China’s Qingming Festival: A Day for Remembering the Dead

The Qingming Festival (清明) or the Tomb-Sweeping Day started some 2500 years ago during the Zhou Dynasty’s reign. It began as a flamboyant ritual followed by the rich and influential people of the society to pay respect to their ancestors by offering sacrifices. In return of the sacrifices, they would ask for their blessings in the form of wealth, prosperity, power, peace, and good harvests. This practice continued until the year 732, after which Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty, declared, that the ritual of paying respect to the ancestors must be carried out only on the Qingming solar term. Following the declaration, the Qingming festival became popular not just in the rich class of the society but also among the common people, thereby becoming an integral part of China’s traditions.

According to the legends the Qingming festival was started to commemorate a loyal servent to the king, named Jie Zitui, around 770 to 476 BC. It is said that once Jie’s master was forced into an exile while the crown was in a jeopardy and that’s when Jie cut a piece of his own leg to feed his hungry master to save him from dying. However, after sometime when master came back to power, he forgot about the sacrifices made by Jie Zitui. Sad from his lord’s betrayal Jie Zitui, along with his mother went and started living in the mountain covered with trees and forests. After sometime, when the lord realized his mistake, he ordered his men to find Jie. He asked his men to burn the entire forest on the mountain so he can easily find Jie and bring him back to the kingdom. However, Jie and his mother, both died in the fire set by the king’s men. Agonized by this tragedy, the master ordered that everyone in the kingdom would only eat ‘Hanshi’ or cold food every year on the day Jie and his mother died.

The following year when the lord went to make sacrifice to the mountain and pray for Jie’s soul on his death anniversary, he found that willow trees have revived and so he ordered that the day after the cold-food day or Hanshi will be celebrated as Qingming. However, later on both the festivals were combined into one, and therefore Chinese people eat only cold food during the Qingming festival. Some of the most famous dishes eaten during the Qingming festival include green rice balls, peach blossom porridge, Qingming snails, and eggs. The food is usually cooked in on or two days in advance for the festival so that the tradition of eating cold food can be followed.

Chinese people from across the globe, including Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand, celebrate the Qingming festival. Usually, the festival falls on the first day of the fifth solar term (around April 4th, 5th, or 6th) of each year, as per the Chinese Gregorian calendar.

Traditionally, Chinese masses celebrate this festival by visiting the graves of their deceased family members. Upon their visit, they offer them the food, tea, wine, and other items. People also burn incense sticks and joss paper or paper money, sweep the tombs, remove weeds, and add fresh soil to the graves. Some people also put willow branches, flowers, or plastic plants on the tombs. After making the offerings, the people pray to their ancestors to bless their families with good health, wealth and prosperity at the end of the ritual.

Besides visiting the cemeteries, Chinese people also like to do several other activities for celebrating the Qingming festival. The most common among them is to go out on spring outings to explore the spring blossoms along with the family. Except outing, flying kites of various shapes is also a popular activity during the festival. In the past, people would cut the strings so that the kites could float freely in the sky according to the direction of the wind. At that time, people believed that this ritual would bring them good luck and eliminate any chances of diseases.

With time some rituals have changed and the ways of celebrating the festival has become more modern. However, what hasn’t changed is the spirit with which this festival is celebrated and the affection and respect of people towards their departed family members.

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