Qingming Festival: Flesh, Tombs and Green Balls

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Tombs during Qingming Festival

Close your eyes and imagine you are a Chinese soldier 2500 years ago, your name is Jie Zhitui and you are a faithful follower of Prince Chong’er, who’s heading to the north of China in an exile that’s going to last for 19 years.

On your way to the north all your provisions are stolen, you and the other 14 men accompanying the prince are starving, and reached a certain point, the prince’s life itself is on threat due to hunger. Desperate to save your leader’s life and with nothing to hunt, you cut off a piece of flesh from your own thigh and cook it for the prince to eat and survive. A little bit extreme, huh? just wait for it.

Legend of Jie Zhitui

This is part of the legend of Jie Zhitui, and according to the tradition, the possible origin of the Qingming Festival (or Tomb Sweeping Day). After being saved by Jie Zhitui, Prince Chong’er finally returned to his kingdom and took power under the name of Duke Wen of the Jin State, and once he found himself sitting comfortably on his throne, he decided to reward all his followers, who helped him get there. However, he forgot about poor Jie Zhitui.

Ashamed for having forgotten what he did for him, Duke Wen invited his saviour to the palace and offered him a title, but our friend Jie refused, as he wasn’t seeking any reward. Determined to give Jie his well-deserved price, Duke Wen went to find him personally, but Jie Zhitui heard of his arrival on time and hid in a nearby mountain with his aged mother, refusing to see the Duke. No matter how hard the Duke tried, nobody could find Jie, so he ordered to set the mountain on fire to force him out. Three days later, the Duke and his people found two dead bodies in a cave under a willow tree on the mountain, they were Jie Zhihui and his mother.

To honour him, the Duke buried both of them respectfully under the willow tree, held a memorial ceremony for the tomb and ordered to his people to use no fire on that day, not even to cook. The following year, he climbed the mountain to commemorate Jie Zhitui, and when he arrived to the tomb he saw the burnt willow tree had revived and was now abundant with leaves and branches. Moved, he swept the tomb and declared that day as the Qingming Festival.

There are also other possible, more boring, origins of this festival, but what’s better than a man killing his saviour in order to reward him? Honestly, I highly doubt there’s anything like that!

Qingming Festival usually falls on April 4th or 5th and it’s not only the day Chinese dedicate to honour their ancestors, but also a time to go outside and start enjoying the greenery of spring. Like all other historic Festivals, Qingming has it’s own traditions and “musts” to celebrate it properly.

What to do during Qingming

Some of the most popular activities in Qingming include:

  • Tomb sweeping: all over China people pay respect to their ancestors visiting their graves and offering them their favourite food and drinks. They sweep the tombs, remove the weeds and add fresh soil to the graves. They usually also stick willow branches to the tombs and burn incense and joss paper, that represents money, in the hope that the deceased are not lacking of anything. Nowadays in many cities (like Wuhan itself) the ritual is simplified by covering the tombs with flowers.
Offerings to the ancestors during Qingming
  • Kite flying: if you take a walk around some of the parks in Wuhan on Qingming Festival you’ll see that the sky is packed with all sorts of kites. With the arrival of good weather, both kids and adults enjoy their time outdoors on this day flying traditional kites, usually in the shapes of animals or characters from Chinese opera. They tie little coloured lanterns to the strings so that when they fly the kites in the evening the lanterns look like stars. In the past, people used to cut the string of the kite to let it fly freely, believing that this would bring them good luck and eliminate diseases.
Qingming Festival Kites
  • Putting willow branches on gates and front doors to keep away evil spirits that wander during Qingming. People can also wear soft willow branches on the hair.

What to eat during Qingming

Being the most important day of sacrifice for most Chinese ethnics, Qingming is also known as the Cold Food Day (remember the legend?). In the past, Cold Food Day used to be the day before Qingming, but the two festivals gradually combined into one. Still nowadays, some people eat cold food that has been cooked one or two days before the festival.

  • Sweet Green Rice Balls: made of a mixture of glutinous rice and green vegetable juice, and stuffed with sweet bean paste.
Sweet Green Rice Balls
  • Qingming Cakes: also known as Sazi or Hanju, they are crispy and fried; they have a great variety and flavours as the ingredients can change.
  • Peach Blossom Porridge: cooked with fresh peach blossom and rice
  • Qingming Snails: cooked with snails, onion, ginger, soy sauce, wine and sugar.
Qingming Snails