Apr 23

Connections Across Cultures: Qingming Festival

China and the Chinese celebrated the Qingming Festival this year on Sunday, April 5th. This date marked an important point—a "seasonal division point"—the precise moment that suggests the sun's position. (As a lunisolar calendar system, the festival date can vary slightly from April 4th to 6th.) Traditionally, farmers used this system to help them plant and harvest during the most auspicious times. Additionally, religious and medical advocates also used this knowledge to advise on matters ranging from health to food intake, activities, etc. To me, a simple city-dweller, this sounds roughly like a Farmer's Almanac on "turbo drive."

Today, these "seasonal division points" are considered common knowledge in the Chinese psyche. For outsiders and foreigners, enjoy the meaningful titles: Qingming means "Clear and Bright" or "Pure Brightness." Who cannot support a festival of "clear and bright?"

What Happens During Qingming Festival?

Some traveling, some food and light exercise. Sounds like a great day to me! Pre-shopping necessary. Let's explore from our armchairs.

1. Remembering Your Ancestors & Sweeping their Final Resting Place

In order to minimize work disruptions, the Qingming Festival became a national holiday in China in 2008. Many individuals traveled home to the countryside to visit their ancestors' graves and before 2008 many people would simply take the days off of work surrounding that time. (See another instance of traveling home for a Chinese holiday».)

For those who live near or in the countryside, the day can begin with a trip to the cemetery, mausoleum or columbarium (tall building that houses niches with individual boxes of cremated ashes). Having land in China costs a fortune, so authorities prefer (rather, mandate) cremation for population control. However, one can always find exceptions to this rule with a little (or a lot) of cash in hand. The whole family is encouraged to go to the cemetery, including young children. This is part of the cycle of life that needs to be witnessed, no matter your age.

For those who live in a metropolitan city like Shanghai (population 14+ million)—which is another "melting pot" of domestic immigration—a family might just have a small "altar" on a table in their home or some other commemorative place. Or maybe just a photograph of their special ancestor hung on the wall (again, every centimeter counts in city apartments!)

What do you do?

Give the area a cleaning, burn some incense. Put out some of the deceased family member's favorite food, served cold... it can be meat (such as pork, amply found in China), fruit, etc. Say a prayer, or have a commemorative moment.

"We toast to you, Grandmother, and wish you well. This past year we have accomplished A, B and C and have been challenged with X, Y and Z. We hope this new year will be healthy and prosperous."

The cleansing and/or the toast is made with a strong white rice wine. And no sips allowed here, as that would be construed as disrespectful or lacking seriousness. Toasts in China are culturally diverse and intricate: what you say, where, and to whom depends on the occasion.

What do you wear?

It’s appropriate to wear black, white, yellow, or any somber color. Avoid the color red and other bright colors.

Additional offerings?

Only one particular flower is traditionally used for this day of remembering the dead: the Chrysanthemum. Note to self: do not give a mixed bouquet containing Chrysanthemums to my child's Mandarin teacher… I might be giving mixed messages!

Every Chinese knows the poem by Du Mu, a Tang Dynasty writer. The poem tells of a sad scene in early April:

"It drizzles endlessly during the rainy season in spring.
Travelers along the road look gloomy and miserable.
When I ask a shepherd boy where I can find a tavern,
He points at a distant hamlet nestled amidst apricot blossoms."

If you do brave the traffic and make it to the cemetery, after the cleansing and toasting, most people will take the food with them on their next stop: a park, field, etc. Best not to tempt feral animals with your delicacies.

2. No Cooking Over a Stove - Eat Cold Dishes

This aspect of cold culinary dishes actually began as a separate feast, the Hanshi Festival. It used to take place the day before Qingming, however the festivals were eventually combined. The cold food that is served is "Grandmother's" favorite. There is a very interesting legend behind the "cold food," the legend of Jie Zhitui. Although the details are for mature audiences, the story centers on the core principles of devotion, respect, tolerance and humility. What would one man do for his king, what amount of sacrifice? See here for more details»

You may have noticed that certain foods are tied to specific festivals. No? Take a look at this:

Autumn Moon Festival Moon cakes
Dragon Boat Festival Zong zi (pyramid shaped rice with fillings wrapped in reed or bamboo.
Chinese New Year In Shanghai (the South), glutinous rice balls called Tang tuan. In the North, dumplings.
Qingming Festival More glutinous rice, dyed with green vegetable juice and stuffed withsweet bean paste.In Shanghai, called Qing Tuan.Traditionally, shaped like a ball. See picture below!

