming has existed since the Tang Dynasty but it was only in 2008 that it yet again became an official public holiday in China, the first time since 1949. Do not confuse Qingming with the Ghost Festival (Guijie) which comes later in the year or the Double Ninth Festival (Chongyangjie) which is another day where the dead are honoured and graves are cleaned up. In Vietnam Qingming is called Tet. For more about Chinese festivals and traditions read: Kinesiska symboler och På kinesiskt vis.


  1. Thank you for this explanation because most of my neighbours set money or joss as you wrote on fire on my soi the other day....
    As you know already we have a lot of Chinesepeople here and they all went out looking for their ancestors - Thank You!

  2. "Things Chinese" can be found all over the world, because the Chinese have spread to every country in the world, it's really interesting I think to try and figure out which part of China they originally came from, from their dialect, which traditions they follow etc. If you scrape the surface of Bangkok you'll find a Chinese around every corner I think! Ancestor worship and death are particularly interesting, in Chinese class the other day I learnt the names for "vampire", "zombie", "corpse" and "ghost"!