A grave day in China
Sunny Liu, former Intrepid Group Leader, helps us learn about the history behind one of China’s most important national holidays…
“The Chinese farmer’s calendar really makes you appreciate the passing of time. With their year divided into 24 segments, the calendar is more sensitive to seasonal changes, such as when the insects are normally on the move or when to expect the first spring rain. It felt like only yesterday that on 20 March I was introducing the spring equinox customs to my Intrepid group on our way to the Great Wall, then all of a sudden I’m in southern China telling them stories about Qingming, or grave-sweeping day, on 5 April.
Qingming is popularly associated with Jie Zitui in the Spring and Autumn period (770 BC-476BC). Jie saved his starving lord’s life by serving meat cut from his own leg. The lord, known as Jinwengong, was later able to take power and decided to reward Jie, but he declined and hid away in a forest. Jinwengong tried to force Jie from the forest by setting it alight, but his plan backfired and he felt deep regret when Jie was burned to death. He ordered all his people to ban the use of fire and eat cold food that day to mark Jie’s death. This is the origin of Hanshi, or the cold food festival, which is now celebrated as part of the Qingming festivities.
Nowadays, people can have up to 3 days off work for Qingming festival. People do all kind of activities, but most importantly the whole family comes together and honours their ancestor’s grave. Cleaning takes place with the clearing of grass and weeks around the tomb, willow branches are often placed on the site and joss sticks and paper money are burned. In many ways it’s like a remembrance journey and a spring outing in one, as we bring offerings of food to our ancestor and most of the time this will be shared and eaten on the spot.
The farmers are right, because you always feel like something is missing if it is not raining during Qingming. Indeed it is pouring down outside now, which reminds me of the famous Qingming poem composed in Tang dynasty (618-907):
A drizzling rain falls like tears on the grave-sweeping day;
The mourner’s heart is breaking on his way.
Where can a tavern be found to drown his sadness?
A cowherd points to Almond Flower village in the distance.
I do like how people think the same, even that long time ago. Realising I’m in Yangshuo, where there is bar almost every ten steps, maybe it’s time for me to have a drink for my ancestors and escape the rain!”
Photo: Prayers in China by Chloe Ferres.