Qingming is a traditional Chinese festival. It falls somewhere in early April. The exact date varies from year to year in the Gregorian calendar because Qingming follows the lunar Chinese calendar.


Literally, the two Chinese characters of the name Qingming mean “clear” (QING) and “bright” (MING). Probably the two words find their origins in the weather of the season. The festival is marked in early spring. Around this time of year, winter left behind, it is getting warmer and warmer. Plants are turning green, air is fresh, and it is a season of those spring drizzles, which arouse romance and melancholy. I still remember one morning of the day when I was walking in the country, through fine rain, sadness coming upon me from nowhere.




Qingming has something to do with an ancient Chinese festival called Cold Meal day. Cold Meal Day occurred a day or two before Qingming. It was the custom then to visit family graves on Qingming. The two festivals were gradually mixed up and the Chinese ended up celebrating Qingming only instead of the two. Cold Meal Day eventually sank into oblivion, but some of its customs found their ways into Qingming.

asking the way 

In antiquity, Chinese people ate their meals cold on Cold Meal Day, avoiding eating hot food, making a fire and cooking on a stove.


Cold Meal Day owed its creation to a Chinese king during the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn) Period (722-481 BC) and the Zhanguo (Warring States) Period (403-221 BC). An official named Jiezitui in the Kingdom of Jin helped his king Chong’er regain the crown and rebuild the kingdom. Legend goes that Jiezitui cut flesh off his own self and made soup out of it to revive the starving king, who was being chased by his enemies. After the king was put back on the throne, however, Jiezitui retired into the mountains and lived there as a hermit. The king pleaded with him to come and work at his court many a time but all the pleas were rejected. To force Jiezitui out of the mountains, the king resorted to a measure he would live to rue—he ordered his men to set the mountains ablaze. He had thought that this way his beloved official would come back to him. To his chagrin, however, his men found Jiezitui reduced to a charred figure in the ashes, holding his mom in the arms. Son and mom both perished. The king was in tears at the outcome. To honour Jiezitui, Chong’er issued an order that no fire be made on the date, thus leaving his subjects with only cold food.


This ancient practice of eating cold meals is rare. As a child, I did hear folks in my village talking about not making a fire in the kitchen on Qingming. People now honour their ancestors and the family dead on the day. Families have a get-together, perform commemorative ceremonies at the graveyard, and celebrate the memory of their predecessors. Qingming is also called Grave Sweeping Day.


Not everything about Qingming is sadness, though. It is a time for the Chinese to go outdoors and walk the green, enjoying nature in spring.




On the Chinese mainland, this Chinese festival, together with Duanwu and Zhongqiu, lost its significance after 1949, with the Communists’ attempts to reform Chinese society radically by shedding what was considered superstitious practices and establishing new socialist customs. Those reforms did set the stage for a new China and they did bring about a lot of positive changes in Chinese society. However, the other side of the coin is that too much of Chinese heritage and tradition was lost in the reforming process. For over half a century (1949—2006), Qingming was not a national holiday. The Chinese still had to work on the day and commemorative rituals were reduced to nothing except for hanging the paper strips at the tomb.


In 2007, the government made an important decision to revive three age-old Chinese festivals—Qingming, Duanwu and Zhongqiu. Starting this year, the whole nation enjoys a public holiday for each of the three festivals. A public holiday for Qingming means Chinese families will be able to go away from work and to come together for remembrance of the family dead. In the past, there was no public holiday for its sake.




When father was with us, he did a very simple ceremony on the day most years. A string of colour paper strips was taken out and hung above the family graves, and that was all.


An elaborate service should include more activities. All the family members gather up in the morning and prepare food and drink as offerings to the dead. Firecrackers and incense are two musts, together with a string of colour paper strips.


Then they should go and visit the tomb. The tomb is repaired and unwanted plants are removed from about it. Also a lot of families take the occasion to establish a commemorative tablet at the head of the tomb. The tablet is inscribed with a mini biography of the deceased and the family tree.


Food and drink is placed at the tomb, money tokens and incense burned, and firecrackers set off. The family should kowtow to the tomb, expressing their love and respect.


Of course a family feast brings the day to a perfect close.




When I was a kid, my father had my younger brother and me visit the family tombs on his behalf some years. Prior to important Chinese festivals, we went to pay our respects to the family dead. There were a number of the family dead to visit—the great great grandfather (a legend in the village), the great grandparents, whose tombs are side by side, and the grandma. Our main job was to go and burn money tokens at their tombs.

fine rain 

Over a span of about a year (2004—2005), I lost four family members. My grandma on mother’s side left me in early 2004, followed by the loss of my father (April 2004) and of my grandfather and my step-grandma (February 2005). Two more tombs, my father’s and my grandfather’s, were added to the family graveyard consequently.


My step-grandma died two days before my grandfather. The family were shocked and yet awed by the short interval between their passing. Was it a coincidence?




In a sense, I find the Chinese in Taiwan, and Hong Kong alike, are more Chinese than mainland Chinese. Taiwanese have preserved some Chinese traditions, which have been lost on the mainland or weakened where they originated. They attach greater importance to Qingming and other traditional festivals by observing elaborate rituals. When I read my first letter sent from Taiwan, I was amazed by the intricately handwritten old style Chinese characters. We mainland Chinese have adopted a simplified Chinese writing system. I learned some years ago that the birthday of Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher and teacher, is designated as Taiwanese Teachers’ Day. Family values are even stronger among Taiwanese families than among their mainland counterparts in many aspects. Before a son or daughter gets married in Taiwan, he or she will have to get the parents’ go-ahead. In mainland China, especially urban China, influenced by the government’s advocacy of freedom to choose the partner without parental interference in the beginning decades of the republic, some young people do not show due respect for their parents regarding the choice of their spouse.


In this global community, with nations coming closer than ever, we are influencing others and are being influenced meanwhile. We have to bear in mind that we are Chinese. What defines a Chinese? What values should we hold on to?


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