One of the most important values in Chinese society is filial piety, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see that China has a special holiday dedicated to honoring our deceased ancestors.
The Qingming Festival (清明节), also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day, refers to that time of the year where Chinese families visit their ancestral tombs to clean their gravesites and prepare offerings — a day that is not too different from how the Philippines celebrates the All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. However, unlike the November holidays, the Qingming Festival is typically held on the fifteenth day after the Spring Equinox. This year, that date falls on April 5, 2022.
What makes the Qingming Festival so important is that it is celebrated to remember our departed loved ones and, as implied by its name, thoughtfully sweep their graves — a practice that was legislated by emperors who built imperial tombstones for every dynasty. However, there is also so much more to the festival than meets the eye. In order to properly pay respects to the deceased, here is everything that you should know about Tomb-Sweeping Day:
Celebrating a rich history, the Qingming Festival dates back to as far as over 2,500 years ago, originating some time in the Zhou dynasty (1046-221 BC). It was one of many ceremonies and festivals that emperors and wealthy officials held in order to honor their ancestors. However, during the year 732, Emperor Xuanzhong of the Tang Dynasty decided to limit the dead-revering festivities and declared that ancestors may only be honored on the first day of the Qingming solar term. Since then, the tradition persisted, leaving the Qingming Festival to become one of China’s most important annual holidays.
Respecting the dead is actually only one part of celebrating the Qingming Festival. In truth, the Chinese name 清明 (qīng míng jié) actually translates to the “Pure Brightness Festival,” referring to the clear and bright climate that comes with the beginning of the spring season. As a result, there are many special traditions that one can do during this special day. Here are some of the most notable ones to take note of:
- Tomb-sweeping: As implied by its name, the first and most important task during Tomb-Sweeping Day is to tidy up your ancestral tombstones. Making sure that your deceased loved ones are resting in a clean place is just one way of showing your respect and care for them.
- Offering incense, joss paper, and food: Chinese tradition often calls for families to burn incense and joss paper for the dead. Burning incense is thought to send emotional messages from the living while burning joss paper provides the deceased with the fortune they will need to use in the afterlife. Although food items aren’t burned, they are also offered to provide comfort to the deceased.
- Picnic outdoors: Actually, one other name that the Qingming Festival has is Taqing, (踏青), which means “to tread the green.” This is because the best way to celebrate the coming of spring is to go outside and enjoy the fresh air.
- Kite-flying: Interestingly, one of the more popular activities during the Qingming Festival is to fly kites not only during the day but also in the evening! Little lanterns are often attached to the kites when they fly at night so that they would look like twinkling stars. In the past, it was also believed that cutting the string of a kite to let it fly free would also bring good fortune.
- Carrying willow branches: According to Chinese tradition, some people wear willow branches and place them on their gates to ward off evil spirits wandering during the festival day.
Luckily, most of the food that is eaten during the Qingming Festival has less to do with the dead and more to do with the coming of spring. Here are some dishes that you can eat during this special occasion:
Long ago, the less popular Cold Food Festival used to be celebrated in the three days that lead up to the Qingming Festival. During this time, people may only eat food that has not been heated. However, since the festival was so close to Tomb-Sweeping Day, some of its traditions and dishes carried over. One example is qingtuan (青糰), a glutinous rice dumpling that is mixed with barley grass before being stuffed with red or black bean paste. Since the delicacy does not need to be cooked, it became a popular Cold Food-turned-Qingming Festival treat!
Don’t let the name deceive you! Also known as sanzi (撒子) or hanju (寒具), Qingming cakes are not actually cakes. Rather, they are more like crispy fried noodle twists made of either wheat flour or glutinous rice flour.
Peach Blossom Porridge
There’s no better way to celebrate spring than with the prettiest congee you will ever see! The dish is prepared by boiling rice, peach blossoms, and wolfberries together before seasoning the mixture with sugar.
Did you know that the beginning of spring is the perfect time to go hunting for snails? Throw the mollusks in with some ginger, onions, soy sauce, cooking wine, and sugar, and you’ll find yourself with a mouthwatering dish that you can’t deny!
The Qingming Festival is actually one of the two most important events celebrated to honor the dead, with the second being the Hungry Ghost Festival, which falls during the month of October. Check out more about it in our article here!