Better Know A Holiday: Tomb-Sweeping Day

AKA: Qingming Festival, Pure Brightness Festival, Ancestors Day

When? 15th day after the vernal equinox (in 2013: April 4)

Public holiday in: China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan

Who died? Generations of ancestors.

Origin story: Unclear. However, Tomb-Sweeping Day did originate as the Cold Food Festival. In the seventh century B.C., a former prince named Chong’er and his followers were in exile. Food was scarce. One extremely loyal follower, named Jie, cut a chunk of flesh from his leg to make broth, which was used to feed Chong’er. Moved by this show of loyalty and sacrifice, Chong’er vowed to repay Jie. However, when Chong’er finally became king and rewards were being dished out, he somehow overlooked the guy with half a leg. Jie, understandably disappointed, moved into the forest.

Once he realized his mistake, Chong’er sought out Jie, and when he couldn’t find him in the dense forest, he burned it to the ground to flush him out. No good deed goes unpunished. Poor Jie didn’t have a leg to stand on and was found dead under a willow tree, burned to death. The king was filled with remorse. He declared three days of remembrance for his acolyte and forbade fires for those three days. The name Qingming (“pure bright”) stems from a note that was found declaring that Jie had a clear conscience in the after life.

The Cold Food Festival gradually merged with other traditions to the point where it became the annual time to pay tribute to one’s departed relatives.How is it celebrated? Tomb-Sweeping Day is less of a festival and more of a sincere celebration of family. Chinese travel to their hometowns for large family reunions. On the day proper, the family heads to the cemetery to pay respects to their deceased loved ones. This involves kowtowing to the graves of their ancestors, presenting food offerings, burning joss paper and generally tidying up the surroundings. Then, families will sit around, maybe have a picnic at the gravesite, and talk about – what else – family.

Associated food: Spring rolls are popular, but anything cold to recall the origins of the festival.

Associated commercialism: Even the dead can be commercialized. Part of the Qingming celebration involves burning fake money and paper replicas of consumer goods, and the memorial merchandise business is booming. Chinese spent over $1.5 billion – that’s with a “B” – on fake money, fake property deeds and papier mâché iPhones, sports cars and castles in 2012. These items are sacrificially burned to venerate the dead and contribute to their welfare in the afterlife. That’s a lot of money and paper that is literally going up in smoke, which given China’s current pollution woes, is not good news for the still breathing.

Other ways to celebrate: Planting willows, flying kites, tug-of-wars, paying homage to revolutionary martyrs.

[Photo Credit: istolethetv, bfishadow]