Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, is a special holiday in China.
I’ve written before about China’s wide variety of holidays and celebrations. It’s one of many aspects of Chinese culture that I find to be incredibly interesting.
Today we’ll delve into a celebration that sounds somewhat morbid, but is actually anything but.
So, let’s get into Qingming Festival!
What is Qingming Festival in China?
It’s a one-day holiday to celebrate, commemorate, and pay respect to your deceased family members and ancestors.
It’s also known as Tomb Sweeping Day or Ching Ming and is a Chinese folk tradition which dates back centuries.
Tomb Sweeping Day, or a variation of it, is also celebrated in quite a few southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Territories with strong ties to the Chinese mainland, like Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, recognize Qingming Festival too.
Some scholars speculate that the celebration originated in the 7th century BC and is a more modern evolution of the Cold Food Festival, or Hanshi Festival as it was known in China.
This festival commemorated the death of a man named Jie Zitui.
And let me tell you, Tomb Sweeping Festival’s origin story is fascinating! We’ll delve into that a bit later.
For now, I’ll reveal that it includes assassinations, power struggles and sacrifice. And that’s all I’m saying!
When is Qingming Festival celebrated?
Qingming takes place in early April, 16 days after the Spring Equinox. The date changes each year depending on the equinox.
In 2023, it’s on the 5th of April but next year, 2024, it will be on the 4th of April.
It’s a celebration which doesn’t follow the lunar calendar, although some Chinese traditions do.
In mainland China, Tomb Sweeping Day is a public holiday so most businesses will close along with schools.
If the holiday falls mid-week, your work schedule could be adjusted to allow you several days off in a row. But you may have to work on the previous or following weekend in order to compensate this extended weekend.
Hey, life is all about balance, right?
However, for locals this day is about family past and present.
With this in mind, try not to be too jovial around the locals when making plans for the holiday.
How is Qingming Festival celebrated?
As the name alludes to, tombs and sweeping (well, cleaning) are involved.
If they can, families will pay a visit to their ancestral tombs and tend to them by cleaning and removing weeds from the surrounding area.
It’s quite common to also light special incense and say some prayers while visiting the tomb.
Traditionally, whole animals were presented as offerings alongside regional dishes special to the holiday, but this has changed in recent years, according to The New York Times.
Nowadays, people bring simpler gifts and food for their deceased relatives. This might be their go-to snack or drink, or even their favorite type of cigarette.
You may have also heard about people burning money to celebrate and honor the dead, and I’ll get to that in just a little while.
What are Chinese tombs like?
The word ‘tomb’ might invoke images of large, grand structures.
While I’m sure that some of them are just like that, for the most part, they’re more like tombstones or plaques over large mounds in which remains can be interred.
With China’s huge population, space for the deceased is a problem. While burial is the preferred method of laying loved ones to rest, cremation is more common these days.
Ashes can also be interred in the family tomb.
Generally, the laws of feng shui will be followed when selecting the location of your family’s tomb. This is to ensure that good energy, or chi, will then surround the family of the deceased.
I’ve mainly seen these grave-like tombs on hills or mountains surrounding cities, or way out in the countryside.
Sometimes, family tombs can be quite close to major roads connecting smaller towns or cities. I suspect the locations were selected in a time before these highways were constructed.
Nevertheless, around Qingming Festival, there’s something quite special about passing by families who have gathered together to honor and respect those who came before.
Where does burning money come in?
Among foreigners, this celebration is perhaps synonymous with the burning of paper money.
Spoiler alert: most of the time it’s not real money.
Stores will sell special paper money designed specifically for this purpose. You may even be able to buy other paper items such as boats, clothes and even cell phones.
These are also intended as gifts for those in the afterlife, just like the snacks I mentioned earlier.
There are different types and colors of paper money for different types of spirits, such as the newly deceased, royalty, and ancient ancestors.
The material used to craft these items is often known as joss paper. It’s typically made from bamboo paper or rice paper.
Often, right before Tomb Sweeping Day, the government will send out a mass text message discouraging people from partaking in the burning of joss paper. In warm and dry areas, they have massive potential to start forest fires.
Most of the time, locals turn a blind eye to the notice, while authorities turn a blind eye to these small fires fueled by centuries of tradition.
Elements of burning money can sometimes be included in the funeral ritual itself.
A friend of mine recalls visiting her grandfather’s grave for the first time and her mother making them buy paper items for him, even though it wasn’t around the time of Qingming Festival.
