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Not to be confused with Chung Yeung Festival—despite both involving tomb-sweeping—Ching Ming (清明節; ching1 ming4 jit3) is celebrated during late spring on the lunar calendar, typically falling sometime in the first few days of April. Here’s what you need to know about this spring celebration that ushers in a new season while honouring heritage past.
Highly influenced by Confucian beliefs of filial piety, Ching Ming activities are centred around the cleaning of family graves. Many people flock to temples or trek uphill to visit their predecessors’ final resting spaces, bringing along joss paper offerings and food.
Despite the setting, the air of the Ching Ming Festival is one of calm and community rather than sombreness. Many families take the opportunity to head to the outdoors to enjoy their time together, some even choosing to picnic right at the cemetery.
Befitting to the warmer weather and open-air environment, kite-flying is also a popular activity that has the added significance of warding off bad luck and evil spirits that may lurk between familial tombstones. Another way of casting off negative energy is to place lucky willow branches around entries to buildings and homes.
Although details of its origins fluctuate, the main myth behind the festival revolves around the sixth-century Chinese historical figures Duke Wen of Jin and his loyal subject Jie Zitui. Legend has it that when Duke Wen suffered a period of hardships from his banishment, nobleman Jie stood by his side through the thick of it all, even going so far as to cut a piece of his own flesh to feed the duke to save him from starvation. Moved by the gesture, the duke was determined to one day reward his right-hand man for the gracious feat.
Years later, when the duke regained his position in the kingdom, Jie had since vanished to live a life of asceticism in the mountains with his mother. Desperate to see his companion again, the duke sent orders to set the mountains on fire in order to lure Jie out. Here, the story becomes murky as some insist that the fire proved to be lethal and had killed both Jie and his mother, while other accounts told a tale of Jie surviving but rightfully becoming irrevocably resentful towards the duke. Either way, this incident ignited the first vestiges of the Ching Ming Festival, which appeared in the form of the Hanshi Festival (寒食節).
During the Hanshi Festival, also known as the Cold Food Festival, the duke’s grief-filled mandate banned the use of fire for the three days following the anniversary of the arson episode as a gesture of respect to Jie. Working around the bizarre new rule, people took to preparing dishes that did not require a stovetop to cook. Eventually, the ritual began to take on personal significance for the people, serving as a way to revere their own ancestors.
During the Ching Ming Festival, outdoor tombs are first swept clean from dust and ashes before being wiped down, with surrounding patches of green being plucked clean of stray weeds and replanted with fresh soil, paralleling the auspicious tradition of spring cleaning and heralding the new beginnings that the season brings. After that comes the spread of tea and Chinese wines, served with portions of the ancestor’s favourite food, alongside fresh fruits and flowers as delicate finishing touches.
Festive artefacts decorate the area, each signifying a particular hope or serving as a gesture of remembrance. Incense sticks are struck, acting as vessels to request blessings and good luck. Gold-leafed joss paper offerings are burnt in the hopes that they will be transformed into otherworldly money and items for the ancestors to use in the afterlife.
Although most of the food served up during Ching Ming differs between families and even regions that celebrate the festival, several common dishes tend to make an appearance each year. A steamed bun of glutinous rice and wormwood paste wrapped around a sweet filling of beans, known as qīngtuán (青團; cing1 tyun4), is usually seen. Resembling its quite literal namesake, “青團” translates to “green sphere” and is exactly that.
Another similar dish is the zifú (子福; zi2 fuk1), which also consists of a glutinous form, though it is topped with sweet beans, walnuts, or dates. A play on words, the name has the auspicious meaning of continuing the family tree with luck in the childbearing department. Sticking to the main practice of the Hanshi Festival, the Ching Ming Festival menu generally consists of food that is cold and easy to prepare are always a star choice, additionally making for easily portable and sharable items to bring along to the tombs.