The strange story behind the Qingming Festival

Aside from Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival and the Winter Solstice, the Qingming Festival is one of the most important days in Chinese culture.

Qingming, when directly translated into English, means “clear and bright” and the festival is sometimes called the Tomb-Sweeping Festival.

On the day of the festival, which falls on April 4 this year, Chinese families will visit the graves of their deceased ancestors to spruce up the site as well as perform prayers and leave offerings.

In terms of astronomy, “Qingming” is one of 24 solar terms in the Chinese calendar, when an astronomical event or natural phenomenon would take place.

On Qingming, prayer paraphernalia is often burnt to provide one’s deceased ancestors with the necessary comforts. (Flickr pic)

On the day of Qingming, the Sun will be at the celestial longitude of fifteen degrees.

Back in the past, the weather surrounding Qingming would be perfect for farmers to begin sowing their seeds, and thus, Qingming was an important seasonal symbol for the agricultural society.

It is believed that this festival is among the most ancient of Chinese observances, with some people suggesting that it has been celebrated for the past 2,500 years.

There is a legend that tells of the origins of the festival, with the story being set in the Warring States and the Spring and Autumn periods (770-475BC).

According to the tale, Prince Chong’er of Jin was forced to leave his home due to a succession crisis and was thus left to wander in exile.

Accompanied by a fellow nobleman named Jie Zitui, the disgraced prince fell upon hardship in the form of hunger and cold.

Usually, Qingming is observed by the entire family visiting the graves of their deceased loved ones to pay their respects. (Flickr pic)

Realising that the prince could very well starve to death, Jie decided to sacrifice part of his own thigh to cook and feed the prince with.

Upon being informed of Jie’s action, Chong’er promised to repay his good deed when he was in a position to do so.

After nearly two decades, Prince Chong’er finally returned to Jin to take his rightful place as duke.

While he rewarded his loyal followers, the new duke, unfortunately, failed to remember Jie — who was against raising the matter anyway.

Unperturbed, Jie retired and took his mother with him to their new residence in the forest on Mount Mian.

Finally realising his error, the duke sought to remedy the situation by seeking out Jie, but failed to find him in the thick forest.

In a very questionable move, the duke ordered his men to set the forest alight to force Jie to come out.

Unsurprisingly, the ill-planned action resulted in the death of Jie and his mother, with the duo meeting their end next to a willow tree.

Greatly regretting his actions again, the duke ordered his people to live without fire for the next three days in memory of Jie.

Hence, for a short time, the people resorted to eating cold food, a practice that would become part of what is now the obscure Hanshi Festival, or Cold Food Festival.

A year later, the duke visited the mountain to pay his respects to Jie, when he found that the burnt willow tree was blooming once more.

This year, Qingming will have to be observed with Covid-19 restrictions in place. (Bernama pic)

He then decreed that the day after the Hanshi Festival would be celebrated as the Qingming Festival, a day meant to honour the dead.

While the Hanshi Festival is no longer celebrated, the Qingming Festival most certainly is, with some elements of the former festival surviving via the latter.

In later centuries, the rich would fall over each other to make an expensive show of paying their respects to the dead.

The annoyed Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (685-762AD) consequently decreed that Qingming was the only day in the year that the populace could pay their formal respects.

On Qingming, tomb-sweeping is the most important activity aside from leaving offerings for the deceased.

Living family members will often clear away the weeds around their ancestor’s grave, with fresh soil and sometimes flowers being put in their place instead.

Some families will bring food offerings to leave at the grave, often the deceased’s favourite food during their lifetime.

As both young and old members of the family kneel to offer prayers to the ancestors, joss-sticks and paper offerings are also burnt, with most Chinese families sticking to paper money — believed to be a valid currency in the afterlife.

Paper masks and goggles are part of the “new normal” offerings. (AFP pic)

In modern times, paper offerings have grown increasingly sophisticated, with paper models of mobile phones, cars, mansions and clothes being commonplace.

Some traditions have even gone virtual, unsurprisingly in the age of Covid-19, with online shrines dedicated to the deceased where visitors can leave virtual offerings.

While some restrictions have been recently put in place due to the pandemic, it appears that many Chinese families are likely to continue the age-old traditions of Qingming.

After all, remembering one’s ancestors is a way to reflect on one’s roots and how far one has come thanks to the sacrifices of those who came before.

By : Noel Wong @ FMT Lifestyle

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