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How China Celebrates the Past and Present With The Qingming Festival

Illustration of tomb sweeping during the Qingming Festival in China. [Photo Credit: China Highlights]
Illustration of tomb sweeping during the Qingming Festival in China. [Photo Credit: China Highlights]

There are many reasons to celebrate the coming of the Spring season, from the warming weather to the blooming trees, but for many in China, April also commemorates a time to reflect on the past and show respect to ancestors at the annual Qingming Festival.

The Qingming Festival, 清明节, is also called Tomb Sweeping Day and translates literally to “Pure Bright Festival”. This festival usually takes place between April 3rd and 5th, and is celebrated by a majority of Chinese people, including over 55 ethnic minority groups in China. The festival first began in the Zhou Dynasty, and celebration of the holiday dates back to over 2,500 years. During its origin, emperors and wealthy officials would offer feasts and sacrifices to their ancestors to bless the country with good harvests and prosperity for the coming year. Eventually, under the rule of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty, sweeping tombs became a tradition among both royalty and commoners.

“During this festival people hang willow branches in memory of Jie Zitui, an official who cut his own flesh to feed a starving prince named Chong'er.” [Photo Credit: CLI]

The Qingming Festival first came about from an ancient festival called 寒食节 (Hánshíjié), or the Cold Food Festival. The festival “originally celebrated to commemorate Jie Zitui, a Chinese nobleman of the Spring and Autumn Period (around 771 BC to 476 BC),” where no fire was lit to cook food, hence the Cold Food Festival, which in some areas in China lasted up to a month. The practice of eating only cold food for such an extended period of time was moved from winter to spring over health concerns, and to this today some people still observe only eating cold foods throughout the festival.

So, how is this holiday celebrated today? The Qingming Festival was declared a public holiday in 2008, but Chinese traditions for generations have involved the careful maintenance and care for the tombs of ancestors. This practice, however, may look a bit different depending on where you live. In the countryside, tombs tend to be standalone as opposed to a graveyard, and placed on a mountain or hillside with good fēng Shui. Members of one family will typically be buried near one another, and may include a cemented over burial mound, where families can clean the tomb and leave flowers.

A cement tombstone carved with information about the deceased is adorned with flowers. [Photo Credit: CLI]

“Cleaning the tomb and paying respect to the dead person with offerings are the two important parts of remembering the past relatives,” and cleaning involves picking the weeds around the tomb and replacing it with fresh soil, as well as leaving the ancestors' favorites food or wine as a sacrifice. Traditionally, these sacrifices would be burned so that the deceased can enjoy them, but in modern-day China, particularly in cities, these practices look a bit different. Today, cremation is a much more common practice than burial when a loved one passes away, and the traditions have been simplified to leaving flowers and sending good prayers to ancestors.

Since the Qingming Festival takes place in Spring, it is also a common practice for families to spend time outside and enjoy the warming weather and the blooming flowers. The custom of the spring outing began in the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), and is a time for everyone to enjoy the outdoors, which promotes a “healthy body and mind.”

Children flying kites during the Qingming Festival. [Photo Credit: Sohu]

While outdoors, a traditional activity that takes place during the Qingming Festival is kite flying! Kites are flown from day to night, with small lanterns tied to the strings, which light up the night sky like twinkling stars. At the end of the festivities, the strings of the kite are cut and sent up into the sky to bring good luck and eliminate diseases for the family.

As with any Chinese holiday, food is a major star in the celebration. Dishes like sweet green rice balls, peach blossom porridge, crispy cakes, Qingming snails, and eggs are all traditionally eaten on this holiday. Since the Qingming Festival is often associated with the Cold Food Festival, or 寒食节 (Hánshíjié), festival food is often served coldly. In Southern China, a very common food often eaten during the festival is a sweet green dumpling called 青团 (qīngtuán). Made with rice and barley grass, the dumpling can be filled with sweet red bean paste. Another food that is popular in both the north and south is 馓子 (sǎnzi), which are “deep fried salty dough twists which are cooked in advance and allowed to cool and dry,” which resemble a pile of spaghetti.

Pictured above is 青团 (qīngtuán), or sweet green dumplings, which are typically eaten during the Qingming Festival. [Photo Credit: CLI]

The Qingming Festival is a great time to visit China and enjoy the outdoors during the arrival of spring. It is a time to try great foods, and witness ancient family traditions as people celebrate their ancestors while looking forward to the arrival of warmer weather!

Check out the chart below to learn some Chinese vocabulary related to the Qingming Festival!

[Photo Credit: Study CLI]

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