For Our Ancestors: the Qing Ming Festival

Article by Benjamin Wall

Throughout history groups such as the; Mayans, Catholics, Egyptians, Native Americans, Chinese and many more have seen Spring as a time of year to celebrate the dead. As different as each of these civilizations are, they all share one common practice – the worship of those that came before them. The veneration of the dead isn’t just about thanks; often times it has nothing to do with thanking your ancestors at all. In certain cultures, it is more about the comfortable and continued existence of the dead. Egyptian tombs weren’t built and decorated to celebrate death but rather to keep the soul happy after death. Catholics and Christians believe that after death we go to heaven or hell to finish out our existence. During the classical period in Rome the bodies were cremated and kept in tombs outside the city walls. Once a year in February they would be visited by family to celebrate the life and continued life of the dead. The same goes for the Chinese, during the Tomb Sweeping festival they are more concerned with the continued existence of the dead, rather than paying tribute.

To understand the purpose of this you have to know the tale of Jie Zitui. Tomb sweeping day is based on the Hanshi Festival. Though the Hanshi festival no longer gets celebrated in China, it has been absorbed by the Qingming festival over the years. Jie Zitui was the most loyal subject to Chong Er. When Chong Er was exiled during a Civil War, Jie Zitui stood by his side the whole time. Legend has it that he offered to make broth from his own flesh so that Chong Er would not go hungry. Eventually Chong Er was brought back from exile and became King. He made sure to praise all those that were helpful and loyal to him during tough times, however, like every great man he forgot one subject, Jie Zitui. Instead of bringing the matter to the attention of Chong Er, Jie Zitui remained silent and removed himself to the mountains, knowing that Chong Er would pay respect to him when he felt the time was right.

When the matter was brought to Chong Er’s attention he went immediately to the mountains to find Jie Zitui. When he was unable to find his loyal friend he set fire to the forest to drive Jie Zitui out. The plan backfired, and when the fire died Jie Zitui was found dead under a willow tree with his mother and a note*. It was then that Chong Er created the Hanshi Festival or “Pure Brightness Festival”, declaring that no fire should be set so that Jie Zitui could be remembered.

The story about Jie Zitui is sad, yet beautiful. Whether it is true or not or rather, whether you choose to believe it or not as guest in this country, no matter how long you have been here, it is important that we show great respect for Qingming festival. This isn’t just another national holiday, or just some tale about a loyal servant who was looked over, or a day off from work, but rather a celebration of those that came before us. It is a day to thank your grandparents, aunts, distant cousins, and all ancestors for everything that they did and have continued to do in the afterlife. It is a day for the Chinese to make sure that their loved ones are still living a comfortable life in the other realm and a chance to spend with the family that is still physically present in their lives today.

Benjamin is a history teacher and wears a poncho better than anyone else in Xi’an