With the approach of April 5, millions of Chinese around the world made trips to the graves of their departed relatives to pay respects on the Qingming (清明) or the “Tomb-Sweeping Festival.” Many businesses and official venues closed in observance of the event; in Hong Kong, subway fares were discounted and mainland Chinese authorities issued warnings of heavy traffic as people planned the journeys to the resting places of the deceased.
The custom of remembering the dead with the blooming of each spring has been in place since at least 2,500 years ago. But Qingming, which literally means “pure brightness,” isn’t just a memorial day, but a two-week part of the spring season.
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According to the traditional Chinese calendar, each of the four seasons is divided into six solar terms, which individually reflect the natural phenomena that can be expected to occur. Qingming is the second-to-last term of spring, which surprisingly begins in early February by ancient Chinese reckoning (a parallel to this may be found in the Groundhog Day tradition that is associated with rural Pennsylvania and has its origins in old Germany and the Christian Candlemas festival).
Qingming normally falls on April 5 of the Western calendar, or April 4 if it is a leap year (29 days in February). In the Chinese calendar, it is also a full moon. This year it is “癸卯年閏二月十五日,” or the 15th day of the leap 2nd month of gui mao, i.e. Year of the Rabbit.
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The period of pure brightness is, of course, associated with the growth and flowering of plants, making it especially important for gardeners and farmers preparing their plots and sowing seeds. People in moderately northern latitudes (ancient Chinese civilization occupied roughly the same north-south position as the Thirteen Colonies) can expect some warmer weather and the first frost-free days of the year. Precipitation will also increase and the wind will become stronger with the interaction of warm and cold air.
While the Tomb-Sweeping Festival only lasts one day, the solar term Qingming goes on until April 20 (April 19 in leap years); the next and last solar term of springtime is Guyu (穀雨), or “grain rain.”
The Discourses of the States (國語), an ancient collection of rulers and other important men from the pre-imperial era, describes the dynamic of Qingming as a warm wind from the southeast; the direction is associated with the Daoist trigram xun (巽), which consists of a gentle “yin” line preceding and entering two strong “yang” lines. Heaven and Earth appear clean and orderly, hence the descriptor “pure and bright.”
Click here to read about the next solar term, Guyu (穀雨).