Tomb Sweeping Festival

Happy Qīngmíng Jié 清明节 everyone. I thought I’d share what I learned in the English classes I taught this week. This will NOT be an extensive treatment of all the ins and outs of Qingming Jie, just some new things I’ve learned.

Culture

1. First year for official holiday. While Qingming Jie is thousands of years old, this is the first year (2008) that it has been an official, government holiday from school and work. I asked my students to theorize why that may be. They sited the following possible factors:

  • The May holiday has been shortened to one day (from three previously) which has freed up more holidays to be given to other festivals.
  • “Korea has stolen Dragon Boat Festival” and the Chinese don’t want to see that happen with any other rightfully Chinese traditional holidays. (here’s an article that touches on the conflict which seems to have something to do with World Heritage listings).

If anyone else has any theories, I’d love to hear them.

2. For boys, not girls. While some towns allow girls to participate, the tomb sweeping responsibilities are usually for the men of the family.

3. More important in South than North. Apparently, some of my students from northern China didn’t even know what Qingming Jie was. Can anyone up north confirm or deny that this is a trend and not just my students?

Vocabulary

If you talk to any Chinese people about their home town’s traditions for Qingming Jie, you may run across some of this vocab. These are words I was asked “how to say…” so often that I actually learned the Chinese for them in the process.

fénmù 坟墓 = tomb / grave

mùdì 墓地 = cemetery (which sounds exactly like mùdì 目的 = “goal”)

sǎomù 扫墓 = to sweep tombs

bài zǔxiān 拜祖先 = to pay respects to ancestors

shāo xiāng 烧香 = to burn incense

shāo zhū 烧猪 = roast pig

gānzhè 甘蔗 = sugar cane

fàng biānpào 放鞭炮 = set off firecrackers

If you want to know the significance of these things, you’ll have to ask your Chinese informants (or find an article online). If there are some other useful (and confirmed by a native speaker) words I’ve left off, please feel free to share them with us.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the vocab – I actually went out to the tombs here in Haikou on 清明节 and got to observe what they do locally firsthand! It was a great scene – conical earthshaped mounds in the woods, families repainting faded characters on tombstones with bright red dripping paint, roast pigs and incense and paper money bonfires, men bowing down in front of the freshly weeded and re-shaped mounds, the sounds of firecrackers and drifting smoke obscuring everything…the thing that most intruiged me was that on the road outside were piles of sod, being sold to the families. They put two chunks of sod at the pointed top of each grave – one grass side down, and on top of that, one grass side up. If/when I get my home computer un-virused and working again, I will try to post pictures online somewhere.

  2. Fearing that the young generations may forget about their Chinese festivals and therefore their Chinese origin, at the threat of western cultural influence, the government finallly took this measure. It is also a manifestation of the growing of our comprehensive national strength.

  3. Nicki,

    Yes do leave the link if you can get some pictures up.

    On the bus today I came across (and thankfully remembered) another appropriate word: gǔhuī 骨灰 = ashes of the dead.

  4. Yeah, I should have thought about that. It’s a sad day right? Some of my students said they don’t set off firecrackers in their hometown because it sounds too happy for a day that’s supposed to be sad. Sorry if I was insensitive.

  5. The Tomb-Sweeping Day is April 4th in China. The customs this day are interesting and abundant. Besides fire prohibition and tomb sweeping at this day, Chinese people do much folk sports, such as swings, kite flying, tug-of-war, spring country walk, tree planting etc. Because it is said that Chinese people must have cold food and prohibit fire at Tomb-Sweeping Day, they joined some sports to strengthen body.
    Folk customs of Tomb-Sweeping Day
    Swing
    It is a custom of Tomb-Sweeping Day in ancient China. Playing swing not only can strengthen body, but also can cultivate one’s brave spirit. So until now it is still popular with Chinese people, especially with Children.

    Kite flying
    It is also a custom of Tomb-Sweeping Day loved by Chinese people. At that day, Chinese people not only fly kites at day, but also at night. At night, they hang a string of small lanterns under kite, which seem like blinking stars in the night sky. In the past, some people cut off the pull wire after it fly high in the sky and the kite will fly with wind to anywhere, maybe the end of the earth. It is said that it could help get rid of disaster and bring good luck by free the kite.
    Spring country walk
    It is also called Spring Travel, also called Seeking Spring in ancient time. Tomb-Sweeping Day is March in Chinese lunar month, when spring is just coming back and everything in nature is growing and thriving. It is good time to walk out and travel. So people reserve the custom that they go out of door to travel at Tomb-Sweeping Day to now.

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