Haiwang YUAN

In the handscroll Peace Reigns over the River, by Zhang Zeduan and believed by art historians to depict the celebration of the Qing-Ming Festival in modern-day Kaifeng, street hawkers offer food, drink, and fans to passersby.

Officially reinstated as an official holiday in 2007, the Qingming (clear and bright 清明) Festival is a day of both sorrow and joy. While paying tribute to the dead, people go outdoors to enjoy the spring. Because of the festival’s legendary origin, it is customary to eat hanshi 寒食 (cold food) on that day.

The Qingming (clear and bright) Festival falls on the first day of the fifth solar term, one of twenty-four terms, or points, marked on the traditional lunisolar calendar shared by the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese. The qingming term starts around 5 April and, like the other terms, lasts fifteen days. It is the real beginning of spring, when vegetation turns green and flowers burst into bloom.

For the Chinese, the Qingming Festival is a day of both sorrow and joy. On this day, all Chinese people mourn and remember their dead relatives. The Chinese either bury or cremate their dead. After cremation, they either leave the urns in public cemeteries or bury them. With the economic boom experienced in the 1990s and 2000s and its subsequent increased degree of social relaxation, the practice of burying the body has resurged, and Western-style tombs have become fashionable among the wealthier Chinese vying to display their filial piety as well as their fortunes. Despite changes in the ways of laying the dead to rest, the custom of visiting the dead year after year persists. Sweeping the grave, tomb, or urn and offering up sacrifices constitute a large part of this ritual. Hence the day is sometimes known in the West as the Tomb-sweeping Festival. The rites also include setting off firecrackers and burning incense and joss money (paper money in offering to ancestors). Because this practice can cause wildfires, the government encourages the offering of flowers instead. So many people driving to their relatives’ grave sites on the same day always cause traffic jams, so some choose to go a day before or after qingming, thus unwittingly stretching the length of the festival. Monuments of those who died in conflicts of modern history are always visited by schools and youth organizations as part of patriotic education.

Taqing (treading on the greenery) is one of the more joyous traditions of the Qingming Festival. Activities include outings and recreation, including ball kicking, kite flying, and swing playing. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, people increasingly choose to picnic while viewing flowers in gardens and parks.

The origin of the Qingming Festival is dubious. Most people, however, attribute it to a king named Chong’er and his subject Jie Zitui. Before he was king of the Jin state in the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE), Chong’er (697–628 BCE) fled from the persecution of his murderous stepmother queen. The hardships he endured during his exile alienated all his followers, except Jie Zitui, who even fed the starved king with flesh cut from his leg. After ascending to the throne, Chong’er forgot Jie Zitui. By the time he remembered and sent for him, Jie Zitui had already gone in hiding to Mount Mian with his mother. Chong’er set fire to the mountain in the hope of driving out Jie Zitui; but Jie Zitui preferred to be burned to death. The regretful king then set aside the day in Jie Zitui’s memory and decreed that no fire be allowed on that day, resulting in a festival called hanshi (cold food). Later, hanshi and qingming were combined to create the Qingming Festival.

Around 713–742 ce, the Qingming Festival became an official public holiday. The festival was dismissed as a day of superstition after 1949. In December 2007, the Chinese government, in answer to a popular appeal for respecting tradition, reinstated it as a public official day. Koreans, Vietnamese, and some Japanese also remember their dead on the same day, as do people of Chinese descent in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.

Further Reading

Zhan, T. (2007). Legends of ten Chinese traditional festivals [Zhong Guo shi ge jie ri chuan shuo]. Baltimore: Dolphin Books.

Zhang, X. (2007). Zhongguo chuan tong jie ri wen hua yan jiu. Beijing: Zhongguo qing nian chu ban she.

Min, X., & Yun Li. (2006). Hua shuo Zhongguo chuan tong jie ri. Qing ming jie. Nanchang Shi: Jiangxi mei shu chu ban she.

Lu Zhao, J. (1991). Qing ming jie he fu huo jie. You zhi yuan zhu ti jiao xue zhi liao Di ban (12). Xianggang: Jing jing jiao yu chu ban she.

Source: Yuan, Haiwang. (2009). Qingming Festival. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1852–1854. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A scene from a copy after Zhang Zeduan’s scroll Peace Reigns over the River shows a residential courtyard. In one room three scholars debate as they relish a quiet moment away from the Qing-Ming Festival celebration.

Tightrope walking was one of the many entertainments depicted in this copy of the eleventh/twelfth-century scroll Peace Reigns over the River. An appreciative crowd attending the Qing-Ming Festival celebration looks on.

Qingming Festival (Q?ngmíngjié ???)|Q?ngmíngjié ??? (Qingming Festival)

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