Tomb-sweeping Day: The story behind Qingming Festival

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Tomb-sweeping Day, which is also called Qingming Festival, is one of the most important festivals in China. It is around April 4th every calendar year, the fifteenth day after vernal equinox. Its history can be dated back to more than two thousand years ago, around the Spring and Autumn Era. Tomb-sweeping Day is very influential in China not only because it is a historical social custom, but also due to it being one of the twenty-four solar terms that develops in close relationship with Chinese agriculture production.

Tomb-sweeping Day is a traditional festival to honor relatives and ancestors that have passed away. The custom derives its origin from a famous loyal minster in the Spring and Autumn Era. Prince Wen of Jin, who was also called “Zhonger,” was the emperor of the state of Jin around 650 B.C. He was exiled to other states to get avoid political persecution in his childhood. Jie Zitui was Zhonger’s loyal attendant at that time. Nineteen years later, Zhonger successfully went back to his state and became the emperor. He rewarded his attendants who accompanied him before generously, except Jie Zitui. Instead of asking for rewards, Jie Zitui chose to live in a remote mountain silently. Later on, Zhonger felt ashamed for forgetting Jie Zitui, so he went to the mountain to find Jie Zitui, but Jie refused to see him.

In order to convince Jie to come out of the mountain, Zhonger came up with an idea to set fire to the mountain. However, Jie still did not come out and he hugged an old willow tree until his death. Zhonger was so full of regret and moved by thea actions of Jie Zitui that he set up the day as “Hanshi festival” to memorize his former loyal attendant. On that day, all citizens are forbidden from lighting fires, so they could only eat cold food. The next year when Zhonger went to the mountain to sweep Jie’s tomb to memorize Jie, he found the old willow survived. Zhonger was amazed by this phenomenon and he decided to set up the day after “Hanshi Festival” as “Qingming Festival.” And this is the origin of Tomb-sweeping Day.

Later on around the time of the Qinghan dynasty, the two festivals “Hanshi” and “Qingming”, were combined together. People celebrated Qingming festival by both eating cold food and sweeping ancients’ tomb. When it comes to Tang Dynasty, the emperors paid lots of attention to the tomb sweeping festival during that period because they emphasized the concept of “filial piety.” From that era on, Tomb-sweeping Day was regarded as a national holiday for the officers to return back to sweep their ancients’ tomb. This festival also became a moment to remember relatives, friends or even the emperors who have passed away.

Chinese people also celebrate Tomb-sweeping Day because it is one of the twenty-four solar terms in Chinese lunar calendar. In the lunar calendar, one year is divided into twenty-four sections and called the “Twenty-Four terms.” This calendar has a close relationship with Chinese agriculture production. Tomb-sweeping Day marks the next term after vernal equinox. It is the beginning of a new round agricultural production. In ancient times, the farmers would begin to prepare the seeds and irrigation system during the tomb-sweeping term.

Nowadays, because of the development of industrialism, Tomb-sweeping Day has mostly lost its agricultural function, but exists as a festival to memorialize ancestors, relatives, and friends who have passed away. It has been a national holiday since 2008. Now Chinese people celebrate Tomb-sweeping Day by sweeping tombs, eating Qingtuan (a green rice ball dessert for Tomb-sweeping Day made of rice flour and wormwood juice) and having an outing with their family. Even though the custom changes as time goes on, the spirit of tomb-sweeping, which is to honor ancestors and celebrate the approach of spring, still lives on.

Reported by Jiayue Zhang