Qingming Festival, also called Tomb Sweeping Day or Pure Brightness in English, usually falls around April 4 or 5, the beginning of one of the 24 solar terms on the traditional Chinese calendar called Qingming (清明). It is also a time for people to go outside and start enjoying the greenery of spring.
With social and economic change, this festival is still a traditional one for most people (including the Han Chinese and China's 55 other ethnic minorities) to go and sweep tombs and commemorate their ancestors. On this day, tomb sweeping, also called Shang Fen (上坟 ‘mounting a grave’) is one of the most important and popular activities to show respect to ancestors. On May 20, 2006, the festival was listed as one of the first national intangible cultural heritage events.
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Tomb Sweeping Day, with a long history of more than 2,500 years, originated from the extravagant and ostentatiously expensive ceremonies that many ancient emperors and wealthy officials held in honor of their ancestors. Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), seeking to curb this practice, declared that respect could only be paid formally at ancestors' graves on the day of the Qingming solar term.
The observance of the rule gradually found a firm place in both royal and common families and continued for over two millennia. The day before Tomb Sweeping Day was the traditional Chinese Cold Food Day when people used no fire throughout the day, ate only cold food as a result, and swept their ancestors' tombs. As time passed, the two festivals were gradually combined into one.
Legend has it that a severe fight ensued for royalty succession in the Jin States during the era of the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period. A prince named Chong'er survived and escaped the fight, and began his 19-year exile with his followers. One day, when Prince Chong'er was about to starve to death, a follower named Jie Zhitui secretly cut a piece of flesh from his thigh and cooked it into a meat soup, which saved the prince.
Chong'er wondered where Jie had obtained the soup. When he found out what Jie had done, the prince was so moved that he promised to reward him one day. Nineteen years later, Prince Chong'er returned to his kingdom and took power as Duke Wen of the Jin State, one of the five hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period.
After taking power, Duke Wen greatly awarded and honored all of his followers, but he forgot Jie Zhitui, the man who once saved his life. When others spoke of Jie Zhitui, Duke Wen remembered him and was ashamed. He immediately sent his servants to invite Jie Zhitui and conferred him with a title. However, Jie Zhitui refused resolutely because he was not the type of person who sought rewards. Instead, he just wanted to help the prince return to Jin to become a duke.
Then, the duke decided to come personally but before he arrived, Jie Zhitui heard the news and hid on a nearby mountain with his aged mother. Jie Zhitui refused to see the prince, and no one could find him in his hiding spot on the mountain.Duke Wen ordered to set the mountain on fire to force Jie Zhitui out of hiding.
Three days and nights later, the duke and his people found two dead bodies; that of Jie Zhitui and his mother, in a cave under a willow tree on the mountain. In honor of Jie Zhitui, a man who never sought fame and profit, Duke Wen buried him and his mother respectfully, held a memorial ceremony for the tomb, and ordered his subjects to use no fire and eat cold food on that day. The mountain is now called "Mianshan Mountain" (check outPingyao Classic Tour with Mianshan Combo).
The next year, Duke Wen climbed the mountain to commemorate Jie Zhitui. When arriving at the tomb, he saw the burnt willow tree revived with lush leaves and branches and remembered Jie Zhitui's noble character. He was so moved that he swept the tomb and declared the festival as Qingming Festival. Later, Duke Wen built an honest, diligent, pragmatic, and efficient government during his reign.
Because of his great contribution to Jin State, people there stopped using fire, swept the tombs of their ancestors, and offered food, tea, wine, chopsticks, joss paper accessories, or libations to their ancestors to remember and honor Jie Zhitui. In addition, willow branches are placed on gates or front doors of houses to beckon Jie Zhitui's soul and to ward off the evil spirits that around wander on Qingming. Today, residents in the north usually eat cold prepared food such as date cake and wheat cake, while people in the south prefer lotus roots stuffed with glutinous rice and green cake.
Tomb Sweeping Day is a time for various activities. The more popular ones are tomb sweeping, spring outings, and kite flying. Some other lost customs, such as putting willow branches on gates and riding on swings, have been an important part of this festival since the beginning. Moreover, people often participate in a sport to ward off the cold and in anticipation of the arrival of spring. In a word, the festival integrates both sadness and happiness through its history as well as its customs.
Qingming is also the best time for Taqing (ta-ching), or a spring outing, getting out and enjoying the early blossoms before summer. During spring, everything in nature takes on a new look, as trees turn green, flowers blossom, and the sun shines brightly. The festival usually falls on a day not long before everything turns green, and is an indication that people will start spending more time outside as the weather warms up.
Ju (鞠, pronounced joo) is a rubber ball made of leather on the outside and stuffed tightly with feathers on the inside. Cuju (tsoo-joo) literally means to "kick the rubber ball". It was a popular sport played by the ancient Chinese during the Qingming Festival. The Yellow Emperor (whose mausoleum is located in Yan'an) was purportedly the initiator of Cuju, as he invented it to train his soldiers. This sport is still played today, especially during Qingming Festival.
Qingming is also a time to plant trees because of the arrival of gradually warmer weather and moderate rainfall. Since ancient times, people have planted trees during the Qingming Festival, therefore also naming it Tree-Planting Day.
Tomb sweeping during the Qingming Festival shows respect through offering a sacrifice to ancestors at their gravesite. Many people have long followed the custom before the festival was established. According to traditional beliefs, when sweeping tombs, people will offer food, tea, wine, chopsticks, joss paper accessories, and libations to their ancestors, add fresh soil to the grave, and stick willow branches on the tomb. Kowtowing is also an indispensable part of the custom.
Flying kites is also an important custom enjoyed by many people, young and old, during the Qingming Festival. Kites are not only flown during the day but also in the evening when little colored lanterns are tied to the kites or to the strings that hold the kites. When kites fly in the evening, the lanterns look like twinkling stars that add uniqueness to the sky. In the past, people cut the string to let the kite fly freely. This custom is believed to bring good luck and eliminate diseases.
Kite flying is popular throughout all of China and you will see people doing it on big squares or in parks throughout the entire country.
During Qingming Festival, people wear soft willow branches and place the branches on gates and front doors in the belief that this will ward off wandering evil spirits during Qingming. That willows were considered magical is mainly a Buddhist influence. Traditional pictures of the Goddess of Mercy Guanyin often show her seated on a rock with a willow branch in a vase of water at her side. The goddess used this mysterious water and branch to scare away demons. According to historical records, "putting willow branches up on gates; driving ghosts away from houses."
Due to the nature of Qingming festival, it does not affect traveling much which is good for tourists. However, there is also nothing too special to see during these few days except enjoying the arrival of Spring yourself, of course. The best places to go during this time period are the parks of which there are no shortage in any Chinese cities, whether they be big national parks or little pockets of greenery in city centers.