April 10, 2012

Qingming Rituals

Qingming Festival (aka Ching Ming or Tomb Sweeping Day), like many traditional Chinese festivals, involves family, food and firecrackers.

Much like a western memorial day, this is a time for the living to remember those who have passed on. For the Chinese people, it is significant to celebrate their enduring lineage. Families take this day to clean and restore their ancestors' resting places.

Qingming in Chinese means "clear and bright," a solar term indicating when the sun is exactly at the celestial longitude of 15°. On our calendar, it begins around 4th of April. Thus last week Wednesday was official Qingming day.

Yet it was early morning the day before when my honey and I boarded a bus in Wuchuan with the extended family of our friend and spent until late afternoon visiting nine separate graves to pay tribute to their forebears.

On this first hot spring day after a wet chilly winter, we had a first-hand look at the rituals of the day. While specific details of traditional customs may vary from place to place in China, and even overseas in Chinese communities, here is a much abbreviated account of what people generally do at gravesites on Qingming:

1. Sweep the grave or clear it of all debris and plant overgrowth.

clearing the gravesite or sweeping a grave

2. Strategically place amulets around the grave to protect against evil unearthly influences. (This practice may be distinctive to certain regions.) Here it was in the simple form of small mounds of dirt with pieces of paper and rocks.

cleared grave with amulets

3. Burn candles and joss sticks (incense) to call the ancestors, imaginably like ringing the doorbell to announce one’s arrival.

4. Offer foods – such as a full roasted suckling pig, boiled chicken, barbecued pork, rice, fruits – and drink and place them in front of the tomb. Typically white rice wine is first poured into small glasses then spilt onto the grave.

5. Burn joss paper – fake money and other symbols of wealth like gold, silver, clothes, jewelry, gadgets (cell phones are popular these days!) – anything that gives us comfort as humans. (I’ve even seen miniature mansions and cars before.) Traditional belief holds that when burned, these symbols will transform into real wealth for their ancestors to enjoy in their place beyond.

"hell" money and other goodies burned for the spirit world

6. Pay respect and show devotion to the ancestor with kowtows; the number varies by region.

7. Surround the grave with firecrackers (this too may be unique to here) and light them to scare away gremlins or other nasty spirits hovering around the grave.

I'll not be surprised if you have some questions. There is still so much I could say about our fascinating experience, as well as about Chinese gravesites and this ancient traditional day of devoted offspring demonstrating they have not forgotten their predecessors.  But that would make this post unbearably long, so I may have to return to this story in future.

For links to posts by others with an interest in graveyards and cemeteries, visit Taphophile Tragics.


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Herding Cats said...

Such an interesting post. It's fascinating to see how different cultures deal with death and loss. Thanks for sharing.

Julie said...

It literally is 'tomb sweeping day'. I wonder how often this occurs - more than annually? What fascinates me is that there is no worry about your taking photographs of the rituals as they progress.

I loved knowing the derivation of our term to 'kowtow'. And there is an actual sucking pig - a full one - in one of those cardboard boxes.

I like this concept of immediate contact with one's ancestors. Not forgetting one's predecessors resonates more as one ages.

I had to smile at the tossing of mobile phones onto the fire as well. I dont suppose they transfer into much wealth for the deceased.

Love learning about the inner workings of a society in this way, Francisca. Thank you.

Kaori said...

I love learning about tradition. It looks like all of the rituals would take up the whole day. Do relatives from far away also come home on this day? We make similar grave visits here in Japan during "Obon" season, which is in August.

La Principessa Errante said...

Francisca, these photos are absolutely fascinating. While I intellectually know all the steps to these types of burial services, I have never seen them in reality. These photos fill in so very many gaps. Your photos are stunning, thank you so much for furthering my education.

Traveling Hawk said...

A very interesting tradition, Francisca! Thanks for telling us about it.

EG CameraGirl said...

I'm assuming you had to get special permission to take these photos. How lucky we are that you could attend and take photos.

JM said...

This is so interesting! I really enjoyed this post, Francisca.

H said...

Is there an equivalent ritual for those who have moved far away from their ancestral home; a means of paying long-distance respect?

Isn't it funny the different methods cultures use to scare away bad spirits. Gargoyles were added to churches to serve the same purpose. People must think that bad spirits are easily spooked!

VioletSky said...

I really like this idea of 'tomb sweeping' (though a part of me says that full suckling pig and burning of cell phones and such is a bit much!)

Gemma Wiseman said...

I think you have just explained why the Chinese community of graves at Sorrento on my Mornington Peninsula are in such pristine condition. I found not one untidy grave and there were many examples of polished surfaces and clean, fresh offerings. A fascinating post!

Anonymous said...

Clear & bright. I could go with some shocking clarity right about now. That last picture is heartrending. ~Mary

Ann said...

Sounds a little like the Mexican (or is it South/Central American) Day of the Dead. I like these celebratory remembrance days.

Sondra said...

WOW...thats amazing! The firecrackers would have made me smile!!

hamilton said...

This seems to be a ritual for the whole family, and a day long one at that. Much more is invested in remembering their ancestors than our twice a year (or so) visits.( I say this because some of the Christmas decorations on some graves are only now starting to be removed)

Oakland Daily Photo said...

My first reaction is, "Yikes, this is hard work." Then the questions around start. Are the graves the dirt mounds? Or the stone mounds seen in photo #2? Does each grave have a stone marker? Is the food left at the graves? So, a suckling pig for each of the 9 grave sites? I could go on and on. Maybe it's silly, but I am curious about these kinds of details. This post is a wonderful anthropological documentary. How fortunate for you to be in China during Quingming and have access to a family's observance of it. Hopefully this trip will provide you more such opportunities that you'll also be able to share with us.

Halcyon said...

What an interesting tradition. Thanks for sharing as this is something I typically would never have learned about. :)

NixBlog said...

Very interesting post, Francisca. Honouring the ancestors is very deeply ingrained into Chinese culture and is part of the strong family values that Chinese people enjoy.

CaT said...

wow, thats quite a lot of "work".
and all that food! amazing!
what about the firecrackers? do they clean that up afterwards?
i didnt know any of this (except maybe the fake money), very interestinf!

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating tradition! I never got to do any of this in my three years of living in China!

Lowell said...


Thanks for stopping by Ocala DP. Simon is the name of the corporation that owns/operates various malls around the country. It's now "Guest Services" because not only do they give out information but they also provide wheelchairs. :-)

This is a fascinating post. I'm always interested in how various cultures celebrate human events. I've not heard of this "cleaning" though. Seems like a waste to burn valuable items but I guess the gods must be appeased!

Evelyn said...

Fascinating to me. We do this in Malaysia, but not to such extent.