Qing Ming Festival and Traditional Chinese Ideas About Death

Qing Ming Festival is a day in which Chinese families head to the graveyard and clean the tombs of their ancestors. It is interesting because it helps us understand how traditional Chinese ideas about death survive in modern China despite Mao’s efforts to eliminate them.

It can be said that the Chinese used to believe the spirits of their ancestors were in three places: the grave, the ancestral tablet, and in the Chinese afterworld. It’s not correct to refer to it as heaven or hell, since the afterlife was in most ways the same as their temporal one.

It was also believed that ancestors had the ability to help our hurt one’s situation in life. If the tomb was not swept on Qing Ming, if offerings were not made, or if the ancestors were in any way left wanting, they could ruin your life. Choosing a gravesite was of the upmost importance and would require the assistance of a Fengshui master (really).

Ideally the site would be on the side of a hill overlooking a body of water. This was meant to create an optimal resting place that would ensure the prosperity of later generations. This makes a lot of sense pragmatically, since these locations are difficult for farming or building upon. In the countryside it is very common to see burial mounds in the middle of fields, but I’m at a loss for a practical explanation of this practice.

If the family came upon hard times they would again consult a Fengshui master (usually a different one than before). Based on this new consultation they might move the grave to a better location to try to alter their luck. The practice continues to this day, as I had a friend whose family was considering moving a great-grandfather after two family members died in accidents.

These ideas about death help us to understand why Mao’s efforts to promote cremation remained unpopular in China.

For Qing-Ming Festival the husband’s family will gather together at the ancestral gravesite to clean the tomb and perform a variety of ceremonies. These acts are meant to keep the spirits happy and ensure good luck for the next year.

One of the most important acts is to send a variety of objects that the deceased “need” in the spirit world. The method for sending these items is by burning them.

Luckily for everyone, the spirit-world doesn’t use normal money, which the dead apparently need piles of. In the markets this time of year vendors will be selling stacks of different kinds of spirit money often called “Hell Dollars”. The most plain is a white piece of paper with a little gold foil in the middle, but there are also a number of bills that look something like dollars or RMB. They range from $1 all the way to $1,000,000,000,000 (which makes me concerned about inflation in the afterlife).

Paper "Coffin" for funeral in Longzhou

They also burn drawings or paper models of other items that the dead might want. Typically mansions, cars, or new clothes, although lately there have even been paper computers and i-Phones.

Anthropologically speaking these acts are important because they serve as a time for the family to come together and strengthen their clan bonds, since their ancestors would be buried together. Today as Chinese families move further apart, Qing Ming is more important than ever.

For more about Chinese families you can read my series of posts on that topic Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

6 responses to “Qing Ming Festival and Traditional Chinese Ideas About Death”

  1. […] Qing Ming Festival is a day in which Chinese families head to the graveyard and clean the tombs of their ancestors. It is interesting because it helps us understand how traditional Chinese ideas about death survive in modern China despite … Continue reading → […]

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Apparently many new gravesites are only leased for 20 years – CCTV9 had a piece about Qing Ming today.

    • Tom says:

      These are true of the graves that people in the cities buy. In the countryside they are often buried without anyone’s permission, so I don’t those are subject to a lease. Also city people only make up about 1/3 of China’s population, and I would guess a larger percentage of them opt for cremation than those living in the countryside.

  3. john book says:

    Interesting similarities… In Japan, there are similar grave-stone cleaning days. I’m not sure of the rituals, however.

    In April, during “O-Bon”, adult children go to the ancestor’s graves and invites them to come to the house and keep company for a week. They all walk, ride back home. The ancestors know to move into the butsudon, the family shrine like place in a nook in one of the rooms. There, the ancestors are fed saki, veggies and rice and prayed to while the week of, “O-Bon” continues.

    If you are not so religious, this is one of the two times a year, you take the wife and kids out for a week of vacation somewhere. This is the week of total traffic and train and air travel to various parts of the world. On the first and last days as folks struggle to leave or get back home… there is total bedlam on the free-ways and trains…so many people trying to get to where they are going or get back home! IF you are vacationing… this is the only time you can do so. Everyone vacations at the same time!

    Back to the ancestors, now…

    At the end of the week the adult children of the ancestors visiting the home go to the front door, open it and tell the ancestors that it is time to leave and go back to their respective graves. It was fun, we’ll have to do this again next year…. so long for now.

    I’m sure the words used are a bit more polite and sincere than I’ve stated here, but I found it interesting; Coming, let’s walk together and have a great week. Going; OK, you can leave now… you can find your own way back…..
    Or so it would appear….

    Just as an aside here…. I also found it interesting that a dead person’s family can pay the Buddhist priest money to change the dead person’s name. The more money to the priest, the better the name. The better the name the better chance of entering Buddhist heaven.

    Wooden slats carry this new name. They are affixed to the granite family blocks in the grave-yard. The cremated remains are placed into opening at the bases of the granite blocks.

    • Tom says:

      Interesting, where do these new names come from? and how exactly does this provide a better chance into heaven? Did they steal someone’s good name? Or is it that a neutral name with no past would be better than their current negative balance?
      Religions are endlessly fascinating. Thank you for this contribution.

  4. […] is the second most important holiday of the year, behind Spring Festival, and just ahead of Qing Ming. Yet, each year I am surprised by their total lack of ability to explain just what exactly this […]

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