Qing Ming Jie Festival similar to All Soul’s Day
The English translation of Qing Ming Jie is ‘Pure and Bright Festival’ or ‘Clear and Bright Festival. It’s the same as the western All Soul’s Day. This festival comes once a year around early April. It falls on 106th day after the winter solstice in December. Qing Ming Jie is about worshipping ancestors and Filial Piety. People visit columbaria and cemeteries with foods and other similar things to offer the ancestors.
In the Zhou Dynasty (1125-225 BC) Qing Ming was marked as a festival. On this day emperors and other high-ranked officials would carry out a religious ceremonial act in ancestral veneration. However, this ritual changed during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 23 AD) and the common people also began to attend this festival. People started to offer their prayers in graveyards and cemeteries rather than ancestral temples.
Many scholars argue about the Qing Ming Jie’s origin. According to them, this festival is a replica of ‘Han Shi Jie’ (寒食节) which means ‘Cold Food Festival’ but other scholars disagreed. There is a popular story behind this concept which took place many centuries back during the Zhou dynasty in China. Once a ruler of Qin named Duke Wen invited Chieh Chih Tui (Jie Zi Tui, 介子推) who was considered as a loyal subject of Duke Win, in celebration of his position as sovereign of a small principality. But, Chieh Chih refused the invitation saying that he is returning to the mountains in order to take care of his parents although many scholars have just mentioned his mother. To stop Chieh Chih, Duke Win ordered his army to burn down the entire forest. This did not scare Chieh Chih and he remained to his decision resulting in his death.
After Chieh Chih’s death, Duke Win ordered to put all fires out to commemorate him and celebrate that day as his death anniversary; hence, marking it as Han Shi Jie. . Following the rituals people eat raw food on Han Shi Jie. Since then this festival takes place every 105th day past the winter solstice in December followed by the Qing Ming. The customs and rituals of Han Shi resemble Qing Ming as people offer their prayers by making a tomb for their ancestors. However, this festival came to end during the Tang period and it was replaced by Qing Ming where people pay homage to their ancestors in graveyards and cemeteries.
Ceremonies and Rites
People perform various traditional practices including visiting the ancestral grave, preparing tablets or niches in 10 days prior to or after the festival.
Descendants buy tablets or niches to offer to the grave of their ancestors. Plus, people offer food items like chicken, pork, duck, and fish. Not only flesh they also offer fruits, vegetables, wine, tea, and rice. If the niche or tablet is set in the temple then the offerings do not include any type of meat. People offer vegetables and fruits instead.
The public departs early on this day to avoid hefty traffic, especially around columbaria and cemeteries. Before paying homage people first undertake sao mau (which means ‘sweeps the grave’). It includes removing all the weeds and grass that grow around the tombstone, dusting the ancestor’s grave, and painting faded parts of it.
People offer their prayers to different deities and spirits. The rituals include offering the first prayer to an important deity Tu Di Gong (土地公, “God of the Soil”) who was worshipped by Taoists. People also offer to these wandering spirits that have nobody to pay offerings. The offerings are paid to the wandering spirit so that they do not touch the family ancestral offerings.
Whether worshipping in the cemetery, temple, or columbaria it does not make any difference.
They all are similar to one another. Foods are offered on the grave, temple altar, or niche accompanied by joss sticks and red candles. They show their respect by bowing, kneeling, kowtowing before the tablets, niche, or grave holding joss sticks. Following the traditional rituals first, male members in the family pray and then female members.
After that, descendants burn paper gifts and false money to make sure that their ancestors are well off in the afterlife. This ritual includes a replica of varieties of material items like television, car, cars, servants, accessories, mobile phones, and houses. Several people write the name of their ancestors and descendants on the paper gifts and then burn it so that it safely arrives at their ancestors.
Then, people wait for their ancestor’s spirit to eat the food. After giving them enough time, people take all the food into their homes and consume it. Therefore, Qing Ming can also be considered a day when each member of the family gathers pays tribute and eats together.
Variation across the dialect groups
Hokkein and Teochew communities follow the tradition of placing ya Zhi (压纸), a colored paper on the tombstone. These colored papers are proof for other people that the people have visited their ancestral graves.
On this day Teochew performs another ritual of eating shells or bivalves. The shells of the bivalve are scattered around the ancestral grave after eating them. In this ritual cockles, shells are considered as gold which indicates prosperity in the family. Plus, it indicates to other people that the descendants have visited the tombstone.
The Cantonese worship their ancestors by placing three Chinese wine cups, cooked rice in three bowls, pork, chicken, lotus root, lettuce, sugar cane, and three pair of chopsticks around the grave.
The land scarcity in Singapore has compelled the government to exhume cemeteries which is why people are inclining more towards columbaria than cremations.
The traditional practice of visiting tombstones was popular till the 2000s. During Qing Ming, Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (the Hokkein Can Association of Singapore) would organize a trip to the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery for the people to pay tribute to the unclaimed tombstone.
However, this practice was halted by the exhumation program at the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery run by the Singapore government. The remembrance practice of those gravestones was shifted towards the temple.
Qing Ming is stilled practiced by the Chinese people in Singapore regardless the religion or ethnicity. Chinese people who are not Taoist or Buddhist also pay homage to their ancestors. However, rather than practicing various traditional rituals, they offer their respect by remaining silent. They often offer a bouquet.
We have covered various traditional rituals performed by the different Chinese communities during Qing Ming. Furthermore, we mentioned how modern Chinese in Singapore celebrate this festival.