Think of Qingming Festival as a graveyard party day all over the country, when most Chinese take a mini road trip to visit deceased loved ones and pay their respects.

Qīng Míng Jié 清明节 (lit. Pure Brightness Festival, aka Tomb Sweeping Day) always comes exactly 105 days after the winter solstice. This tradition is said to have started around the time of Kongzi during the Zhou Dynasty 2500 years ago and has evolved through time, so specific family expressions of “filial piety” often vary between locations.

Usually families leave early morning for their tomb-sweeping trip and finish all the rituals before lunch. The mood of the day may then shift from sentimental and melancholic to “lets revel in this life” with everybody enjoying the reunion with family and the refreshing spring.

The typical modern family’s tomb sweeping “picnic basket” includes:

  1. Food and alcohol, especially favorites of deceased relatives, consumed by the living picnic-goers.
  2. Cigarettes and incense, the latter also lit for their benefit and to enable the spiritual communication.
  3. Cash, credit cards, and the latest fancy tech gadgets for the deceased – all paper replicas. Some even prepare real estate deeds and giant paper houses. They’re all burned to pass them over to the eagerly awaiting spirits who might be thinking, “Not that, I want the other thing!”

The practice of extravagant gift-giving to buy otherworldly influence reached a peak during the Tang Dynasty, when Emperor Xuanzong in the year 732 declared the practice wasteful and decreed that gifts for the dead could only be given once a year on Qingming. Since then, people have stopped using real material possessions and opted for burned substitutes to fool the dead (or maybe it’s the thought that counts).

There’s a popular Qingming story about a man going to a prayer goods store to buy some electronic (paper) offerings:

Boss: May I interest you in the latest iPhone?
Man: Will my ancestors know how to use it?
Boss: Steve Jobs is there to help, so don’t worry.
Man: Oh, okay.
Boss: Do you need a case?
Man: They might like that.
Boss: Bluetooth headset?
Man: Uh, I guess so.
Boss: Extra phone charger?
Man: Is that really necessary?
Boss: If their phone runs low on battery, do you want to be responsible?
Man: Okay, I’ll take the charger too.
Boss: Anything else?
Man: Yes, I need six of your name cards.
Boss: Why so many?
Man: I’m going to burn your cards for my ancestors, so if there’s any problem they can contact you directly!


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