Updated: May 28, 2020
The need to placate one’s ancestors and provide for one’s afterlife — and the afterlife of one’s family — results in great attention being paid to a person’s quality of life after death. Chinese do not see cemeteries as repositories of the dead, but as living communities inhabited by spirits capable of both communicating with and giving assistance to their descendants. It is therefore vital that these spirits be taken care of, lest they refuse to provide aid or even choose to exact vengeance on their no-good heirs. Moreover, when it comes to finding the right place to establish a cemetery, the dead focus on the same things as the living: location, location, location.
According to legend, the basic principles and methods for choosing suitable burial grounds were first introduced by Guo Pu 郭璞, a well-known scholar during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (A.D. 317-420). His core belief was that if one buries one’s ancestors in the right place — defined as a place imbued with specific mystical energies — their spirits will be better able to support and protect their descendants.
Although scholars at the time criticized his advice as spurious — and later generations of geomancers as corrupt — Guo Pu rules nonetheless gained traction among the public at large. Even today, his ideas remain influential, and the physical location and state of family tombs and cemeteries are treated with such reverence that digging up someone’s ancestral tombs is still regarded as one of the gravest offenses a person can commit against another. Doing so shatters the person’s link to their ancestral spirits and the support these spirits can provide. It is also why Qingming Festival — also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day, when Chinese families go and clean the area around their ancestral tombs — remains one of the country’s most important holidays. This is also related to deeply held beliefs about the kinds of energies that collect and concentrate in graveyards — and what this energy can do to the living.