Qingming Festival is a Chinese celebration that pays respect to the dead. It’s also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day or the Pure Brightness Festival. Traditionally, this is an ancient way to honor deceased loved ones, enjoy the changing seasons, and remember the beauty of life.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Death in Chinese Cultures
- What is the Qingming Festival (Tomb-Sweeping Day)?
- What Date is the Qingming Festival and How Long Does It Last?
- What Happens During the Qingming Festival?
In Chinese tradition, it’s important to pay ongoing respects to one’s relatives. This begins with Chinese funerals and it continues yearly with the Qingming Festival. Today, this celebration marks a time for families to come together, enjoy the springtime, and remember those who passed before them.
In this guide, we’ll explore the Qingming Festival to explain what it is and when it’s celebrated each year.
Death in Chinese Cultures
Before we begin, it’s important to touch on death in different cultures. Why would there be a day dedicated to cleaning and caring for graves of loved ones? While it’s hard to understand from an outsider's perspective, death is treated differently in different parts of the world.
Since China is heavily influenced by Confucianism and Taoism, there’s a belief in the cycle of both life and death. While talking about death openly is taboo in China, it’s accepted as a normal part of life.
Worshiping and honoring one’s ancestors after they’ve passed is an important way to keep their memory alive. Because ancestry and remembering the dead is such a common practice, it’s only natural to dedicate an entire festival to caring for the graves of loved ones.
What is the Qingming Festival (Tomb-Sweeping Day)?
Tomb-Sweeping Day is a traditional Chinese festival dating back over 2,500 years. While this festival calls China home, you’ll also see celebrations in South East Asia as well as other Chinese communities throughout the globe. Let’s take a closer look at the history behind this tradition.
The term “Qingming” comes from the solar calendar, and today it’s a symbol of springtime. The tradition itself dates back to an ancient holiday known as Hanshi Day. This day was the memorial for Jie Zitui, a man who died in 636 BC.
The Chinese legend says that Jie Zitui cut a piece of his own leg to feed his hungry lord. The lord was forced into exile during his reign, and his leadership was in jeopardy. Jie Zitui’s actions saved him, and the lord promised to reward him generously for his act of kindness and loyalty.
After 19 years, the lord finally returned to power. By then, he forgot the food deed of the brave Jie Zitui. When he finally realized he forgot this valiant act of service, the lord felt ashamed of himself. He sought out Jie Zitui, but he was living in the woods nowhere to be found. The lord ordered the forest to be set on fire to bring Jie Zitui out, but he perished in the fire.
In honor of Jie Zitui’s memory, the lord ordered three days without fire in his memory. Because of this, the day (Hanshi) became known as the time of cold food. Years later, the lord returned to those woods to find the trees revived. He deemed the day after Hanshi the Qingming Festival in honor of the dead and the return of nature in spring. Today, people across the globe use this as an opportunity to remember the dead.
Where it’s celebrated
The Qingming Festival spread across Asia and much of the world. It’s celebrated in China, Taiwan, Hong-Kong, Macau, and Singapore. It’s also a popular celebration in Chinese communities in other parts of the world.
There’s a large population of people who celebrate Qingming in the United States as well. Chinese communities, as well as local communities, come together to take part in this unique event in honor of mythology, the deceased, and springtime.
What Date is the Qingming Festival and How Long Does It Last?
The Qingming Festival is not always celebrated on the same day. This holiday takes place in the spring, and it’s either on April 4 or 5 of each year. It’s not tied to the Gregorian Calendar; it instead follows the Chinese solar calendar.
The festival lasts three days total, and it starts after the spring equinox. The Qingming Festival begins on these days below for the following years:
- 2020: April 4
- 2021: April 4
- 2022: April 5
- 2023: April 5
- 2024: April 5
What Happens During the Qingming Festival?
How do people celebrate this ancient holiday? As you might imagine, the customs have shifted over the years to accommodate modern times and traditions.
Cleaning and sweeping graves
This is called the Tomb-Sweeping Festival for a reason. This time of year is for a number of different things, one of which is the practice of tomb sweeping. The process of cleaning a tomb is seen as a sign of much respect for the deceased person. Any weeds on the tomb or grave are cleared away, fresh soil is added, and everything is cleaned.
The process of cleaning a headstone is therapeutic for many loved ones. This is a small way to dote on those who are no longer with us. In addition to cleaning the grave and tomb, people leave offerings for their past relatives. Offerings are a common way to remember a family member not only in Chinese culture but also in other cultures around the world.
The act of giving an offering is a symbol of the lord making a sacrifice for Jie Zitu. In the past, people would bring the dead person’s favorite food or drink to the grave to sacrifice to them. They also would bring paper as a symbol of money. These things were burned to aid their loved ones in the afterlife.
Since we’ve come a long way, many people choose to sacrifice modern electronics to their loved ones. There’s a bustling Chinese industry for selling fake cell phones, tablets, and more intended for sacrifice in these ceremonies. This is just one of the many interesting ways that people adapted this ancient holiday.
Another aspect of this festival is taking time to enjoy nature and springtime. In early April, everything blossoms and turns green. The sun shines brighter, and winter is finally gone. This is a time of food, friendship, and spring outings. Aside from offering food and drink as a sacrifice to deceased loved ones, it’s also a day to enjoy favorite foods from years past.
In different parts of the country, people eat different foods. In Shanghai, people eat green rice balls and peach-blossom porridge. In Zhejiang, people eat dumplings. It’s also common to eat snails which grow large during this time of year. The local cuisine is what makes this such a fun, exciting time.
Finally, during the Qingming Festival, it’s common to fly kites. This is a great outdoor, springtime activity, and it’s also the perfect way to celebrate the joy of life and nature. Kites are flown both during the day and also at night. At night, people tie little lanterns to the kite or the string to resemble stars in the sky.
While the kite is in the sky, people cut the string to let the kite fly away. This is a way to bring good luck and to fight against disease. Chinese paper kites have a history that dates back to the days of the Jie Zitui myth. They’re common in Chinese art, culture, and as a way to celebrate special traditions and holidays.
Honoring an Ancient Myth
The Qingming Festival dates back thousands of years. Though mythology is less important today, it’s interesting to trace this celebration's long history throughout the history of China. Today, this is a day for paying tribute to one’s loved ones, caring for their graves, and spending time outdoors. It’s a day of returning to the simple things in life and being thankful for what one has.
The Qingming Festival shows just how powerful it is to accept death as a natural part of life. Embrace this for yourself by starting your end-of-life planning. Taking these steps demystifies the process of aging so you can embrace the future with confidence.
- “Traditional Snacks of Qingming Festival.” Hubei China. 21 March 2016. Hubei.gov.cn.
- MacLeod, Calum. “Chinese torch paper iPhones, banknotes to please dead.” USA Today. 4 April 2015. USAtoday.com.
- “Qingming Festival.” Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt.edu.
- Simonds, Nina, Leslie Shwartz. “Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats.” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2002: pg 37.