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Beyond Tomb Sweeping - A Journey Through the Many Faces of Qingming Festival

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

Qingming Festival

When the struggle of the cold of winter is done, and the flowers begin to bloom a solar festival is set in the Chinese calendar to honor the ancestors and the start of Spring. It is called Qingming Jie – or Clear Bright Festival.

Qingming Old and New

In ancient times it was a festival completely dedicated to the rites of Spring, with dancing and courting of young girls and boys, and painting of eggs before they were broken open upon the ground – symbolizing the opening and dispersal of all life. Pine and Willow branches that symbolize long life would be hung on the doors of the villagers – to keep out the force of darkness. Over time this tradition began to change and focus on the dead, and the shift from outdoor romanticism to subdued and quiet ancestral worship was complete.

In China the dead and ancestors are an integral part of the life of the living. They are believed to be responsible for ensuring fertility in the home as well as in the fields – so perhaps the sacrifices and offering made to the ancestors at spring time are in keeping with the origin of the Clear bright festival.

Honoring the dead and life itself

It is a time of joy and sorrow, of life and death, of celebration and remembrance. It is a time when the living and the dead come together, a time when the past and the present are intertwined. At different times Qingming has been a solemn occasion, with quiet reflection and contemplation and at other times it has also taken on a more festive air. People gather at the graves of their ancestors, sweep away the dead leaves of winter and plant new flowers and trees for Spring. They offer prayers and light incense and layout food offerings of dried mushrooms and beancurd, cured meats, noodles and steamed buns. Ancestors are considered to be very close to the living in the hierarchy of the spirit world and therefore the food given to them is very similar to the food of the living.

Holding onto a willow tree

The legend of the Cold Food Festival (another name for QingMing) honors Jie Zitui, a loyal follower of Chong Er –who became Duke Wen of Jin in the Spring and Autumn period 2000 years ago. Jie Zitui sacrificed his own flesh to feed his lord during his time of need, but when his Lord the Duke, wanted to ennoble his most loyal of followers, Jin Zitui and his mother decided they would rather live in retreat amongst nature in the mountain than seek nobility. The Duke was determined to find him and searched high and low for days. In the end the Duke ordered a fire to be set on the mountain in the hope to smoke him out. The fire burned for three days and nights, when the whole mountain burned out Jie and his mother were found burnt to death holding onto a willow tree. The Duke was devastated, and renamed the Mountain after Jie, built a temple in his honor and made shoes out of the willow tree. The day of the fire fell on the Clear Bright festival, and so to honor Jie’s virtuous nature of preferring death to nobility no family would cook on this day, and only cold leftovers from the previous day would be served, and the people would pay their respects to their ancestors.

Nowadays People pack baskets full of food and wine, gather their families and friends, and set out on picnics in the countryside. They fly kites, play games, and revel in the beauty of spring. Yet there is always a regard for the spirits of the dead, they are considered less predictable and are seen as potentially erratic out of the boundaries of the home and the ancestral hall. There are different types of ghosts too, and in the autumn months there is a festival for the hungry ghosts that roam in packs, as they represent the uncared for dead.

Wind water and FengShui

The grave offerings and geomantic arrangement of the tomb are designed to keep ancestors happy and in good humor. There is an order to where certain family members are buried in the ceremonial mound, and a great deal of consideration and traditional use of the geomancers compass and practice of Feng Shui (windwater) go into deciding the exact location or layout of the burial grounds. These days due to land shortage and a huge population massive hillside cemeteries have taken the place of a lot of the field graves

What is the Chinese concept of the afterlife?

The ancient Chinese, like many other civilizations, believed in an afterlife. However, their view of the afterlife is vastly different from that of Western cultures. The Chinese belief that death is not the end of life, but rather a transition to another realm, still exists today. It is considered to be divided into two distinct realms: the spiritual world inhabited by the souls of the departed and the underworld, which was home to various spirits and deities. For them, the soul would journey to the underworld immediately after death. There, it would be judged based on the deeds performed during life, and subsequently, its fate would be determined. A good life would result in a good afterlife. Conversely, a wicked life would lead to a miserable existence in the afterlife. Good deeds were rewarded, and bad deeds were punished. The ancient Chinese also believed in the concept of reincarnation. This belief was based on the idea that the soul was not eternal, but rather, it could be reborn into a new body after death.

Incense and prayers

The Lighting of incense, and candles is a connection to the dead and a ritual that is practiced not only during the festivals in China, but throughout the world religions. Perhaps the smoke rising towards the heavens carries the prayers for our loved ones upwards and reaches them on their souls journey. The tradition of Kite flying during Qingming is also seen as a way to communicate with the ancestors, and bring them closer to the divine. It is a reminder of the impermanence of all things. For just as the kites rise up into the heavens, so too do our loved ones who have passed on.

The kites are decorated with bright colors and intricate designs, each one representing a different wish or prayer. Smoke rising, prayers lifting, kites flying, all seem to represent the bond between the living and the dead, bridging the gap between this world and the next.

This year, the Qingming Festival falls on April 5. In California, it will be observed by the Chinese community throughout the state, particularly in areas with a significant Chinese population such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Local Chinese cultural and community organizations may also hold specific events or gatherings that are worth checking online.


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