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Qing Ming: A Tomb-Sweeping Day

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods

Summer Volume: 2017 Issue: 24(2) page(s): 32

Showers can prevail on or near this holiday, some days have but a drizzle; a few are cloudless, and on others the sky opens up to soak everybody and everything. This day is also known as the Pure Brightness Festival, and on it many hike into the woods, go up a mountain, or visit their nearest deceased relatives tombstone. For almost three thousand years, Chinese have trekked to the burial sites of their ancestors, swept and cleaned up around them, then enjoyed a picnic with them and the cold foods they brought.

In 2016, Qing Ming was on April 4th and this year it will be celebrated on same date. In 2018 and 2019 it will be celebrated on April 5th. This is a lunar holiday close to the onset of Spring. It is also a National Intangible Cultural Heritage holiday. There was also a Cold Food Festival near it but one Emperor did say they should be celebrated on the same day, and so now they are.

The Cold Food Festival was celebrated for Jie Zitui, a loyal fellow who lived during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 to 476 BCE). He cut a piece of meat from his own leg to save his exiled hungry lord whose crown was in jeopardy. Years later, Duke Wen tried to reward him telling him so, but Jie and his mother hid on a mountain. When they tried to flush them out, they set a fire where he thought they were hiding, then they looked for them and found them dead.

After that, the Cold Food Festival was selected to pay tribute to Jie. The ruler forbade fires of any sort and later combined these two days in memory of Jie, a senior fellow in the State of Jin. That is why on this festival, they only cold foods. Originally, it was a three day festival but now as are other festivals, it has been reduced to just one day. Families prepare honorific cold foods or foods loved by their deceased relatives that they prepared a day or two earlier. In China’s south, these are often sweet balls of rice; in the north they are steamed cakes with dates or date juice in them.

This cleaning up around their deceased relative’s tombs is a practice probably started about three hundred BCE in the Shanxi region. Many close family members put rings of willow twigs on their heads, another form of tribute. Some prepare snake or rabbit dishes and bring them cold to remember the small animals who perished in the fires made to flush Jie and his mother out from hiding. Some sprinkle them with sesame seeds. They read poetry, fly kites, enjoy nature, and tie small lamps to their kites, then cut the strings and let them fly freely. They like to watch them go skyward, and they think happy thoughts about the deceased. Do you know anyone who does this?

After releasing the kites and watching them for a few minutes, they eat thee cold foods and share them spiritually with the deceased. Some burn paper money hoping the deceased never lack for anything in their afterlife; many kow-tow to them, put flowers on their graves, and offer prayers. Because not everyone can get to the actual burial site, some do these things at a home alter, or they hire someone to do them in their stead.

Some celebrate this holiday less often than their elders did. They might visit a temple this day and light candles or incense in their memory. Some young folk do give fake or real phones and other electronics as offerings. What do you do on this two thousand plus year festival?

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