The Qingming Festival, also known as the Tomb Sweeping Festival, is the 4th solar term of the Chinese 24 solar terms. It may fall on any day in the period April 4—April 6. It’s the only national holiday celebrating a solar term in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Macau, besides Qingming Festival, there is another holiday celebrating for a solar term, Winter Solstice.
Different with other solar terms, Qingming Festival is not only an important solar term, but also a special festival for Chinese people.
As a Solar Term
The 24 solar terms objectively reflect the changes in climate, rainfall, and phenology over the course of a year. Therefore ancient Chinese arrange agricultural activities according to solar terms. Qingming, as a solar term, is no exception. Upon the arrival of Qingming, the temperature rises and rainfall increases, making it a good time for spring ploughing and spring planting. As the saying goes:“Plant melons and beans before and after Qingming Festival.
As a Festival
As a festival, Qingming is a bit different from other solar terms. Solar terms indicate the change of phenology and seasons, while festivals include a series of traditional activities and certain commemorative meanings.
Being a traditional festival, Qingming Festival is one of the four major festivals for worshiping ancestors. During the festival, many Chinese go to sweep tombs and worship their forefathers.
Qingming Festival has another name: Ta Qing Festival. Ta Qing means spring outing. During this period, brilliant sunshine and verdant plants begin to embrace the whole land. People often go for a spring outing and hold a series of activities.
Originating in the Zhou Dynasty, Qingming Festival has a history of over 2,500 years. At the very beginning, it was just a vital solar term. As Qingming Festival was very near another important festival, the Cool Dish Festival, a day when folk sweep tombs and prohibit the use of fire, gradually the Cool Dish Festival and Qingming Festival became one festival. Naturally the Cool Dish Festival became another name of Qingming Festival and so did its customs.
Chong Er’s Exile
During the Spring and Autumn Period, Li Ji was a concubine of Duke Jin Xian. At that time, only the firstborn of the empress could succeed to the throne. However, Li Ji wanted her own son Xiqi to be the next emperor. She plotted to murder the crown prince, Shen Sheng, making him commit suicide in desperation. Chong Er, the younger brother of Shen Sheng, had to exile to avoid the disaster.
Jie Zitui Saved Chong Er
During his exile, Chong Er suffered a lot. Only a few loyal and devoted officials still followed him closely. Jie Zitui was one of those officials. Once Chong Er was so hungry that he fainted. Jie Zitui cut a piece of flesh off from his leg. Then he cooked it and fed Chong Er, which saved Chong Er.
Jie Zitui Refused a High Position
Nineteen years later, Chong Er came back to his motherland and became the ruler, known as Duke Jin Wen, one of the five famous overlords during the Spring and Autumn Period. He greatly rewarded his loyal fellows, but unfortunately forgot Jie Zitui. When someone reminded him of Jie, Duke Jin Wen felt so ashamed that he immediately sent off an official to invite Jie to be a high official in the palace. However, Jie refused several times.
Duke Jin Wen Set Fire on Mt. Mian
Without other options, the Duke had to go to Jie in person. There was a closed door facing him when he went to invite Jie. In fact Jie had gone to Mt. Mian (in Jiexiu County, southwest Shanxi Province) with his old mother to avoid seeing the Duke.
An official suggested setting fire on the mountain from 3 sides, leaving 1 side to let Jie go down the mountain. The Duke adopted the idea and made the order. However, though the fire burned for 3 days and nights and finally came to an end, Jie didn’t appear.
The Origin of the Name for the Cool Dish Festival
They went up the mountain and found the son and mother dead. The Duke cried bitterly facing the dead bodies and intended to bury them. Suddenly he found there seemed to be something in the tree hole behind the back of Jie. He dug it out. It was a piece of cloth with a poem on it written in blood. The poem told Jie’s real reason to leave and expressed his wish that the Duke become a righteous overlord in future.
The Duke put the poem away carefully and buried Jie and his mother under the big charred willow tree. For commemorating Jie, Duke Jin Wen ordered the name of Mt. Mian be changed to Mt. Jie and built a temple on the mountain. Later he decreed the day of setting the fires be remembered as the Cool Dish Festival across the country. Every year on this day people should use no fire and eat only cold food.
