Ancestors Day

Portrait of a woman in green; China, possibly Ming dynasty, 17th century?; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.186
Portrait of a woman in green; China, possibly Ming dynasty, 17th century?; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.186

China celebrates the Qingming Festival today. Also known as Grave Sweeping Day or Ancestors Day, it’s a time for families to visit the graves of their loved ones, making offerings to honor those who came before.

The image above, a hanging scroll known as Portrait of a woman in green, is an ancestor portrait, a type of painting used in rituals and family settings to commemorate deceased relatives. The woman’s strict, frontal pose, covered hands, and almost life-size depiction are all qualities typical of these works.

We don’t know who this woman was, but the items on the red lacquer table behind her give a sense of her personality. Writing brushes and books refer to her education. An incense burner and a small box to hold the incense suggest the fragrance of her study, while a sprig of bamboo and the cloudlike swirl of an auspicious fungus convey a wish for the immortality of her spirit.

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Portraits of this kind were not regarded as art but as ritual objects, and the artists were expected to efface themselves entirely from the image. Though the names of the painters of ancestor portraits were almost never recorded, they fulfilled a necessary role in Chinese society and existed in every community.

Several years ago, a group of teens studied how the tradition of ancestor worship continues today in some Chinese and Chinese-American communities. Through interviews, family stories, old photo albums, and video footage, they pieced together a look at present-day practices, including those for Qingming jie. 

One of the stories the teens captured was from a husband and wife who had a remarkable ancestral experience early in their relationship:

This story begins many years ago in Taiwan, when Kenneth Chiu and his wife, Carol, were dating. Kenneth and his family paid respects to their ancestors each year with ceremonies and offerings. One year, Carol happened to be visiting Kenneth during one of the ceremony days. She was a Christian and didn’t understand the significance of the rituals. Kenneth responded to her questions by asking for her ancestors’ names and their land of origin. Then he took some paper “spirit” money, sealed it in an envelope, and burned it as an offering to her ancestors.

The next morning, Carol’s mother, who had just arrived from China, began to talk about a strange thing that had just happened to her.

She first told Carol something that she had never mentioned before: ever since the death of her own mother (Carol’s grandmother), she had been haunted every year by her ghost. This happened on Qingming jie (Grave Sweeping Day). In the recurring dream, her mother stood before her, looking at her, but never saying a word. She was always wearing the clothes she had been buried in, now worn and tattered, and she was always frowning, seeming sad and unhappy. Every Qingming jie for twenty years, Carol’s mother had this dream.

Carol still hadn’t spoken a word before her mother continued with her story. The night before, the eve of Qingming jie, the dream had occurred again. The same spirit approached her, but this time her mother was smiling! She had a look of contentment and was richly garbed with glowing, beautiful robes. Carol’s mother finished her story with a look of awe on her face. Then Carol fully realized the importance of the paper “spirit” money that Kenneth had burned as an offering to her dead ancestors. Her grandmother, as a spirit, had acquired the money in the offering.

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