It’s no secret that the Chinese love their tea. I’m British, so I do kind of get it. To an extent.
Qingming Festival is quite a special day for tea in China as it helps classify the tea, in particular green tea.
Tea picked prior to the festival, known as Mingqian tea, is said to have a better taste and aroma than tea picked after this date. Therefore, it’s sold for a hefty price.
The window of tea-harvesting opportunity before Qingming takes place is relatively short. This makes the tea rare and prized.
There’s even a saying that goes: “Mingqian tea is as expensive as gold.”
To be honest, I’m not sure if there truly is that much difference in the taste of this tea, but if a local offers you some pre-Qingming tea remember to graciously accept it.
You must be quite special in their eyes to warrant the good tea!
Qingming Festival origin: the story of Jie Zitui
The Chinese culture is full of rich and interesting stories, and Qingming Festival has its own tale.
Take a read of the story below or watch the video where the mortician – yes, mortician – starts talking about the story from the 2-minute mark (but the whole video is quite fun).
During the spring and autumn period of the Zhou Dynasty, an aristocrat and poet named Jie Zitui served at the court of Chong’er, Prince of Jin.
When Chong’er was exiled, Jie Zitui remained loyal and followed him.
A civil war ensued and Chong’er was eventually offered the throne, which he declined. Instead, his younger brother took his spot and sent assassins after him.
After regrouping, Chong’er eventually gathered an army to defeat his younger brother’s son, who was now in power. Afterwards, Chong’er failed to acknowledge Jie Zitui’s loyalty, rewarding others instead as he went on to become the Duke of Jin.
Jie Zitui harshly criticizes Chong’er for failing to recognize his dedication, and speaks so poorly of those who did take credit that he now sees no other option than to exile himself.
He fears that his harsh words have ultimately put his own safety at risk.
Along with his mother, Jie Zitui disappears into the mountains and Chong’er eventually realizes his oversight.
This is where the story becomes murky, but the consensus is that Jie Zitui and his mother are never seen alive again.
The legend goes that, unable to find his loyal serviceman, Chong’er set fire to the mountainside to smoke him out. This had less than the desired effect as, after three days and nights, the raging fire subsided and Jie Zitui was found dead with his mother.
Chong’er then built a temple to honor Jie Zitui and instated the Cold Food Festival.
The festival has evolved over the dynasties. The observances and traditions have changed a lot, as has the length.
At one point in time, it lasted for a month, then only three days, and in the most modern incarnation – Tomb Sweeping Festival – it lasts only for a day.
Qingming Festival in Chinese characters
And finally, if you’re learning Mandarin, you’ll want to know how to write Qingming Festival in Chinese characters.
It’s 清明节 or Qīngmíng Jié in pinyin (the romanization of Chinese characters).
Just note that people don’t say “Happy Qingming Festival!” due to the nature of the day.
If you’re looking for an appropriate festival greeting, you could say something like “Qīngmíng píng ān” (清明平安). This means “Wishing you peace at Qingming Festival”.
Psst! A quick travel tip
If you’re headed for China soon, it’s worth knowing what you should and shouldn’t pack in your suitcase.
Here’s a free packing list for China which will help put your mind at ease.
Qingming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Day) in summary
During this holiday, Chinese people who live near their ancestors’ graves will spend time cleaning around the gravesite, just as the name ‘Tomb Sweeping Day’ suggests.
They’ll also burn incense and paper, and bring along some favorite food.
And with special tea, time with loved ones, and a day off from work, Qingming Festival is definitely viewed as a celebration by many.
It’s not the somber affair you might have imagined, even though the subject of death isn’t often a cheerful one.
I hope this insight into China’s Qingming Festival helps you see some light in the afterlife.
Main image credit: GuoZhongHua on Shutterstock.
FAQ about Qingming Festival in China
When is Qingming Festival celebrated?
It’s celebrated around the start of April, depending on the Spring Equinox. This means the date of the holiday changes each year. Qingming Festival in China is also referred to as Tomb Sweeping Day.
How is Qingming Festival celebrated?
People visit their ancestors’ graves to pay respect to the deceased. They clean up the area and remove weeds. They also bring along food and burn incense. Those who are unable to visit their ancestors’ graves may honor the deceased at home. Qingming is a public holiday in China and most people have the day off work.
Who celebrates Qingming Festival?
Chinese people celebrate Qingming Festival, as well as people in southeast Asian countries including Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.