The Qingming Festival (清明节) is a time when families gather together to visit the graves of ancestors and sweep their tombs. To some, this may seem like a strange tradition, but for the Chinese, it is a very important custom. It’s held on the 104th day after the winter solstice, and falls this year on April 4. The festival began over 2,500 years ago during the Zhou dynasty (roughly 1046-221 BC) as a day to remember and give thanks to past generations. Young and old alike pray before the graves, sweep them and offer food, tea, wine, chopsticks and paper money to ancestors. Qingming (清明), which means “clear” and “bright,” is considered to be the best time to begin the springtime farming; hence many Chinese farming idioms often refer to the festival as well. For example: “Come Qingming, plant melons and beans” (清明前后, 种瓜种豆), and “For planting trees in the forest, don’t miss Qingming” (植树造林, 莫过清明).
Most Chinese regard Chong’er, the Duke of Wen, as the founder of the tomb-sweeping customs. According to legend, it was during the Spring and Autumn Period (circa 770-470 BC) when Chong’er was exiled. After 19 years in exile, Chong’er returned and became one of the most powerful kings ever to rule over the country. It was then that he rewarded the few loyal ministers who had accompanied him during his exile. When he forgot to reward an official named Jie Zitui, however, people considered the new king to be ungrateful.
When Chong’er realized his mistake, he felt very guilty and immediately sent word for Jie Zitui to come to the palace to collect his reward. When Jie Zitui declined, Chong’er set out to personally give him the reward, but Jie went into hiding in Mt. Mian (绵山, located in present-day Shanxi province). Chong’er ordered his soldiers to search the mountain, but this proved fruitless. Someone then suggested setting fire to the mountain on three sides, and leaving the fourth side clear so Jie would be forced to come down. The fires raged for three days, but still Jie Zitui did not appear.
When Chong’er’s troops finally located Jie Zitui, it was too late: He had been killed in the fire. On a piece of Jie’s clothing, hidden in a hole in a willow tree, they found a poem that Jie Zitui had written about his loyalty to Chong’er. To honor his loyal minister, Chong’er buried Jie Zitui on this mountain next to the scorched willow tree, and Chong’er decreed that no fires could be lit nor hot food consumed on this day.
According to this story, Chong’er returned to the mountain the next year with his followers. When they arrived at the willow tree, they saw that it had come alive again. Chong’er then cut off one of the branches, shaped it into a wreath and wore it in his hair – a practice many people continue to this day. After sweeping Jie Zitui’s tomb, Chong’er marked the day as the beginning of the Qingming Festival.