Tomb Sweeping Day

This weekend is a holiday weekend for many families in Taiwan because this Wednesday (I think) is Tomb Sweeping Day, which has become a family trip to the ancestor’s graves to tidy them up, burn offerings to the ancestor’s spirits, and perform other animistic rituals… generally similar to what Mulan does in the Disney movie.

This Sunday morning’s service had over an hour dedicated to a memorial of all the deceased members from the last several years. The talk was about how, “God loves memorials” and wants us to honour the memory of our ancestors. There was nice music, and a woman talked about each person’s life as pictures from their life were shown on the screen. The choir led some special songs. Many people, old and young, were crying throughout the pews. Mingdaw’s father was among those remembered. I was looking forward to seeing how the community handled this particular holiday, since fundamental aspects of Tomb Sweeping Day directly clash with their convictions.

“Animism”:

the belief that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs and, consequently, that human beings must discover what beings and forces are influencing them in order to determine future action and, frequently, to manipulate their power.

“Ancestors”:

are “feared, respected, and venerated because they are specifically remembered and are part of the extended family. Ghosts, on the other hand, are those spirits of the dead who are disappearing into the past and are no longer individually remembered by their families.” [Ancestors are called] “the living dead” and ghosts “the dead dead.”

“Tomb Sweeping Day”:

The Chinese respect for filial piety and careful attention to funeral rites is visibly manifested in the custom of ancestor worship. Since ancient times, a day has been designated for sweeping the tomb and honoring one’s ancestors. …

Tomb Sweeping Day … has retained its deep meaning in modern Chinese society, as the numerous families carrying out cleaning and worship rites at cemeteries during this time will testify. The [Taiwan] Central Government Prayer Service is also held on this day, amply evidencing the deep respect with which the Chinese view their roots.

Since most cemeteries are located on hillsides in the countryside or outskirts of town, upon completing the Tomb Sweeping Day rites, many families will take advantage of the fine spring weather by going on a family outing. These trips have become an important part of Tomb Sweeping Day as a time for families to enjoy time together.

The foods offered on Tomb Sweeping Day vary by region. In Taiwan, the most common dishes are the distinctive ” grave cakes” and jun ping.

Tomb Sweeping Day combines the people’s reverence for their ancestors and for nature and is a reaffirmation of the Chinese ethic of filial piety. Today, Tomb Sweeping Day is a time not only for worship and maintaining the tombs of ancestors, but also a tangible expression of filial respect for the teachings and virtues of forebears.

For more about Tomb Sweeping Festival, including photos and more info, browse the Tomb Sweeping Festival (清明节) category, or see:

7 thoughts on “Tomb Sweeping Day

  1. Man, how did you guy’s feel about it? That’s an interesting experience, but something that deeply entrenched in a society can’t be simply sweeped away, nor should it, unless you really understand what your doing.

  2. Wow.. I just love reading your posts! so interesting..
    so do you need some shirts that say “someone in texas
    loves me?” I’ll see if I can get my hands on some .. :) ..
    so did you tell the kids what the shirts really said or are you waitig for them to figure it out?
    cant wait to see pics!

  3. Houston - that’s what the second paragraph was about. Basically, in order to get away with not worshipping/animistically manipulating, they really emphasize remembering/honouring. Filial piety is still a strong value, relative to the West. I dont know how clean a distinction that line makes in people’s actual lives, but I haven’t seen anything to make me real suspicious. Even some of the young kids (grade 2) have commented to us in class how their families don’t do certain things this holiday that everyone else does. If grade 2 kids experience a difference at the family level and can articulate reasons for it, I’m guessing the community has been pretty intentional in their handling of the issue. I have no idea regarding the general degree of any syncretism in the community.

    Sean - the service was really touching; it obviously meant a great deal to the people there, old and young. We don’t have the language/cultural literacy to know most of what was said or what it all meant. But communities like this have been dealing with the spiritual incompatability issues for generations now. But I agree with what you said about things being deeply entrenched and not easy to sweep away. As you’ll see when we post our upcoming batch of pictures, even though Taipei is a modern developed city, many traditional practices are still common even among the rich, educated, and modern.

    Ruth - maybe we’d tell the kids what their shirts say… if we could figure it out for ourselves!

  4. This just came from Uncle Ken in Malaysia, which has a huge Chinese population/cultural influence:

    Thousands of Taoists observed the rite by visiting and sprucing up graves and offering prayers to their ancestors. Families burned incense and made paper offerings of hell money, houses, clothes, cell phones, cars, digital cameras and makeup kits, for the departed to use in the afterlife. An assortment of food, drinks and fruits were laid out as offerings to the dead.
    [...]
    The Chinese believe in order for the spirits of deceased ancestors to bless and look after their families, they have to be offered food and “spirit money” to keep them happy.

  5. filial piety is very important in ones heart as death can come without an invite at any time in a persons life
    the ascestors are only bodily relations for there lifetime
    the spirtual soul is eternal and never ceases to have a body of some sort while it is comforting to think of them with respect one can not acurately determine there lives to come still it is a good pious deed they are performing and they all have my utmost respect
    regardless of culture our shadow is equal to every persons where ever we stand on this earth so goodwill respect and compassion should be showen to all

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