Chinese mark Tomb Sweeping Day as they honour departed loved ones

Qingming tradition of visiting ancestors’ graves more than 2,500 years old

Chinese people today mark the festival of Qingming, Tomb Sweeping Day, a public holiday when people honour their departed loved ones by visiting the graves of their ancestors, bearing gifts, flowers and offerings.

The tradition is more than 2,500 years old, and people visiting graves burn effigies and joss paper offerings to the dead in the underworld. Traditionally, these were gold, money and servant effigies, but in recent years have included effigies of smartphones, laptops, even BMWs. In Hong Kong, it is common to see "hell bank notes" in billion and trillion denominations.

Grave robberies have become a problem, although thieves are not after the bank notes. Last month four men were jailed in Shanxi province for digging up female bodies to sell for traditional "ghost marriages", a ritual of burying recently deceased women alongside dead bachelors after a kind of marriage ceremony, so they can be together in the afterlife.

Black market
The practice is illegal but it is still kept up in some families where young adult males die before they have a chance to get married. A female body can earn up to €16,000 on the black market. Normally it is agreed among the families of the deceased, but the Xi'an Evening News reported that the men "stole female corpses and after cleaning them, fabricated medical files for the deceased and sold them for a high price".


Urbanisation has put pressure on burial plots real estate in China and this year's festival has seen debates about how China is running out of space for land interments.

China’s booming real estate market is a problem for the dead as well as the living.

The price of cemetery plots in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province in the south, is now about 80,000 yuan (€10,000) a square metre.

This is about eight times the cost per square metre of a local apartment.

"Even the more expensive plots are selling well," a sales representative surnamed Yang at Guangzhou's Jinzhong Permanent Cemetery told China Daily . "More and more people are now buying expensive cemetery plots for their parents, to fulfil their filial duties."

Qingming is traditionally a politically sensitive festival. In 1976, thousands of people streamed to Tiananmen Square on Qingming to lay wreathes and flowers honouring Zhou Enlai, the beloved premier who had died in January.

The violent suppression of that spontaneous movement set the stage for the arrests of the ultra-leftist "Gang of Four", headed by Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing – and the end of the Cultural Revolution later that year.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing