Article by XIANEASE
By the time this issue comes out, the Qingming Festival (known in English as the “Tomb-Sweeping Festival”) will have come and gone. However, you might be left with more questions than answers about what it is, what people do to celebrate and why. Luckily you have us, your friends at Xianease, to give you the lowdown on this unique festival.
The Qingming Festival, a celebration dedicated to honoring departed ancestors, occurs annually 15 days after the Spring Equinox. In terms of the Gregorian calendar, that means it generally falls between April 4th and 6th. This year, it was on the 5th. Though the festival and its traditions can be traced back centuries, it has only been recognized as a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China since 2008, when the May Day Golden Week was scrapped and several traditional festivals took its place (see also: Dragon Boat and Mid-Autumn Festivals).
The story of Qingming starts a couple thousand years ago in what is now Shanxi Province. A prince named Chong’er was exiled, and the nobleman Jie Zhitui followed him and continued to serve him. Jie Zhitui was immensely faithful to his master during this time of hardship, with some legends saying that he even cut pieces of his own flesh to feed Chong’er when there were no other options. Eventually, an invading force installed Chong’er as the duke of the area he had once been exiled from.
When this happened, Chong’er was said to have been very generous to those who had remained loyal to him in exile. However (and accounts differ on this), Jie Zhitui either was passed over by his lord, or he refused to accept any reward for his behavior, on principle. Either way, he went into hermitage in the forest. In the most common telling of this story, Chong’er eventually realized his mistake of not honoring Jie Zhitui and, having been unsuccessful at locating him within the forest, decided to burn the forest down and force Jie Zhitui out. The forest fire ended up killing Jie Zhitui instead.
Distraught over this turn of events, Chong’er honored his fallen ward with the establishment of the Hanshi Festival (among other elaborate memorials). This festival proved popular, but somewhat dangerous, mostly due to a common tradition of not lighting fires for a month, which adversely affected children and the elderly. For centuries, Chinese government officials tried to ban or alter certain traditions but were unsuccessful. It wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty, when Emperor Xuanzong combined Hanshi with the Shangsi Festival to create the one-day Qingming Festival.
Qingming is a time for family. Families will gather together and, true to its “Tomb-Sweeping” name in translation, clean off the graves of their ancestors. They will also offer fruit and flowers at the tomb, and also speak with their departed loved ones. Another common tradition, particularly observed in urban areas where the tombs of ancestors may be unreachable, is to burn so-called “Hell money” within chalk circles on the street. This is done with the intention of sending this money to make their ancestors more comfortable in the afterlife. Finally, like pretty much every Chinese festival, there is an associated traditional food, a glutinous rice dumpling known as “qingtuan” (青团).
While celebrations occur principally in China, countries with significant Chinese populations, such as Malaysia and Singapore, will also see observances of this holiday, and parts of South Korea and Japan have similar festivals that they observe.
SO, WHAT SHOULD I DO?
Like a lot of these traditional holidays, you probably won’t have to do much at all. Enjoy the day off from work, burn some Hell money if you want to, try a qingtuan if you’re feeling sassy and, most importantly, just be respectful.
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