Tag Archives: Chinese tradition

Tomb Sweeping Day: Annual Family Gravesite Ritual

Nationality: American / Taiwanese
Language(s) spoken: Chinese Mandarin, English
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, CA / Taipei, Taiwan


Every year, MC and their family go to visit their paternal grandfather’s grave, usually on his birthday and on a holiday in April called Qing ming jie. The whole family goes, including MC, their parents, their siblings, their grandma, their cousins, etc. First, the family enters a main building, where there’s a plaque with their grandpa’s name and statues of the gods. The family pays their respects to both, praying for peace and protection. They light incense and leave offerings, sometimes for the gods and sometimes for the family members. There are also tables where you can leave flowers. Then, they go up a mountain to visit the gravesite. It’s located in a building eventually meant to hold the remains of everyone in their family. Inside, they clean the grave of MC’s grandpa, pray, make offerings, and leave fruit, wine, and flowers, as well as burn incense. Then, they sit together at a pavilion, talk, and eat food. After that, they read out a poetic prayer three times in front of a pot that represents the earth god. Then they go speak to their grandpa in their head, sharing whatever they like, and ask them for protection and good fortune.


MC has been participating in this tradition for as long as they can remember. For them, it’s not extremely sad, as they never knew their grandpa. It is a bit sad, though, because they know their dad and grandma are really sad during this tradition. But it’s also something to look forward to. MC gets to enjoy nice food and spend time with their cousins, which is fun. They think it’s really cool that they get to connect with their grandpa even though they never met him. They described the offerings for their grandpa as a kind of care package for him; he can get those things even in the afterlife.


This family (and cultural) tradition reminds me of Valk’s article “Ghostly Possession and Real Estate,” especially its description of what ghosts mean to people. In it, he talks about how adults like “friendly ghost” stories in which people in the afterlife can help those still alive or connect with them in some way. MC’s family tradition isn’t necessarily about ghosts, but it undoubtedly represents a desire to connect with those who have passed on. By offering up food, wine, and flowers to their deceased relative, MC’s family shows their belief that those no longer alive can still interact with them and their lives. This cultural tradition also represents a value of respect for the dead. By visiting their relative, paying their respects, and cleaning his grave multiple times a year, MC’s family shows that they still love and care for MC’s grandpa, even though he’s no longer with them. Finally, this tradition shows an immense value of family. The fact that everyone in MC’s family is buried in the same gravesite house shows that they want to be together even after death, and the way that their deceased grandfather brings together all alive family members further demonstrates dedication to staying close. Overall, this tradition represents a belief in the spirit world, as well as strong family ties.

“Then we burn them and it is thought to go to the afterlife”

Context: My informant is a 26 year-old woman who is of Chinese descent. She grew up in Hong Kong and lived there until she moved to Pasadena at the age of 7. She described common practices for her family over holidays and how those were carried out at her buddhist grandfather’s funeral. She knows and loves these stories from personal experience.


“For every holiday, we never celebrated like “Christmas”, we would celebrate my grandma’s lunar birthday or a special dragon boat holiday like all these random holidays that I grew up with. A lot of Chinese people will have an altar to honor their ancestors consisting of a little red box and red candles with a little sign. Sometimes there are little figurines. Before everyone eats you put out a table in front of it with specific dishes (tea, wine, chicken, rice, fruits, vegetables) and incense. You pray to your ancestors at the altar. They sell these papers that have gold foil and you ball them up then burn them to help the things get into the afterlife. This would happen on every Chinese holiday. Then when my grandpa passed, he was Buddhist, so we had all these traditions of when you go up and honor the body you go up in generations and bow a certain number of times, eldest to youngest. There would also be all of these elaborate paper items like iPhones or houses. Then we burn them and it is thought to go to the afterlife. There’s all these different chants that we would recite at the end as well.”


I found this story really beautiful and moving. The symbol of burning these paper items in order to send them to those in the afterlife is one of the biggest things that stood out to me. Even the concept of having ancestors in the afterlife that you can easily access is a really intriguing concept that I had never thought of before. I also loved the idea of having this spread of different foods to offer as well. This shows how important food is in their culture and how much they honor and acknowledge those who have passed. 

Wear Red on Happy Occasions

S is a 21-year-old Filipino woman. She is currently majoring in Business Administration at the University of Southern California. She grew up in the Philippines and therefore identifies as Filipino, however, she also identifies as Chinese. S speaks English, Mandarin, Tagalog and Hokkien, the last being two of many languages specific to the Philippines.

S: So for like the Chinese culture there is so many, like it’s so crazy, but I guess, like the most popular ones, like would wearing red for like a birthday count as folklore?

Me: Yeah. But why wold you wear red for a birthday?

S: So like, so it’s the belief of the Chinese that red is like the ultimate like color for luckiness, and just like power and everything, so for your birthday you want everyone to be wearing red. And if anyone comes in wearing black, like that’s a big no no, ’cause black would mean like death or just like negative things, and like wearing black to a birthday or like any happy celebration would be like, it’s a sign of like disrespect and like wish that person like that bad luck. so never do that.

Me: Is it something that you do even now that you’re here? Like now that you live in the U.S.?

S: Um, no, not here, but if I’m with like family, or if I know that it’s a Chinese family, it’s like a more common known thing. So like even all around the world, you know. Yeah, so, but like you can wear other colors actually, as long as it’s not black though.

S talks about the Chinese culture in which it is customary to wear red on birthdays because the color red symbolizes luckiness, power, and in general just has good connotations. She says that it is okay to wear other colors as well, though it isn’t the same thing as wearing red, as long as you don’t wear black. Black symbolizes death and has other bad connotations so black is not to be worn on happy occasions, and it is considered disrespectful if people do wear black on happy occasions. Though she does not follow the practice so much now that she lives in Los Angeles, she still does when she is with family or other Chinese people.