A time for new beginnings and old memories

By Chen Nan| (China Daily)| Updated : 2022-04-02

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On Tomb Sweeping Day, Chinese mark the arrival of spring as they pay tribute to their ancestors, Chen Nan reports.

On the traditional Chinese calendar, Qingming, meaning clear and bright, falls on the fourth or fifth day of April.

As the fifth of the Twenty-four Solar Terms following Spring Equinox on March 20 and before Grain Rain, which arrives on April 20, Qingming will fall next Tuesday, April 5.

Across China the arrival of Qingming is accompanied by rising temperatures and frequent rain. Like other solar terms, Qingming, created in ancient China, was to guide the agricultural affairs and farming activities. It is then that seeds are planted and farmers start rearing silkworms.

It is also a time for people to enjoy spring and get closer to nature as trees turn ever greener and flowers bloom. Outings, flying kites, playing cuju (ancient football) and planting trees are among the activities that mark the arrival of Qingming.

Apart from being one of the Twenty-four Solar Terms, Qingming is also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, when people honor their ancestors and deal with the emotions of losing loved ones. Qingming is the only Chinese public holiday that is also one of the Twenty-four Solar Terms.

Ancient texts from Huainanzi (Master Huainan) during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24) indicate that "15 days after the Spring Equinox ... the clear and bright wind arrives", which explained the name of the term Qingming. Another line passed down from an ancient book titled Suishi Baiwen says, "all growing things are clean and pure at this time, hence the name Qingming".

There are some ancient Chinese poems depicting Qingming that are still learned and recited by Chinese people today. One of the most well known is titled Qingming, by the Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Du Mu, which goes:"A drizzling rain falls like tears on the day of Qingming. The mourner's heart is going to break on his way. Where can a wine shop be found to drown his sad hours? A cowherd points to a cot amid apricot flowers."

Though the solar term Qingming was first recorded in the Western Han Dynasty, it was not until the Tang Dynasty that it was declared a national holiday to honor ancestors. People celebrate the festival with customs from another traditional Chinese festival, which occurs around the same time. Hanshi, meaning "cold meal", which falls two days before Tomb Sweeping Day, was marked by ancient Chinese people to refrain from using fire, and they ate only cold meals for three days.

The tradition of Hanshi was born out of folklore about a wronged loyal official. During the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), Emperor Wen of Jin, before ascending the throne, fled the country for about 20 years. He was protected by a court official named Jie Zitui. After gaining the throne the emperor was keen to call on Jie's services once again, but as Jie did not value titles or money he rejected the offer and chose to live in the Mianshan Mountain, which is in what is today the city of Jiexiu, Shanxi province, with his mother. The emperor listened to the advice of other officials and tried to force Jie out of the mountains by starting a fire but ended up by killing Jie and his mother. To pay tribute to Jie, the emperor decreed that people be forbidden from using fire and could only eat cold food on the day.

The story has been adapted into a Peking Opera piece, Fen Mianshan, or Burning the Mianshan Mountain, which is still performed today. Peking Opera is a traditional Chinese performing art form with a history of more than 200 years.

On Tomb Sweeping Day, families get together and visit their ancestors' tombs. They have the tombs cleaned, replace withered flowers with fresh ones and place snacks, fruits and drinks as offerings to the ancestors.

Special food is served on Tomb Sweeping Day. Qingtuan, or green sticky rice balls usually with sweet fillings are one of the most popular fare. It is usually made from glutinous rice mixed with pounded mugwort, which is an edible wild herb preventing toxic insect bites.

"We usually prepare qingtuan about six weeks before the festival," says Ren Xiangyang, deputy general manager of Shanghai Tang Cafe, a restaurant in Beijing and Shanghai. "With different fillings, such as sweet bean paste, spring bamboo shoots and fresh meat, qingtuan appeals to people of different ages. Creative fillings are created every year depending on local tastes."

Boiled eggs are also associated with Qingming, with some areas following the tradition of egg painting and sculpturing.

"Qingming reflects the traditional Chinese value of honoring the dead," says Zhang Bo, 50, deputy secretary-general of the China Folklore Society. "We miss the deceased family members. We show our respect to them, honor them and will always remember them. Though the history of the particular festival spans thousands of years and has gone through many changes, the spirit of the festival never changes."

Zhang graduated from Nankai University in Tianjin in 1994 after studying Chinese history and worked at Shandong Museum,Shandong University and Shandong Normal University. She is now a professor of Beijing Union University. She is an expert on Chinese folklore and publishes books on Chinese traditional rituals and festivals.

"Chinese people are very romantic and poetic," Zhang says. "When you read the term Qingming, a lot of pictures such as clean, blue sky, flowing river and warm sunshine came to mind."

She has traveled around the country to collect materials about people of different regions marking Tomb Sweeping Day, which was turned into a book, Festivals in China: Qingming, published by SDX Joint Publishing Company in 2009.

Zhang once interviewed a man named Yang Suiru, who was 64 years old then. He lived in a small village of Heyang county,Shaanxi province.

"He told me that one of the traditional activities of marking Tomb Sweeping Day in his village was playing on the swings, which is a great exercise," Zhang says.

Tomb Sweeping Day is not solely about being sorrow, she says, but also gives people a chance to express their gratitude for life and get close to nature.

For example, picking willow branches is an old custom during the festival. One explanation is that it is meant to pay tribute to Jie, a way to commemorate and honor the dead.