Not Quite Mulan Anymore

April 4th brought China one of the New Year’s first national holidays: the Qingming festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day. Celebrated yearly on April 4th or 5th, the holiday represents the rebirth of new life through honoring those that have passed. Typically, family members gather for a few days of food, visiting family gravesites for traditional ceremonies including prayer and paper effigy burning.

The festival got its start in 636 B.C. The Duke of Wen, Chong’er, instituted the “Cold Food Festival” after accidentally killing a trusted advisor in a forest fire the Duke started. In 732 A.D. the Emperor Xuanzong merged the Cold Food Festival with ancestor worship to cut back on the numbers of extravagant rituals to pay homage to deceased family members, and deemed the day Qingmingjie, the Tomb Sweeping Day.

 

Other methods to save money and still honor ancestors have begun to emerge in the technological era. For the younger crowd, the ever-popular WeChat serves to bridge the distance between city and home with video streams of the tomb cleaning ritual. This is the case at the Yuhuatai Gongdeyuan Cemetery, where staff will perform the ritual at various gravesites and livestream to family members in distant parts of China. Other cemeteries offer a virtual equivalent to traditional burned offerings with online platforms to purchase digital candles and paper products. While this “Internet Tomb Sweeping” may receive criticism from conservative Chinese, for the younger generation this digital revolution may prove to be a lasting change.

 

From mystical roots in imperial forest burning to modern travel and ritual workaround, Tomb Sweeping Day ties to something much deeper in Chinese cultural psychology: the central importance of family across time and space.