Monday, April 25, 2011

The Story of Ching Ming Festival

Ching Ming, or Qing Ming, literally translates from Chinese to mean "Clear/Bright Festival" in English.

This festival is also known as the following:
1. Ancestors Day
2. Sweeping Tombs' Day/Grave Sweeping Day
3. Chinese Memorial Day
4. Chinese All Souls' Day

Ching Ming is a festival traditionally observed by Chinese families; whereby the whole family would gather and make a trip to their deceased ancestors' tombs to pay respects/worship.
As this is a yearly event, therefore, the tombs would require to be tended to or cleaned up as grass tends to grow so long that it would cover the graves.
Despite the long grass being a nuisance, the Chinese would not have it otherwise as the longer the grass grows, it actually symbolizes wealth and fortune to the descendants.

Ching Ming usually falls in the month of April, astrologically, it occurs approximately 104 days after the Winter Solstice Festival, or 15 days after the Spring Equinox.
Most of the families would start to visit the graves of their loved ones as early as 10 days before the actual day of the festival, or 10 days after the date of Ching Ming, as long as they pay respects to their ancestors during this stipulated period of the festival.

The festival got its name from QingMing, the name of the fifth solar term as it falls on the first day of this term. The name of the term denotes the greenery during this time where people would be enjoying the greenery. It is aligned with the tending of the graves as well as paying respects to their ancestors during the annual homage by the descendants.

Ching Ming festival observes the remembrance of the deceased ancestors in the family, and this practice is associated with the concept of filial piety emphasized by the great teacher Confucius. However, besides the fulfillment of filial piety, there is also a story behind the origin of this festival; the story of the friendship/brotherhood of the Duke Wen of Jin and Jie Zitui.

It was said that once upon a time, the Duke Wen, before he became the duke, he had many followers, and one of them is Jie Zitui. At one point of time, Wen was put away in exile and after 19 years of living life in exile, they came to a time where they had no food at all. Not wanting to see his master suffering from hunger, Jie Zitui cut his own thigh and used his own flesh to make a bowl of meat soup for Wen. Wen enjoyed the soup and when he found out about Jie's sacrifice, he was deeply touched and promised to reward him in gratitude some day.
Wen then emerged victorious and managed to return to the land of Jin and became the Duke Wen of Jin. He kept to his word and rewarded people who have helped him during his exile and on his success in becoming the duke.
Perhaps it was a long list of people to reward, or the duke just had too many followers, somehow, Duke Wen missed Jie Zitui in the list to reward.
When Duke Wen finally remembered, he scattered his followers to locate Jie, who had now retired to a peaceful life with his mother in the forest.
Duke Wen was unable to locate Jie although he had arrived at the forest, and one of his advisors proposed to set fire to force Jie and his mother to run out of the forest.
Duke Wen agreed to the idea and so it was done, but he was greeted with adverse results, as the fire spread too quickly and Jie and his mother died in the ravaging fire as a result.
Duke Wen was distressed and overwhelmed with guilt, and he ordered the nation, in memory of Jie, three days without fire and then became a memorial day for Jie Zitui, whereby only cold food can be served and no fire is allowed on that particular day.
This day is also known as the Hanshi Day (literally, a day of cold food).
The land where Jie died was also known as Jiexiu (translated to 'the place where Jie is laid to rest forever).

Another version was during the Tang dynasty period; 2500 years ago:
The tradition of Ching Ming dated back to the period of the Tang dynasty; during the reign of Tang Emperor Xuanzong. During that time, the people would flock to the graves of their deceased loved ones with extravagant gifts and offerings from time to time, that the Emperor saw that the people were going overboard and thus declared that there is only one official day to tend to the graves; and that day was named Ching Ming. This practice was then solidified in the Chinese community.

Both versions are independent of each other, and have much truth in the practice of today's Ching Ming festival.
People would bring food and gifts in the forms of paper offerings to be burnt for their loved ones to use in the other world.
Food usually vary; and the most common would be chicken or duck, fruits, buns, and wine or tea.

During the visit to the graves, the rites are usually parted into 3 sections (unofficially):
1. Cleaning of the graves
2. Offering of food, joss sticks and burning of the paper offerings
3. Gathering of the family for lunch (the food brought for offering would be shared among the family members)

Ching Ming is widely celebrated among the Chinese community everywhere around the world although the way the tradition is carried out may vary slightly.
In general, this is very much a family affair, whereby everyone in the family meets in a crowd during this time of the year to pay respects together to their ancestors.
The requirement is understandable; as this is one year that respects are paid to the ancestors, and it is with due respect that the descendants should gather in honour of their ancestors.
In Malaysia, the day itself starts early in the morning to make way to the graves. Families would also pay respects to the tablets of their ancestors at the altars at home; this is an option and not many people observe this practice anymore.
Relatives and family members from afar would make their way home to meet up with the rest of the family before making the journey to the graves.
Upon reaching the tombs, the family would place their offerings aside and start cleaning up the tomb.
This usually involves shearing of the long grass growing around, on and behind the tombstones, wiping/polishing the name plates of the tombs, and then cleaning the premises surrounding the tomb.
Once the cleaning is done, the food would then be placed nicely on the plates and the wine in little wine cups (just like what one would do when preparing a feast).
Joss sticks and candles would also be lit and at the same time, the paper offerings of money and worldly items; i.e: car, house, shoes, clothes, and now, the newly made popular designer and luxury goods such as handbags and electronic items are burnt to their ancestors.
(The Chinese believe that their ancestors would be able to receive it in the other world, and they feel obligated to provide for their deceased loved ones' comfort and better living in the netherworld).

At the same time, the family members would take turns to bow down (or in Chinese, kowtow), three to nine times in front of their ancestors. The family members take turn based on their seniority in the hierarchy of the family; usually starting with the eldest.
After the kowtow, the family would then take out two blocks of wood which are crescent-shaped facing each other. These are used for the purpose of communicating with their ancestors to ask them questions. The main question to the ancestor is whether they are done with the food offering.
If the wooden blocks up in opposite direction (one facing up and the other facing down) when thrown on the floor, it means they are not done with the food.
If both face in the same direction (either up or down), it means that they are done.

When the signal that their ancestors are full came from the wooden blocks, it is then time for the descendants to have the food for themselves.
They would usually gather at a nearby park or shelter (as the tomb is usually too small or sunny for the whole family to enjoy their food) to have lunch/meal together.
This signifies the reunion of the descendants with their ancestors.

Typically the whole worship process takes about half a day and is a time of gathering for the families.
(Most Chinese festivals focus on the reunion of families)

This is not a religious festival, but a Chinese tradition as it is focused on the respect for the deceased loved ones and ancestors.
It is a tradition that will continue for centuries to come, and observed with accordance to the traditional sequence.

The only thing which evolves over time is the form of paper offerings and even the food.
I find the creativity of the vendors selling these paraphernalia items fascinating; as they kept themselves to date with the current trends.

Whenever I see the paper LV, Prada, Gucci bags hanging along the corridors, I knew that Ching Ming time is near.
This year, they even have IPhone 4 and Ipad, talk about innovation!~
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The Ching Ming festival ended about a week ago; after about three weeks of time to worship the ancestors (and for family gathering).
It is a tradition which is important to be passed on to the subsequent generation to remind them of the importance of filial piety and to know their own roots from young.

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