A guide to navigating the QingMing folk festival
- On March 16, 2017
- By Cez Krol
- In Festivals
On the 4th of April 2017, China will be celebrating its annual Qingming festival. If you happen to be traveling here then, you’re in for a treat. You’ll see firsthand how the Chinese welcome the new Spring season and pay remarkable tribute to the deceased. Plus, you’ll get to try the special, celebratory meals made for this day, which is always a delicious way to become better acquainted with a new culture.
What to expect?
The ever-respectful Chinese dedicate this day to memorial ceremonies that are aimed at expressing grief over the loss of their loved ones, like the famed tomb sweeping. Developed over a thousand years ago during the Tang Dynasty, this is a practice in which the whole family gathers together and visits the graves of their family members who have passed on. There, they sweep and weed the surrounding land, paying tribute to their memory by keeping their gravesites presentable and tidy.
Following the cleaning up, it is customary to add fresh soil to the graves, which is symbolic of their welcoming in of the new Spring season, a season associated with renewal and vitality.
Offerings & Firecrackers
While the families are visiting their loved one’s graves, it is customary to bring the favorite foods and wine of the deceased with them, which act as an offering to them. Sometimes paper is burned too, acting symbolically as money with the goal being to offer up “money” and food to the deceased so that they may not be lacking either in the afterlife.
Firecrackers may be ignited in the evening as well, as they’re believed to be capable of chasing away any hungry spirits that might be lurking around to eat the food offered to ancestors.
Spring Outings & Kite-Flying
With the weather changing and everything becoming greener and jollier, it is customary to spend time outside enjoying the nature. Families will be seen frolicking together, appreciating the beauty of blossoming flowers and budding trees while engaging in team sports and kite-flying.
During the day, the people tend to cut the strings of their kites, allowing them to fly freely through the sky with the belief that this will bring them good luck and ward off disease. At nighttime, lanterns are tied to kite-strings; so, when they are in the sky, they resemble twinkling stars.
Decorating Gates with Willow Branches
This practice stems from an ancient story in which an innocent mother was scorched along with her son Jie under a willow tree, during King Chong Er’s reign in the Jin Kingdom. The king had ordered his soldiers to burn up the mountains to locate Jie, as he was angry that Jie had previously refused an invitation of his. Filled with regret, the king ended up ordering his people to mourn the loss of Jie and his mother every year from then on. At first, the people honored them by only eating cold meals for a day, as these require no fire to produce. Later, however, the custom of decorating gates with willow branches was added to the tradition.
The foods you need to try
Cold Food Festival dishes
Since this day of celebration coincides with the Cold Food Festival, many dishes that have come to be affiliated with the festival are of the chilled variety. These cold foods are believed to be health-promoting; the Chinese tout them as superfoods for brightening the eyes. In some regions, like central Shanxi, the people refrain from using any fire in their meal preparation even on the day before the festival.
Eggs, broomcorn, cold cakes and pancakes with chicory are examples of simple, cold meals you are likely to encounter at food stands during the festival. Another down to earth yet delicious and satiating dish is zongzi, a type of dumpling made from glutinous rice that’s been wrapped in bamboo leaves and stuffed with lotus seeds, pork, chestnut, egg yolk, or red bean paste.
Certain foods you will encounter in particular areas of China, rather than all over. For instance, in south Shanxi, a traditional dish called “Zifu” is made with steamed bread that’s been shaped into a dragon; it features an egg in the center and is complete with a stuffing made up of a delectable mix of walnuts, dates, and beans. Families tend to make this dish fairly large, believing its size reflects their level of happiness, and simultaneously the amount of sacrifice they are offering via the dish to their deceased family members.
Peach-blossom porridge is made to fête the day in Shanghai, along with green rice balls that get their beautiful color from the juice of brome grass that’s mixed into the rice flour. Anchovies are also a key part of their diet on this day, traditionally served at dinner time.
One staple of the Qingming festival regardless of location? Snails. We’ve learned that because they tend to be largest at this time of year, that makes it the prime time to enjoy the delicacy in its most “ripe” state if you will. Traditionally, the people extract the meat from the shell and then throw the shells on the roofs of their homes in an attempt to scare away mice that may be residing there, with the goal being to have a mouse-free home wherein they can raise silkworms.
So, if you’re looking for a truly spiritual experience, a meaningful day filled with both beautiful, sorrowful ceremonies and joyful, playful laughter—not to mention delicious food, be sure to get to China April 4th and take part in the unforgettable celebration that is the Qingming folk festival. See you there!