Tomb Sweeping: A Fading Tradition?

11 Apr 2018

China had its Tomb Sweeping Day (清明节) last week, and that meant a three-day national holiday from Thursday, April 5 to Saturday, April 7 this year. (And then we were all supposed to work on Sunday to “make up for” one of those days off.)

The Chinese name for “Tomb Sweeping Day,” 清明节, is a little opaque. Both the characters and are pretty easy, but what do they mean together? “Pure Bright Festival?” Huh? And what does that have to do with sweeping a tomb?

Well, 清明 is “the name of the 5th solar term of the traditional East Asian lunisolar calendar,” according to Wikipedia. (Sorry, that wasn’t super interesting.)

I’m more interested in the tomb sweeping tradition. A day when the whole family, young and old, goes to visits the grave sites of their ancestors. What a great time to tell stories about these people, and to ensure that this aspect of Chinese culture stays alive and well.

Tomb sweeping - 1080834

The thing is, in Shanghai at least, I don’t see or hear about much activity surrounding actually visiting the graves of family members to 扫墓 (sweep the tombs), or at least not on 清明节 itself. What gives? Do people simply not care anymore?

I’ve spoken with a number of friends and family members on this topic, and this is what I’m hearing:

  • I used to go with my family when I was young, but now that I’m grown up in working in Shanghai (far away from my hometown), I don’t go anymore.
  • My mother goes for the whole family and sweeps the tombs.
  • My mother goes for the whole family, but not on the holiday; there’s too much traffic on the roads. She goes a week in advance.
  • In Beijing the locals all go.

Here are a few Chinese posts online, showing that there is some uncertainty out there among the younger people:

Probably one of the most significant events that impacted how this holiday is observed was its being suppressed in the past as “superstition” or overly traditional and backward. It’s only been officially recognized by the government again since 2008, so the holiday has needed time to make a comeback. At the same time, when people live across the country from where their ancestors are buried, it’s not realistic to visit a far-off tomb over a 3-day holiday.

I think one thing that put this holiday in perspective for me was thinking about how Americans observe Memorial Day. Sure, some people make a point of honoring the fallen soldiers, but a lot of people just enjoy a day off and have a barbecue. I like to think that the Chinese take Tomb Sweeping Day a little more seriously, though. It’s about family, after all.

For those of you in China, did you notice many of your young-ish friends making a point to go tomb sweeping this year?

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Here in Taiwan, I would say it is still going strong. Obviously, we do not have the distance issues you have in China. Also, to avoid crowds and traffic, many people go before or after the actual Tomb Sweeping Day. For example, my family typically does it the weekend before.

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