Tomorrow is Qing Ming Jie 清明节, which literally translates as ‘Clear Bright Festival’. It is one of the major Chinese festivals, in English it is often called ‘Tomb Sweeping Day’. As it always held on the 1st day of the 5th solar term (according to the Lunar calendar) it usually falls on or about the 5th April each year. One of the reasons for the name is that at this time of year the weather is usually clear and bright.
This is the day when families are expected to visit the graves of their ancestors, clean them up, decorate them with flowers and show respect with prayers and offerings of fruit or food and burning joss sticks and paper goods for use in the afterlife. Some country people still wear a willow twig on their heads to ward off ghosts and disasters. The festival is celebrated across east Asia wherever Chinese culture has had influence.
The festival has a very ancient history – though China only re-instated it officially as a national public holiday in 2008. (BTW, I hope you’re paying attention at the back and not just snoozing!)
The story of the legendary origin of the festival goes something like this:
Some 2600 years ago there was a King of Jin who wanted his son by his concubine to inherit the kingdom, so he killed the legitimate heir. The heir’s younger brother Chong’er fled into exile. Chong’er had a tough time and at one point was near starvation. His loyal follower Jie Zitui cut a piece of flesh from his thigh and gave the meat to Chong’er to eat. Chong’er was deeply moved and said that if he became wealthy or powerful he would reward Jie Zitui. Eventually Chong’er did succeed and became Duke Wen of Jin. He showered honours on all those who had supported him through the dark days, but he forgot Jie Zitui. When others reminded him he was full of remorse and tried to find Jie Zitui.
By then Jie Zitui was living a simple life up on a mountain together with his elderly mother. To get him to come down from the mountain Chong’er had fires lit. The fires raged over the mountain and burned for three days and nights. When the fires died down the bones of Jie Zitui and his mum were found under the burned stump of a willow tree, together with a letter written in blood:
Giving meat and heart to my lord,
Hoping my lord will always be upright,
An invisible ghost under a willow
Is better than a loyal minister beside my lord.
If my lord has a place in his heart for me,
Please make self-reflection when remembering me.
I have a clear conscience in the nether world,
Being pure and bright in my offices year after year.
Chong’er was horrified at what had happened and declared that from thenceforth the same three days each year should be a time when no fires were lit, everyone should eat cold food and it would be called Hanshi . The following year Chong’er went to pay his respects at the place where Jie Zitui’s body had been found - and to everyone’s amazement the willow tree had burst back to life and had wonderful white blossoms. The day was thenceforth marked as a new festival – Qingming – on which tombs were to be swept, ancestors honoured, and the renewal of life to be celebrated.
The tradition of eating cold food at this time has long died out but Qingming Jie lives on, despite the fact that millions of Chinese live in huge cities far from their ancestral tombs.
One of the traditions at Qingming is to fly kites and this is still done – I expect to see many of them (pollution permitting) in the sky over Beijing.
Qingming is also important in China because each year all tea picked before the date of the festival commands a higher price than tea picked after it, the earlier tea being considered higher quality.
So off you all go, no hanging about, find some tombs to sweep or kites to fly…