This year Qingming festival falls on April 5th. Known by several other names it is known in the West as Tomb Sweeping day due to the practice of honoring ancestors by cleaning their burial sites as well as offering food, tea, wine and even chopsticks. Fake money is burnt as offerings in the hopes that the dead are not short of food or money. As well as being a day to remember ancestors it has a close relationship with agriculture as temperatures rise and rainfall increases signifying the crucial time for plowing and sowing seed.
It has been recognized as a national holiday only since 2008 but has origins going as far back as 500BC. It commemorates a royal servant named Jie Zitui who followed his master into exile. Jie Zitui constantly offered everything he had even supposedly giving a piece of his own thigh so the master could have his soup. When the master came out of exile and was reinstated Jie Zitui was overlooked and never properly rewarded. This brought great shame to the master in later life and he sought to repay his loyal servant who had since died. He ordered 3 days to be set aside to honor his memory. The city that stands over the site of his death to this day is called Jiexiu which means “Jie’s rest”.
Qingming is a mix of sadness and joy, a day to remember the dead and enjoy life as spring arrives and new life blossoms. Families take spring outings enjoying the changing of seasons. Doors are adorned with willow branches warding off evil spirits. Flowers are put on display and carried around town. Paper replicas of expensive material goods are burned such as cars, homes, phones and even paper servants. In ancient China it was believed these things were needed even in the after-life and burning them will send it to their ancestors. Flying kites is customary especially towards the evening. Small lanterns are attached to the kite giving the impression of many twinkling stars adding to the night sky. These kites will then be cut from their tethers and “set free” as the lantern lights illuminate the sky in great numbers drifting where they please and bringing good fortune as they pass.
Every culture honors their dead in their own way and the spring is the ideal time. Winter changes to spring as new life appears and the days grow longer. Although it is a somber day it also a festive occasion complete with feasting. Qingming was also the day when young couples would traditionally begin courtship. This practice mirrors the changing of the seasons and is a fitting end to a holiday that honors the dead while looking forward to new life.