I understand your confusion. What your friends should
have told you is that the beginning of April marks the
Chinese Festival of the Dead, aka Clear Brightness Festival
(Qingming Jie). This year, the festival will fall on
Clear Brightness Festival begins
two weeks after the vernal equinox, when flowers begin
to bloom, the grass turns green, days gets brighter
and the brutal winter chill is over.
According to Chinese tradition, the
dead are strongly connected with life, and are believed
to be responsible for guaranteeing fertility in the
field as well as the house. On this day, families offer
sacrifices of "spirit money," or paper money, and other
symbols of wealth that are burned at the gravesite.
According to traditional beliefs, the burned goods will
reach ancestors in the spirit world. Other offerings
include meats, vegetables and wine. Sometimes a complete
meal is arranged in front of the tomb. Family members
will bow in respect and transmit their regards in the
form of a prayer, led by the eldest member. Families
also visit cemeteries to sweep their relatives' graves,
repaint inscriptions on the headstones, and light incense
sticks and red candles. All of these are supposed to
signal to the ancestors that they are being remembered
and cared for for another year.
But Qingming Jie has not always been
about the dead. In ancient times, the festival was more
like a holiday celebrated by dancing, singing and picnicking.
Teenage boys and girls would flirt with each other and
villagers placed pine branches in front of their doors
symbolizing long life. Observers would also hang sprigs
of willow under the eaves of their homes as symbols
of life and a talisman for protection against the forces
Over time the emphasis of the festival
shifted from the joys of life to the mysteries of death.
Traditionally, meals set out for the dead include an
abundance of cooked rice. An even number of dishes are
served up to represent yang, or "even" energy, to balance
against the yin, or "uneven" energy used to characterize
offerings to gods (therefore, when making offerings
to gods, an odd number of dishes are set out).
The careful arrangement of bowls,
plates, cups, spoons and chopsticks is made, with an
equal amount of care placed in the selection of vinegar,
soy sauce and chili paste. The deceased relative's favorite
dishes are prepared and offered. After the relative's
spirit "eats" the essence of the meal, the food is then
shared among family and friends. The meals offered at
the gravesite usually consist of simple foods like mushrooms,
bean curd, noodles and steamed buns. Besides being easier
to carry to the site, it is also feared that much more
pungent food will attract unwanted spirits.
Gods, as opposed to the dead, hold
a more distant place in relationship to the living.
The worshipping of gods on Qingming Jie is done through
the offering of live animals such as fish, pigs and
fowl. The dead, on the other hand, are closer to the
living in the hierarchy of the spirit world and are
believed to be trusting and accessible, and are therefore
given the same food that is consumed by the living.
Another way of ensuring happiness
and comfort for the dead is through fengshui (lit. "wind
and water"), the ancient practice of geomancy, or land
divination according to natural occurrence. It is through
this practice that a gravesite is chosen. Streams and
rivers, groves of trees (especially cypress or pine),
and southern exposure are all desirable qualities for
a gravesite. The "landscape architect," or geomancer,
must choose the site in accordance with the existing
natural elements such as the shape and height of the
hills surrounding it. This will ensure the proper concentration
of cosmic energy.
The Ming tombs, nestled against the
Great Wall north of Beijing, are a great example of
fengshui and magnificent beauty. By situating the tomb
on the south side of the Tianshoushan hills, they are
ideally protected against harmful spirits that might
be blown in by the wind (feng). The topology also allows
streams (shui) to run in front of the tombs, bringing
only friendly spirits to the sites.
Your Ayi would like to conclude with
a poem on Qingming Jie written by her favorite scribe,
the poet Du Mu who lived during the Tang Dynasty (AD
During the festival of Qingming,
Rain drizzles without end,
A lone traveler on the road is overcome by grief.
He would like to know where to find a wineshop,
The shepherd points to the village ahead
Where the apricot tree blooms.
qing ming shi jie yu fen fen
lu shang xing ren yu duan hun
jie wen jiu jia he chu you
mu tong yao zhi xing hua ccn
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