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History Of The Qingming Festival

The Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, is a traditional Chinese festival that takes place on the 15th day after the Spring Equinox (usually on April 4th or 5th). Its origins can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn period, from approximately 771 to 476 BCE.

The festival was originally called ‘Hanshi Jie’ or the Cold Food Festival, and it was a memorial to Jie Zitui, a loyal retainer of Duke Wen of Jin. Jie was said to have cut his own flesh to boil a meat soup to feed the starving Duke Wen when they could not find anything to eat. Later, Jie chose to retire and become a recluse in the woods. Duke Wen sought him out to pick his brain, but tragically, Jie and his mother died in a fire set by Duke Wen’s retainers.

Duke Wen found a poem written in Jie’s blood in the hollow part of a willow tree, close to where Jie died with his mother. The poem read, “I cut my flesh to show my loyalty, and want you to become a qingming (wise and sagacious in Chinese) emperor.” Overcome with remorse, Duke Wen ordered three days without fire to memorialize him. The next year, Duke Wen led his retainers to climb the mountain and paid homage to Jie’s grave, and the day afterward officially became known as the Hanshi Qingming Festival. Later, the festival evolved into a day to honor deceased ancestors during the Tang Dynasty.

During Qingming, people generally visit their family cemeteries and offer food, flowers, and favorite items of the dead. If cemetery regulations allow it, they will burn paper money and incense before the tombstone. People also like to fly kites during Qingming Festival, as they believe it can send greetings to the departed by kite. Traditionally, people do not light a fire or cook, but eat only cold food during Qingming. Nowadays, several Qingming snacks are enjoyed by Chinese people.

One of the best-known Chinese paintings, Qing Ming Shang He Tu (清明上河图), by Song Dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan, depicts the commotion of people in the Song period capital city Bianjing, modern-day Kaifeng, Henan during Qingming.

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