Qing Ming, is an annual festival observed by the Chinese community to honor and remember their dead ancestors as they visit the graves together as a family. Like most Chinese festivals, Qing Ming is also about family gatherings as it is a requirement that all of the family members make it to pay respects to their dead ancestors at their tombs.
I believe that most religions and cultures do have a day where they dedicate to remember their deceased family members, and All Souls' Day was the Christian version of this Qing Ming.
I have written about this festival last year (read it here) and talked about the origins of the festival in ancient China with the story of Duke Wen.
In this article, I would like to share more on the origins of the festival as it was originally also celebrated with joy and anticipation due to the end of the cold weather which ends with the Winter Solstice and the beginning of the Spring Equinox. Qing Ming falls a fortnight; or approximately 15 days after the Spring Equinox and the people then were delighted with the coming of clear skies and weather after months enduring the cold and gloomy weather of winter. The arrival of spring makes way for the sun and the bright skies; thus allowing people to be able to go out without worrying about chills and enjoying activities outdoors.
Therefore, the name Qing Ming was given; which literally means Clear and Bright in Chinese, to describe the skies in conjunction with the arrival of the Spring Equinox.
Qing Ming was a joyous occasion and people celebrate the nice weather with outdoor activities such as taking a stroll in the park and along the lake and flying kites in the open fields. It is a common sight to see families gathering for picnics in parks, and lovers enjoying strolls in the park or gardens while children fly kites with their parents. It is definitely a pretty picture indeed; and one of much happiness and warmth, synonymous with the name of the festival.
Due to the good weather as well and ability to go outdoors, which also slowly paved way for the people to tend to their ancestors' graves and thus, Qing Ming also became the festival to clean the tombs of deceased ancestors.
There are many things to note about the traditions and rituals practised by the devoted people who observed this festival, as I have learnt this year while joining my in-laws on their annual trip to their, or rather, our ancestors' graves.
1. Early Trips to the Tombs
For instance, one of the practices is to go early in the morning, and for some, also earlier at the start of the festival. Qing Ming lasts for a period of about 3 weeks; where there is a grace period of 10 days before and after the actual date of Qing Ming.
Before Qing Ming starts
The reason to go as early as possible before the actual date is actually, as some believe to be an act of filial piety to their ancestors as their ancestors would be able to receive their offerings of food and gifts earlier from the netherworld. The dead is believed to be able to roam the area of their graveyard at this time, and thus they look forward to the festival where they will be treated with food and paper money and gifts for their use in the other world.
Should the descendants be there early at the start of the festival, this means that the ancestors will be able to enjoy their treats earlier and need not wait in vain (or in envy) as their 'neighbors' (neighboring graves) enjoy the offerings presented by their own descendants.
Another belief is that the descendants who go early will also be more likely to be blessed with luck and prosperity and logically, it probably associates with the earlier belief, for if the ancestors are happy, they are more likely to shower more blessings; as a way to thank their descendants for their kindness and thoughtfulness to be there earlier.
Visiting the tomb in the morning
It is encouraged to visit the tombs early in the morning; or rather, schedule and complete the visits to the tomb before noon breaks in.
One of the logical reasons is definitely to avoid traffic as crowds throng the roads leading to the cemeteries, lack of parking space, and also the drive through the narrow roads within the cemetery compound can be really challenging and a harrowing experience to some too.
Furthermore, when the sun starts to shine, it gets really hot and thus everyone could very well grow agitated and is no longer patient with the rest of the ceremony performed at the tomb which is not good for the ancestors as it displays a lack of sincerity.
The main reason for visiting tombs in the morning, is also the same as the earlier reason, to feed and treat the ancestors before others (it is like a race) but ultimately, it is all to do with the strong Yang energy of the sunlight. The dead are often associated with the Yin element in the Chinese beliefs, and the Yin is often perceived as the weaker element. Therefore, the Yin pales in comparison with its Yang counterpart, which clearly succeeds that of the Yin. The sun is a strong resemblance of the Yang element, and rationally, the dead fears the strong Yang from the sun. Therefore, the logical explanation is that the ancestors are free to roam before the sun comes out and could enjoy the offerings whereas if one were to visit the tombs in the afternoon or late afternoon, the ancestors may not be able to fully enjoy the things offered by their descendants.
That explains why the crowds are usually large in the morning, and most people will tell you that they are going to the tombs in the morning. It is rather rare, though not totally non-existent, to see or hear of people visiting the tombs after noon.
2. Honoring the Earth God before the ancestors
I noticed that there is a small shrine at each tomb in the Chinese cemetery; dedicated to the Earth God (also known as Tou Tei Kung in Cantonese). The Earth God is responsible for a specific area he is assigned to, and each tomb is governed by its own Earth God to ensure their well-being.
Therefore, before respects is paid to the ancestors, it is common practice to first pay respects to the Earth God by placing joss sticks and food offerings to the God.
The reason for this is to invite the Earth God to enjoy the offerings and also to thank him for his help in 'taking care' of the ancestors and bringing them from the netherworld during this festival upon seeing the arrival of the descendants. The Earth God will then summon and guide the ancestors to the Earth to see their living descendants cleaning up and paying homage to them. After enjoying the offerings, the Earth God will then guide the ancestors back to the netherworld where they dwell and thus, food and gifts are also offered to the Earth God in gratitude for his hard work.
