To non-Asians, Tomb Sweeping Day in Taiwan may seem strange, but it is a highly important tradition in Chinese culture. Elders and ancestors are of very high importance in the culture, and this day is dedicated to honoring those ancestors.
What is Tomb Sweeping Day?
Tomb Sweeping Day is the day that Chinese families return to their ancestral tombs to care for the graves of relatives who have passed away. Families gather to honor their ancestors by praying, lighting incense, burning paper offerings, and leaving flowers, or food items. But it is also a time to gather your family and enjoy Taiwan springtime and outdoor activities like picnics and flying kites.
“Other names for the festival are Tomb Sweeping Festival, Qingming Jie, Qing Ming Jie or Ching Ming Jie”
When is Tomb Sweeping Day in Taiwan?
In 2021 it is April 04. Tomb Sweeping Day occurs 15 days after the Spring equinox, or 107 days after winter has begun, which usually means April 4, 5, or 6
Origin of Tomb Sweeping Day
One story goes that in 655 BC Duke Wen of Jin went into exile to keep the crown safe during riots. During his exile, the Duke was saved from starvation by a loyal man named Jie Zitui, who fed him soup made of meat from his own leg. By the time the Duke was restored to his throne nineteen years later, he had forgotten about Jie Zitui, but when he remembered, he immediately sent his guards to find him and repay him for his sacrifice. Jie Zitui and his mother had long since moved to another part of the mountain and could not be found. Frustrated, Duke Wen ordered the mountain to be set on fire in order to drive Jie Zutui down. After the fire, the royal guards discovered Jie Zitui and his mother dead. To commemorate Jie, Duke Wen declared that day would become Tomb Sweeping Day, and on that day only cold food could be eaten (Hanshi Festival). This tradition is still upheld today.
From here the legends differ, and another story goes that when Duke Wen returned to the mountain the year after the fire to pay his respects to Jie Zitui, he saw willows growing from the scorched earth. Upon this miraculous sight, he instructed that the day after Tomb Sweeping Day was to be the Qingming Festival – a festival to celebrate springtime. Later, Tomb Sweeping Day and Qingming Festival were combined as one.
Yet another story tells that during Tang Dynasty Tomb Sweeping Day became associated with the Qingming Festival because Emperor Xuanzong was angry that his subjects spent too little time at their actual duties, and instead spent all their time praying and planning memorial rituals, therefore he limited them to only one day of worship: Tomb Sweeping Day.
How is Tomb Sweeping Day Celebrated in Taiwan today?
Tomb Sweeping Day in Taiwan is a time when relatives come together to bai bai (pay one’s respects), eat, clean the tombs, and remember those who have passed away.
The Chinese tombs can be quite large, and can require maintenance. On Tomb Sweeping day actual maintenance can take place, or a simple tidy up by sweeping, changing the soil around the grave, or pulling up any weeds that have appeared.
Offerings for Tomb Sweeping Day
To ensure their ancestors’ happiness in the afterlife offerings are made. These offerings can include rice, liquor, fruits, and flowers. As well, ghost money and zhiza are burned at a small fire in front of the grave. Ghost money (or joss money), is special sheets of paper money bought in bundles, and before burning every sheet must be touched. Zhiza are paper models of belongings the ancestor cherished in life such as cars, houses, jewelry, or even things like ping-pong tables and musical instruments. Whatever is offered or burnt is considered “sent” to the next world for the comfort and enjoyment of the ancestors.
Bai bai on Tomb Sweeping Day
Bai bai means to pray, pay respect, and worship, and is an important part of Tomb Sweeping Day. A small fire is lit in front of the tomb, whereafter each family member takes turns to say a few words in memory of the deceased and gives thanks to the God of the Earth for taking care of the gravesite.
What to eat at Tomb Sweeping Festival
According to the legend, foods should be served cold. Traditional dishes include sweet green rice balls, peach blossom porridge, crispy cakes, snails, and eggs, all prepared a day ahead.
Do’s and Don’ts of Tomb Sweeping Day in Taiwan
Please bear in mind that spirits are an important part of Chinese culture. The belief is that the cemeteries are haunted and therefore you should act appropriately, so as not to bring home the ghosts! Ghosts and spirits are said to latch on to anyone who doesn’t properly follow the rites and traditions. Some of the rules dictate who is allowed to visit the grave, that the chosen ones are to dress in neutral colors, not bright colors like red or black as they attract the spirits, and how the food is presented at the grave.
An extra precaution is to step over a small fire when leaving the cemetery, just to ensure that you do not take home any wandering spirits. If this is not a possibility, then when you return home, you can draw a bath and infuse it with pomelo leaves or flowers to send away any unwelcome spirits.
Celebrating life is also part of the Tomb Sweeping festival
As it is a family tradition honoring those who have passed away, and also a celebration of springtime, life, beauty, and the changing of the season, families who have a larger tomb or area of the cemetery, will have a family picnic at the cemetery. There will be games like tug-of-war, kite flying, long walks, and as it is the season for planting, families also come together to plant flowers and trees.
Flying kites is a popular family activity not only during the day, but also at night. At night, small lanterns are tied to the kite and they look like twinkling stars. An older kite-flying tradition on Tomb Sweeping Day is to cut the string while the kite is high in the sky to let it fly free. It is said this brings good luck, and that certain diseases can be eliminated by doing it.
We hope you will have an enjoyable Tomb Sweeping Day in Taiwan with your loved ones.
Fun Fact: This festival has a close bond to agriculture, and after Tomb Sweeping Day the temperature should begin to rise, and rainfall will increase, therefore it is time to commence your plowing and sowing to guarantee a good harvest.
Read more about Chinese New Year traditions
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