Home > Analysis, culture, Photos > 清明节 (Qingming Festival), paying respect to the ancestors

清明节 (Qingming Festival), paying respect to the ancestors

April 5th is officially 清明节 (Qingming Festival). It is a Chinese tradition to pay respect to ancestors and make symbolic offerings so they have a better after-life. This tradition is accompanied by “扫墓” or sweeping of the tomb. Today, I was able to witness this tradition as practiced in Guilin with my wife’s side of the family.

Family in Guilin buying offerings to 扫墓 (Saomu)

The above was taken along a road leading to a major cemetery. As you can see in the image, old and young take part in this important Chinese tradition. I noticed the boy quietly observing what her mother was buying while on the back of his grand-father. In this shot, he was looking back at me, curious, and probably wondering what is this big lens aiming at him.


Qingming was toned down by the Chinese government in 1949 when the new China was officially established. At that time, the country wanted to ditch a lot of traditions it thought were “old.” For example, the custom of women binding their feet was officially abolished. Chinese men no longer could have concubines, and women were made completely equal. In 2008, this tradition of ancestor worship was officially restored and recognized as a national holiday.


Bear in mind, 1949 was a momentous year, because for the first time over 100 years, the Chinese finally had destiny in their own hands. The country yearned to erase the past and hurriedly leap forward.

In regards to Qingming, the ordinary Chinese never really held back on this important tradition.

Ancestor worship is a form of filial piety, rooted in Confucianism.

We bought incense, firecrackers, flowers, paper money, and other symbolic offerings. They are meant to bring the ancestors wealth and material comfort.


The firecrackers are meant to scare ghosts away. I will attest to the fact that they are loud!


They are wrapped in red paper. Red is an important and auspicious color in Chinese culture. It represents happiness and luck.

Imagine an entire city 扫墓 (Saomu) all at once. Think of the sight and the sound. It is filled with smoke from burning incense and paper money. Firecrackers also add constant popping noises. They leave a sea of red paper bits all over.

Chinese culture is loud, both in sound and color! I have always wondered if there is a relationship in the Chinese habbit of speaking loud in public and the loudness in festivities. Today, I really felt there was such a connection.

gold offering

Some offerings are more ornate and elaborate. This gold money tree really caught my attention. Look at the shape of the pot, the gold coin ‘soil,’ and the tree itself bearing gold coin fruit. I can’t think of anything else from any other culture this capitalistic!


You may click on the image to bring up a larger version. There are many more other symbolisms of wealth I have yet to mention in that money tree.

We didn’t buy it, but I am certain this item commanded higher margins too. Did I mention the way to send it to the after-life is to burn it?

I have also seen fake cigarettes, 10Billion U.S. dollar bills, photos of European-style mansions, and even cars. My thoughts on that? In one word, pragmatism!

In China, the law requires the dead to be cremated. For a country with 1.3 billion people, there is not enough land for traditional graves. For countries like Japan, this same law exists. In the U.S., there are many options of burial. This may sound like a bizarre example, but with a high population, norms and customs are often bent out of pragmatism. Many in the West criticize China for her one-child policy, but they have no idea what constraints the country is confronted with given the population size.

At the grave site, it really felt the whole city was there. People constantly streaming in to pay their respect. Those finished are streaming out. The hills where many of the graves are are dotted with people. Pockets of smoke rise up into the sky where-ever firecrackers went off. This qingming festival in Guilin was in fact festive.

qingming in Guilin

Guilin is a beautiful place. If an option, I might elect to have it my final resting place. Too bad it was a overcast day. Otherwise I’d show a wider angle shot with blue sky and other limestone hills in the surrounding.

Perhaps the weather will cooperate in the next few days while I am here. Guilin has incredible landscapes, and I don’t want to show them unless with blue skies and white clouds. Stay tuned.

  1. raffiaflower
    April 5th, 2011 at 05:02 | #1

    Symbolic offerings – this year, the “hot” item to burn to a dear one is a, ahem, paper Ipad.If the Apple people want to sue for intellectual copyright infringement, they will have to pursue it to the next world. lol!

  2. April 5th, 2011 at 05:06 | #2


    LOL. I am sharing that with friends and relatives for sure.

  3. silentvoice
    April 6th, 2011 at 10:21 | #3

    I have mixed feelings about this festival. These days the festival has become more and more commercialized. Like you’ve mentioned, there are paper Ipads now. People buy/burn all kinds of things, most if not all symbolizing money or the pursuit of money.

    Put it this way, the festival has become more Taoist, less Confucius.

  4. smalltalks
    April 7th, 2011 at 08:23 | #4

    Enjoy Ai Weiwei’s art

    The hero of the west, the mother fucker of China


  5. April 8th, 2011 at 08:06 | #5

    It’s a good traditional festival. My family do it every year to visit my grandparents’ tombs and remember them.

    I do think the paper burning part used to be a good way to save resources, since it is obviously better than burning the real thing!

    But now, the paper burning bit is becoming too wasteful, and unfriendly to environment. (Think about how much paper we Chinese are burning up for this festival, and how many trees are pulped for the paper).

    People, it’s the thought that counts.

  6. Charles Liu
    April 8th, 2011 at 14:04 | #6


    I’d get my Dad one, but I don’t think he knows how to use it.

  7. raffiaflower
    April 9th, 2011 at 07:19 | #7

    According to an account, QingMing was originally intended as an occasion of repentance and moderation in memory of honoured ancestors.
    It was initiated by Duke Wen to commemorate a loyal retainer who had served a meat soup of his own flesh (shades of NK!) for his exiled master.
    The servant refused reward, even when the Duke finally became king of Jin. He disappeared into the forest instead which was, to lure him out, set on fire.
    His charred remains, along with those of his mother’s, were later found. The Duke then ordered Hanshi (day of cold food) and the kingdom went without fire for three days, in honour of the loyal servant.
    By the Tang Dynasty, QingMing had become an occasion for the rich to outdo each other in ostentatious displays of wealth, in the name of the dead.
    Emperor Xuanzong decreed that ancestral homage could only be done at the gravesites, on QingMing.
    Things today have reverted, and exceeded, to the lavishness of China’s Golden Age – as offerings become even more bizarre and ludicrous.

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