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Perspectives

The significance of Qingming Festival

Published April 5, 2023
A man walks among gravestones at a public cemetery during the Qingming Festival in Nanning, in southwestern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Photo: Reuters
A man walks among gravestones at a public cemetery during the Qingming Festival in Nanning, in southwestern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Photo: Reuters

In China, Qingming Festival is a popular festival, which is celebrated every year on April 5. This is not confined to a single day, but corresponds to mild weather, increased rains and beautiful flowers blossoming everywhere. This is the period for agricultural activities. Qingming in Chinese means ‘clearness’ and ‘brightness’.

It is the fifth of the solar terms of the traditional Chinese solar calendar, marking the start of the warm weather of spring and the beginning of farm work.

Qingming Festival is also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day to commemorate the dead, which includes the ancestors and those who laid down their lives in defence of the motherland.

On this day millions of Chinese visit the tombs and graves of their ancestors and the national heroes, clean their graves and put flowers on the graves and monuments to honour the fallen and departed souls. The offerings made typically include traditional food dishes and the burning of joss sticks and joss paper.

Nongli: Chinese Lunar Year

The holiday recognises the traditional reverence of one’s ancestors in Chinese culture. They pray before their ancestors’ graves and beseech them to bless their families.

However, the custom has been greatly simplified today, especially in cities, where many people only place flowers to remember their dead relatives. Because of their busy work schedule and being far from their family homes, many young people now cannot conduct tomb sweeping in person, and online tomb-sweeping ceremonies also take place in many cities.

It became a public holiday in China in 2008, where it is associated with the consumption of qingtuan green dumplings made of glutinous rice and Chinese mugwort or barley grass.

The festival has an ancient history and various activities merged with it. The festival originated from the ‘Cold Food’ or Hanshi Festival which remembered Jie Zhitui, a nobleman of the state of Jin (modern Shanxi) during the Spring and Autumn Period. Amid the Li Ji Unrest, he followed his master Prince Chong’er in 655 BC to exile among the Di tribes and around China.

Supposedly, he once even cut meat from his own thigh to provide his lord with soup. In 636 BC, Duke Mu of Qin invaded Jin and enthroned Chong’er as its duke, where he was generous in rewarding those who had helped him in his time of need. Owing either to his own high-mindedness or due to the duke’s neglect, Jie was ignored in being recognized for his selfless services. He finally retired to the forest around Mount Mian with his elderly mother.

The duke went to the forest in 636 BC but could not find them. He then ordered his men to set fire to the forest in order to force Jie out. When Jie and his mother were killed instead, the duke was overcome with remorse and erected a temple in his honor.

The people of Shanxi subsequently revered Jie as an immortal and avoided lighting fires for as long as a month in the depths of winter, a practice so injurious to children and the elderly that the area’s rulers unsuccessfully attempted to ban it for centuries. A compromise finally developed where it was restricted to 3 days around the Qingming solar term in mid-spring.

The present importance of the holiday is credited to Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Dynasty.

Wealthy citizens in China were reportedly holding too many extravagant and ostentatiously expensive ceremonies in honour of their ancestors. In ad 732, Xuanzong sought to curb this practice by declaring that such respects could be formally paid only once a year, on Qingming.

The folklore aspect of Qingming Festival is that people want to pay tributes to nature for its priceless gifts. They go to picturesque natural resorts for a picnic with their loved ones to enjoy nature. Some people visit parks with their families, yet others go for walks and spend time outdoors.

Qingming Festival is also an occasion for sports activities. During the Tang dynasty, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang promoted large-scale tug of war games, using ropes of up to 167 meters (548 ft) with shorter ropes attached and more than 500 people on each end of the rope. Each side also had its own team of drummers to encourage the participants. In honor of these customs, families often go hiking or kiting, play Chinese soccer or tug-of-war and plant trees, including Willow trees.

Another popular is Jo, which is a type of leather ball, which is filled with wool. Emperor Huang De had invented this game for military training. Officials of the Imperial Court liked this sport and adopted it, which later became popular with the masses too. For centuries Chinese have played Jo while special competitions are held during Qingming Festival.

During the Song Dynasty, this sport acquired popularity while it remained popular for six centuries till the Ming Dynasty. Historians consider Jo as the origin of modern football.

In China, every dynasty favoured a particular sport. Tang Dynasty loved Polo, which is a combination of horsemanship and tossing a ball around with polo sticks. Song Dynasty’s favourite sport was “water puppets”. This sport is indulged in water. People throng to the special theatres featuring “Water Puppets”. The puppeteers maneuver their puppets in the water and enact different popular folklore.

Qingming is also called Taqing Festival. Taqing (‘tread green’) means a spring outing, when people get out and enjoy the spring blossoms. The festival usually falls on a day not long before everything turns green in the north, and well into the spring flower season in the south. It marks the weather warming up, when people spend more time outside. Flying kites is for relaxation on this holiday, and to some it means getting rid of misfortune.

During mid spring in China, air pressure is upwards, which makes the kites soar high. People bring their gaily coloured kites, comprising different shapes to open spaces and fly their kites during the Qingming Festival. There is a Chinese saying that if you let someone cut the kite string and let it soar away, your misfortunes and troubles will also fly away leaving only happiness for you.

The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners

S. M. Hali

The writer is a retired Group Captain of PAF, and now a security analyst

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