It’s often taboo to talk about death with a Chinese person. We usually will avoid the conversation.” shared Yiwei to her American friend. Yet, once each year in China there is a special day to remember, and even worship, the dead. The Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day, has been celebrated each spring for over 2500 years. With the date set on the Lunar Calendar, this year’s holiday falls on April 2, 2016.

The holiday is based on Chinese legend about a lord and his servant. The lord was exiled from his throne and risked starving to death. The servant saved the Lord by feeding him meat soup, cut from his own leg. The lord promised to reward the servant, but when he returned to power he forgot the servant’s good deed. When the lord eventually remembered, the servant had retreated to a mountain with his mother. They would not leave. The Lord ordered the forest to be burned to force them out, but they died in flames. He felt regret and sought to pay respect to his servant. The Qingming Festival was later established as a holiday to commemorate the dead.

During this festival families gather together at the grave of their ancestors. They often sweep the grave, offer food, light candles and burn paper money (and today some burn paper iPhones!). For centuries, Chinese performed these rituals as way of ancestor worship. They believed that their dead loved one would live in the next world. They also believed that the dead could influence the fortunes of those still alive. So, it would be important to provide the ancestor/s with basic necessities to help them survive in the next world. And, the living could possibly receive guidance and blessings from the dead.

Most Chinese students have participated in this ancient ritual with their family. They remember the deceased, especially grandparents who were dear to them. But they don’t believe in ancestral worship. They don’t think the ritual has any special power for the dead or meaning for them.

Since they have been taught an Atheistic worldview they have no explicit belief in the supernatural. Yet, most Chinese students fear death. For them, death is the end of all existence. As a result, they focus on present goals and generally avoid any discussion of death and the hereafter.

How then could one have a conversation about death with a Chinese student? Here are a couple of suggestions:

You cannot face death with true and honest courage unless you are looking forward to meeting Jesus – the one who faced death for you and is now alive with you.

David Powlison

Author, Speaker and Professor

  • Inquire about their family’s traditions during the Qingming Festival
  • Ask them to share their personal feelings about death
  • Invite them to share about a loved relative who made a deep impression upon them

You could then build a bridge to a gospel conversation. Ask if they know about the tomb holiday that Christians observe. Ask for permission to share why Christians, rather than sweep tombs, celebrate an empty tomb. Explain what the Bible says about Christ’s death and resurrection. Help them to see why His death and resurrection matters for their life now and forever.

While recently talking about death, a Chinese believer stated “Jesus did not only provide the answer to life and death, but also He is life to me through His death“. For those who believe in Him there is hope beyond the grave.