Qingming Festival: remembering the passed and welcoming the future

By By Feng Daimei / 08-02-2013 / (csstoday.net)
“A faint drizzle dampens the sleeves,
The brim of the hat bends with the breeze,
Blossoms emblazon the mountain face,
Willow branches dip ‘neath the water’s surface.”
These lines poetically describe Qingming Festival, also referred to as Tomb Sweeping Day. Qingming Festival is one of 24 solar terms (phases of the sun in its elliptical track across the sky over the course of a year) in the Chinese lunisolar calendar, at the turn of mid-spring into late spring. It began during the Zhou Dynasty, more than 2,500 years ago.
Compared with other traditional Chinese holidays and festivals, Qingming Festival is unique in that it is both a solar point and a festival. It embodies both the reverence of worshiping ancestors and the bliss of enjoying the spring foliage; it also demarcates the timing of agricultural activities by solar terms.
Qingming Festival is a traditional Chinese festival—the most important day for worshiping ancestors. The Han and other ethnic groups in China visit relatives’ graves and sweep the tombstones on Qingming. According to custom, people usually bring fruit and other food, drinks and fake paper money specially made for the deceased to the graveyards to display them in front of headstones or tombs before burning the paper money. People also shovel new earth at grave sites and place fresh willow branches on the tombs. Most importantly, once everything is arranged, visitors kowtow and pray.
Historically, Chinese have placed significant emphasis on ancestor worship. As Confucianism and clan activities spread during and after the Han Dynasty, the importance given to mourning ancestors deepened and the custom of sweeping tombs spread broadly. In the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Xuanzong officially set the custom on Hanshi Day (also referred to as Cold Food Day), one day before the solar term “Qingming”. Observers of Hanshi Day, which commemorates a loyal official who was burned to death, do not use fire and only prepare cold food. Gradually, as people in the Tang Dynasty extinguished fire on Hanshi Day and relit it on Qingming, the practice of sweeping tombs also extended to the latter, and the two festivals merged into one.
The rebirth of fire after Hanshi Day is a transitional ritual of driving out the old and welcoming in the new. It marks the change of season and symbolizes renewed hope, new life and the start of a new cycle. In addition to the sweeping of tombs and the moratorium on fire burning, there other traditional activities on Qingming day such as hiking, swinging, playing with cuju (a ball meant for kicking), playing polo and wearing willow. Sweeping is for mourning the dead; hiking is for seeking new life and praying for its blessing. Wearing willow branches is also a special custom on Qingming. Willow trees are easy to plant and grow heartily; they are also the first tree to sprout new buds in the spring. For these reasons, the ancient Chinese regarded the willow as unusual trees. Willows were viewed not only as bringing new fire, but also as dispelling evil. People hang willows on the doors and wear the leaves in their hair. Playing with Cuju and swinging are also popular activities on Hanshi Day; they have gradually become activities on Qingming Festival.
Remembrance and missing the departed; love and appreciation of life—these form a magical combination on Qingming.
Feng Daimei is a reporter from Chinese Social Sciences Today. The articl is compiled based on various Chinese resources.