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April 3-5: Tomb Sweeping Festival (清明节)

  • Written by Bjoern

altRight after Easter, another event to look forward to is the "Tomb Sweeping Festival". Suppressed by the Communist party since 1949, the festival (also known as Qingming) was reinstated on the mainland in 2008 as an official holiday. This year, the holiday is from Sun. April 3rd until Tues. April 5th, with an extra day of work on Sat. April 2nd (this article was originally published in March 2010 and updated for 2011).

altThe tomb-sweeping festival is one of the few traditional festivals that follow the lunar and not the moon calendar. It always takes place on the 15th day after spring equinox, between the 4th and the 6th of April.   This year, the official holiday is from April 3-5, so most people will enjoy a day off on Monday April 4th and Tues. April 5th, although many will be expected to work the previous Saturday April 2nd.    The history of the holiday dates back to the Tang Dynasty, when Emperor Xuanzong decided that some of the rich families held too many extravagant and expensive ceremonies to honour their ancestors.   More or less he stated this was not only a waste of money but also social excess. Therefore, he limited it to one day of the year.

The legend behind the festival

As for most every Chinese holiday, there is an ancient legend behind the festival. A supporter of Duke Wen of Jin named Jie Zitui (介子推) had been living in exile for 20 years, not uncommon for deposed leaders in China. After Jie Zitui helped his close friend by preparing a soup out of his own flesh, the Duke decided to reward him when he came into power. Unfortunately by the time that moment came, Jie had moved into the woods and the Duke could not find him.

Finally he decided to set the woods on fire to chase Jie out – a great idea! Unfortunately, the “chasing out” part did not work out as intended and Jie was killed in the fire. Suffering from remorse over his error, Duke Wen decided then to honour Jie’s memory by enduring three days without fire (probably there was also nothing left to burn).

This led to the creation of Haishi(Cold Food Day), during which no fire or smoke was allowed, meaning that people should eat cold food for the whole day. 300 years ago during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), that practice was replaced by that of Qingming, which had now become an important occasion for people to offer sacrifices to their ancestors.


The customs on this day include the burning of paper money and paper gifts to support ancestors in the afterlife. In addition to the traditional yellow paper and fake RMB, alternative options include US$ and paper gifts (including cars and mobile phones for the Y2K crowd).alt

Of course the biggest custom for Qingming is the tomb sweeping. In addition to that, an even number of food dishes are placed in front of the tomb plus a bowl of rice with incense sticks or chopsticks sticking out of the rice (that’s why you should never do that in a restaurant!).

After the ceremony the family usually goes to a park to enjoy lunch and the beauty of spring. It is also very popular to fly kites during the festival days, especially in Nanjing, as the winds change at this time of year (cold northern winds switch to warm southern ones).

In the countryside, it is customary to put willow branches on the doors of one's home, in order to ward off evil spirits. Dead means not necessarily happy, which means that those in the afterlife who don't get attention during this time will likely get upset and set out to harm people – hence the willows. 

Tomb sweeping in modern China

altTomb sweeping actually isn't very relevant in modern China, because most bodies go to the crematory after death, and in most cases the ash is poured into a river or the sea together with flowers. The old tradition to bury the body and keep it untouched is only common these days in rural areas.

In addition, in larger Chinese cities burials are just not possible, due to limited space and over population. (Mao himself was a big fan of the crematory and decided that his body should be burned after death, but his last wish was not fulfilled.)

Of course, everything is possible in China, so despite the space limitations, there is always the option (for those who wish to adhere to traditions) for a special kind of tomb, the online tomb – easily acessable from any place in the world!

If you want to experience the rites of the tomb sweeping festival in Nanjing, your best option is to visit a temple such as Jiming Si, Jiuhuashan or Quixia – but please, respect the feelings of the people!

NOTE: this article was originally published on March 31, 2010 and updated for 2011.

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