What is the Qingming (a.k.a. Tomb Sweeping) Festival?

Along the River During Qingming Festival - onaroadtonowhere.com

The Qingming festival is also known in English as Tomb Sweeping Day. It happens every year on the 15th day after the spring equinox, usually on the 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th of April. It’s dedicated to honoring the dead and is one of the least commercialized festivals in modern China. While it may not be as massive as Chinese New Year, it’s still a big deal. Do people actually go out with brooms and sweep tombs? Sort of.

A Very Short Explanation and History of the Qingming Festival

The Qingming festival is over 2,500 years old. It’s a holiday dedicated to celebrating the memory of deceased family members. The name “qing ming” (清明) actually means something closer to “clearness” or “brightness.” So, even though the day revolves around death, there’s also a sense of rebirth and renewal. It’s also a festival for welcoming spring.

Way back in the day there was also a “cold food festival” where people… guess what? Ate cold food. They also didn’t use fire. The cold food festival and Qingming eventually merged together.

You can read more about the history of the Qingming Festival here.

How do People Celebrate the Qingming Festival?

White Chrysanthemum - Qingming festival - onaroadtonowhere.com

As I said before, Qingming is also known as “Tomb Sweeping Day”. Do people actually go out with brooms to sweep the final resting places of their loved ones?

Actually, yes. Well, depending on the person. They may not use a broom exactly, but people do clean and maintain tombs or gravestones during the Qingming festival. There’s often a lot of traffic around Shanghai as people drive or take the train back to their home towns or suburban cemeteries to maintain the grave sites of their family members.

Qingming is also time to make offerings to the dead. People put yellow or white chrysanthemums around the tomb, as well as burning incense and maybe leaving a little food or alcohol. It’s also common for people to make offerings by burning things their loved ones might need in the afterlife. Money is most common, but you can also buy fake iPhones to burn so your deceased loved ones can watch TikTok in the afterlife.

When the pandemic hit last year, many people couldn’t make it to cemeteries for the Qingming festival. Thus began the new ritual of “virtual tomb sweeping.” People would pay someone to go and clean their loved one’s grave and make an offering for them. The whole thing would be live streamed so the family could watch from quarantined safety.

Aside from paying respect to deceased family members, Qingming is also a festival to get out and enjoy spring. After sweeping up the tombs, people will go out to parks, or even travel out of town somewhere for sightseeing or whatever. It’s also a busy time for kite flying. And of course, there’s the obligatory big family that comes with every major holiday.

Don’t Say “Happy Tomb Sweeping Day”

As you could maybe guess, so far, Qingming isn’t a super festive or happy holiday. It’s not the sort of day for big parties or large public events. It’s a festival for Chinese people to spend time with their families and pay respect to those that have passed away.

Burning an offering to the dead - Qingming Festival - onaroadtonowhere.com

As such, it’s considered bad taste to wish people a “Happy Qingming festival”, or even worse “Happy Tomb Sweeping Day.” It’s almost like saying to someone “have a nice funeral!” Even though part of the holiday is about welcoming the oncoming spring, it’s still a very solemn and respectful sort of day. You don’t have to wish anyone anything. I just said “goodbye” to my Chinese coworkers like I would any other day, and that seemed to go over well.

Also, as a side note, it’s considered offensive in Chinese culture to take pictures of grave stones or tombs. That’s why all the pictures on this blog post are stock photos.

Maybe it’s just because they fall on the same day this year, but I think there are some interesting parallels between Qingming and Easter. Both are springtime celebrations, that also deal with themes of death. Actually, forget that, because easter has giant egg-laying rabbits. Qingming is actually probably much more similar to Mexico’s Day of the Dead than the United States’ Easter.

We really don’t have a good holiday for remembering our dead loved ones in America. Which is kind of a shame, I think. We sort of just have the funeral and move on. There really isn’t any large cultural ritual recognizing that death is an important part of life.

So even though Qingming isn’t necessarily sad, it also isn’t the happiest of celebrations. However, it’s still an interesting and uniquely Chinese holiday. And even for those of us who don’t have tombs to sweep, it’s nice to have a day off work.  

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