03 April 2017 by Roy Preece
A great day for Chinese families, and one of the most popular Chinese festivals, takes place today on April 4th It’s called ‘Tomb Sweeping Day’. It’s also called ‘Clear Brightness Festival’ or Qing Ming, and it has many meanings for Chinese people. Qing Ming combines two important traditions of Chinese life.
Respect for ancestors is an ancient tradition, and Tomb Sweeping Festival dates back at least 2500 years. It is celebrated in various ways throughout Chinese communities in Asia. It is a public holiday which can involve everyone in a community; the famous Qing Ming Scroll from the eleventh century shows a whole town in festive mood. But for most people today it is a family day out and excuse for a picnic. After the ancestors’ graves have been cleaned and weeded, food is offered to the ancestors and paper money and goods are burned in the belief they will be useful in the after-life. Then the family will sit down and eat and refresh their friendships. Here is How Su Yen describes her first Tomb Sweeping Day in her book Dear Su Yen.
“I remember I once went to south Taiwan with my parents for the Tomb-sweeping Day when I was very young. Maybe I was too young to feel death at that time; I was very excited to meet all our relatives by the tomb of my grandmother in such a tranquil countryside which was so different from the environment of my home. The air spread the smell of the spring; the whole scene was full of fresh green and the delicate pink and white flowers joggling with the breeze. Traditionally, it was the time for the whole family to reunite to remember our ancestors.
I think I was about eight to ten years old at that time. It was the only time I joined with the whole of my mother’s family because traditionally we are supposed to think much more of the family of the father and not of the family of the mother. But this time we went to the tomb of my grandmother who was my mother’s mother.
However, when we started to cut the grass, I realized it was not as easy as I thought when thorns pierced my clothes and scratched my skin. The ductile grass was unbelievably so hard to be cut down and I always hurt myself somehow. When I removed and pulled out the grass with my hands, live insects and worms underneath appeared to my eyes, which was quite scary to me.”
This traditional respect for ancestors is sometimes called ancestor worship, but it is no more worship than are the prayers of Catholics for the souls of the departed. Chinese believe in an afterlife and on Tomb Sweeping day they will just assure the ancestors that they are not forgotten, and that they don’t need to worry about their families left behind.
As with most Chinese festivals, farming life is the other main strand of tradition behind Tomb Sweeping Day. For thousands of years Chinese have divided the work of the farming year into twenty-four ‘terms’ or periods of two weeks each, based on the luni-solar calendar. Tomb Cleaning Day is the start of ‘Clear Brightness’ and it is the fifteenth day after the spring solstice. The clear and bright weather at this time is the traditional time for ploughing the land and planting seeds -- as well as being good weather for picnics and tomb cleaning! Qing Ming Festival, as well as being a time to remember our ancestors and families,is a time for optimism and looking forward.