On Wednesday, April 4, 2012, 15 days after the spring equinox, China observed the Qingming Festival, known in the West as Clear Bright Festival or Tomb Sweeping Festival.
The festival traces its origin back at least 2,500 years into the mists of antiquity. It is the time when farmers began spring plowing and young couples start courting. During Qingming people danced, sang, flew kites, and wore willow branches in their hair or placed willow branches around doorways to ward off evil spirits thought to wander on Qingming.
The Qingming Festival is also a time for people to remember and honor their ancestors at grave sites. Chinese people generally don’t visit graves, but for some, doing so on Qingming is an obligation. Young and old pray before the ancestors, sweep the tombs, and offer food, tea, wine, chopsticks, joss sticks and joss paper (paper-made sacrificial items).
Traditionally joss paper represents money and items for daily use. People burned the joss money to provide for ancestors in the world of the dead. This year joss paper representing IPhones and IPads was also popular. Across China tons of joss paper is burned, releasing prodigious amounts of smoke into the atmosphere. In a “green” gesture, some urbanites are beginning to edge away from the old custom. Green practices reported this year include offering fresh flowers or planting trees or shrubs in ancestors’ honor.
In another bow to modernity, when urban Chinese are too busy making money to personally fulfill their obligation, some people engage companies to pay respects to the deceased on behalf of their family. The basic package includes placing fruits, joss sticks and joss paper at the grave. For an additional charge, agents give a kowtow, make a memorial speech and cry. The owner of one such company said that business was booming.
Shanghai Daily quotes a 30-old woman. After visiting her grandparents’ tomb in the suburbs her family will visit the countryside. “This is the season for outings and picnics in cheerier places. Sorrow is no longer the tone for Qingming,” she says. “After all, it also symbolizes spring and hope.”
A Shanghai Daily report estimated that during the 3-day holiday, more than 5.8 million people swept tombs across the city. By 7am on Qingming Festival day highways leading to the city’s major cemeteries in the suburbs were already jammed. According to tradition doors to the netherworld close at 12noon, so relatives like to visit their ancestors’ tombs in the morning.
Qingming is not one of mainland China’s major festivals. This year, in order to provide a 3-day Qingming Holiday spanning Monday, April 2, through Wednesday, April 4, the central government mandated that the preceding Saturday and Sunday would be regular work days, so business as usual at school or the office. Retail businesses rarely close, except for the most important holidays – Chinese New Year’s Eve and Chinese New Year’s Day.
In Taiwan and in the Chinese jurisdictions of Hong Kong and Macau, Qingming has long been a statutory public holiday. In 2008 the Chinese government reinstated Qingming as a nation-wide public holiday in the mainland. Watch for a future post on the positive relationship between traditional Chinese festivals and the maintenance of social order.