Sweeping Into Spring with the Qingming Festival

Ah, springtime: birds chirping, flowers blooming, children frolicking, and families burning money in the cemetery…  

Yes, the first springtime holiday in the Chinese calendar is Qingming Jie 清明節, which literally translates to the “Clear Brightness Festival” but may be more appropriately called “The Tomb-Sweeping Festival.” During this festival, Chinese people traditionally celebrate the renewed vitality of springtime by giving thanks to the previous generations who gave them life.

The fifteenth day after the Spring Equinox, which is April 5 in 2014, Chinese people all over the world will flock to cemeteries to pay respects to their ancestors and clean up their tombs or grave sites. Here in San Diego, many Chinese Americans gather at Mount Hope Cemetery where a section traditionally has been reserved for burying Chinese.

Previously, all of these remains would be removed and shipped back to China every ten or fifteen years, posthumously being returning them to their ancestral homes for reburial, but the communist government put an end to this practice in 1949. Traditionally, families would take an excursion to grave sites in the hills outside town, and in China today, millions of urban dwellers flood into buses and trains to return to the rural villages they once called home in order to honor of their ancestors. Then and now, Qingming Jie involves a return to the past and nature.

Some cultures recognize the dead with spooky autumn holidays like Halloween or Dia de los Muertos, when the dead are said to visit the living, but Qingming is a bright springtime holiday, when families pay a visit to the peaceful resting place of their bygone ancestors. In addition to solemn traditions like bowing before ancestors’ graves, clearing weeds and leaving fresh flowers, burning incense and simulated paper money, and making offerings of food, tea, and liquor, other Qingming festivities include typical springtime amusements like picnicking and kite-flying. This holiday is a chance for living and dead alike to enjoy family time in the countryside.


This holiday is  captured most famously in Zhang Zeduan’s 張擇端 (1085-1148) painting “Along the River During Qingming Festival” 清明上河圖. This masterpiece, which various painters copied over the next several centuries, displays the various classes of traditional China, from scholars in long robes and officials' caps to peasants bent under heavy loads in broad-brimmed hats, enjoying themselves and retreating to the countryside to enjoy the holiday. So much has changed since the time of the original painting and the Qing Dynasty 清朝 copy prepared by five painters in the courty of the Qianlong 乾隆 Emperor (1711-1799) seen here, but people still enjoy many of the same activities today. As the weather warms this spring, we and our sponsors at SDG&E urge you to turn off your electronics, get outside, enjoy the fresh air, and return to the simpler pleasures of our ancestors. You could pay respects to your own departed ancestors at a local cemetery, just take your living family for a walk in the park, or enjoy including fishing, boating, painting, or picnicking as Chinese painters depicted so long ago. Visiting graves honors those who came before, outdoor revelry entertains us in the present, and conserving energy shows respect to our descendants. 

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