The origin and history of Tomb Sweeping Day

Updated: 31 Mar 2009
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 Offerings to the ancestry


Celebrated two weeks after the vernal equinox, Tomb Sweeping Day is one of the few traditional Chinese holidays that follows the solar calendar-- typically falling on April 4, 5, or 6. Its Chinese name "Qing Ming" literally means "Clear Brightness," hinting at its importance as a celebration of spring. Similar to the spring festivals of other cultures, Tomb Sweeping Day celebrates the rebirth of nature, while marking the beginning of the planting season and other outdoor activities.


In ancient times, people celebrated Tomb-sweeping Day with dancing, singing, picnics, and kite flying. Colored boiled eggs would be broken to symbolize the opening of life. In the capital, the Emperor would plant trees on the palace grounds to celebrate the renewing nature of spring. In the villages, young men and women would court each other.


With the passing of time, this celebration of life became a day to honor the past ancestors. Following folk religion, the Chinese believed that the spirits of deceased ancestors looked after the family. Sacrifices of food and spirit money could keep them happy, and the family would prosper through good harvests and more children.


Today, Chinese visit their family graves to tend to any underbrush that has grown. Weeds are pulled, and dirt swept away, and the family will set out offerings of food and spirit money. Unlike the sacrifices at a family's home altar, the offerings at the tomb usually consist of dry, bland food. One theory is that since there are number of ghosts roaming around a grave area, the less appealing food will be consumed by the ancestors, and not be plundered by strangers.


Honoring ancestors begins with proper positioning of a gravesite and coffin. Experts in feng shui, or geomancy, determine the quality of land by the surrounding aspects of streams, rivers, trees, hills, and so forth. An area that faces south, with groves of pine trees creates the best flow of cosmic energy required to keep ancestors happy. Unfortunately, nowadays, with China's burgeoning population, public cemeteries have quickly supplanted private gravesites. Family elders will visit the gravesite at least once a year to tend to the tombs.


While bland food is placed by the tombs on Qing Ming Jie, the Chinese regularly provide scrumptious offerings to their ancestors at altar tables in their homes. The food usually consists of chicken, eggs, or other dishes a deceased ancestor was fond of. Accompanied by rice, the dishes and eating utensils are carefully arranged so as to bring good luck. Sometimes, a family will put burning incense with the offering so as to expedite the transfer of nutritious elements to the ancestors. In some parts of China, the food is then eaten by the entire family.


Besides the traditions of honoring the dead, people also often fly kites on Tomb Sweeping Day. Kites can come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and colors. Designs could include frogs, dragonflies, butterflies, crabs, bats, and storks. 


Tomb Sweeping Day, also called "Cold Food Day", is a day when folks sweep the ancestors' tombs and eat cold food. Qing Ming Jie was adjacent to Cold Food Day, so later on they gradually became one festival, and thus "Cold Food" became another name for Qing Ming Dusting the tomb and eating cold food turned into the customs of Qing Ming. Qing Ming has evolved into a culture-rich and meaning-deep remembrance day.


Since people with weak constitutions might get sick by eating cold raw food on Qing Ming, when the weather is still cold, various activities were invented for body-building. These included stepping-the-green outgoing, swing, Chinese football, polo, willow-planting, tug-of-war, and rooster-fighting, etc.


Since the ancient times, there have been a lot of works of art and poems about Qing Ming manifesting the emphasis and passing-on of the Chinese people on Qing Ming. Of these, Tomb Sweeping Day by Du Mu in the Tang Dynasty is a poem of household fame.


There is a story about the Cold Food Festival. It happened in the Jin State 2000 years ago during the Spring and Autumn Period.


Chong Er was the prince of Jin. During the internal conflict of the court, Chong Er was set up by some treacherous officials, and his father was made to believe that Chong Er was going to rebel. The King flew into a rage and commanded to kill Chong Er. So Chong Er had to run away from the country.


When he was on his way to escape, Chong Er and his subordinates got lost in a mountain. For several days, they didn't get enough food, and Chong Er almost starved to death.


To save Chong Er, one of his subjects named Jie Zitui secretly cut a piece of flesh from his own thigh and roasted it to feed Chong Er.


When Chong Er later found out, he was moved to tears.


Years later, Chong Er became the King of the Jin Kingdom. He wanted to thank Jie and asked him to be his minister, but Jie refused and hid in the mountain. To force him to leave the mountain, Chong Er asked his men to set fire to the mountain. Unfortunately, Jie Zitui did not come down the mountain and burnt to death instead. Filled with sorrow and regret, Chong Er ordered that no one should make fire to cook and only cold food can be eaten on that day every year.


And from that day on, people began to offer sacrifice to the ancestors and martyrs. The Cold Food Festival was gradually evolved into the "Qing Ming Festival". The Chinese will go to dust the tombs of ancestors as a means of commemorating the deceased. Therefore, the Qing Ming Festival is also called "Tomb Sweeping Day".


Chinese usually sweep tombs and fly kites on this day. Because Jie Zitui died at the foot of a willow, the Chinese also cut sticks of willow and hang them over their gates.


Source: c-c-c & Cultural China 

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