The QingMing or Ching Ming Festival, also named as Tomb-Sweeping Day, lays on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar. This makes it the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, either 4th or 5th April in a solar year.
Origin and Legend
The festival originated from the Hanshi Jie or Cold Food Day, the day ahead QingMing, established by Chong'Er, WenGong of the Jin Dynasty (the emperor), during the Spring and Autumn period. The festival was a memorial for his vassal Jie ZiTui, who had loyally served him during his years of exile. According to the legend, Chong’Er, along with his vassals, was forced to leave his homeland to escape persecution. Once in a barbarian, desolated and uninhabited, Chong’Er was starving to death. Jie ZiTui, the loyal vassal, even cut meat from his own thigh to provide Chong'Er with soup and saved his life.
Finally Chong'Er was enthroned as emperor. Although WenZong was generous in rewarding those who gave a hand in his time of difficulty, he left Jie out. Jie didn’t make any requirement but left to forest and be a hermit with no complaints. Once someone reminded WenZong with Jie, the emperor regretted his forgetfulness and went to the forest but could not find Jie. He then adopted his servant’s idea to set fire to the forest to flush Jie out. However, Jie didn’t occur but found burnt dead under a withered willow in his courtyard. WenZong was overwhelmed with remorse and enacted a fire ban on the day. This is how Cold Food Day comes.
The next year, WenZong went back to Jie’s courtyard and found the willow unexpectedly revived. He named it QingMing Willow and set the day after Cold Food Day as QingMing Festival. The present importance of the holiday is credited to the Emperor XuanZong of Tang. Wealthy citizens were reportedly holding too many extravagant and expensive ceremonies in honor of their ancestors. In A.D. 732, Emperor XuanZong issued the practice declaring that such respects could be formally performed only once a year, on QingMing.
At the beginning, people visited the grave sites on Cold Food Day and hanged out for a spring outing on QingMing Festival. But later they merged into one for their closeness in calendar.
Now the Festival is a custom for people to visit the columbaria, graves or burial grounds to memorize their ancestors. They sweep the tombs, prey and give offerings to the ancestors, such as food, tea, wine, chopsticks, joss paper, or libations.
Traditionally, people burnt MingBi, or imitation paper money, and paper replicas of commodities and necessities in daily life such as cars, houses, phones and paper servants, to the passed. It is believed that people who died went to another world resembled with ours and still need all of those things in the afterlife. Then family members take turns to kowtow,usually three to nine times in front of the tomb, in the order of patriarchal seniority within the family. Some people carry willow branches with them or put willow branches on their gates or front doors, for the belief that willow branches help ward off the evil spirit that wander around. For environmental concern, carrying flowers become a popular practice instead of burning paper, incense, or firecrackers.
After the ancestor worship at the grave sites, the whole members feast on the food and drink they brought for the worship in nearby gardens or memorial park, signifying the reunion with the ancestors.
On the day, people also go for spring outings, swinging and playing CuJu, an ancient game much similar to football today. Farmers start the spring plowing while young couples start courting. Another interesting thing is to fly various kites. The custom originated from ancient voodoo which believed that the flying kites would take away evil and misfortune.
Chinese Tea Culture
The QingMing Festival has a significance in the Chinese tea which divides the fresh green teas by their picking dates. Green teas made from leaves picked before this date are given the prestigious pre-QingMing designation which commands a much higher price tag. These teas are prized for having much lighter and subtler aromas than those picked after the festival.
Food in QingMing
According to the fire ban by Wenzong of Jin, people had to take cold food instead of cooked and the tradition continued.
QingTuan, or sweet green rice ball, in Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces is an essential part both on table and in the offering at ancestral rituals. Like glutinous rice dumpling, QingTuan is made from glutinous rice and stuffed with bean paste. The difference is that squeezed wormwood or brome grass is added in the making of wrapper and tastes slightly bitter.
QingMing Guo, also named QingMing Fruit, looks like dumplings in shape but tastes utterly different. The wrapper is made from squeezed wormwood, rice and glutinous rice. Finally, it is stuffed with bean pastes and cooked by steaming. Aside from sweet fillings, people also use diced bacon and mushroom, or dried bamboo shoot and beancurd as substitutes.
SanZi, or deep-fried dough twist, is a kind of fried flour product also called cold food in the old days.
WuRen Rice is common for She People, an ethic minority in China and mainly live in East FuJian including FuZhou and NingDe. It is made from glutinous rice and leaves of WuRen tree. On the festival, every family will cook WuRen Rice and give each other as a present.
ChunBing, or Spring-pancake, is unique to that of the northern regions. It is the low-budget vegetarian's version of PeKing duck. The pancake is slightly thicker than those used for duck, and is seasoned with not only savory brown sauce and spring onions, but also piled with a plentiful selection of stir-fried and marinated dishes, before being rolled up tight for spill-free eating.
Despite not officially organized, the overseas Chinese communities, especially in Southeast Asian, such as those in Singapore and Malaysia, take this festival seriously and faithfully. Some of their rituals and ancestral veneration decorum can be dated back to Ming and Qing dynasties. QingMing in Malaysia is an elaborate family function or a clan feast, usually organized by the respective clan association, to commemorate and honor recently deceased relatives at their grave sites and distant ancestors from China at home altars, clan temples or makeshift altars in Buddhist or Taoist temples.
For the oversea Chinese, the QingMing festival is very much a family celebration and, at the same time, an obligation. They regard this festival as a chance of introspection and give thanks to their ancestors. Overseas Chinese usually visit the graves of their recently deceased relatives on the nearest weekend to the actual date. According to the ancient custom, grave site veneration is only feasible ten days before and after the QingMing Festival. If the visit is not on the actual date, normally veneration before QingMing is also encouraged. The festival in Malaysia and Singapore normally starts early in the morning by paying respect to distant ancestors from China at home altars. This is followed by visiting the graves of close relatives in the country. Some follow the concept of filial piety to the extent of visiting the graves of their ancestors in mainland China.