This weekend was 清明节 (qīng míng jié) in China. It literally means “clean and bright festival” and is named for 清明 (qīng míng), one of 24 “solar terms” in the traditional Chinese calendar; it refers to the period of “warming of weather and blooming of plants”. Qing ming happens two weeks before the Spring equinox, and qing ming jie therefore falls on or around April 5th. In English, most foreigners call qing ming jie “Tomb-Sweeping Day” – a more literal description of what happens during the holiday.
The story goes that qing ming jie was instituted in 732 (during the Tang dynasty) by Emperor Xuanzong as a response to over-the-top ceremonies wealthy families were holding in honour of their ancestors. His decree was that henceforth it would be the one and only day on which citizens could pay formal respects to the dead at gravesites. Since then, it has been a day for families to get together and clean/decorate the graves of their ancestors. For a time it was not an official public holiday, but it was reinstated during the great public-holiday reshuffling of 2008 (I explained this craziness previously).
Traditions observed vary by location and family, but include: tidying graves – weeding, sweeping, and making repairs; decorating graves with (usually fake) flowers – especially bright coloured garlands looped over the tombstone; making offerings of tea, wine, food, and chopsticks at ancestors’ graves; setting off fireworks; burning incense; burning paper offerings (spirit money and other spirit possessions); family outings/picnics (sometimes at an ancestral grave); flying kites; time spent in reflection, remembrance, or giving thanks; and planting willow trees, or carrying/wearing/decorating with willow branches. (The willows come from Han Shi festival, a remembrance day based on an old Chinese story which also involves the phrase qing ming; Han Shi fell on the day before modern qing ming jie and eventually stopped being celebrated in its own right).
This year April 5th was a beautifully sunny Saturday; I celebrated Qingming’s “warming of weather and blooming of plants” with a very long walk. I spent over an hour and a half walking around my neighbourhood, soaking in the sun and the colours – the blue of an unpolluted sky, the green of new growth, and all the colours of Spring blossoms – yellow, red, purple, white, and many shades of pink.
My walk took me past two small graveyards, and a few scattered graves. All showed evidence that families in the local area were keeping tradition. Almost all the graves I saw on my walk had new garlands strung over the tombstones, and most looked like they had been recently tidied. At one graveyard I saw two men burning offerings at a grave near one end, and a lone woman burning offerings at a grave near the other end. Judging by bare and ash-covered areas I presume there were a bunch of fireworks set off earlier as well. At the other graveyard, across the canal from where I was walking, several families equipped with spades and other tools cleared the graves they’d come to visit.
The graves I’ve seen in rural northern China usually have a high mound of dirt, sometimes with a flat-ish stone or other item on top. There is almost always a rectangular tombstone with carved inscriptions in front, usually facing due south. In farmland it’s not uncommon to see a modest grave mound at the end of a cultivated field, perhaps in the corner, occasionally in the middle. The first notice I really took of qing ming jie was when I saw farmers burning offerings and laying garlands on these mounds in cultivated land by the side of the highway between Beijing and Langfang. Until then I hadn’t recognised that the mounds I’d seen were in fact graves. In the city itself these are of course quite scarce, but the area I live in now is rural enough that these traditional graves and graveyards are still easily seen.
Now, to finish on a more entertaining note, here is a text message I received on April 5th – it came through my service provider so I assume everyone got the same text. Here’s the original along with my rough translation:
Qingming Festival is here, filling us with endless thoughts, recalling the martyrs of the revolution, not forgetting their heroic feats, promoting national spirit, awaiting the Chinese people’s great reviving, praying for peace and health. This message brought to you by the People’s Republic of China Ministry for Civil Affairs.