3. Forms of Offering
Needless to say, there is always food to be prepared or cooked, or some, bought to honor the ancestors.
Most of the food served must be food preferred by the ancestors, of course, so that they can enjoy and also, according to the Chinese beliefs, must also bear auspicious meaning to bring blessings of luck and wealth to the descendants. Usually there would be kueh; such as Huat Kueh, a steamed rice cake with rising powder so that it flourishes; signifying the growth of prosperity among the descendants.
Besides food, there will also be paper money, and things of necessity/luxury in paper forms; such as paper car, house, cell phone, clothes, shoes, etc to be burnt for the ancestors. It is to honor and to ensure that they have a good afterlife.
4. Communicating with the ancestors
Nothing spiritual or scary, but something that is commonly practised during the offerings is to toss two coins to ask whether the ancestors are done or happy with the food offered.
Usually the coins are tossed to communicate in a simple way to check whether the ancestor has fully consumed/received the offerings and the way to tell is the way the coins turn up.
If both coins show the same sides, it means that they are not done with the offerings.
However, if both coins are of different sides, it means that they are done with the offerings.
There is also an extended version that if the sides shown are both heads, it means that the ancestors are very happy while if both sides are tails, then it means that they are satisfied or sometimes, worrying about something among the living (although the latter explanation is not really valid).
The communication is a simple and one-way; with only a Yes/No answer and most of the other explanations are slowly deciphered in the descendants' perspectives.
However, I dare not doubt the truth of this practice as I have seen with my own eyes that most of the time the coins would show same sides and only once, the coins would show opposite sides; and that is after considerable amount of time for one to finish a meal. Bizarre, but true, and coming from a background of science, there is definitely no way to explain that probability of getting the same side/opposite side for the different number of times and accurately across different families.
5. Placing of offerings on the tomb
There are usually joss sticks and paper money placed on top of the graves of the ancestors; which are the most fundamental offerings when one tends to the graves.
Other things of norm are the placing of the huat kueh (or Prosperity cake) on top of the tomb. The name of Huat Kueh in Chinese, sounds like prosperity when pronounced and thus taking the phonetic sound of the cake's name, the practice to place this cake on top of the tomb is to ensure prosperity among the descendants and for many generations to come.
It is a practice that the Chinese were taught to believe and had been passed down for generations.
Another common food to be placed on the tomb; is the pineapple, which is more commonly practised among the Hokkien and Teochew community. Again, the phonetic sound of the pineapple (Ong Lai) translates to the Coming of Luck in Chinese and thus placing the pineapple at the tomb means that the descendants will be blessed with an abundance of luck.
Typically the pineapple is cut in slices and scattered around the tomb; and the top of the pineapple is maintained and stuck near the head of the tomb.
6. Food first, offering after
The food is usually offered to the ancestors first and after checking with the ancestors on whether they are full after the meal, the descendants will then burn the paper offerings by the side of the grave for their ancestors.
7. Lighting of firecrackers
One of the recent practice is to light firecrackers at the tomb of the ancestors; and is more common among the Cantonese community. The firecrackers are lit when all the family members are present at the graveyard; and it symbolized that they are informing the ancestors of their arrival and that the ancestors should awaken from their long slumber.
At the same time, another belief is for the purpose of celebration, for it is like a happy festival for the ancestors and something similar to that of a New Year or something joyous as they are treated with new stuffs and food to enjoy. What is there not to be happy about, when the ancestors can see their growth of their families and descendants; with new additions in the family through marriages and birth.
It is something which the Chinese often hope for; expansion in the family number.
8. Mandatory presence of ALL family members
It is a requirement for all family members/descendants to make this annual trip; and it is nothing to do with any superstition or anything like that but rather, that of an act of filial piety and in remembering those before us. However, in this busy and ever evolving world, this is a dying practice as some could not make it due to work or long distance, or other engagements. In the past, it is obligatory for everyone to make it to the tombs to show respect for their ancestors and thus the grace period of 10 days before and after the actual date of Qing Ming so that their descendants could make way in their schedule to pay homage to their ancestors.
Another thing to remember is that the actual date of Qing Ming is to be observed for the newly departed.
For instance, if the deceased has just passed on a year before, the family members should or are only allowed to tend/visit the graves of the deceased on the date of Qing Ming itself, and not in the 10 days before/after the date. The reason is that the recently departed are more strictly governed in the netherworld and are only allowed a day to visit the living and thus, the descendants should keep this in mind when observing the Qing Ming festival.
There are many more practices which are out there but the above shared are the common ones and that I have personally observed or learnt from families who have been doing it.
It is pretty much standard across the Chinese community, although some may do it slightly differently, based on what has been passed down from the earlier generations.
I find it important to understand the traditions and rituals practised by the elders in all the festivals, as it is vital to know the real reason to observe these practices rather than being a blind follower.
When we understand, we appreciate and observe the importance more than ever.
Without our ancestors, who will we be today?