Do you know why the Chinese hang red paper on tombs?

Do you know why there are pieces of red-streaked paper fluttering from tombs and gravestones in Chinese graveyards today?

It's because today is Qing Ming, the day when Chinese people visit the graves of departed loved ones to pay their respects.

But why the red-streaked paper?

Traditionally, the red came from chicken blood (a rooster's, preferably); the Hakkas hang these "chicken blood paper" ("kwa huet zi" in Cantonese) on graves to create a barrier against negative energies or unwanted souls, explains local feng shui master Jessie Lee.

She adds that, "The paper acts like a talisman, protecting the living and stopping angry spirits from disturbing the ancestral worship". Now-adays, a printed version of this paper is used instead.

This is why Qing Ming, or "Sweeping the Tomb" day, is also called "Hanging Paper" day, or "kwa zi" in Cantonese, says Lee.

Some people, she says, hang five coloured papers to represent the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water) in five directions (north, south, east, west, and centre).

Whatever the details of the rituals, generally, all Chinese take the time to remember the dead by visiting grave sites or columbaria to say prayers and make offerings.

While Qing Ming generally falls on April 4 or 5, traditionally, a longer time frame is set aside for such worship. It can be between 15 days (a week before and after the actual day) and 21 days (10 days before and after the actual day).

According to the Chinese solar calendar, the Qing Ming solar season is from April 4 to April 19. This is because each solar season lasts 14 days, inclusive of the first day of the season.

The prayer ritual, Lee says, usually starts and ends with the throwing of "paper money" all over the grave. This is to symbolise that the tomb has been inspected for damage and that family members have visited to pay their respects.

Tombs without the hanging papers or paper money are said to be "lonely tombs".

Scattering paper

Legend has it that the ritual of strewing the tomb with paper started during China's Han Dynasty (roughly 206BCE to 220CE). Liu Bang, the dynasty's first emperor, returned after a war to find that he can no longer find his parents' tombs - graveyards are covered in weeds and most tombstones are broken after years of conflict.

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In despair, Lee says, the emperor resorted to throwing bits of paper into the air and imploring the heavens to guide him by letting the paper fall on his parents' tomb. Sure enough, he found the ancestral resting place. After the story got about, the population began to follow suit by placing paper at their ancestral graves to indicate that they have been visited.

Married daughters

Traditionally, a married daughter is not allowed to visit her late parents' or ancestral tombs. The superstition is that the married daughter will take away the good qi (energy) to benefit her husband's family.

In the old days, tradition favoured the sons in the family; they were the ones that drew whatever luck or wealth and good qi was around. This was why families would allow only male descendants to mark Qing Ming.

But in the much smaller families of today, what if the married daughter is the only child? Lee raises this thought-provoking question and goes on to say that it is good that people are becoming more open-minded nowadays and see these traditions merely as a means of expressing filial piety.

The newly departed

Families do not observe Qing Ming if their loved ones die close to the day itself; however, Lee explains that people might not realise that prayers can still be performed at new graves in the first two years, just on different days.

"A different type of paper money is used - shops selling Chinese prayer paraphernalia can advise families on what to buy," she says.

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Within the first year of the death, the new grave should be "swept" (that is, Qing Ming should be observed) after Feb 4 - which is lap chun, or the beginning of spring - but before April 4. In the second year after the death, a date after March 20 but before April 4 should be chosen. And from the third year onwards, normal practice resumes.

Legend of Jie Zhitui

Feng shui master Yap Boh Chu offers another origin story for Qing Ming, this time involving the legend of Jie Zhitui.

Jie Zhitui becomes famous for being a particularly loyal defender of the noble family he serves; but he is a modest man and, wanting to shun fame, he retires with his elderly mother to nearby Mianshan Mountain (aka Jie Shan, or Jie Mountain) in Shanxi Province.

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Duke Wen (697BCE-628BCE) becomes impatient with Jie Zhitui hiding in the mountain so he orders it set alight to drive the defender and his mother out into the open - tragically, the loyal man and his mother perish in a cave under a willow tree. After burying the pair, an anguished Wen orders his people to eat cold food on that day and avoid lighting a fire as a way of remembering Jie Zhitui.

The following year, when Wen hikes up the mountain to commemorate the death, he sees that the burned willow tree has revived and flourished. As he remembers Jie Zhitui's noble character, Wen is so moved that he sweeps the tomb clear of fallen leaves and declares the festival of Qing Ming.