What Is Qing Ming Festival About

Celebrated 106 days after the December winter solstice, the Qing Ming Festival falls on April 4 this year. Also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, it’s a traditional event that is observed as a remembrance of ancestors and departed loved ones. Whether to deepen or refresh your knowledge of the festival, or to explain it to your kids, here’s a guide to the Qing Ming Festival or qing ming jie.

What is the Qing Ming Festival?

The Qing Ming Festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day, is a tradition celebrated in China and other East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore. It’s a time when families gather to honour their ancestors, clean and decorate their graves, and pay respects to their loved ones who have passed away. It’s not just a time for solemn remembrance but also a chance for families to come together and cherish their heritage.

How did the Qing Ming Festival come about?

Qing Ming Jie can be translated to mean “Clear and Bright Festival” or “Pure and Bright Festival”.

It initially emerged as an exclusive observance among the elite during the Zhou dynasty (1125 – 255 BC). During this era, emperors and high-ranking officials engaged in solemn rituals within ancestral temples. It wasn’t until the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) that the festival transformed into a widespread celebration. At this point, common folks began conducting prayers and offerings at gravesites, making Qing Ming an accessible observance for the broader populace. (Source: National Library Board)

The festival’s origins are often linked to, yet debated, the Cold Food Festival or Han Shi Jie. According to a popular narrative from the late Zhou dynasty, Duke Wen of Qin sought the service of his loyal subject, Jie Zi Tui after ascending to power in a small principality. However, Jie Zi Tui declined the offer and retreated to the mountains to look after his parents (some sources cite only his mother). Eventually, the prince ordered a fire set in the mountains to force him out. Tragically, Jie and his mother were killed in the fire. To commemorate Jie, the prince declared a day of mourning and ordered that no fire should be lit on the anniversary of Jie’s death, giving rise to the Cold Food Festival, where only uncooked food was consumed. This day falls on the 105th day following the winter solstice, with Qing Ming taking place the following day. Much like Qing Ming, the Cold Food Festival involved making offerings at ancestral tombs. Over time, from the Tang dynasty onward, the observance of the Cold Food Festival declined, and Qing Ming emerged as the predominant time for honoring ancestors.

What are the customs associated with the festival?

Photo: Getty

Tomb-sweeping: Families visit cemeteries or columbariums to clean and tidy the graves or niches of their ancestors, cleaning away any dirt, debris, or weeds. This signifies the importance of honouring and remembering those who came before us. In line with customary practices, paying respects to ancestors’ graves, niches, or tablets can be observed 10 days before or after Qing Ming.

Offerings: Families bring offerings such as food, fruit, wine, tea and other items that their ancestors enjoyed in life. They may also bring flowers and light candles. These offerings are left at the gravesite to show love and respect.

Prayers and Incense: Many also offer prayers and burn incense at the gravesite as a sign of reverence. It’s believed that these rituals help to connect with the spirits of the ancestors and send blessings their way.

Family reunions: Qing Ming is a time for families to gather and strengthen their bonds. Relatives often travel from far and wide to participate in the festivities and pay their respects together.

Digital tributes: In modern times, some families also pay tribute to their ancestors digitally. They may create online memorials or share photos and memories on social media platforms, ensuring that the legacy of their loved ones lives on.

Kite flying: While not common in Singapore, it is also customary to fly kites with long tails, often inscribed with messages to the family’s ancestors. It’s believed that the higher the kite flies, the closer it gets to the spirits of the ancestors.

Foods that are usually eaten during Qing Ming

Photo: Getty

Qing Tuan (green rice ball): Served chilled, this glutinous rice ball is typically made with Chinese mugwort juice that gives it its signature green colour, a symbol for Spring. It is usually stuffed with sweet red bean, sesame or date paste.

Qing Ming Ba: Similar to qing tuanqing ming ba or Qing Ming cakes are sticky rice cakes made from glutinous rice flour, typically sweetened with sugar or served with savoury toppings like sesame seeds or crushed peanuts.

Cold dishes: Because of the association between Qing Ming and the Cold Food Festival, various cold dishes, such as marinated meats, vegetables, and tofu, are prepared. They also offer a refreshing contrast to the warm weather and heavy foods typically consumed during the festival.

Are there differences across dialect groups?

Both the Teochew and Hokkien communities follow the tradition of placing colored paper, known as ya zhi (压纸), on the gravesite to signal that the descendants have paid their respects.

For the Teochews, an additional ritual involves eating cockles. Once eaten, the shells are scattered around the grave. Historically, cockles were used as a form of currency, symbolising prosperity. Thus, the act of scattering cockle shells signifies a wealthy family with “money overflowing on the ground”. It also serves as a marker to passersby that the family has visited the grave.

In Cantonese practice, worship entails placing three bowls of cooked white rice, three pairs of chopsticks, three cups of Chinese wine, alongside offerings of pork, chicken, lettuce, lotus roots, and sugar cane in front of the grave.