Qingming, meaning clear and bright, is the day for mourning the dead. It falls in early April every year. It corresponds with the onset of warmer weather, the start of spring plowing, and of family outings.
Before we talk about Qingming, we must say something about another ancient event, Hanshi, which always comes one day before Qingming.
Hanshi literally means “cold food”. It is said that in BC 7th c. during the Spring and Autumn Period, Duke Xiao was the monarch of the state of Jin. His eldest son, Shen Sheng should have inherited the throne on the death of his father. But Duke Xiao had other plans. He wanted the son of his favorite concubine, Li Ji, to succeed him as the ruler of Jin. Not exactly a loving father, Duke Xiao had Shen Sheng murdered and would have done the same to his second eldest son, Chong’er. But Chong’er got wind of this and fled.
For 19 long years, Chong’er and his entourage of loyal officials and servants wandered homeless, no strangers to cold and hunger. One day, Chong’er was actually starving and close to death. One of his most faithful followers, Jie Zitui, cut a slice of muscle from his own leg and served it to his master, thereby saving his life. Finally in BC636, Chong’er managed to take the throne that was rightfully his and took the official title of Duke Wen of the state of Jin.
After becoming the ruler of the state, Chong’er decided to reward the officials who had stayed with him through his years of wandering. But he forgot about Jie Zitui who had sacrificed the flesh of his leg. Jie Zitui was heartbroken and went away. Later Chong’er remembered Jie Zitui's sacrifice and sent people to look for him. Eventually they found him. Chong’er went in person to apologize and ask him to return to the royal court. But Jie Zitui left them and went deep into the mountains, so no one could find him again. Someone advised Chong’er to set fire to the area in order to force Jie Zitui into the open, where he could be talked into returning to the comforts of life in the royal house. Chong’er took this advice and set fire to the mountain where Jie Zitui was believed to be hiding. The fires raged for three days and Jie Zitui was found leaning against a large tree, carrying his old mother on his back. Both Jie Zitui and his mother were dead.
Chong’er was deeply saddened by this tragedy. He ordered that a temple be built in memory of his most loyal follower. He also ordered that no fires were allowed on the anniversary of Jie Zitui's death. So people had to eat their cold food on that day, or the day of Hanshi. In addition, people began to visit Jie Zitui's tomb and pay their respects to his memory.
It was not until the Qing Dynasty about 300 years ago that the practice of Hanshi or eating cold food was replaced by that of Qingming, which had now become an important occasion for people to offer sacrifices to their ancestors.
In ancient China, Qingming was by no means the only time when sacrifices were made to ancestors. In fact such ceremonies were held very frequently, about every two weeks, in addition to other important holidays and festivals. The formalities of these ceremonies were in general very elaborate and expensive in terms of time and money.
In an effort to reduce this expense, Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty declared in 732 that respects would be formally paid at the tombs of ancestors only on the day of Qingming. This is the custom that continues to date. People will visit their ancestors' graves. They will tidy up, remove weeds and sweep away leaves. This is why Qingming is also known as the Grave Sweeping Day. Beijing's subway is particularly crowded around Qingming as people flock to Babaoshan, Beijing's most famous cemetery and crematorium, to pay respects to their departed loved ones.
Qingming is not just a day of remembrance, it is also a day to celebrate the coming of spring, often by going out for a picnic. With the coming of spring, nature wakes up, dressing the world in green. All is new, clean and fresh.
The welcome transition from winter to spring represented by Qingming was an inspiration for many Tang Dynasty poems. The following one by Han Hong is an example.
All over the capital catkins flew wantonly,
A scene of the spring so significant,
On "Cold Food" the east wind willfully
Made the imperial willows slant;
Now as the dusk approached quietly,
Within the Han palace candles glowed,
Towards the five mansions of nobility
The silvery smoke of the tapers flowed.
Qingming has also been a favorite subject for painting. Zhang Zeduan of the Song Dynasty produced one of China's most famous works of art: Qingming Shanghetu or Life Along the River at Qingming. This silk scroll is now exhibited at the Imperial Palace Museum, or the Forbidden City, in Beijing.
Almost five and a half meters long and a quarter of a meter wide, it is bursting with life: riverside roads full of traffic, fairs in farmers' fields, lively village, noisy city streets crowded with all kinds of people, officials, merchants, soldiers, scholars, porters, men and women, young and old. There are about 550 people in the painting, as well as scores of different animals, carriages and sedans, bridges and boats. It is a vivid record of the festivities and hustle and bustle of the special time of Qingming.
Springtime, especially in North China, is the windy season, just right for flying kites. It is not surprising that kite flying is very popular during the Qingming season. The history of the kite in China is very interesting. It is said that the kite was invented by the famous legendary carpenter Lu Ban over 2,000 years ago.
The earliest Chinese kites were made of wood and called Mu Yuan. Mu means wood and Yuan means sparrow hawk, a type of bird. So Mu Yuan means “wooden sparrow hawk”. The invention of paper did not escape the attention of kite makers and soon the kite was called Zhi Yuan. Zhi means paper, so Zhi Yuan means “paper sparrow hawk”.
Kites were not just used for fun. They were also used for military purposes. There are historical records describing enormous kites, some large enough to lift a man high in the air to observe enemy movements. About 1,500 years ago, Emperor Wudi was surrounded in Nanjing by the rebel troops. He used a kite to send out an SOS for outside help.
During the Tang Dynasty, people began to attach thin bamboo strips to kites. When the kite was high in the air, the wind would make these strips vibrate, producing a low-pitched twanging noise, very like that of the Zheng, a Chinese stringed instrument. Thereafter, another popular Chinese name for kite was Feng Zheng, which means “wind Zheng”.
In the Qing Dynasty, people would fly their kites as high as possible, then let go of the string. Off went the kite, taking with it bad luck and illness. Conversely, to pick up a kite lost or released by someone else could bring bad luck.
Some enthusiasts enjoy flying kites at night. They hang small colored lanterns on the string with candles burning inside. With dozens of kites up together, arc lines of flickering multicolored lights decorate the night sky.
Visitors should go to Tian'anmen Square to see kites of all shapes and sizes. The biggest could be a hundred meters long, made of a hundred sections to form a dragon or even a centipede. The annual Weifang Kite Festival held every April in East China's Shandong Province has become a major event, attracting thousands of tourists and kite flying competitors all over the world.