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Tomb Sweeping Day Festival

Tomb Sweeping Day Festival

Tomb Sweeping Day Festival is one of the eight most important traditional festivals in China, the others being the Lantern Festival, the Beginning of Summer, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Ghost Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, Winter Solstice and Chinese New Year's Eve. The actual day usually occurs around April 5 of the Gregorian calendar but the Festival lasts longer. Traditionally, 10 days before and 8 (or 10) days after Tomb Sweeping Day can be counted as the Tomb Sweeping Day Festival, i.e. about 20 days altogether. The Festival is said to originate from the funerals of emperors, generals and ministers in ancient times. The rituals performed at these funerals later became popular among ordinary people. Over time the tradition of offering sacrifices to the ancestors and sweeping tombs was passed down from generation to generation and evolved into a custom widely observed by the Chinese nation.

Tomb Sweeping Day Festival has its roots in the Shang Dynasty and is known as one of the traditional festivals observed by the Han Chinese. One of the 24 solar terms, it usually occurs around April 5. It is also known as Qingming Festival, when spring is in the air, the earth looks clearer and brighter with increasing rainfall, and everything in the natural world, whether plant or human, waves goodbye to the bleak memory of winter and embraces the blooming prospect of spring. This is considered as a shift from yin to yang.

In ancient times the day before Tomb Sweeping Day was Hanshi Day (literally, day with cold food only), said to be a memorial day for Jie Zitui, who died in 636 BC (the Spring and Autumn Period). He was one of the followers of Duke Wen of the Jin Kingdom before Wen became Duke. Once, during Wen's 19 years of exile, they had no food; still Jie prepared some meat soup. Wen greatly enjoyed it and asked Jie where it came from. Jie had made the soup with a piece of meat cut from his own thigh. Wen was deeply touched and promised to reward him one day. However, Jie was not personally ambitious, wanting only to see Wen return as a just ruler for the Jin.

When Wen became Duke, Jie resigned and stayed away. Duke Wen rewarded many who had helped him, but forgot to reward Jie, who by then had moved into the forest with his mother. Eventually Duke Wen went to the forest, but could not find Jie. Following his officials' advice, Wen ordered the forest be set on fire, hoping to flush Jie out. Instead Jie died in the fire. Feeling deeply remorseful, Wen ordered three days without fire as a gesture to honor Jie. The city of Jiexiu (literally, place where Jie rests forever) is thus considered to be the birthplace of Hanshi Day (cold food). The forest where Jie died, originally known as Mian Hill, was re-named Jie Hill. Later, Hanshi Day and Tomb Sweeping Day were combined into the one Festival. The custom of sweeping tombs was observed on Hanshi Day during the Tang Dynasty period but following the Song Dynasty the activity was deferred to the following Tomb Sweeping Day.

It is said that the word "Qingming" was used to celebrate the success of flood control and imply the idea of peacefulness after Yu the Great introduced flood control systems. During this beautiful season flowers blossom in the warmth and everything brims with vitality, looking clearer and brighter; definitely a good time for outings. The tradition of spring outings can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty and has passed down through generations. Apart from enjoying glorious natural scenery, outings involve many other activities which serve to bring out the best of the festival.

Tomb sweeping was originally supposed to be undertaken on Hanshi Day, the day before the Festival. The Tang Emperor Xuanzong ordered people to offer sacrifices to their ancestors and sweep tombs on that day. However, Qingming follows Hanshi Day closely, and so tomb sweeping was then combined into the tradition of the Tomb Sweeping Day Festival.

During the Ming and the Qing dynasties the custom of tomb sweeping became increasing popular. In ancient times children would fly kites when they were sweeping tombs. Some of the kites carried flutes that made sounds that bear a resemblance to those of Chinese Zheng. This is said to be the reason why kites were given the Chinese name "feng zheng" (literally means flutes in the wind).

Many customs concerning the Tomb Sweeping Day Festival have lapsed, such as wearing willow garlands, "shooting the willow" and playing on swings. According to historical records Tomb Sweeping Day Festival was the most valued in the Liao Dynasty when everyone from government officials in the royal court to the masses, would play on swings and go on excursions in the spring.

Shanghai

In Shanghai, major activities for celebrating Tomb Sweeping Day Festival include sweeping tombs and going on spring outings. During the Festival each year nearly 10 million people offer sacrifices to their ancestors and sweep their family tombs. Cemeteries are becoming more popular as a result of reform and China's opening to the world. This is particularly so in the areas outside Shanghai, such as Suzhou and Jiaxing. Each year, more than a million people stream to these places, spawning traffic jams.