The Origin of the Name for Qingming Festival
The next year, the Duke led his fellows to ascend the mountain in plain clothing to show their sadness and commemoration. When they came to the tomb, they found the old willow tree has come to life and verdant willow branches were blowing in the wind.
Looking up to the willow tree, the Duke felt like he saw Jie Zitui. Duke Jin Wen pinched a branch from the willow tree and plaited it into a circle to wear it around his head. After sweeping the tomb, the Duke named the old willow tree “Qingming Willow” and the day “Qingming Festival”.
The customs of Qingming Festival are abundant and interesting. Besides prohibiting the use of fire and sweeping tombs, there is a series of activities. It is said that people can strengthen their health during Qingming Festival by eating only cool dishes and prohibiting the use of fire. Therefore, it is a special festival, combining the solemness of worshiping forefathers, and the happiness of a spring outing.
Saomu (Tomb Sweeping)
According to traditional custom, Chinese people bring wine, food and zhi qian (paper made to resemble money and burned as an offering to the dead) when sweeping the tomb. Generally people would take foodstuffs as an offering, burn zhi qian, cover the tomb with some new soil, insert several verdant branches on the tomb and worship their ancestors with kowtows. After this routine they would go back home and eat the food and wine.
Jin Huo (Prohibiting the Use of Fire)
During this festival, people don’t cook food and only eat cool dishes instead. In North China people eat cool dishes like date cakes and wheat cakes prepared in advance. In South China people may eat glutinous rice cakes and candied lotus with glutinous rice.
Dang Qiu Qian (Swinging)
It is an activity that can not only strengthen health, but also build up bravery of spirit. Swinging is still very popular with children.
Cu Ju (Kicking the Ball)
Ju is a kind of ball, made from leather, and filled with tightly-packed feathers. Cu means kicking. Cu Ju indicates kicking a ball. It is said, according to legend, that this was invented by Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor) to train warriors.
Ta Qing (Spring Outing)
During Qingming Festival, everything comes to life. It is such a good time for a spring outing, breathing the fresh air, and relaxing ourselves. Chinese people have kept this custom since ancient times.
During Qingming Festival, the sunshine and rain are sufficient, which makes for a high survival rate for trees planted at this time. Hence Chinese people are likely to plant trees upon Qingming Festival’s arrival. Some even called Qingming Festival “Arbor Day”. In 1979, the Chinese Standing Committee stipulated March 12 as China Arbor Day.
During Qingming Festival, people would not only fly kites in the daytime, but also fly them at night. People would attach strings of little lanterns to the kite, which look like blinking stars. The lanterns are called Magic Lamps. In the past some people would cut the string after the kite had flown into the sky, letting it go arbitrarily. They believed this would bring them good luck.
The Qingming FestivalQingming Festival is a grand festival combining the solar term of Qingming and the Cool Dish Festival. Hence the dietary requirements of the Cool Dish Festival are an integral part of Qingming Festival. Unlike other traditional festivals, Qingming Festival does not use the same foodstuff for the celebration from region to region.
In North China, the main food for this festival is cool porridge and pastries. Many would also eat an egg to wish a prosperous year. Traditional Beijingers would choose to eat fried dough twists and seasoned millet mush. People in Shanxi Province like to steam several kinds of buns, known as Zitui Mo and Swallow Zitui. There are walnuts, dates and peanuts inside, calling Zi Fu. It indicates a prosperous family. People can keep some buns for eating on their own and give the rest to relatives as gifts.
In South China, people are likely to eat some seasonal food. Residents in Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang have the custom of eating glutinous rice cakes and candied lotus with glutinous rice. The folk in Hunan, Hubei and Sichuan provinces like to eat zongzi (sticky rice wrapped in leaves). They take zongzi as an offering when worshiping ancestors, and also eat them when going on spring outings.
The Most Popular Poem regarding Qingming Festival
By Du Mu, during the Tang Dynasty
It drizzles thick and fast on Pure Brightness Day,
I travel with my heart lost in dismay.
"Is there a public house somewhere, cowboy?"
He points at Apricot Village faraway.