The passing of loved ones is a universal human experience, and many cultures around the world set aside a day to remember and honor their dead and ancestors. For the Chinese, that day is the Qingming Festival, which has more than 2,500 years of history. Taking place in early April every year, this important festival is a time for Chinese people to reflect on their heritage and express gratitude to those who came before them.
Just like All Saint’s Day in the western world and the Day of the Dead in Latin American countries, Qingming Festival serves as a powerful reminder of the unbroken thread of life and the deep-seated connections that tie us to our past. By familiarizing themselves with the Chinese words associated with this festival, Chinese-language learners can deepen their understanding of the festival and the wider culture. In this post, we will introduce you to five essential words that will expand your vocabulary and provide greater insights into this important traditional Chinese holiday.
Qingming Festival 清明節/清明节
The name 清明節/清明节 (qīng míng jié) derives from the Chinese characters for “clear” (清) and “bright” (明), which perfectly capture the spirit of the spring season when the festival is celebrated. As the weather warms up and the days grow longer, the world seems to come alive with renewed energy and vitality, making it an ideal time to pay tribute to one’s ancestors and connect with the natural world.
The final character in the name, 節/节 (jié), simply means “festival.” You may have encountered this character before in other traditional Chinese festivals, such as the Spring Festival (春節/春节; chūn jié), the Lantern Festival (元宵節/元宵节; yuán xiāo jié), and the Dragon Boat Festival (端午節/端午节; duān wǔ jié).
Sweep the tombs 掃墓/扫墓
One of the most significant traditions of the Qingming Festival is for people to visit and clean the tombs of their ancestors as a sign of respect and remembrance. And that’s why the festival is also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day or 掃墓節/扫墓节 (sǎo mù jié) in Chinese. The character 掃/扫 (sǎo) means “to sweep,” while 墓 (mù) translates to “tomb.”
On this day, Chinese people clean the graves of their loved ones and remove any weeds or debris around the burial site. Once the graves are cleaned, people offer food and other tributes to the deceased. Fresh flowers, wine, fruits, and festival foods are commonly offered, though the specific types of food may vary based on regional and family preferences. In addition, it is customary to burn incense and paper money (紙錢/纸钱; zhǐ qián) at the grave site as a way of paying respects and showing gratitude.
However, some provinces in China have banned the burning of paper money due to concerns about air pollution and to prevent the possibility of wildfires. Despite this, the tradition of tomb-sweeping remains a beloved and enduring part of Chinese culture, as it offers a powerful way for individuals to honor their ancestors and maintain a connection to their roots.
Fresh flowers 鮮花/鲜花
Fresh flowers, or 鮮花/鲜花 (xiān huā), are a common offering made by Chinese families during Qingming Festival to honor their ancestors. The most popular flower choices are usually chrysanthemums (菊花; jú huā) and lilies (百合; bǎi hé), both of which are traditionally associated with death in Chinese culture. These flowers are usually white or yellow in color and are carefully arranged in front of the ancestor’s tomb to create a neat and respectful appearance.
Spring walks 踏青
During the Qingming Festival, people often participate in the traditional activity known as 踏青 (tà qīng). This phrase literally translates to “stepping on the green” and refers to the custom of going for a walk in the countryside to enjoy the picturesque scenery of spring, particularly the fresh greenery of plants and trees that symbolizes renewal and rebirth.
It’s also a popular time for picnics after enjoying a leisurely walk or a hike through nature. The activity is a way for people to bid farewell to the cold winter and welcome the warm spring weather, giving them a chance to shake off the winter blues and embrace the new season.
Flying kites 放風筝/放风筝
Did you know that the Chinese invented kites 2000 years ago? It’s no wonder that flying kites (放风筝; fàng fēngzhēng) has been a popular leisure activity in China since ancient times. During the Qingming Festival, this pastime takes on a special symbolic meaning. In ancient times, people believed that flying kites during the festival was a way of dispelling any bad luck or evil spirits encountered up to that point, making space for good luck in the coming year.
On this day, people fly kites as high and as far as possible, symbolizing the distance between themselves and any bad luck. This tradition continues to be passed down through the generations, connecting modern-day Chinese people to their cultural roots.
In conclusion, the Qingming Festival bears immense significance to the Chinese people as a moment to pay homage and recollect the memories of their ancestors, embrace the beauty of nature, and rejoice in the onset of spring. By familiarizing yourself with the five essential words and traditions of this festival, we hope that you have gained a more profound comprehension of the vibrant cultural legacy of China. As the festival serves as a reminder of the eternal thread of life, the Chinese words and traditions you have just acquired offer you a glimpse into the timeless essence of Chinese culture.