All you need to know about “Grave Sweeping” day!
Did you know that Hong Kong is amongst the places that enjoy the highest number of public holidays in the world? The city’s illustrious history means that we get the best of both the Western and Chinese calendars. For expats living here, it’s good to know about the Chinese holidays and their significance to Hong Kong’s culture. Ching Ming Festival (or 清明節) is one such holiday, but what exactly is it and why is it important? To preempt questions from your inquisitive kids, we’ve collated the facts to make sure you’ve got all the answers at the ready. Keep in mind that this year will see the government’s directives of social distancing in place, to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Origins Of Ching Ming
The Ching Ming Festival or “Grave-Sweeping Day” is a time for the family to come together to pay their respects, by visiting and maintaining the burial sites of loved ones and ancestors. The holiday falls at the beginning of April (or in the third lunar month) when things are meant to be clean (ching) and bright (ming), and as the festival closely follows the spring equinox, it’s generally considered an auspicious time.
It draws on various traditions, with origins dating as far back as the 6th Century BC. Legend has it that Duke Wen of Jin accidentally killed his friend Jie Zhitui in a fire and declared that there was to be no fire for three days. This led to the tradition of only eating cold food on this day. The Shangsi “free love” Festival (where unmarried couples could flirt without repercussion), also fell within the same three-day period. During the Tang Dynasty, these festivals merged to become what we now know as the Ching Ming Festival.
Grave Sweeping Traditions And Practices
The most important tradition of Ching Ming is for families to travel to graves, tablet locations, temples or tombs, to clean and maintain them. This includes freshening up worn inscriptions, weeding and general dirt removal. Hongkongers will take the time to respect their ancestors regardless of the location of the grave.
Sometimes more traditional rituals take place at the larger gravesites. Family members will begin laying auspicious food like pork, chicken and pastries at the headstone. This is followed by three sets of chopsticks and three cups of wine. The head of the household begins by bowing three times with a cup of wine in hand and then pouring the wine on the headstone. Each family member repeats the procedure three times. Many will let off firecrackers, light incense and burn ghost money (fake paper money), with some families often sharing a meal at the grave to dine with their ancestors.
Modern-Day Ching Ming Customs
The traditional festival food is cold, green, glutinous rice dumplings (taken from the practice of eating cold food), but this is rarely observed today. Modern families will now simply visit the gravesites of their loved ones and do some general cleaning at the site, before burning incense and ghost money. Some may lay fresh flowers and then have a family meal later on to enjoy the reprieve from work, as well as commemorating their ancestors.
Bus routes to these (once quiet) grave locations usually become very busy during the Ching Ming Festival (this year will have revised transport arrangements and new rules of sticking to groups less than four), as do many local restaurants (things will be different this year). The Ching Ming Festival, even in modern-day Hong Kong, is a way to enforce family honour and respect, to remember and grieve for past loved ones, and to spend an enjoyable day with relatives.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally written in April 2012, before being updated by Danielle Roberts in April 2019 and was most recently updated in March 2021.