All You Need to Know About the Qingming (Tomb Sweeping) Festival
As Spring has graced us with her presence, it is good to familiarize yourself with one of the major holidays in China that comes during this time. Whereas the famous Spring Festival usually occurs in winter, there is another holiday that happens during spring. It’s the Qingming Festival.
Since Qingming Festival is on the China Public Holiday Calendar, this means that travel will increase during this time. Most people will also be looking forward to having these days off. The Chinese Lunar calendar is the basis of the official date of Qingming Festival, but it usually falls on the 4th or 5th of April.
It doesn’t matter if you are living in China or simply interested in Chinese cultural traditions. Learning about Qingming Festival can help you understand more the Chinese heritage and practices.
Folk Story of qingming festival
As with many traditional Chinese holidays, there is a story behind it that comes from ancient times. “Cold Food Festival”, or “寒食节 (Hánshí jié) is the original name of this festival. It began sometime between 770-476 BC, and was established in memory of Jie Zitui, who was a retainer for a ruler, Duke Wen of Jin. This ruler was exiled during a time, despite this, Jie Zitui was loyal and still followed him. The legend has it that Jie Zitui was so caring of his Lord that he even cut meat out of his own thigh to feed the hungry Duke.
The Duke later regained his throne and forgot about Jie Zitui. When he finally remembered to reward him for what he had done in the past, Jie Zitui had already moved on and was living in a secluded forest with his mother. The Duke set out to find him and went to such extreme that he ordered his soldiers to set the whole forest on fire so as to bring Jie Zitui out of hiding. Unfortunately, Jie Zitui and his mother both died.
Since he was to blame for the death, the Duke ordered three days without fire in honor of Jie’s memory. This is how the Cold Food Festival came about. The stories go on that in the second year of the past events, the Duke went to the forest to honor Jie and found willows revived. Since life had come from this tragic accident, Qingming Festival came about.
Aside from the tear-jerking story, the Tang Emperor (AD 732), is to take credit for the practical reason that this holiday became an official in China. During that time, remembering the ancestors is a huge practice. Many wealthy citizens of China would go over the top in holding a surplus of ceremonies that were both costly and too extravagant. The emperor made Qingming Festival, 清明节 (literally meaning “pure brightness Festival”), a formal holiday to pay respects to ancestors in order to limit the tradition to once per year.
Traditions Practiced Today
Qingming Festival has stuck over the years and is still a celebrated holiday with its main focus on being a time to remember those that have left us. Since it is also the first holiday of the spring weather, there are also some added traditions to celebrate the change in seasons.
Perhaps of foremost importance is the practice of going to clean the tombs of your ancestors and to pay your respects during this time. Qingming Festival is seen as a mix of sorrow and joy. Sorrow over the loss of our loved ones, but a joy of celebration of life and remembrance. Many people will carry willow branches during this time, not only as a reference to the folk story above but also as a belief that it would ward off any evil spirits. Instead of burning paper, incense, or firecrackers at the tombs, people would bring flowers and tree branches.
Many people not only find this time to clean out tombs of their ancestors but also their own homes. Similar to what you may know in Western culture as “Spring Cleaning”, it is a time to clean out the old and bring in the new.
2. Flying Kites
Another popular tradition is for people to go out during the pleasant weather and fly kites. The kites are usually in shapes of animals or characters from Chinese opera. Kites are flown at all times, from morning to night. During the night, lanterns are often attached to the kites to give the effect of twinkling stars. Even though this practice might not be the most environmentally friendly, it is a tradition to cut the string of the kite in the sky on this day. It’s said that the kite will be free, bringing good luck and elimination of diseases.
The Qingming Festival, perhaps because of spring, is a time where families will go out and enjoy themselves. Whether taking advantage of the time off to travel or going to a local park, the spring outing brings a joyful time to families during the spring.
Mainland China is not the only one that celebrates Qingming Festival, but across the world in Chinese communities. Even though it’s not an official holiday in many parts of the world, some cultures and traditions from Ming and Qing Dynasty are still practiced. In mainland China, since the cultural revolution, many ancient customs were stopped or altered.
Qingming Festival is a time for the nation to pay respect to those who died in sensitive historical events. For example, people will pay their respects to victims of both the April Fifth Movement and Tiananmen Incident in 1989. It is also a time to remember those who contributed to Chinese history. One example is that the popular place to visit during this time is Premier Zhou Enlai’s tomb.
As ancestors are a huge part of traditional Chinese culture, it’s obvious why Qingming Festival is a popular holiday. Even though Western culture may differ how they treat the dead, spring is a good time to celebrate life.
Have you celebrated Qingming Festival in China or abroad? What are your thoughts on the holiday? Let us know in the comments below, we would love to hear from you!