Ching Ming Jie, Tomb Sweeping Day

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A couple prepare sacrifices at their mound-shaped family grave site on Tomb Sweeping Day in Sritasala Cemetery, Ratchaburi, Thailand; the man has placed the food and drink offerings and the woman sits beside the golden joss paper ingots which are ready for burning; photo by Anirut

Ching Ming Jie or Qingming Jie (Clear Bright Festival, Tomb Sweeping Day, or Tomb Sweeping Festival is a memorial day on which people visit the burial sites of their ancestors. There are two ways to count it on the calendar: it is the 104th day after the Winter Solstice, or the 15th day after the Spring Equinox. In secular terms, this means that it takes place on April 4th, 5th, or 6th in any given year. Although it is widely practiced among Taoists, it also shows the originating influence of the Confucian precepts of filial piety, mingled with ancient indigenous Asian forms of ancestor veneration.

On Tomb Sweeping Day, hedges and grass are trimmed, the stone tombs and graves are swept clean, and offerings are presented to the deceased. Flowers, garlands, ribbons, and wreaths decorate the stones. Prepared food and drink may be laid on the tombs, but generally speaking the participants do not cook, and only cold dishes are served to the dead. Food offerings vary by region, and may include rice or noodles with vegetables and meat, fresh fruits, baked goods, and candies.

Steamed green qingtuan dumplings made with mugword shoots are a traditional food offering on Tomb Sweeping Day; photo by Coolmanjackey
A family visits the tall standing-stone graves of their ancestors, which have been wrapped with red and gold ribbons on Tomb Sweeping Day in Wuhan Ciry, Hubei Province, China; photo by ChinaImages
People burning two styles of joss paper, the traditional gilded paper and the printed currency, in a 55-gallon metal drum in a cemetery on Tomb Sweeping Day; photo by Wittayayut

The most characteristic food offerings are bright green qingtuan dumplings, which are made with edible mugwort shoots or barley grass wrapped in translucent glutinous rice paste. Mugwort is only edible in early spring, and as a medicinal and magical herb, it both invigorates and drives off evil spirits. Drinks are also offered, including water, tea, wine, and soda. The food and drink offerings are often laid out for display as if being served at a large family meal or a well-appointed banquet restaurant, and chopsticks are provided for the use of the dead. Devoted participants themselves only eat cold food for the entire memorial day, in order to better commune with their ancestors.

One notable feature of Ching Ming Jie is the burning of joss sticks and joss paper for the benefit of the ancestors. Joss paper is burned on virtually every one of the Taoist seasonal festivals throughout the year, but it is most closely associated with Tomb Sweeping Day and the Ghost Festival as it is a way to respect and give offerings to the dead and to give them wealth in the afterlife, just as the food and drink offerings give them nourishment. . The word "joss" entered into Asian culture when Portuguese sailors used the word Deos (which means "God," but sounds like "joss") to refer to Asian religious goods, thus giving us the English terms joss house for a small temple, joss sticks for incense sticks, and joss paper for paper goods to be burned as offerings.

Styles of joss paper have varied by region and over time, but the oldest and most folkloric types are generally bright yellow paper imprinted with images and words in red ink, or paper onto which gold or silver foil have been adhered. With the coming of the British to South-East Asia, paper offerings began to take the form of spiritual currency that resembled English pound notes. Joss paper currency is widely called Hell money by English-speakers and people of Chinese descent in the American diaspora, because the Chinese dead live in the underworld, under the governance of Yánwáng (King Yan), the god of death and the ruler of Diyu, who oversees the Ten Kings of Hell from his capital of Youdu. Modern alternate terms such as Heaven money and Spirit money have been applied to this form of currency to remove the Christian stigma given to the word Hell. Also in recent times, more elaborate paper offerings have been developed, including metallic gold and silver paper ingot bars, dresses, suits of clothing, watches, cell phones, and even entire automobiles made of paper stretched over bamboo frames. All of these, when burned, satisfy the needs of the the dead in the afterlife.

In modern Taiwan, as concerns for carbon emission and air pollution grow, the government has sponsored initiatives asking people to burn only one stick of incense instead of the traditional three, and to burn fewer sheets of joss paper by purchasing Hell money of higher denominations, giving the same respect with only a few sheets as compared to a thick bundle of lower-valued currency. Joss paper is traditionally burned on the ground or in large metal vessels, but the government now seeks to restrict joss paper burning to capped incinerators rather than allowing open-air combustion. In addition, the burning of the papers in their plastic wrappings, a recent development, is being strongly discouraged, and artisinal joss paper makers, many of whom use traditional wood block printing methods handed down over centuries, are encouraged to wrap their goods in paper bands rather than in plastic.

Although this holiday has its roots in death and the underworld, it takes place during the height of Spring, when the grass is green, new leaves appear on the trees, and many flowers are in bloom. With hopes for the Spring, families turn from visiting the tombs and making offerings, and may enjoy the beautiful weather by eating picnics and flying kites. Willow branches, either carried or placed on the cemetery gates, protect the celebrants against any evil spirits or ghosts who may have ventured onto the land during Ching Ming Jie.


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