These green ball-shaped delicacies can be filled with savory items, such as vegetables or meat, if one dislikes the traditional slightly sweet staple. After over 10 years of searching in the greater NYC area, my Shanghainese friend has not had any luck finding these. Does anyone know of any authentic eateries?

3. Spring Outings/Promenades or an Afternoon in the Park

If people can get to the countryside, a field, or perhaps to a local park, families will want to partake in a leisurely stroll. Sportier types may want to conquer nearby hills with a hike. Children run around, ride bicycles, all that is normal for little ones to do. Families will likely have a simple picnic (again, with cold food only), perhaps fly a kite, etc.

People want to enjoy the fresh air, warmer temperatures, the new greenery and flowering buds on trees. Life brims with hope.

I do believe this concept of spring picnics crosses borders. How about Georges Seurat's pointilliste masterpiece: "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte?"

4. Release a Lighted Lantern or "Floating Luminary"

Whatever you want to call these Sky Lanterns, they are beautiful. A string of little candles is secured to the base of the lantern and released to the heavens. Many say they look like shining stars. In Mandarin, the translation of these night-time floating lanterns is: God's lantern [shén dēng].

Even Rapunzel in the Disney movie "Tangled" must have had an inkling about this».

5. Plant a Tree

For those with a "green thumb" or who are environmentally conscious, the Qingming Festival is also a time to plant saplings. This point in time increases the chances of a healthy tree, strong and tall. Any young tree/sapling will do. You would see this primarily in the countryside where landowners have earth to plow. In the past, Qingming Festival was also called "Arbor Day," however, the Chinese Government also created an official holiday in 1979 for planting trees: March 12th.

Building Bridges & Making Connections

Many of the same beliefs and traditions of the Chinese Qingming Festival are celebrated in other cultures in various ways. Consider:

    Pictured: Day of the Dead altar, image credit to http://www.mingei.org/about/news/1003

  • Spring Equinox in the West
    This begins to remind me of the Spring Equinox, which for the West, fell on Friday, March 20th, signaling the official beginning of spring.

  • Persia and Nowruz (or No rooz)
    This also reminds me of a dear Iranian-American family (by way of Wisconsin and Tehran) who celebrate Nowruz, which is a celebration of the Spring Equinox and New Year. Same general time: around March 21st. This wonderful celebration has a spring cleaning component, and is accompanied by special food and other items (that range from a hand mirror to a hyacinth plant to a small bowl with goldfish and much more).

    * Note: the last Tuesday of their Old Year is commemorated with a jump over a fire to drive out the cold and "paleness" of winter and welcome the Spring, heat and light. I remember participating in a jump over a small fire (created in a disposable aluminum brownie pan) one evening, sparks flying...and then I was regaled with a night-time view of the stars through a jumbo telescope. What a gift to be able to take a few moments to gaze at the constellations and pick out figures like the Big Dipper and Orion the Hunter...

    This entire celebration radiates symbolism and mysticism. For a beginning conversation on this holiday, see Wikipedia and then I would advise to continue the conversation with any Iranian acquaintances for further fine-tuning.

  • Spring Cleaning and the U.S.
    Even non-believers, at least in the Northern U.S., have a general "spring cleaning" of closets, the house, the garage. Et voila--we are all linked together.

  • Day of the Dead and Mexico
    And, as for remembering the dead, and celebrating their life, embracing this cycle, who can forget the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico? It is common to have/create "altars" for the dearly departed. Read more here to get a general sense of this holiday.

At Jump! Immersion School, the administration and teaching staff continually cultivate an openness and respect for other cultures at all levels. Teachers make connections every day, tying in prior topics, nurturing critical thinking and highlighting similarities and differences amongst us. They approach subjects from different angles and encourage thinking "outside the box" in new and creative ways. Children may say, from time to time, the "darndest things," but we like it that way.

Enjoy the Spring that has arrived; forsythias are blooming, along with daffodils! Spring is in the Air.