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Everything you need to know about Tomb-Sweeping Festival

There's much more to Qingming Jie than a long weekend

Photograph: Jacklee via Wikimedia Commons
If you're living in Shanghai, you've probably heard of Qingming Jie (清明节), or Tomb-Sweeping Festival, which falls every year on April 4 or 5 (this year it's Friday 5). It's a day of paying respects to your ancestors, paying a visit to the laojia (traditional family home) and getting a three-day weekend to mark the national holiday.

Photograph: @ninkan via Instagram

We're all for long weekends and filial piety. But where does Qingming Jie actually come from, and how do you celebrate it?

Tomb-Sweeping Festival dates back over 2,500 years. Legend has it that around 650 BC, a man called Jie Zitui saved the life of Prince Chong'er from the brink of starvation by carving out a chunk of his own thigh and cooking it into what was surely a delicious meaty soup. When the prince learned what Jie had done, he promised to reward him in the future. Nineteen years later, however, Prince Chong'er became Duke Wen and promptly forgot about humble Jie who had saved his life.

When he eventually remembered and sought out Jie to honour him, Jie refused and instead holed himself up in a mountain with his mother and what was left of his thighs. Duke Wen ordered his forces to set the mountain on fire to force Jie out of hiding, which had the perhaps foreseeable effect of burning Jie and his mother to a crisp. To commemorate the man who saved his life whose life he had just ended, Duke Wen held a memorial underneath a willow tree, which returned from its burnt state to produce lush leaves and branches, unlike poor Jie. The day of the ceremony became Qingming, and willow branches are seen by many as a way of warding off evil spirits from family graves.

Photograph: bfishadow via Flickr

Today, tomb-sweeping traditions vary between families. As well as laying out willow branches, most families will sweep away last year's soil and detritus, and lay out a fresh offering of tea, wine, incense, paper money and whatever else might be handy in the afterlife. It's also an opportunity for families to come together and enjoy the start of spring, as this is typically the time that the flowers start blooming.

Of course, it wouldn't be China if the holiday wasn't also a chance to do some serious eating. The custom is to eat cold foods, in a nod to the big fire that killed old man Jie. The most common Qingming dish is qingtuan (青团), sweet green dumplings that are made from glutinous rice flour and stuffed with a bean paste. Families will normally go for a big meal together after sweeping the tomb, and some say that this is the one day of the year where it's good practice to tip your waiter.

Photograph: coolmanjackey via Wikimedia Commons

We reckon it's always a good idea to pay your respects to your elders, whether they're in this world or the next. So if your nearest and dearest don't have a family grave in the immediate vicinity, at the very least give them a call on Qingming and tell them you love them.

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