Eastern culture, unlike the west, has hung on to a lot of it’s old traditions and religious practices. The unstoppable behemoth of progress has not reduced centuries of faith and belief to minute vestiges of what once was. Here in Taiwan, it seems that the people have incorporated both systems together, and each play a daily part in their lives. One of the aspects of this is the importance that Taiwanese give to their ancestors which is manifested in the Qingming Festival.
It seems that this festival is a combination of 2 prior festivals, Qingming and Hanshi.
- Qingming originated during the Tang dynasty (618-907). Ancestral worship had been going on long before this, but during this period, the rich were holding extremely extravagant (decadent?) ceremonies quite frequent. Emperor Xuanzong (732) decided to put a stop to this (why? – because he wanted to stop this massive expense and make more efficient use of his subjects’ time). So he decreed that homage would be paid only on one day – Qingming or Tomb sweeping day.
- Hanshi is a festival that has a bitter story. It’s in the memory of a man named Jie Zitui. Jie Zitui was the follower of an exiled prince. One day, the prince was on the verge of death due to hunger. So, Jie Zitui cut off a piece of his own leg and made a soup to nourish the prince and keep him alive. When the prince finally came into power, he sought out Jie Zitui to reward him, but Zitui wanted nothing and stayed away. The prince went to the woods where he lived to try and find him. Being unable to do so, he set the woods on fire on all sides except one in the hope that Jie Zitui would come out the unburning side to claim his reward. But Jie died in the fire, and the prince was overcome with grief. So he declared from now on, for 3 days, no fires would be lit in Jie Zitui’s memory. Thus was born Hanshi day – literally meaning day with cold food.
These 2 traditions have been combined to bring us the modern Qingming festival. The festival currently occurs in early April.
Modern day practice
This annual shingding is more commonly known as Tomb sweeping day. Droves of Taiwanese will drive out to gravesites of their deceased and, literally, sweep out the graves. Unlike a western grave, in Taiwan, the graves are more like little shrines:
and a “graveyard” looks something like this:
Unlike a western graveyard, there is no caretaker or anyone really in charge of making sure the graves are tended to. Personally, I like these little shrines, and it really does re-inforce the importance of Taiwanese ancestral worship.
So, during Tomb sweeping day, the families themselves will come out here. Duties include cutting the grass, clearing out any weeds creeping up, wiping down the graves, cleaning the glass etc. This is hard work, and can take 2 to 3 hours to do.
In addition, the families will also have food offerings at the gravesite. Charms and/or joss paper (fake money) will be burnt to honour the spirit of the person buried here. Prayers will be said with incense. Generally cleaning up and paying their respects. The family members then get together for a meal nearby, signifying reunion with their dead loved ones. Because Hanshi (3 days) overlaps Qingming (1 day) the food is traditionally cold – signifying no lit fires.
Very poetic, but for some reason I feel queasy eating around a graveyard. I guess my whole perception of the dead is quite different than your average Taiwanese.
Besides being a day for ancestral homage, Qingming is also a festival to celebrate the advent of spring. A day to go outside and enjoy the greenery and freshness of the new season. A new start. Maybe talk to that girl/guy you have been mooning over for the last 2 weeks!
Most tombs are out in the country/mountain sides, so the families will make a day out of it. Combining the 2 aspects of Qingming, after doing the familial obligations, they may go for a walk or hike and have a nice family outing in the fresh countryside air. Assuming it’s not raining, of course!
Few interesting things about the Qingming Festival
- Originated in China, but was banned from 1949 – 2008. Taiwan continued the practice uninterrupted.
- In Taiwan, road and highway traffic spike tremendously during this festival, as many people leave the cities to go to the graves. Traffic hazards abound.
- Commercialization of this festival is now happening in China. Firms offer packages to do the “sweeping, weeping and praying” for you. I haven’t heard any of this in Taiwan yet. http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/china-news/commercial-tomb-sweeping-day-services-proliferate-in-china-372568.html
Having no dead relatives in Taiwan, I haven’t yet participated in this tradition, but since I’ll be sticking around for a while, I hope to have an opportunity to make some spirit happy in the future by making his/her resting place on Earth a little more tidy.