By Bartholomew Madukwe
Qingming or Ching Ming festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day in English, is a traditional Chinese festival. It is celebrated on the 106th day, after the December winter solstice in the Chinese lunar calendar, which falls on the first week of April in the Gregorian calendar.
The festival, which falls on April 4 or 5, is a time of paying respect to the dead, a spring outing and kite flying.
What distinguishes this festival from others is the mix of bitter-sweetness, sad tears cried while visiting deceased loved ones, laughter, flying kites and playing in the spring.
Tomb sweeping is regarded as the most important custom in the Qingming Festival from which the name of Tomb-sweeping day is got. Cleaning the tomb and paying respect to the dead person with offerings are the two important parts of remembering the past relatives.
Weeds around the tomb are cleared away and fresh soil is added to show care of the dead. The dead person’s favourite food and wine are taken to sacrifice to them, along with paper resembling money. This is all burned in the hope that the deceased are not lacking food and money.
Qing Ming Festival is very much a family affair as a day for tidying the graves of their ancestors and relatives. After the ancestral worship, families would gather and feast on the food that were offered during the prayers.
The festival is observed by the Chinese in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam and celebrated as a public holiday in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
During the festival, young and old pray before the ancestors, sweep the tombs and offer food, tea, wine, chopsticks, (joss) paper accessories, and/or libation to the ancestors.
The families will also bring the person’s favorite wine and food as sacrifices. Other sacrifices include paper money that would be burned. Qingming Festival day is one of the Chinese Twenty-four Solar terms.
From that date temperatures begin to rise and rainfall increases, indicating that it is the crucial time for plowing and sowing in the spring. The festival therefore has a close relationship with agriculture.
The rites are very important to most Chinese and especially farmers, as some people carry willow branches with them on Qingming, or put willow branches on their gates and/or front doors.
For such people, willow branches help ward off the evil ghosts that wander on Qingming. Also during the festival, people go on family outings, start the spring plowing, sing and dance. It is also a time where young couples start courting.
FACTS ABOUT QINGMING
The Chinese term for Tomb Sweeping Day is Qingming Jie (清明节), which means “clear and bright.” This name originated from Qingming Jieqi (清 明节气), one of the 24 solar terms in the Chinese solar calendar. This solar term comes after the Spring Equinox and lasts 15 days, while the weather is getting nice and warm.
During this period, people hang willow branches in memory of an official named Jie Zitui, who rather graphically cut his own flesh to feed a starving prince named Chong’er.
After Chong’er became King Jinwen Gong, he remembered that he forgot to reward Jiezi Tui. When he went to Jie Zitui’s house, he found it empty; Jie had gone to Mian Mountain (绵山) to hide with his mother. Jinwen Gong set a fire around the mountain to smoke Jie Zitui out, but the official never appeared. After the fire burned out, Jinwen Gong found Jie and his mother’s corpses near a willow tree. In the tree hole, Jinwen Gong found a letter from Jie urging him to be a good king.
The custom of tomb sweeping varies according to different areas in China. In Hebei (or northern China), tomb sweeping starts a week before actual Tomb Sweeping Day. In the south, people sweep tombs the day before Tomb Sweeping Day; the eve is also known as Cold Food Day. No matter where you are, nobody actually sweeps tombs on Tomb Sweeping Day.
Qingming is also a time to welcome the spring and enjoy the changing of the seasons. Common outdoor activities include hiking, kite flying, and tree planting. Take the time to appreciate the changing seasons and enjoy the weather before it’s time for scorching Beijing summer.
Not all Chinese ethnic minorities celebrate Tomb Sweeping Day, but there are 24 that do following the Hans’ influence with sweeping tombs and their own customs.
For example, the Tujia ethnic group eat pig heads and the Miao minority makes a type of pastry called Qingming Ba (清明耙) with mugwort and sticky rice.
People in the South of China eat qingtuan, a dumpling made out of glutinous rice and barley grass (which is why they are so deliciously green), but people in the North do not have the same tradition.
Qingming Festival was originally held to commemorate a loyal man living in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 – 476 BC), named Jie Zitui. Jie cut a piece of meat from his own leg in order to save his hungry lord who was forced to go into exile when the crown was in jeopardy. The lord came back to his position nineteen years later, and forgot Jie Zitui but later felt ashamed and decided to reward him.
However, Jie had blocked himself up in a mountain with his mother. In order to find Jie, the lord ordered that the mountain should be set on fire. Later Jie was found dead with his mother. In order to commemorate Jie, the lord ordered that the day Jie died was Hanshi (Cold Food) Festival – the day that only cold food could be eaten.
The second year, when the lord went to the mountain to sacrifice to Jie, he found willows revived, so he gave instructions that the day after Hanshi Festival was to be Qingming Festival. Later, the two festivals were combined as one.
Qingming Festival is a time of many different activities, among which the main ones are tomb sweeping, taking a spring outing, and flying kites. Some other lost customs like wearing willow branches on the head and riding on swings have added infinite joy in past days. It is a combination of sadness and happiness.