Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Qingming Festival

A cartoon depicting ancestor veneration rites at a gravesite
(Image: Source unknown)

The Qingming Festival (清明節 Qingming Jie) is observed on the 15th day after the Spring Equinox and is the first day of the 5th Chinese solar term [the Twenty-four Solar Terms are discussed here]. The day usually falls on April 4th or 5th of the western Gregorian calender.

Qingming means Clear and Bright and refers to the clear and sunny spring weather that comes around this time. It is traditionally a time for family descendents to tend to the graves of their departed ancestors and to make offerings of food, incense, and paper offerings such as spirit money and paper replicas of material goods. Temples, both Buddhist and Taoist, also perform ceremonies at this time to dedicate spiritual merit to the deceased ancestors of sponsors. Families take this opportunity to clean and inspect the gravesite by removing any weeds or trash, pruning and replacing any nearby trees and plants if necessary, and looking to see if any damage to the tombstone needs repair. The upkeep and maintenance of the gravesite is considered an important responsibility of family descendents and reflects the deep cultural values of ancestor veneration and filial piety of the Chinese people. Thus, this day is also known as Tomb Sweeping Day (掃墓日 Saomu Ri), and some people in the West describe it as “Ancestors Day,” “Chinese Memorial Day,” or “Spring Remembrance Day.”

A cartoon depicting a family pruning the grass surrounding the grave of their ancestor
(Image: Source unknown)

In ancient times, the Qingming Festival appears frequently in classical literature. The most famous one is the poem called Qingming (清明) written by Du Mu (杜牧):

A drizzling rain falls like tears on the Mourning Day.
The mourner's heart is breaking on his way.
Where can a winehouse be found to drown his sadness?
A cowherd points to Almond Flower Village in the distance.


A painting depicting the cowherd pointing to Almond Flower Village in Du Mu’s poem Qingming
(Image: Nipic.com)

Because cemeteries are usually located on hills or in the countryside, Chinese families usually also take advantage of the spring weather to have a picnic and family outing or reunion after observing veneration rites for their departed ancestors.

Qingming is also called the Cold Foods Festival (寒食節 Hanshi Jie) because in the past, people abstained from eating cooked foods for three days starting on the day preceding the Qingming Festival. One popular explanation for the origin of this practice comes from the story of Chong'er (重耳) and Jie Zhitui (介之推). Chong'er was a prince of the Jin state during the 7th century BCE. When he fled the Warring States (戰國 Zhanguo) and went into exile, he suffered hardship and hunger. His personal friend and political advisor, Jie Zhitui, cut a piece of flesh from his own thigh to make meat soup for him. Feeling revitalized after having the soup, Chong’er wondered where his friend obtained meat to make the soup. After discovering what Jie Zhitui had done for him, he became overwhelmed and moved with gratitude and promised to reward him. After Chong’er became Duke Wen of Jin (晉文公 Jin Wengong), his friend Jie Zhitui resigned from service and retired to the mountains in seclusion at Mianshan (綿山) in Shanxi province. Chong’er attempted to get Jie Zhitui to return by setting fire to the mountain in the hopes that he would come out. The plan failed because the fire killed Jie Zhitui and his mother who were living on the mountain. Filled with remorse, Chong’er ordered that setting fire (and therefore cooking food) be prohibited for three days during this time every year to commemorate his loyal friend. 

Image of Jie Zhitui in the Lord Jie Temple (介公廟) on Mianshan (Mian Mountain) in Shanxi province
Image: big5.china.com.cn

Another explanation for the Cold Foods Festival is that in the past, different types of fire wood had to be use for different seasons and periods. At the start of a new season or period, a new fire was always officially started. Before the new fire was lighted, nobody was permitted to light a new fire before the official fire. So therefore people had to eat uncooked foods for about three days before the lighting of the official fire near the time of Qingming.
Lighting fire was prohibited before the official lighting of a new fire for a new seasonal period
(Image: bestfirewoodfacts.com)

Later eventually, the two festivals of Cold Foods and Qingming were combined to be one single festival. Today however, the Cold Foods Festival is no longer observed anymore.

Qingming also signifies rebirth and renewal because of the return of spring, and marks the start of the planting and farming season. Because of the return of good weather, outdoor activities such as kite flying, hiking, sports, and other games are also popular during this time.

Chinese painting: Kite flying during the Qingming Festival
(Image: Source unknown)

Thus, Qingming is an expression of respect and veneration for the departed as well as for nature. The Qingming Festival is observed as a national holiday in Hong Kong, Macau, mainland China, and Taiwan. And while not an official holiday in countries abroad, it is still observed faithfully by many overseas Chinese who take a convenient weekend day near the time of the Qingming Festival to honor their departed family members.

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

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