Written by Joanna Hughes

Every year on the occasion of the Qingming Festival in China, people pay tribute to the dead. Also known as “Tomb Sweeping Day,” the holiday has special significance for Chinese medical students. Here’s a closer look at the one-day event, along with why it is of particular importance for medical schools and students.

A Day to Honor the Dead

Occurring on the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, Tomb Sweeping Day, which is also known as the Ching Ming Festival and Pure Brightness Festival, is a traditional Chinese festival in which people pay respect to their deceased ancestors. On this day, families come together to commemorate the dead by visiting and cleaning their graves. The holiday also heralds the changing of the season, with many people taking part in outdoor activities, such as taking walks and flying kites.

Why It Matters to Med Students

In addition to remembering their own deceased family members, Chinese medical students at some universities are gathering to honor others, as well: the people who donated their bodies to science.

According to Channel News Asia, cultural norms in China dictate that dead bodies should remain intact. Because of this, medical schools often face a shortfall of cadavers for use in anatomy classes. In the hopes of raising awareness about the need for voluntary body donors, some medical schools have started organizing memorial events during which students wear white gowns and bear chrysanthemums to pay tribute to these important “silent teachers.”

And while experts say cultural taboos linger, they also say they’re changing -- both in terms of attitudes as well as through laws designed to ease the body donation process. In the meantime, medical schools are using computer models to teach anatomy, a technique which at least one insider says falls short. Anatomy professor and donor awareness activist Xu Fei told Sixth Tone, “I wouldn’t dare let them loose on patients.”

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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