Today is Tomb Sweeping Holiday in Taiwan, thus I have the perfect opportunity to explain what this holiday is and how it’s celebrated in Taiwan. But before I dive into the what, where, when and how of Tomb Sweeping Day, I’d also like to mention that visiting a graveyard in Taiwan is a neat experience that everyone should try at least once.
John and I always make an effort to take our guests out of Taipei by car, and we generally make a beeline for the East Coast. Although it’s difficult to tear your eyes away from the stunning coastline and scenery, our guests never fail to spot and inquire about the massive graveyards that are nestled into the mountainsides. This is why we’ve started stopping at a local cemetery just outside of Hualien whenever anyone is visiting. I know this sounds crazy, but our guests are always surprised and grateful to see this part of Taiwanese culture.
The ancient Chinese believed that when a person dies, he or she enters the afterlife. During the 4th century BC, the Chinese began building large mounds over the tombs and erecting temples next to the mounds so relatives could leave offerings to their ancestors.
Above-ground tombs in Taiwan range from white marble and grey stone to colorfully-decorated tombs with interesting script, ornaments, and photos. Some of them look like miniature homes, while others are quite small and modest. It is always surprising to see how ornate some of the tombs can be.
In Taiwan’s wet, humid, subtropical climate, it’s no wonder that some of these graveyards and tombs fall into a state of neglect over the year. Since Taiwanese believe in ancestor worship, and the upkeep of these areas is a very big part of their culture, it’s not surprising that they observe a special day each year to pay respect to their ancestors by cleaning up the family tomb. This special day is called Tomb Sweeping Day. On April 4th and 5th each year, families of Chinese descent all over the world are praying at their home altars or making their way to their family grave sites to honor their dearly departed ancestors.
In an increasingly busy world, the practice of maintaining traditional Chinese tombs may be dwindling with some families, but you can still see the efforts of families who remember their loved ones and who take the time to gather in graveyards once a year to clear and clean tombs that have become overgrown with tall grass, leaves, and dirt.
Tomb Sweeping Day is not to be confused with Ghost Month.
What Is Tomb Sweeping Day?
Tomb Sweeping Day goes by many names. It’s referred to as the Qingming Festival, the Pure Brightness Festival, Clear Bright Festival, Ancestors Day, All Souls Day, Chinese Memorial Day, and Spring Remembrance, to name a few. It is a traditional Chinese public holiday that falls on the first day of the fifth solar term, which is named Qingming.
Qingming is also observed regularly in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. In Taiwan, Qingming Festival is referred to as Tomb Sweeping Day, and it’s observed by many Taiwanese families every year. This is the time of year when people step outside to enjoy the new spring weather and tend to the graves of their dear ancestors. The families who practice tomb sweeping believe that keeping the spirits of their loved ones happy will keep current family members healthy, happy, and in luck.
Chinese families celebrate Tomb Sweeping Day on April 4th, but in Taiwan, the day is celebrated on April 5th to commemorate the death of Chiang Kai-Shek.
Why Do People Celebrate Tomb Sweeping Day?
Although Tomb Sweeping Day is traditionally a one-day holiday, it isn’t uncommon for families today to gather at the grave sites of their ancestors in the days leading up to the holiday. Some families assign a family member to make the trip on behalf of the entire family, and this mainly has to do with today’s modern lifestyle. Simply put, work schedules get in the way, and some families have to travel a long way to practice ancestor worship. Since ancient customs dictate that grave site verification can only happen ten days before and ten days after Tomb Sweeping Day, many families choose to observe this special day the week before or after the actual day.
The observance of this holiday began more than 2,500 years ago, and it is credited to Tang Emperor Xuanzong in the year 732. The emperor banned wealthy Chinese citizens from holding too many expensive ceremonies in honor of their ancestors, and instead declared that respects could only formally be paid at ancestors’ graves on Qingming. The tradition has been observed ever since.
Tomb Sweeping Day is a day for family members to remember and honor their ancestors. Overseas Chinese communities also take this festival very seriously, as it’s seen as a family celebration and a obligation.
What Happens on Tomb Sweeping Day?
The day normally starts with the family paying respects to their ancestors from China at their home alter.
This is followed by a visit to the graves of relatives that are buried in country. Family members pray, clean the tombs, and bring food, joss paper accessories, and libations for their ancestors.
Weeds are removed from the gravesite and the tombstone is cleaned and swept clean of dust and dirt. Repairs to the gravesite are also made, and new earth, flowers, and willow branches are placed on top of the grave. Willow is thought to keep ghosts and evil spirits at bay.
Joss sticks are then lit and placed by the grave. An offering of food and paper money is placed at the tomb.
The family burns spirit money and paper replicas of things like cards, phones, and other household items. It’s believed that the deceased will need these things in their afterlife. Members of the family kowtow three to nine times before the tomb; this ritual is performed in order of patriarchal seniority.
After the ancestor worship is finished, the family feasts on food and drinks that they have brought for worship. I’ve even see families holding bbqs and picnics in the cemetery. Since Tomb Sweeping Day occurs during the spring, it’s also common for families to take advantage of the nice spring weather by taking a walk in the countryside. Trees are sometimes planted nearby to symbolize life. Kite-flying is also a popular activity because it symbolizes freedom for the dearly departed.
The custom of worshipping ancestors may seem strange to some Westerners, but it’s really not all that strange. It’s a beautiful tradition that brings family members together and a wonderful reminder of the connection to our past.