By Lebene Selorm
A Newcastle University Chinese and Cultural Studies graduate
Currently helping to spread the joy of language learning with her Memrise team in Bethnal Green
Loves Sichuan cuisine and has a 9 hour KTV record
The Tomb Sweeping Festival (清明節, Qingming Jie, lit: Pure Brightness Festival), has been a traditional Chinese practice for over 2500 years and falls on the 15th day of the Spring Equinox (usually 4th or 5th of April) over three days. In the most traditional sense, families gather together to worship their ancestors and provide maintenance such as cleaning, sweeping (掃墓, sǎo mù), repairing tombstones and placing flowers, such as you might find in the UK.
Image source: BastillePost
During the festival, there are differing practices that people follow. To ward off evil spirits, some families plant willow trees or wear a willow tree branch as the line between the afterlife and the living world is thin. As a further offering, relatives burn paper money and material items for ancestors to use in the afterlife and also provide rice wine and food. Aside from offering food (which is usually eaten to avoid waste), some cities in South Eastern China enjoy special Qingming foods. The most iconic are sweet green rice balls (青團Qīngtuán) filled with sweet bean paste.
Image source: Wikipedia
The great benefit of celebrating Qingming is the chance to reflect on ancestors’ lives. Young children can rely on intricate stories told by their elders who offer a personal connection to relatives they never had the chance to meet. Among young Chinese 20-somethings, you may generally hear, “I feel as if they’re watching over and protecting us when we go to sweep their graves and share stories”. A contemporary and familiar image would be Disney’s Mulan literally speaking to her ancestors’ spirits as they give her advice and encouragement.
Image source: Epoch times
As China continues to grow rapidly, from new family structures and experience higher rates of relocation, the tradition of Qingming is transforming. Some find themselves simply detached from their extended family, as the concept of a big family gradually becomes more insular for big city-dwellers, whilst others are living or growing up outside of China, unable to personally pay their respects. Whether through emotional or physical disconnect, some families do not go out as one, whilst other may delegate one member of the family to fulfil the duties. Even still, with the popularity of cremation, some simply need to go to a local Buddhist temple to leave offerings and pray for their relatives at their urn.
Although Qingming may be a solemn time for some, this period is also called the ‘Taqing Festival’ (踏青, Tread Green) where families go to pay respects but also have picnics by the graves or in nearby greenery, fly-kites and look at the spring blossoms. The reverence of life and death neatly spread across a three-day period of rest, reflection, and respect for family and nature truly encapsulates the Chinese philosophy of ‘yin and yang’ where opposites are complementary and create true balance in life.