A Brief History of Qingming Festival 清明节

Article by XIANEASE

In many traditional cultures around the world, the remembrance and honoring of the dead is an essential aspect of society. Whether it is the Obon Festival of Japan or Día de Muertos in Mexico, these celebrations are often a reflection on the value of tradition and the role that death plays in the cycle of life. In China, one of these festivals is Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day. Celebrated throughout Asia, this festival stems not only represents the above, but is an extension of the ancestor worship that is at the center of many Chinese religious and cultural practices, though prayers are seldom offered these days.

The legend behind the creation of Qingming began in the Spring and Autumn Period, in the state of Jin in what is now Shanxi Province. The heir to the ruler of the state, Prince Chong’er, was forced into exile due to a plot by his father’s favored concubine to put her son on the throne instead. During his exile, the prince was followed by a nobleman, Jie Zitui, who followed the prince and continued to serve him throughout his exile, even at one point feeding the prince bits of himself when all other options were depleted.
After nearly 20 years of exile, Chong’er was reinstated by the invading forces of Qin, and he was dubbed Duke Wen of Jin. He was very gracious to those that has stood by him during his exile, but Jie Zitui was passed over time and time again, either by neglect or by his own high-minded refusal to be rewarded. Eventually, Jie Zitui retreated to a hermit’s lifestyle in a mountain forest, taking his mother with him to continue to care for her.

Years later, the Duke realized the error of his ways, and attempted to find Jie ZiTui, to no avail. Frustrated at his lack of success, the Duke ordered his men to burn down the forest in order to force Jie Zitui out. They set fire to three sides of the forest and waited at the fourth side to welcome the man back to court. He never came out. He and his mother were found huddled beneath a willow tree, having succumbed to the flames. The Duke, in his grief, renamed the mountain Jie and the area surrounding the place Jiexiu, or “Jie’s Rest”, and built a temple in honor of his fallen friend. In addition, he declared that no fires could be set during the Qingming period of the lunar calendar each year in remembrance of his error. This lead to the Hanshi Festival, or Cold food festival, which would sometimes last a month. The festival would be banned several times over the next several centuries, as the long period without fire would often result in the deaths of infants and the elderly. The holiday was eventually reduced to a three day period. Later, the Hanshi Festival would incorporate aspect of ancestor worship, and would eventually be subsumed into the holiday now known as Qingming Festival. The popularity of the festival was said to be increased and spread by Emperor Xuanzong in the Tang Dynasty, who did so to curb the ostentatious ceremonies being held by wealthy Tang citizens. It was made a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China in 2008.

During this festival, living relatives travel to the burial sites of their deceased relatives to ritually clean the tombs, bring offerings of food and drink, and burn joss sticks (incense) and joss paper. These are meant to be performed by the children of the deceased, an extension of filial piety, but may also be performed by other relatives. Large celebrations that include dancing and other types of activities are sometimes held as well, though they have been cancelled this year, due to the outbreak. After offerings are given, the family will often spend the rest of the day on an outing. People might participate in tug-of-war games (another tradition credited to Tang Xuanzong), fly kites, or simply talk a walk in the countryside.

In 2020, festival occurs on the 4th of April, and there will be an extended weekend, with the 4th, 5th, and 6th being days off.