During the Festival it has become fashionable to blend brome grass juice with the flours of glutinous rice, and then to make them into pastes. The pastes are rolled into pieces of wrappers and stuffed with sweet bean paste and jujube paste. The stuffed pastes are put into a steamer, the bottom of which is covered with reed leaves. The freshly steamed pastes are green, bright and attractive with an appealing aroma. This kind of paste is the most unique local snack of the Festival. The local people also have a penchant for porridge cooked with peach blossom petals. Fish, whether for offering sacrifices or for a family banquets is usually saury. Local people consider the green pastes to be an indispensable sacrifice to their ancestors.

Fujian

In southern Fujian, the time for tomb sweeping is flexible, not necessarily during the Tomb Sweeping Day Festival. Traditionally, there are three periods for sweeping tombs. In Quanzhou it is customary to sweep tombs around the Tomb Sweeping Day Festival, whilst in Zhangzhou this happens on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month and for the Hakka people around the Spring Festival is traditional. They go about it in the following way:

  • clean the tombs (such as weeds and tree branches)
  • worship the god of earth
  • offer sacrifices to the ancestors
  • put pieces of paper on the top of the tomb
  • place a stone on the paper.

On the actual Tomb Sweeping Day people usually do not cook but eat cold stuffed cakes. This custom indeed originates from Hanshi Day.

Sichuan

In Dujiangyan, Sichuan Province, a ritual ceremony is held in honor of Li Bing and his son (who made substantial contributions to flood control in Chinese history). There are also temple fairs during the Festival.

Guangxi

In Hengzhou County, Guangxi, local people would soak willow leaves and escargots in the water and then wash their eyes with this water, which is said to help to brighten their eyes. In Xingren County, local people hang banners made of white paper over the tombs after sweeping the tombs. In Kaiyang County, the current officiant should prepare the wine and food for offering sacrifices. When the ritual is finished, families and friends who are gathered together have dinner, which is also referred to as a picnic.

Hong Kong

Tomb Sweeping Day Festival means a lot to the people of Hong Kong. During the festival local people gather in front of the tombs, burn scented candles and paper money and offer sacrifices to their ancestors. In most cases sacrificial offerings include fruit, flowers, roast suckling pig and sliced boiled chicken. Local people usually sweep tombs a couple of weeks in advance so as to avoid the crowds. This means that they do not strictly observe the tradition of sweeping tombs on the actual Tomb Sweeping Day.

Shaanxi

In Xingping County, relatives would give each other paper money as gifts and offer sacrifices to each other's ancestors during the Festival. In Fuping County, each household would collect and offer the spring water of famous mountains to their ancestors in the hope of receiving a rich harvest. The local sacrificial offerings also include livestock. In Tongzhou County, local people would hang willow branches from their doors. Meanwhile, they would also stick paper money to tree trunks. This practice is said to be effective in preventing worms and ants. In Luochuan County, local people enjoy steamed buns that are decorated with patterns of birds and snakes. It is said that Jie Zitui was protected by birds and snakes when he went to the Mian Hill. These buns are indeed made to honor him.

Jiangsu

In Taizhou, local farmers would have boat races during the festival, while in Zhenjiang people would make tea with seven willow leaves, which is said to help brighten eyes. In Dantu County, local villagers living around Mt. Chuanshan still observe the tradition of looking far into the mountains (representing the Mian Hill) on Hanshi Day.

Anhui

In Huizhou, it is traditional to collect spring water to serve the purpose of brewing liquor during the Tomb Sweeping Day Festival. In Guichi County local women would make rice cakes in the shape of cocoons and offer them as sacrifices to the goddess in charge of silk, hoping for a rich harvest. In Jingxian County Tomb Sweeping Day Festival is also known as "willow planting day". Local people would plant willow branches and hang money paper on the trees near the tombs as a gesture of farewell to the departed souls.

Shanxi

In southern Shanxi it is not generally a tradition to burn scents and paper money during Tomb Sweeping Day Festival. The local custom is that white paper should be hung over the tombs. There is a local saying, "the tombs are all covered with white paper during Tomb Sweeping Day Festival." This tradition goes back to Hanshi Day when fire was banned. As the Tomb Sweeping Day Festival is right after the Hanshi Day, so the local people burn no scents or paper during the festival. In north-western Shanxi, however, it is traditional to burn money paper because the ancestors would not receive it otherwise. In Datong, it is traditional to sweep tombs in the daytime and burn paper money at home at night.

Beijing

In Beijing, activities during Tomb Sweeping Day Festival are not limited to tomb sweeping, but include outings, planting willows, gathering young shooting willow branches, appreciating magnolias, flying kites, playing on swings and making a wish in the town god's temple. Spring is the time when everything flourishes. At this time of year local people love to go on outings and get close to nature after a long, cold, dry winter. They enjoy the sunshine, visit parks covered in new green grass, go hiking, climb mountains, stroll by the river, or appreciate the flowers during the festival. For them, outings are not only a ritual, but also a bodybuilding activity.

Tomb Sweeping Day Festival usually occurs around April 4. If you wish you can experience this special festival in the company of your tour guide. FYI: You should be patient and mentally prepared for the crowds on the streets.