Cultural Observances

The Qingming Festival
March 31, 2014 Updated: March 31, 2014

The Qīngmíng Festival (清明), also referred to as Pure Bright Day or Tomb-Sweeping Day, is another important traditional Chinese festival. It is celebrated on the 15th day after the spring equinox and falls on April 5 this year. It is a day when Chinese people visit the tombs or graves of their ancestors to pay their respects and is also a time to celebrate spring.

In Memory of Jie Zitui

The origin of the Qingming Festival can be traced back to a legend based on a text recorded in Zuo Zhuan, one of the earliest Chinese works of narrative history, which covers most of the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 B.C.).

Chong Er (697–628 B.C.), once the crown prince of the state of Jin, was driven out of the state by Liji who was then the favorite concubine of his father. During his 19-year exile, Chong lived in extreme poverty with only a few faithful men to serve him. Jie Zitui was one of these men.

One day, close to starving to death, Chong fainted. In order to save Chong’s life, Jie cut a piece of flesh from his own thigh and prepared a bowl of soup for his master.

Chong Er was deeply moved by what Jie had done and promised to repay him in the future. Jie insisted that he did not want any reward, wanting only a pure and bright king for the state of Jin.

After Chong ascended the throne, he summoned the people who had stayed loyal to him and generously rewarded them. As the new king, Chong even rewarded the people who had betrayed him but now supported him. However, he forgot about Jie. 

When Chong Er finally remembered Jie and his sacrifice, he was full of regret for having neglected the man who helped him in his darkest hour. He sent a messenger to find Jie and invite him to the palace. But Jie had moved with his mother deep into the forests of Mount Jin (in the northeast of China). The king personally went to the mountain to look for Jie but also failed to find him.

A minister suggested they set fires on three sides of the mountain to force Jie to come out. Chong Er took this advice and set fire to the mountain. The fires raged for three days, but there was still no trace of Jie and his mother. 

Jie was later found leaning dead against a large willow tree. A note written with blood on a piece of cloth was found in a hole of the half-burned tree. It read: 

“I cut off my own flesh to succor you, only wishing my king to be pure and bright. 
Dead under a willow tree and seen no more, better than being an official near you.
My king, if I am in your heart, please examine yourself when you think of me.
I die without regret, only wishing my king to take care of the state, pure and bright.”

Tears rolled down Chong Er’s cheeks and he was so sad that he cried aloud. He tucked Jie’s note in a sleeve pocket and vowed to be a pure and bright king for his people.

Jie was buried under the willow tree and, in memory of Jie, the king ordered that no fire or smoke was allowed on that day. The day was called Hanshi Day (cold food day) because without fire the people had to eat cold meals. 

The next year, the king, with officials in attendance, visited Jie’s tomb on the anniversary of Jie’s death. To their surprise, they discovered that the large willow tree was alive and full of new branches with green leaves. It was as if Jie was greeting them and encouraging the king to remain pure and bright. 

Seeing this, Chong Er felt comforted and happy. He remembered the word “qingming” from Jie’s note and named the day Qingming Day (Pure Bright Day). 

It was later recorded that Chong was indeed a pure and righteous king, and the people of Jin lived in peace and harmony under his reign.

From that time on, Qingming Day became an important occasion for Chinese people to remember the sacrifices of their ancestors. Later, it became a festival as Hanshi Day, which was originally on the eve of Qingming Day, was incorporated into the Qingming Festival.

The Golden Week 

Along with having a day of cold food in memory of the pure righteousness of Jie and visiting the tombs of one’s ancestors and beloved ones, it is also the 5th term of the traditional lunisolar calendar(1), a time when nature awakens and the world is dressed in green. In ancient times, the Qingming observances became so important that the day developed into a week-long festival.

During the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907), there was a series of Qingming activities. The day for eating cold food and the following day for visiting tombs were joined together. Observing one period of time for honoring the ancestors helped curb the extravagances of the numerous random memorial celebrations of the time. Outings, sports, and writing poetry were added, and the Qingming Festival became a four-day holiday. 

During the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960–1279), the festival was extended to seven days. It was regarded as a golden week observing all the previous traditions up until the Qing Dynasty (A.D. 1644–1911).

After the Qing Dynasty, the custom of eating cold food gradually disappeared, but the traditional cold foods for the day, such as pre-cooked eggs and some steamed cakes, are still quite popular in certain parts of China.

Today, the Qingming Festival has become a more commercial occasion and a time to enjoy the spring rather than just the remembrance of sacrifice and faithfulness.

Qingming Customs

Today, sweeping tombs and graves has remained the most important tradition of the Qingming Festival. People clear away debris and weeds and also place offerings to honor their departed relatives. The offerings are usually rice wine, fruit, steamed buns, or the deceased’s favorite foods. 

Traditionally, as part of the ceremony, incense and paper articles resembling special items like money or other treasures were burned in the hope that the deceased would not lack any comforts in the afterlife. Today, flowers are often used instead. Prayers are respectfully expressed, as well.

In certain regions, willow branches are placed on gates and front doors. It is believed that, if one is righteous and kind, the branches drive away evil spirits and invite heavenly blessings of longevity.

Celebrating spring has become an important part of the festival. Family outings and hiking are favorite activities on this occasion. Usually, a family trip is planned in combination with a visit to the tombs, graves, or ash tablets of the ancestors.

Kite flying is also popular, all the day and into the night. The bamboo cross-sections of some kites vibrate with a buzz. At night, small, colorful lanterns are tied to the kites so that they look like twinkling stars when aloft. Cutting the string and setting the kite free is believed to bring good luck and to eliminate illness.

For many Chinese, the Qingming Festival is very much a family obligation. They follow traditions more faithfully and consider the festival to be more a time to reflect and to honor their ancestors. 

1. The Chinese divide a year into 24 solar terms. There are 6 terms for each of the 4 seasons. The terms are spaced 15 degrees apart and are used in lunisolar calendars to stay synchronized with the seasons, which is crucial for agrarian societies.