Qingming Festival is when Chinese people visit the columbaria, graves or burial grounds to pray to their ancestors.

The festival originated from the Cold Food Festival (“Hanshi Festival”), established by Chong’er, Duke Wen of Jin, during the Spring and Autumn period. The festival was a memorial for his retainer Jie Zitui, who had loyally followed him during his years of exile. Supposedly, he once even cut meat from his own thigh to provide Chong’er with soup. Once Chong’er was enthroned as duke, however, Jie considered his services no longer required and resigned. Although Duke Wen was generous in rewarding those who had helped him in his time of need, he long passed over Jie, who had moved into the forest with his mother. Duke Wen went to the forest in 636 bc but could not find them. He then ordered his men to set fire to the forest in order to force Jie out. When Jie and his mother were killed instead, the duke was overcome with remorse and ordered three days without fire to honor Jie’s memory. The city erected over the former forest is still called Jiexiu (lit. “Jie’s rest”).

The present importance of the holiday is credited to the Emperor Xuanzong. Wealthy citizens in China were reportedly holding too many extravagant and ostentatiously expensive ceremonies in honor of their ancestors. In ad 732, Emperor Xuanzong sought to curb this practice by declaring that such respects could be formally paid only once a year, on Qingming.

Further Reading: Tomb-sweeping Day

Tomb-sweeping Day, also known as Qingming Festival or Pure and Bright Festival, is set on the fourth, fifth, or sixth days of April of Gregorian calendar. The date usually turns out to be the fourth, fifth, or sixth of April of Gregorian calendar. Together with Spring Festival, Dragon Boat Festival and Mid-autumn Festival, Tomb-sweeping Day is one of most important traditional festival in China. It is the day of worshiping ancestors and sweeping tombs.

Qingming in Chinese means the weather is pure and bright in spring days, thus people go out to celebrate the coming of the new season.

Tomb-sweeping Day
People worshiping ancestors and sweeping tombs

How Do Chinese Celebrate the Qingming Festival?

There are various activities for Qingming Festival. The most popular ones, including tomb sweeping, spring outings, and kite flying, and putting willow branches on gates, have been an important part of this festival since the beginning.

People often participate in a sport to ward off the cold and in anticipation of the arrival of spring. The festival integrates both reverence and fun through its customs.

Tomb Sweeping — the Most Important Custom of Qingming Festival

People commemorate and show respect to their ancestors by visiting their graves, and offering food, tea, wine, incense, joss paper (representing money), etc. They sweep the tombs, removing weeds, and adding fresh soil to the graves, stick willow branches on the tomb, and burn incense and ‘paper money’.

They pray before their ancestors’ graves and beseech them to bless their families. However, the custom has been greatly simplified today, especially in cities, where only flowers are presented to the dead relatives.

Putting Willow Branches on Gates

During Qingming Festival, people wear soft willow branches and place the branches on gates and front doors. People believe that this custom will ward off wandering evil spirits during Qingming.

That willows are considered magical is mainly a Buddhist influence. Traditional pictures of the Goddess of Mercy Guanyin often show her seated on a rock with a willow branch in a vase of water at her side. The goddess used this mysterious water and branch to scare away demons.

According to historical records there is an old saying, “Put willow branches up on gates; drive ghosts away from houses.”

Spring Outing

Spring viewsQingming Festival is a good time to feel the breath of spring

Qingming is also called Taqing Festival. Taqing (踏青 /taa-ching/ ‘tread green’) means a spring outing, when people get out and enjoy the spring blossoms. The festival usually falls on a day not long before everything turns green in the north, and well into the spring flower season in the south. It marks the beginning of the season when people spend more time outside as the weather warms up.

Kite Flying

Flying kites is also an important custom enjoyed by many people, young and old, during the Qingming Festival. The uniqueness of kite flying during the Qingming Festival lies in that kites are not only flown during the day but also in the evening.

Little colored lanterns are tied to the kites or to the strings that hold the kites. When kites fly in the evening, the lanterns look like twinkling stars.

In the past, people cut the string to let the kite fly freely. People believe that this custom can bring good luck and eliminate diseases.

Kite flying is popular throughout all of China and you will see people doing it on big squares or in parks throughout the entire country. Learn more about Chinese kites.

Foods for Qingming Festival

Sweet Green Rice BallsSweet Green Rice Balls is one of the most traditional Qingming foods.

The day before Tomb Sweeping Day was the traditional Chinese Cold Food Day. As time passed, the two festivals were gradually combined into one. On the cold food festival day, people used no fire and only ate cold food. Now people in some places still have the custom of eating cold food on Qingming Festival.

Different places have different foods for Qingming Festival. The traditional Qingming festival foods include sweet green rice balls, peach blossom porridge, crispy cakes, Qingming snails, and eggs. These foods are usually cooked one or two days before the arrival of the Qingming Festival.

Sweet Green Rice Balls

Sweet Green Rice Balls (青团 qīngtuán /ching-twann/ ‘green dumpling(s)’) are a popular Qingming food, which are made of a mixture of glutinous rice powder and green vegetable juice, and stuffed with sweetened bean paste. Sweet green rice balls are jade-green in color, glutinous in taste, and sweet in aroma.

Qingming Cakes

Qingming cakes are called sazi (撒子sāzi /saa-dzuh/ [phonetic]) or hanju (寒具 hánjù /han-jyoo/ ‘cold tools’). They are a crispy fried food, made of wheat flour or glutinous rice flour, eggs, sesame, onion, salt, and other ingredients.

Among some Chinese ethnic minorities, such as the Uygur in Xinjiang, the Dongxiang in Gansu, the Naxi in Yunnan, and the Hui in Ningxia, sazi is very famous for its great varieties and various flavors.

river snail Qingming snails

Other Qingming Foods

Peach blossom porridge is a kind of porridge cooked with fresh peach blossom and rice.

Qingming snails is a dish cooked with snails, onions, ginger, soy sauce, cooking wine, and sugar.

When Did the Qingming Festival Begin?

The Qingming Festival started from the Zhou Dynasty, and has a history of over 2,500 years.

It originated from the extravagant and ostentatiously expensive ceremonies that many ancient emperors and wealthy officials held in honor of their ancestors. They offered sacrifices to their ancestors and beseeched them to bless the country with prosperity, peace, and good harvests.

In the year 732, Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty, declared that respect could only be paid formally at ancestors’ graves on the first day of the Qingming solar term. From then on, sweeping tombs on the first of Qingming gradually became popular with both royal and common families, and has lasted over a millennia. Learn more about the legend of Qingming Festival.

Visiting China at the Qingming Festival

Qingming Festival is a national holiday in China. Many Chinese people will make use of the 3-day holiday to go traveling. Therefore, during the Qingming Festival, most attractions will be crowded, cheap public transport (like buses and train) will be sold out, and accommodation may be slightly more expensive.

Contact us and we can help you avoid the hassles, and have a China experience that includes the best of the Qingming Festival.

Language Tips for Qingming Festival

  • 清明节 (qīng-míng jié /ching-ming jyeh/) Qingming Festival
  • 扫墓 (sǎo mǜ /saoww moo/) sweep tombs
  • 祭祖 (jì zǔ /jee dsoo/) worship (sacrifice to) ancestors
  • 纸钱 (zhǐ qián /jrr chyen/) joss paper: paper made to resemble money and burned as an offering to the dead
  • 烧香 (shāo xiāng /shaoww sshyang/) burn joss sticks (incense)

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