This year, Qingming falls on April 5. We’re all happy for the extra holidays, but do you actually know the story behind this festival? Also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, Qingming Festival is a combination of happiness and sadness. It’s a time for Chinese families to commemorate their dead and, at the same time, welcome the arrival of spring.
The festival traditionally signifies the beginning of spring, when temperatures start to rise and rainfall increases. This helped farmers know the right time to start plowing their fields and sowing their crops.
On Qingming, it’s customary to sweep the tombs of relatives, ancestors, and national heroes who have passed on. Families also make offer food, and burn incense and paper money to help the dead in the other world. The process has been simplified with the rise of cremation. Often, only flowers are offered at the memorial stone.
Qingming Festival has a long history. It was first celebrated in the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) as a memorial day for Jie Zitui. As legend goes, there was much fighting for the throne during the period of the Warring States (771-476 BC). The prince, Chong’er, managed to escape and went on a long exile with his followers.
One day, Chong’er was starving to death when Jie Zitui, one of his followers, saved him by cutting off a piece of own flesh to prepare a soup with. After 19 years, Chong’er returned to his kingdom and became Duke Wen of Jin.
He wanted to reward all his followers, but Jie Zitui chose to lead a hermit’s life in the mountains instead.
The Duke traveled to the mountains to reward Jie Zitui personally, but couldn’t find him. To force him out, he rather drastically set fire to the mountain. When Jie Zitui was found dead a few days later, the Duke decided to commemorate his death by establishing the Hanshi (or Cold Food) Festival, during which only cold food can be eaten.
One year later, the Duke returned to the mountain and found that all the burnt willows had revived. He was reminded of Jie Zitui’s nobleness and swept his tomb in respect. He then declared the day after Hanshi Festival to be Qingming Festival. The two festivals were later combined; this is where the tradition of not cooking and eating cold food comes from in the modern version of Qingming.
A typical activity on Qingming Festival is the flying of kites – not regular kites, but so-called “god lanterns.” These have a string of little lanterns tied to the kite to resemble shining stars in the night sky. What’s more, the string should be cut to bring good luck and even cure diseases.
If you can’t make it out of Beijing for Qingming, take advantage of the mild weather to visit one of the city’s numerous parks and join the locals in celebration.
This post first appeared on April 3, 2013 and has been slightly modified.
Photo courtesy of gadgetdan (Flickr)