This article was originally published in 2018. It has been updated for 2021.
Qingming, known to foreigners as "Tomb Sweeping Festival", has been causing much confusion for people since ancestral times. Shall we go out and enjoy some quality spring time, and be happy? Or shall we take an hours-long trip to a cemetery, to weep and genuflect in front of a grave, being miserable? What does Qingming actually mean? Does Qingming actually mean 'tomb sweeping'?
Answers to these questions and more after the jump. Read on, you clueless expats, read on.
1. So Qingming means "tomb sweeping"?
Not really. The term Qingming originally was just a solar term in reference to a specific time of year that falls on April 3, 4, or 5. Our ancestors considered it as "the time when everything starts to grow". So the word "清明" conveys the idea of pureness and brightness. No so metal. Not so emo.
Many of Qingming traditions can be traced back to the very first dynasty in Chinese history — Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). At that time, there was a "cold food festival". It was said to be created because of this incredibly sad legend, which involves an emperor visiting his friend's tomb during Qingming.
Because this cold food festival and Qingming are awfully close to each other, people began to treat them as one festival starting from the Tang Dynasty: the Qingming festival. So it's not only about eating cold food but also paying respect to family members who passed away, following the examples of our emperors.
2. What's with all the heavy traffic?
Because of their Zhejiang and Jiangsu heritage, many Shanghainese visit cemeteries in Suzhou or Nanjing. Within Shanghai, there are a couple of main cemeteries located in Qingpu, Jiading, Fengxian and Jinshan districts. Traffic on highways gets really busy during late March and early April.
Even if many of us choose to avoid going to the cemetery at a fixed time (or simply avoid it entirely), there are still lots of people who follow other tertiary traditions every year.
There is always debate about whether or not any entertainment should be happening during Qingming — a debate that's been going on for thousands of years, actually. Despite the rainy weather, you have to admit the Qingming period is great for outings. The temperature starts to get a bit warmer, peach flowers start blossoming, rape flowers (yes, we love seeing large fields of rape flowers) start to bloom. So taking short trips around Shanghai in Qingming is also very common. Which means more traffic on the highways.
3. What do people do when visiting cemeteries? Do they really sweep their ancestors' graves?
I have never seen anyone take a broom to the cemetery. But we do bring a little food or alcohol, and white or yellow chrysanthemums to the tomb. Pouring one out for the homies that are no longer with us, as it were.
The burning of fake goods is common, like cash or iPhones. These days, however, more and more people are choosing to keep it simple. (It's not like we are completely unaware of the air pollution.)
4. What do people eat during Qingming?
In Shanghai, qingtuan (青团) is the main dessert people really enjoy. It's part of the "cold food festival" tradition. Qingtuan is a seasonal green dumpling made of glutinous rice mixed with Chinese mugwort (aicao, 艾草) or barley grass juice, and has a pleasant earthy aroma. Quite a few of our centuries-old restaurants have their versions of qingtuan, usually priced around 3-8rmb for one.
Qingtuan has been a super trendy thing now ever since Xin Hua Lou developed a salty egg yolk and pork floss stuffing that had people queuing up for hours. Rd bean paste is still the most common flavor, though.
Like anything glutinous rice-based, qingtuan is hard to digest. And every year people have to take a trip to the hospital for their Qingming celebrations. Really.
"Knife anchovy" (daoyu, 刀鱼) is also a hot item on peoples' plates during Qingming. Its retail price is getting ridiculously high since a fishing ban was introduced to protect the species.
These days people are less concerned about the "it's a sad festival so let's not have fun" part of it, visiting graves on April 5, and more about "let's take a short break before the Labor Day holiday begins!"
Among the four biggest festivals for Han Chinese (the other three being Spring festival, Dragon Boat festival, and Mid-Autumn festival), Qingming is the least commercialized, which tells you a bit about how much attention people give to this festival. And that's probably for the best...