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Qingming Quirks

The history and bizarre customs of China's Day of the Dead


Qingming Quirks

The history and bizarre customs of China's Day of the Dead


When you see a thief carrying a precious graveyard bride or watch the scattering of ashes for burials at sea, you can tell that death is afoot in China. Mexicans might dance with skeletons on El Dia de Los Muertos and the Americans might bob for apples on Halloween, but to these customs, the Chinese simply shrug. They are nothing more than, as one netizen put it, a “foreign Tomb Sweeping Day.”

Tomb Sweeping Day or Clear Bright Festival (清明节Qīngmíng Jié) marks the beginning of the fifth solar term on the Chinese calendar. In 2013, it falls on April 4-6.  Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau have always celebrated this holiday, and China reinstated its national status in 2008.

Like most Chinese festivals, the history of Qingming Jie is shrouded in legend. It became a memorial day to honor the servant Jie Zhitui during the time of the Spring and Autumn Period. Jie cut part of his own thigh and made it into a soup for Prince Cong’er while he was in exile, and then he didn’t even stay for thanks once Cong’er, now Duke Wen, rose to power. After Jie and his mother died in a forest fire (which Duke Wen may or may not have started in an effort to coax Jie down for formal recognition of his good deed), Duke Wen ordered a day of remembrance, including no hot food and no more burning fires. The following year, Duke Wen climbed Mianshan Mountain to sweep Jie’s “tomb,” only to find the willow tree where he died had blossomed.

In reality, both tomb sweeping and eating cold food come from different festivals around Qingming time, a solar term marking rebirth. Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang formally declared tomb sweeping on this day, but who is really pointing fingers at the textbooks?

Today, the Chinese celebrate by literally “sweeping the tombs” of their ancestors. Families tidy up grave sites, add new earth and offer willow branches and other flowers, such as chrysanthemums, lilies, carnations and forget-me-nots. After, families turn the ceremony up a notch by offering food to their ancestors, burning incense in honor of them and sometimes lighting fake paper “hell money.” Even in Beijing’s Babaoshan Cemetary where many revolutionary heroes are buried, the Ministry of Public Security issued a fire hazard warning.

All of these rituals are part of an elaborate day of remembrance. How is Qingming Jie different? Let’s take a closer look at some crazy and some ironic rituals on how-to honor the dead:

qingming jie iPod

This person gets the whole iFamily.

1. Give them the finest iPad you can find.

In the past, people were buried with food, household items and bronze treasures. But that is so last Emperor Qin (i.e. Terracotta Warriors). Today, you want to send your loved one off with the best and newest gadgets: air conditioners, LCD TVs, Coke “Zero,” lost courtyard homes (pingfan), Louis Vuitton purses, cameras, Mercedes, 212-jets, Lamborghinis, iPads and iPhones. The only catch: they are made of paper. In Hong Kong, paper iPads sell anywhere from $25 to $85. Speaking of USD, while it is tradition to light yellow envelopes filled with fake money, a variety of currencies are now available, including euros. It is also possible to buy custom-made products, whether printers, driver licenses or calligraphy tools. There is a 1997 burial law out there somewhere prohibiting the making and burning of paper anything, but with 1,000 metric tons of paper products burned across the country each year on this day, maybe we’ll let it slide. . . .

2. Make sure they look good.

It used to be an old custom to bury people with fine garments, and not much has changed. Sometimes this “clothing” is symbolic. In Zhouqu, Gansu Province where a landslide killed at least 1,434 people and left 331 missing persons in 2010, residents tied white and yellow paper ribbons on tombstones to symbolize spring clothing. “The spring has come. They’ll need to change into thinner clothes,” one resident said. However, shòu yī (寿衣) or dead clothing, is also sold on the street side during this time.

3. And eat well. 

Everyone loves food, so on Qingming Jie, both you and your loved one better eat well. Offer your ancestors some healthy fruit or prosperous oranges, popular soft drinks or their favorite wine. On your part, make sure to take advantage of the big feasts families eat at cemeteries or picnics enjoyed at parks after the tomb sweeping. Depending on where you live, don’t miss out on the holiday foods: green rice balls, snails or even the special five-colored rice. Just be wary of some of the bacteria also enjoying this warm weather, as issued in the food safety warning from a Gulou district in Nanjing.

qingming jie wifi

Babaoshan’s website also offers free wifi on this day.

4. Send them a song or card online.

In efforts to cut back on waste, fire hazards, pollution and other costs of travelling, many families are now going online to meet their worship needs. The Beijing Funeral Administration launched the Babaoshan website in 2005, and its use skyrockets on Qingming Jie. Loved ones can send the equivalent of a virtual Hallmark card to ancestors, complete with virtual flowers, personalized messages and songs. Many families grieve together online, sharing pictures and memorial essays.

qingming jie kite

Spring & kites, what could be better?

5. Take time to enjoy life!

Farmers love Qingming Jie because it marks a period of good harvest for their crops. So, too, does it renew a sense of spring in you! Traditionally, courting was always popular on this day, as well as planting trees or engaging in outdoor activities. A walk in the countryside was known as tàqīng (踏青), so now many families take walks in the park. When there, maybe you can start a game of  cuju (蹴鞠) or kicking a rubber ball with your foot, play on some swings or go fly a kite. Kites are flown during the day in all their splendid colors, but are also released with lanterns into the night sky. It is hoped that releasing the kites brings good luck for this new period of reflection and awakening.