Qingming Festival: the day to mourn the ancestors in China

Updated: 24 Mar 2011
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The Qingming Festival, also called Tomb Sweeping Day or Pure Brightness in English, usually falls around April 5 in the solar calendar. From the beginning, this festival served as one of the 24 solar terms in Chinese lunar calendar.
After having undergone continual change, the day has now become a traditional festival for most Chinese people, including both Han and many minorities, and it is when they sweep tombs and commemorate their ancestors.
On this day, tomb sweeping, also called Shang Fen (to visit a grave to honor the memory of the dead) in Chinese, is the most important and popular activity for offering sacrifice and showing respect to ancestors. On May 20, 2006, the festival was selected as one of the first national intangible cultural heritage events.

Tomb Sweeping Day, with a long history of more than 2,500 years, originated from the extravagant and ostentatiously expensive ceremonies that many ancient emperors and wealthy officials held in honor of their ancestors. Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty, seeking to curb this practice, declared that respect could only be paid formally at ancestors’ graves on the day of the Qingming solar term. The observance of the rule gradually found a firm place in both royal and common families and continued for over two millennia. The day before Tomb Sweeping Day was the traditional Chinese Cold Food Day when people used no fire, ate cold food, and swept their ancestors’ tombs. As time passed, the two festivals were gradually combined into one festival, Tomb Sweeping Day.
Legend has it that a severe fight ensued for royalty succession in the Jin States during the era of the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States. A prince named Chong’er survived and escaped the fight, and began his 19-year exile with his followers. One day, when Prince Chong’er was almost starving to death, a follower named Jie Zhitui secretly cut a piece of flesh from his leg and cooked it into a meat soup, which saved the prince. Chong’er wondered where Jie had obtained the soup. When he found out what Jie had done, the prince was so moved that he promised to reward him one day. Nineteen years later, Prince Chong’er returned to his kingdom and took power as Duke Wen of the Jin State, one of the five hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period.
After taking power, Duke Wen greatly awarded and honored all of his followers, but he forgot Jie Zhitui, the man who once saved his life. When others spoke of Jie Zhitui, Duke Wen remembered him and was ashamed. He immediately sent his servants to invite Jie Zhitui and conferred him with a title. However, Jie Zhitui refused resolutely because he was not the type of person who sought rewards. Instead, he just wanted to help the prince return to Jin to become a duke. Then, the duke decided to come personally but before he arrived, Jie Zhitui heard the news and hid on a nearby mountain with his aged mother. Jie Zhitui refused to see the prince and no one could find him on the mountain.
Heeding advice from his officials, Duke Wen ordered the mountain set on fire to force out Jie Zhitui. Three days and nights later, the duke and his people found just two dead bodies, that of Jie Zhitui and his mother, in a cave under a willow tree on the mountain.In honor of Jie Zhitui, a man who never sought fame and profit, Duke Wen buried him and his mother respectfully, held a memorial ceremony for the tomb, and ordered his subjects to use no fire and eat cold food on that day.
The next year, Duke Wen climbed the mountain to commemorate Jie Zhitui. When arriving at the tomb, he saw the burnt willow tree revived with lush leaves and branches and remembered Jie Zhitui’s noble character. He was so moved that he swept the tomb and declared the festival as Qingming Jie. Later, Duke Wen built an honest, diligent, pragmatic, and efficient government during his reign.
Because of his great contribution to Jin State, people there stopped using fire, swept the tombs of their ancestors, and offered food, tea, wine, chopsticks, joss paper accessories, or libations to their ancestors to remember and honor Jie Zhitui. In addition, willow branches are placed on gates or front doors of houses to beckon Jie Zhitui’s soul and to ward off evil spirits that wander on Qingming. Today, residents in the north usually eat cold prepared food such as date cake and wheat cake, while people in the south prefer lotus roots stuffed with glutinous rice and green cake.

Qingming was first used to describe the peaceful scene after a flood, according to the legend of Yu the Great Controlling the Flood. It now refers to the solar term in the spring when the grass is growing, flowers are blooming, and wildlife are awakening. Since the Tang Dynasty, people have gone on spring outings to appreciate the beautiful scenery of lakes and mountains.
Tomb sweeping is the most popular activity during the Qingming Festival, but it actually belongs to the Hanshi Festival, the day before Qingming, which was initiated by the Duke Wen of the Jin State to commemorate Jie Zhitui. On Hanshi, people were not allowed to use fire to heat their food, thus the day was nicknamed the Cold Food Festival. Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty made it public that people should sweep tombs on the day.

Tomb Sweeping Day is a time for various activities, and the more popular ones are tomb sweeping, spring outings, and kite flying. Some other lost customs, such as putting willow branches on gates and riding on swings, added infinite joy in the past. Moreover, people often participate in a sport to ward off the cold. In a word, the festival integrates both sadness and happiness.

Swings are very popular amongst children and are usually found on playgrounds. As a popular custom on Tomb Sweeping Day, swinging not only stops the chillness from eating cold food, but also develops a child’s bravery.

Ju (鞠) is a rubber ball made of leather on the outside and stuffed tightly with feathers on the inside. Cuju means “kick the rubber ball with foot.” It was a popular sport played by the ancient Chinese during the Qingming Festival. The Yellow Emperor was purportedly the initiator of Cuju, and he invented it to train his soldiers.
Taqing (spring outing)

Qingming is also the best time for Taqing, or a spring outing, getting out and enjoying the early blossoms before summer. During the spring, everything in nature takes on a new look, as trees turn green, flowers blossom, and the sun shines brightly. It is a fine time to go out and appreciate the beauty of nature during the festival.
Tree planting

Qingming is also a time to plant trees because of the warm weather and moderate rainfall. Since ancient times, people have planted trees during the Qingming Festival, therefore also naming it Tree-Planting Day.
Kite flying

Flying kites is also an important custom enjoyed by many people, young and old, during the Qingming Festival. Kites are not only flown during the day but also in the evening when little colored lanterns are tied to the kites or to the strings that hold the kites. When kites fly in the evening, the lanterns look like twinkling stars that add uniqueness to the sky. In the past, people cut the string to let the kite fly freely. This custom is believed to bring good luck and eliminate diseases.
Tomb sweeping

Tomb sweeping during the Qingming Festival shows respect and offers sacrifice to ancestors at gravesites. Many people had long followed the custom before the festival was established. According to the custom, when sweeping tombs, people offer food, tea, wine, chopsticks, joss paper accessories, and libations to their ancestors, add fresh soil to the grave, and stick willow branches on the tomb. Kowtowing is also an indispensable part of the custom.
Putting willow braches on gates

During the Tomb Sweeping Festival, people wear soft willow branches and place the branches on gates and front doors in the belief that this will ward off wandering evil spirits during Qingming. That willows were considered magical is mainly a Buddhist influence. Traditional pictures of the Goddess of Mercy Guanyin often show her seated on a rock with a willow branch in a vase of water at her side. The goddess used this mysterious water and branch to scare away demons. According to historical records, "putting willow branches up on gates; driving ghosts away from houses."
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whnora Commented on 24 Jun 2017
Thank you for sharing this interesting culture information :)
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