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The Qingming Festival: Day of the Dead isn’t exclusive to Mexico!

The Qingming Festival in China and other Asian countries is an ancient festivity to honor the ancestors.

One of Mexico’s biggest cultural assets is the celebration of Día de Muertos or the Day of the Dead. Sugar skulls bright cempasúchitl flowers (marigolds), colorful cut-out paper, delicious food and drinks, and more importantly a devotion to receive our deceased back and share one night with them. Although all these have become Mexican symbols, honoring the dead by celebrating with food and altars isn’t exclusive to Mexico.

As a matter of fact, there’s an ancient festivity in China and other Asian countries that could be considered similar to the Day of the Dead many know in which the focus is set on honoring the deceased ancestors through rituals, altars, food, and celebration. The Qingming Festival, which translates to ‘Pure Brightness’ Festival, is also known as Tomb Sweeping Day; it takes place every April and is considered a national festivity.

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What is the Qingming Festival?

As mentioned, the Qingming Festival is an ancient Chinese celebration to revere the ancestors. Today, families throughout China and other countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, start the celebrations by visiting the graveyards and tombstones of their ancestors to literally sweep them, repaint the names and adorn them with fruits and chrysanthemum flowers which symbolize wealth and grief respectively.

The Qingming Festival has been celebrated in the region for over 2500 years and although customs and traditions have changed over time, for centuries it has focused on honoring the ancestors. The festivity has been such an important cultural tradition that it became a public national holiday in mainland China in 2006.

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This Day of the Day celebration in China has been credited to Emperor Xuanzong of Tank around 732 AD. The story has it, the wealthy spheres of Chinese society of the time, used to hold luxurious and expensive ceremonies to honor the death spending way too much of the country’s treasure. Emperor Xuanzong decided then to establish only one celebration a year allowing commoners to also praise and revere their ancestors. The festivity became a norm in the country and Emperors would even build impressive tombstones of their dynasties to be honored during the Qingming Festival. Naturally, it also became a popular practice among the Chinese folk making the festivity a day where the nobility, the merchants, and the commoners gathered to honor the deceased.

How is it celebrated?

We already talked about the tomb-sweeping custom. As mentioned, families gather in their ancestor’s graveyards and proceed to sweep them following Confucious teachings on family obedience and piety. According to their religion, some pray to one god or simply to the spirits of their ancestors in a personal ritual that allows them to contact their departed in the afterlife. In some places, tomb-sweeping is only carried out during the Qingming Festivity since it’s believed that doing so on any other day will only disturb the dead.

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During the rituals performed in the graveyard, families burn joss paper (incense paper) sometimes shaped as clothing, a house, or money to grant their beloved ones abundance and good fortune in their afterlife. As it is also accustomed in Mexico, families set an altar offering food, wine, tea, and any sort of treats to their ancestors for them to enjoy in the afterlife. Some of the most important symbols during the Qingming Festivity are the pomegranate and the willow branches which are believed to grant purity to the celebration. These are also assembled on the offerings and the houses.

After the religious or spiritual ritual, families gather and spend the day together on outings or parties that involve feasting, singing, and dancing; after all, the Qingming Festival is a celebration of life and death and a happy reunion between families with their ancestors. Also proof of how this festivity is seen as a joyous event (with the devotion it deserves), is that it is during this festivity that young couples start courting openly.

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Other traditions people in China and other countries carry out during the Qingming Festival are flying kites shaped like animals or classic Chinese opera characters, and lighting some firecrackers, though the burning of the latter and incense has recently been skipped in different cities to avoid contamination.

When is it celebrated?

The Qingming Festival is celebrated on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese calendar. That is the 15th day after the Spring Equinox which, depending on the year, falls on the 4, 5, or 6th day of April. This year, it will be celebrated on April 5, though in places like China, the official celebrations are carried out from April 3rd to the 5th.

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