Ching Ming Festival or Tomb Sweeping Day is a traditional Chinese festival observed each year on the 105th day after the Winter Solstice. This tradition of visiting and cleaning the tombs of ancestors is observed as a way to honour them and pay respects. It teaches the younger generation the importance of filial piety, and the rituals performed are also believed to bless the surviving family with good luck, abundance and prosperity.
In 2023, Ching Ming Festival falls on April 5th.
What used to be an elaborate ceremony which dates back more than 2,500 years has today evolved into a more modest version which can be performed on any day ten days before and up to ten days after the actual date. But certain rules still apply when choosing the best day to visit the graves.To do so, we consult the Chinese Almanac – a good source for picking dates is Lillian Too’s Feng Shui Diary 2023.
CHOOSING A SUITABLE DATE
RULE 1: The day’s Heavenly Stem element must not be destructive to the year’s Heavenly Stem element. This is known as the Por Yat (破日) or Broken Day, deemed unlucky for both the living and the deceased. In 2022, the element of the year is Yin Water. Thus days with Yin Earth as Heavenly Stem are unsuitable. These days are March 22nd, April 1st, April 11th and April 21st.
RULE 2: The Earthly Branch animal of the day MUST NOT CLASH with the animal sign of the deceased.
PREPARING FOR CHING MING
Once you have decided on the best day to honor your ancestors, you need to prepare these items for the rituals.
- Chinese tea
- Chinese rice wine
- 1 to 3 cups of cooked rice
- 3 kinds of meat – steamed chicken, roast pork and fried fish. This symbolizes the Sam Sang (三牲); the heaven, earth and the sea.
- 1 Red Tortoise cake or Ang Ku Kueh – made from rice flour and sweetened bean paste to symbolise longevity for family members.
- Some Fatt Ko – a steamed rice cake to symbolise increased wealth for the family.
- Some Fook Bao – a steamed rice cake filled with red bean paste to symbolise reunion of the family members.
- 3 plain hard boiled eggs.
- You can also include the favourite dish of the deceased.
- Various kinds of fruits.
- Grave paper and joss paper.
- Paper offerings such as hell bank notes, gold and silver ingots, treasure chest, paper maids, a house, a car or modern technology such as tablets, mobile phones, laptop or even a DSLR camera – anything that the deceased would have used when alive, or that family members would like to share with the deceased.
- 6 Pairs of bamboo stick candles, or traditional Chinese red candles with candle holders. (you can also use butter candles or oil lamps.)
- 1 set of 3 big incense sticks with a pack of normal stick incense. Sandalwood is best but other kinds of prayer incense sticks can also be used.
- Joss pot filled with white river sand for placing the incense sticks.
Remember to bring additional fruit, incense sticks and candles to pay respects to the spiritual gatekeeper at the entrance to the grave and the guardians of the grave. In the event the deceased was vegetarian, you can replace meats, rice wine and eggs with vegetarian dishes.
RITUALS AND METHODS
In modern times, the majority of graves are located in an organized cemetery, so the following method is applicable.
- Upon arrival at the cemetery grounds, you first need to pay respects to the gatekeeper or land guardian, also known as Dai Pak Gong (大伯公). Some cemeteries will have Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva (大願地藏菩薩). The offerings here are usually 5 pieces of fruits, a pair of candles and 3 incense sticks per person.
- When you reach your ancestor’s grave, you should start by cleaning the grave and the area surrounding by removing all debris and weeds that clutter the site. You can also repaint the tombstone writing. This process is known as Ching Fan (清墳).
- Next, lay the grave paper; rectangular gold or silver colored joss paper representing money on the grave. Also place a stack of joss paper onto the top of the tombstone, as this symbolizes the changing of new roof tiles for the grave or Gua Chi (掛紙).
- Then it is time to pay respects to the grave guardians. Offerings given are tea, rice wine, fruits, incense and candles, together with paper offerings.
- Once the grave guardians have been appeased, arrange the offerings to your ancestor as follows, starting from the tombstone outwards.
- 3 cups of chinese tea
- 3 cups of rice wine
- 1 or 3 bowls of cooked rice
- Sam Sing (三牲) Roast Pork, Steam Chicken and Fried Fish, on the left will be the Bao, on the right is the Fatt Kou.
- Hard-boiled eggs, Ang Ku Kueh and also fruits are placed at the end of the tombstone.
- Paper offerings are placed next to the tomb.
- Now, light up a pair of bamboo candles or Chinese red candles and place on both sides of the Joss pot.
- The eldest family member will then light up the 3 big incense sticks and bow three times in front of the grave, as a sign of respect to the ancestor. Once completed, place the incense sticks on the joss pot.
- This is then followed by sequence of age by the rest of the family members, each offering 3 sticks and making 3 bows.
- When all family members have paid their respects, the paper offerings are burnt for the ancestor.
- All food offerings are then shared with family members to represent blessings from their ancestor.
If the ancestor was cremated, the procedure is the same except for the laying of joss paper on the tombstone and paying respects to the guardians of the grave.
- For new graves less than a year old, the Ching Ming Ritual can only be done 15 to 20 days before the actual Ching Ming day.
- For those who died young or prematurely, you should only use white candles and incense with green sticks.
- NOTE: Chinese candles with auspicious wordings; the motif of Dragon and Phoenix, and Dragon incense are NOT suitable for such rituals!!!
- Parents should never perform Ching Ming rituals for their child’s grave, as it is improper for elders to pay respects to a junior.
- Never offer watermelon. As melons in Cantonese is Gua, which is phonetically similar to the word “death”. This goes for all melons except for pumpkin, as it symbolizes gold.
- Menstruating women should avoid Ching Ming as it is considered disrespectful and “unclean”. If a lady menstruates while attending the ritual, they may leave and wait in the car to avoid disrespecting the ancestor. Spiritually, a menstruating lady’s yang energy is the weakest and may attract wandering spirits with evil intentions.
- Pregnant ladies should also avoid visiting graves to avoid any contact with wandering spirits.
- Lighting firecrackers can be done during the burning of paper offerings. This will drive away wandering spirits looking to snatch away the offerings. But never light the crackers on top of the grave. Always light it on the side and make sure to avoid the neighbour’s grave site.
- Do offer incense to the neighbouring graves as a peace offering.
- Be careful of what you say. Do not use vulgarities or make negative comments such as “what a waste to die so young, so handsome, beautiful and so on.” Such actions may attract unwanted attention from the surrounding spirits.
- Be aware of where you step as older graveyards are not as organized as modern ones. Graves can be very near to one another, so you must ensure that you do not step over or sit on someone else’s grave. Do say “excuse me” if you do need to walk past another grave.
Ching Ming is the best time to perform karmic debtor pujas that gather merits on behalf of the ancestors so they can attain nirvana. As such, many temples and monasteries conduct liberation pujas during this season. Other merit-gathering activities include offering alms and new robes to monks, and doing charity in your ancestor’s name.