The Qingming Festival: China’s "Day of the Dead"

Culture | by Peta Heinrich
Posted: April 3rd, 2013 | Updated: April 7th, 2015 | Comments

The sunshine of the past few days seems to be a sign of the changing of the seasons and brings hope that the cold and miserable days of winter may finally be behind us. It's also a sign that the Qingming Festival (Qīngmíng Jié, 清明节) is fast approaching. While the Western tradition of Easter recently passed with little fanfare here in China, most of the nation's expats simply appreciate the chance for a short holiday. But many of us lǎowài remain blissfully unaware of what this festival is all about.

What is Qingming Festival?

The Qingming Festival, otherwise known as Tomb Sweeping Day, Grave Sweeping Day, All Souls Day and various other monikers, is China's slightly less colorful answer to Mexico's "Day of the Dead." Falling on the 15th day after the spring equinox or the 104th day after the winter solstice, its date varies from year to year according to the Lunar Calendar.

While designated by Tang Emperor Xuanzong as a holiday to honor deceased ancestors in 732 AD, the Chinese government only reinstated Qingming as a one-day nationwide public holiday in 2008. Ever since, a three-day vacation has been arranged each year around the day of celebration, a practice which tends to throw the normal working times out of whack.

As is often the case in China, the logic behind these holiday arrangements may at first seem a little confusing. As an example, this year's festival will fall on 4 April, but in order to create a three-day holiday from 4-6 April, most people will work Sunday 7 April to make up for the extra day off during the week. Unfortunately this also means working six days straight until the following weekend when normality is restored.

What Happens on Qingming?

The Qingming Festival is also an official holiday in Taiwan and Hong Kong and is celebrated by overseas Chinese communities throughout the world. While practices vary among different regions and families, the main idea is to take time out to remember and honor departed ancestors and visit and tend to gravesites. Families pray, sweep tombs, replenish flowers, burn incense and "joss paper" (fake paper money) and make offerings such as food, tea, wine and chopsticks. It's also a chance to spend time with family, fly kites, appreciate the onset of spring or set off firecrackers—a popular past-time on almost any Chinese festival, but intended in this case to ward off restless souls or evil spirits which may happen to be roaming in the vicinity.

Qingming Festival Today

Although the actual Qingming tradition stretches back over 2,500 years, it hasn't managed to escape being influenced by the trappings of modern existence.

Aside from burning paper money, paper effigies of more contemporary essentials such as cars, iPhones, iPads, Blackberries, cigarettes and even villas or homes complete with land deeds are now readily available for ancestors to make use of in the afterlife.

It's now no longer even necessary for some Guangxi families to attend gravesites after four cemeteries in Nanning introduced online ancestor worship in 2012. This idea behind this "eco-friendly plan" was apparently to ease road traffic and reduce cemetery congestion. Relatives are now able to log in and view the graves of relatives on their screens, as well as deliver virtual bowls of rice and other tomb offerings.

As the saying goes, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do," and while I for one will certainly be making full use of the holiday to relax and perhaps escape the big city, it may also be worthwhile taking a leaf out of the Chinese joss paper book and using a few precious moments of holiday time to think of where we came from, how we got here and of those who have come before us.

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