What you need to know
A brief guide to Tomb Sweeping Day, updated for the coronavirus outbreak of 2020.
Tomb Sweeping Day, or Qingming Festival, is one of the world’s oldest continually celebrated holidays. It’s a national holiday in Taiwan and a red-letter day throughout East Asia. But unlike, say, Lunar New Year, it doesn’t occupy a central place in cultural outsiders’ understanding of Han culture. Changes in the traditional practices due to the coronavirus epidemic provide an occasion to ask: What, in fact, is observed, and why?
When is Tomb Sweeping Day?
Tomb Sweeping Day takes place 15 days after the spring equinox, which usually means April 4, 5, or 6 if you’re not an astronomer. Though it's one of Han Chinese culture’s four major festivals, Tomb Sweeping Day is Taiwan’s only traditional holiday that does not follow the Lunar calendar. This is because it is both a holiday and one of the traditional Chinese calendar’s 24 Solar terms, or mini-seasons. Historically, it was seen as the beginning of spring, the best time to breed livestock. According to Han-dynasty scholars, the festival is also prime dating season—though that’s not how you’ll see people observing it today.
How Did It All Begin?
Tradition holds that it started with Duke Wen of Jin. Duke Wen, an exiled ruler from the 6th-century B.C., was saved from starvation by a self-mutilating nobleman who fed him soup made of meat from his own leg. After the duke was restored to his throne many years later, he sought out the die-hard loyal, hoping to repay him for his sacrifice. The only problem was that the nobleman had since retired to a remote mountain.
The Duke, a man of uncommon willpower, decided to smoke out the poor man by having his guards set the mountain ablaze. When this unrealistic plan inadvertently resulted in the death of both the nobleman and his elderly mother, Duke Wen declared that no one should eat hot food on the anniversary of the tragedy. The tradition of eating cold food on Tomb Sweeping Day continues to this day.
Tomb-sweeping didn’t come to be associated with the festival until thousands of years later during the Tang Dynasty. Emperor Xuanzong, miffed that his subjects were spending more time orchestrating elaborate memorial rituals than engaging in more productive labor, consolidated all of the memorial rituals into a single festival by designating Tomb Sweeping Day as the official calendar date to visit ancestral tombs.
How is Tomb Sweeping Day Celebrated Today?
Though Emperor Xuanzong was more interested in increasing productivity, tomb-sweeping remains the most important ritual act of the festival. In Taiwan, families return to their ancestral tombs to clear away dead grass, repack any loose soil, and make offerings to the deceased. Fruit, rice, and flowers are all considered appropriate—some of the ritual offerings are even bagged and taken home by the family once the ritual has been completed.
Prayers are also an important part of the proceedings. Custom calls for a small fire to be lit in front of the tomb, after which family members each say a few words in memory of the deceased and give thanks to the Earth God for taking care of the gravesite. Most families ensure their forebears are well cared for in the afterlife by burning special sheets of ghost money or zhizha—paper models of the possessions they would have cherished in life. Zhizha-making is a craft of its own, and for the right price, families can order replicas of anything their relatives might need in the afterlife, from ping-pong tables to generation-specific iPhones.
Do’s and Don’ts
Part of the traditional belief system is the idea that Taiwanese graveyards are haunted by hungry spirits who might latch onto anyone who doesn’t properly follow the rites of memorialization. These include how the food should be presented, who should visit the tomb, and what colors observants should wear—dress guidelines advise plain neutrals (wandering spirits are big fans of black and bright colors).
After leaving the site, many believe it best to step over a small fire to ensure that none of the ghosts have followed observants home. If you don’t have a small fire handy, soaking in a bath infused with flower petals or pomelo leaves is just as effective—as well as a lovely way to unwind.
Covid-19 Inspires Virtual Tomb Sweeping
With the pandemic still looming large, the Taiwanese government is promoting a more subdued approach to Tomb Sweeping Day this year. Families will still be allowed to visit grave sites but should do so smaller groups or outside of the usual ritual dates.
To encourage people to stay home, most major cities have set up dedicated online portals in which observers can view images of their loved ones and perform ritual offerings in front of their computer screens. With Tomb Sweeping Day continuing even under these extraordinary circumstances, it’s easy to understand how this solemn tradition has survived through the ages.
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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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