1) The Chinese term for Tomb Sweeping Day is Qingming Jie (清明节), which means “clear and bright.” This name originated from Qingming Jieqi (清明节气), one of the 24 solar terms in the Chinese lunar calendar. This solar term comes after the Spring Equinox and lasts 15 days, while the weather is getting nice and warm.
2) During this period, people hang willow branches in memory of an official named Jie Zitui, who rather graphically cut his own flesh to feed a starving prince named Chong’er. After Chong’er became king Jinwen Gong, he remembered that he forgot to reward Jiezi Tui. When he went to Jie Zitui’s house, he found it empty; Jie had gone to Mian Mountain (绵山) to hide with his mother. Jinwen Gong set a fire around the mountain to smoke Jie Zitui out, but the official never appeared. After the fire burned out, Jinwen Gong found Jie and his mother’s corpses near a willow tree. In the tree hole, Jinwen Gong found a letter from Jie urging him to be a good king.
3) The custom of tomb sweeping varies according to different areas in China. In Hebei (or northern China), tomb sweeping start a week before actual Tomb Sweeping Day. In the south, people sweep tombs the day before Tomb Sweeping Day; the eve is also known as Cold Food Day. No matter where you are, nobody actually sweeps tombs on Tomb Sweeping Day.
4) Qingming is also a time to welcome the spring and enjoy the changing of the seasons. Common outdoor activities include hiking, kite flying, and tree planting.
5) Not all Chinese ethnic minorities celebrate Tomb Sweeping Day, but there are 24 that do (thanks to the Hans’ influence) with sweeping tombs and their own customs. For example, the Tujia ethnic group eats pork head meat (ick) and the Miao minority makes a type of pastry called Qingming Ba (清明耙) with mugwort and sticky rice.
This post first appeared on April 3, 2012.
Photo by gadgetdan of flickr