News & Events

Chinese Customs & Festivals - Tomb Sweeping


Tomb Sweeping Day

The Qinqming Festival originated from the Hanshi Day (literally day with cold food only), a memorial day for Jie Zitui (or Jie Zhitui), one of many followers of Duke Wen of Jin. Jie Zitui died in 762 AD in the Spring and Autumn Period.

According to legend, during a foodless day during Wen's nineteen years of exile, Jie prepared a meat soup for Wen. Wen wondered where Jie had obtained the soup. It turned out Jie had cut a piece of meat from his own thigh to make the soup. Wen was so moved he promised to reward him one day. However, Jie did not seek rewards – he just wanted to help Wen return home to Jin. Once Wen became duke, Jie resigned and lived his life away from the duke. Duke Wen had rewarded people who helped him during his years of exile, but he forgot to reward Jie, who by then had moved into the forest with his mother. Duke Wen went to the forest, but could not find Jie. Heeding suggestions from his officials, Duke Wen ordered men to set the forest on fire to force out Jie. However, Jie died in the fire. Feeling remorseful, Duke Wen ordered three days without fire to honor Jie's memory. The county where Jie died is still called Jiexiu ("the place Jie rests forever").

Qingming has a tradition stretching back to the Tang Emperor Xuanzong in 732. Wealthy citizens in China were reportedly holding too many extravagant and ostentatious ceremonies in honor of their ancestors. Emperor Xuanzong, seeking to curb this practice, declared that respects could be formally paid at ancestors' graves only on Qingming. The observance of Qingming found a firm place in Chinese culture and continued uninterrupted for over two millennia. In 1949 the Communist Party of China repealed the holiday. Observance of Qingming remained suppressed until 2008, when the Party reinstated the holiday.

The Qingming Festival is an opportunity for celebrants to remember and honor their ancestors at grave sites. Young and old pray before the ancestors, sweep the tombs and offer food, tea, wine, chopsticks, joss paper accessories and libations to their ancestors. The rites have a long tradition in Asia, especially among farmers. Some people carry willow branches with them on Qingming, or put willow branches on their gates or front doors. They believe that willow branches help ward off the evil spirit that wanders on Qingming. Also on Qingming people go on family outings, start the spring plowing, sing, and dance. Qingming is a time when young couples begin to court one another. Another popular thing to do is to fly kites in the shapes of animals or characters from the Chinese opera. Another common practice is to carry flowers instead of burning paper, incense or firecrackers.

Revised June 13, 2011