China's Qingming Festival (清明节)

Qingming Festival (清明节 or Qingmíngjié in pinyin), also called Tomb Sweeping Day or Pure Brightness Festival, is an significant traditional Chinese holiday. The festival is celebrated 15 days after the Spring Equinox. In 2024* it is observed on April 4th in China.

The Qingming Festival grew out of an ancient Chinese festival called 寒 食节 (Hánshíjié), generally referred to in English as Hanshi, or the Cold Food Festival which commemorated Jie Zitui. Jie Zitui was a loyal follower of Duke Wen of Jin (modern Shanxi). At one point when the duke was going through hard times, Jie Zitui cut some flesh from his own thigh and made a soup for the duke to keep him from starving.

Family Burning paper

When Duke Wen eventually came to power years later, he sent for Jie Zitui, who was living as a poor man in the woods near Mt. Mian. Jie Zitui was uninterested in taking up a place in government, which he saw as corrupt, and so he ignored the summons. In order to force Jie Zitui to respond, Duke Wen set a forest fire to smoke him out. Unfortunately, however, Jie Zitui and his mother were killed in the fire. Feeling remorseful, Duke Wen decreed that the use of fire would be banned for several days to commemorate his sacrifice.

People in Shangxi honored Jie by eating only cold food for a month during winter, but due to health concerns, that was ultimately changed to a 3-day period and the festival date set to spring. Today, the main activity that people engage in during the festival is cleaning the tombs of their ancestors to show their respect. People also go on outings to enjoy nature, fly kites and eat special foods.

Traditionally, a family might burn spirit money and paper replicas of material goods such as cars, homes, phones and paper servants. In Chinese culture, it is believed that people still need all of those things in the afterlife. Because of the holiday's early associations with the Cold Food Festival, people traditionally only eat cold food during Qingming Festival.

QingMing FestivalA small section of Qingming Shanghe Tu shows the Bianjing city gate.

A painting titled "Qingming Shanghe Tu" by Song dynasty painter Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145) depicts life during the Qingming festival at that time and often referred to as "China's Mona Lisa" due to its cultural and historical significance. The original painting is 10 inches by over 17 feet wide and depicts over 814 people in their activities during the festival. It is a national treasure and kept in the Forbidden city.

©Qi Journal, Spring 2021. The author, Steve Luo, is a regular contributor and long-time practitioner of Chinese martial arts and philosophy.