It’s that time of the year again when the Chinese make their annual pilgrimage to pay homage to their ancestors at cemeteries & memorial centers all over the world.
A lot of Malaysians, even the non-Chinese who have heard about Qing Ming, as it’s a fairly big deal for the Chinese culture every year. For most of us Chinese, it basically means it’s a time to pay respects to our ancestors. Yes, that’s true in a nutshell but do you know the history of it, what the festival actually means and why some things are done in a certain way? Read on to find out.
History of Qingming Festival
Legend has is that there is an often told story of Prince Chong Er who was forced to flee his empire for fear of being murdered. A loyal government official called Jie Zitui helped him escape and remained with him for his years of exile. On one particularly harsh evening, Jie Zitui sacrificed a piece of his leg to make a meal for the young prince.
When the trouble passed they safely returned, Chong Er reclaimed his position as prince and Jie Zitui moved into the forest to enjoy a life of solitude. Determined to find Jie Zitui and reward his efforts the prince, following the advice of one of his officials, burned down the forest to smoke Jie Zitui out, when the fires ceased they found his body among the ashes.
In order to honor Jie Zitui, the prince created a day when people would avoid using fire. This day was called Hanshi Festival or, in English, Cold Food Festival. Hanshi Festival is no longer widely observed, but Qingming Festival has assimilated its story and custom of eating cold food.
What really solidified Qingming Festival as a holiday were the actions of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty. Having grown tired of seeing the extravagant, wasteful and what he felt were too frequent celebrations in honor of various ancestors by the rich, he decided to take action. He passed a decree stating that these celebrations could only take place at the graves of the ancestors and only once a year, during the Qing Ming Festival.
Culture of the Qing Ming Festival
After the decree was passed, Qing Ming Festival became a day when people make the time to pay their respects to their ancestors. It is also known as the Tomb Sweeping Day/Festival, or even the Clear Bright Festival. It’s celebrated on April 4th or 5th (depending also on the lunar calendar). For it to be called a Tomb Sweeping Day/Festival is rather befitting because it describes one of the main customary activities, clearing away the debris and making basic repairs to the tombs.
During Qing Ming, the normally quiet cemeteries and memorial centers will be bustling with activity. Once families are finished with cleaning the gravesites, preparations are made to ensure their ancestors are having a comfortable afterlife.
Among the customs are the burning ghost money, which is paper money made from bamboo or rice paper and it is also considered one of the most important customs of the festival. Sometimes, other items of the more modern times get burned as well, such as paper credit cards, iPhones, iPads, clothes, cars, houses, mahjong sets, Astro dish with a TV and even paper servants for heavenly pampering.
There are also offerings made and they usually consist of favorite foods, drinks or even lit cigarettes for the smokers. These are usually placed on the resting places. Other items like incense and flowers will be arranged at the site before the family members take turns kowtowing (bowing) to their ancestors. Once the rituals and customs are finished, family members might enjoy a good meal together.
In the olden days, Qing Ming would usually take place during a good time of the year where the weather would be great. Thus, they would either share a picnic out in the open enjoying the good weather, fly a kite or go for a walk. Over the year during Qing Ming festival here, we personally have not seen any flying of kites or people having a picnic. But then again, our weather here in Malaysia isn’t that friendly as it’s either burning hot or pouring down! Nonetheless, it’s always good to know our origins. You never know when information can be useful.