During ancient China’s Spring and Autumn Period almost 2,700 years ago, there was an official who was so loyal that he let himself be burned to death rather than risk dishonoring his prince.
According to legend, the brave martyr’s last words of advice to his lord was to be “pure and bright” — a term that has lived on in the festival that Chinese celebrate every spring to remember the dead.
This year, the Qingming Festival (清明), or Pure Brightness Festival, falls on April 5. The day is celebrated by reflecting on one’s ancestors, as people visit graves to sweep clean the tombs of their departed kin and offer sacrificial goods for their use in the afterlife. Honoring one’s ancestors is an essential aspect of Chinese virtue and spirituality, carefully observed by all classes from peasants to imperial rulers.
In the Di Zi Gui (弟子規), a Confucian booklet of etiquette and morality, it is said:
At funerals perform the rites
In offerings be sincere
Serve those who are deceased
As though they were still here
One way of offering ritual service to the dead is to make offerings of sacrificial goods to them. This includes preparing meals they enjoyed while alive, then placing the food on an altar for a period of mourning. The offering would then be eaten or given to charity after the ritual.
In Chinese table etiquette, leaving chopsticks stuck in food is considered disrespectful and inauspicious. This act is reserved for the dead, who cannot lift the chopsticks themselves.
Other offerings include the burning of ritual paper money and, after the importation of Western customs, laying flowers at the grave.
In imperial times, the grandest and most solemn rituals were conducted by the court on behalf of the entire nation before the powers of heaven and earth. A classic Chinese phrase sums up the scale of the events: “Heaven is pure and earth is bright” (天清地明).
Qingming is also called the Tomb-Sweeping Festival. Keeping the tombs of the ancestors clean shows that they live on — not just in the afterlife, but also in earthly memory.
The Qingming Festival has been celebrated in some form since the pre-imperial era, but gained prominence during the Tang and Song dynasties from roughly the 7th to 13th centuries. In the Yuan Dynasty established by the Mongol Khans, the emperor even held services to honor those who had no descendants or whose descendants that forgotten them. This way, they would not become vengeful spirits to harm the living.
In the Ming Dynasty, memorial services were standardized to be held once every season — Qingming in spring, the Dragon Boat Festival in summer, the Ghost Festival of autumn, and Dongzhi (the winter solstice) in winter.
The Dragon Boat Festival, as known as Duanwu, has traditionally been celebrated in remembrance of the upright official Qu Yuan, who drowned himself to protest the destruction of his home state.
Even in modern times, Qingming has been an occasion to memorialize public heroes and sometimes make political statements. Toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long communist campaign that attacked traditional Chinese customs and beliefs, throngs of people gathered in Beijing to mourn the death of Zhou Enlai, a popular Party official.
Zhou was considered a moderate political figure in an era of fanaticism, having protected national landmarks such as the Forbidden City from being destroyed by the Red Guards. After his death, the crowds honoring him became a living indicator of the great suffering that the communist authorities had inflicted upon the nation.
While Qingming is a time to honor and remember the dead, equally important in the festival is the celebration of life.
According to the traditional Chinese calendar, Qingming is one of the 24 solar terms, coming 15 days after the spring equinox, which was considered the middle of spring. Ancient descriptions of this solar term held that Qingming was a time when all life was in a state of renewal, with the cold of winter being completely past.
For this reason, the day of Qingming is also a time for people to get together for traditional activities, include hiking, playing tug-of-war, planting willow trees, or flying kites. Young men and women also used the festival for courting, and the day was associated with girls’ coming of age.
In the famous Song Dynasty painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival, the artist Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145) depicted in extreme detail a wide scene in the imperial capital of Kaifeng. The liveliness of the city matches the energy of the season, even as people are shown engaged in the day’s solemn rituals.
Confucius taught that while it was natural and necessary to express sadness for the dead, death itself could not be allowed to impede the living. In this way, “the people’s duty is fulfilled, the obligations during both life and death are in place, and the filial child’s service to his parents is complete.”
For the ancient Chinese, grief and pain were not the focus in honoring the deceased. Rather, the Qingming Festival was to do the ancestors proud by celebrating the pure brightness of the living world.