What we translate as Tomb Sweeping Day is in Chinese actually called 清明节 (清明 meaning clear and bright) and originates from 清明节气, one of the 24 solar terms in the Chinese solar calendar. This solar term comes after the Spring Equinox and lasts 15 days, while the weather is getting nice and warm. The festival is one of the most important festivals in the Chinese tradition since it revolves around the family – in this case, the deceased family members.
While the festival is undeniably an important day for families to remember their ancestors, people don’t actually go sweeping tombs as the name suggests. On Tomb Sweeping Day families would gather and go to the graves of their deceased loved-ones to make paper offerings. This wealthy tradition goes back to the Song dynasty when deceased emperors were buried together with all their household, including their wives, horses, servants, foods and luxury goods. Common peasants couldn’t afford that, but still wanted their family to have a good afterlife, so they thought about which objects of everyday life they would like to give their loved ones in the afterlife and made paper replicas.
One of the most popular items to burn nowadays is paper money, the so-called money of the afterlife. The paper version of more practical things gets burned as well, like smartphones, dishwashers, water kettles and even safes, in case the deceased have too much afterlife money to store. The tradition has developed so far that you can not only purchase objects of daily use but also houses, complete with pools, cars, tennis and golf courts, fashionable outfits and even massage chairs – all meticulously made of paper. If you are curious about what else you can find on the market, you can search the term 清明节祭祀用品 on taobao.com or have a look at the webpage of a Taiwanese supplier: www.skea.com.tw/en/.
In the past, this tradition has probably been performed out of a superstition that your ancestors would come back to bother you in this life if you didn’t supply them with satisfactory offerings. Nowadays the tradition of gathering once a year and sharing stories and memories by remembering what the deceased used to enjoy eating or doing or what wishes they had had, is a good way to help the healing process.
But 清明节 is not only a day to commemorate the dead, but also to celebrate life.
Typical things to do during the Tomb Sweeping Festivities include taking a walk on the green grass (踏青), having a picknick, playing games, flying kites, playing on a swing, planting a tree or carrying branches of a willow tree.
Again, superstition lies behind some of these activities: carrying a willow branch derives from the belief that it will exorcise evil spirits. Swinging on a swing as high as you can, will help you dispel diseases and also implies that the higher you swing the better your life will become. When planting a tree, you are hoping that your offsprings will grow fast and healthy.
But in general, on 清明节 people go outside and welcome the spring by enjoying outdoor activities.
The evening before the festival starts, some people in China only serve cold dishes, this custom is known as 寒食.
It is popularly associated with the legend of Jie Zitui, who lived in 600 B.C. and saved a starving prince’s life in a period of famine by serving a piece of his own leg. When the prince succeeded in becoming the king, he wanted to thank Jie Zitui for his sacrifice and invited him to join him in ruling. But Jie Zitui had, together with his mother, already secluded himself to a hut in the mountains and refused to obey. The king thought of a way to force him down and set a fire on the mountain to smoke Jie Zitui out, but he never appeared. After the fire burned out, he found Jie and his mother’s corpses and a letter hidden in a willow tree hole urging the king to become a good ruler. To commemorate Jie Zitui, the king ordered all fires to be put out on the anniversary of his death.
At some places in the North of China, a kind of small steamed breads are eaten in honor of Jie Zitui, the “子推馍” (Zitui buns). In the South “青团” is a popular dish, green glutinous rice balls filled with sweetened bean paste.