In my early days in China, there wasn’t a public holiday given during the week for this festival, but after the Labour Day holiday was reduced from seven to four days, a day was given to each of the Tomb Sweeping, Dragonboat and Mid-Autumn festivals, in the form of a long weekend, as either the Friday or Monday is chosen for the public holiday.
As you might expect with a holiday named Tomb Sweeping, there isn’t quite the same celebratory atmosphere associated with other festivals, and you don’t find masses of people spamming each other with ‘Happy Tomb Sweeping Day!’ messages.
The holiday is not set strictly according to the lunar calendar, but around 15 days after the spring equinox春分(Chun fen), usually close to April 5th.
In Chinese, the Tomb Sweeping Holiday is called 清明节(Qing ming jie), with the word ‘qing’ meaning to sweep or clean up the graves of ancestors, and ‘ming’ associated with the warming climes as the country heads towards the latter stages of spring.
Other names used for this holiday are 踏青节(Ta qing jie) and less commonly 行清节(Xing qing jie). ‘Taqing’ literally means ‘Step green,’ and refers to spring travels where people can go to the countryside or city parks to enjoy the blooming scene of grassy fields, blossoming trees, flowers and awakening wildlife.
For Chinese, and any foreign spouses or partners, at least a day of the holiday is spent remembering ancestors. At public cemeteries, where staff attend to the the grounds, this usually begins by laying flowers, lighting candles and incense sticks, then pushing them into the ground so that they stand upright. Next, tightly packed layers of low quality yellow paper are handed out to family members, and they split the layers apart and drop them into a communal pile on the ground in front of the grave. The paper used is a symbolic offering of money to lighten their days in the afterlife.
Whilst most of the family are busy splitting layers of paper, at least one other opens a ream of firecrackers and lays it around the grave to be lit at the final stage.
Before the reams of firecrackers are lit, the piles of paper are burnt, and other symbolic offerings are also cast to the flames. People often buy more offerings from rows of stalls set out by the main roadside, including afterlife money in astronomical demoninations called ‘Ming bi'(冥币), cardboard gold nuggets, images of mansions or sports cars, and funnily, even beautiful looking, scantily clad models for extra company for the more humorous natured.
As the ashes begin to smoulder, family members take turns to clasp their hands together, close their eyes and bow three times, either standing or kneeling down.
Once all the formalities are done, the attendees take cover as somebody lights the reem of firecrackers. You definitely want to stand at least ten metres away, as the crackers are extremely noisy, projectiles can fly your way at painfully high speed, and the smoke can really stink out your clothes if your upwind, and that’s if they haven’t been smoked out from the paper burning.
In the countryside, the formalities are generally the same, but because the graves can be in remote spots, it could mean a long drive and walk both ways through kilometres of muddy fields, especially so if the weather doesn’t play ball. Once you’re there, the overgrowth needs cutting away and burning down before the ritual can begin.
From my own considerable experience of tomb sweeping, there are a few pieces of advice you should bear in mind if ever you become involved with a Chinese man or woman.
One is certainly getting up extra early or leaving it until later for cemeteries. Dawn is the ideal time, as you can miss the unbelievable traffic, difficult parking, insane crowding, plus the deafening and flying projectiles, all whilst satisfying your relatives desire to visit the graves on the big day itself.
Secondly, you definitely want to dress down in clothes you don’t care getting caked in mud and stinking of thick smoke!
For the countryside, consider all the above plus a good pair of walking boots. You might want a change of shoes if you’re designated for driving responsibilities.
It may be there are still relatives living in the area, in which case they will be keen to entertain you at their home for lunchtime, and I have always enjoyed the country hospitality when it has come my way. As you can imagine, they don’t have many visitors, so I do like to accept their company and food.
Once everything is done, that’s usually the last you’ll hear about it for another year. Just keep an open mind, smile, and enjoy the experience!