Editor's note: The 24 solar terms are an ancient Chinese calendar used to guide farming. They are the crystallization of the accumulated experience and wisdom of the working people of the Chinese nation. Since ancient China was an agricultural society, people required a strict understanding of the sun’s movement, and farming was conducted entirely according to the sun as well. Therefore, the “24 solar terms”, which reflects the sun’s movement cycle, were added to the calendar as the standard for determining leap months. The 24 solar terms are: Start of Spring, Rain, Awakening of Insects, Spring Equinox, Qingming Festival, Grain Rain, Start of Summer, Grain buds, Grain in Ear, Summer Solstice, Minor Heat, Major Heat, Start of Autumn, End of Heat, White Dew, Autumn Equinox, Cold Dew, Frost’s Descent, Start of Winter, Minor Snow, Major Snow, Winter Solstice, Minor Cold and Major Cold. On November 30, 2016, China’s “24 Solar terms” were officially inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity. We have introduced this 24 Solar Terms column to bring you a taste of the beauty of traditional Chinese culture.
Qingming, which falls on April 5th this year and lasts 15 days, is the fifth solar term in the Chinese lunar calendar. It is not only a solar term but also an old traditional festival in China.
"Qing" denotes the clean and refreshing air during this period, and "Ming" implies that the sun will appear to dispel dark clouds. At this time, nature has taken on a vibrant appearance. Southern China will be fairly warm and sunny. In northern China, it stops snowing and Spring is approaching.
Qingming was divided into three pentads in ancient China. The first pentad is when the tung flower blooms. As the weather gets sunnier, it comes the second pentad when those shade-loving voles disappear into holes under the ground. And the last pentad is when the rainbow is visible after the rain.
Qingming Festival related to another Chinese traditional festival called Cold Food Festival. Legend has it that in ancient China, when Spring came, the weather was rather dry and thunder occurred occasionally, so those inflammable materials kept in people's home kindled fire. To avoid risks, people tended to use up these materials by worshiping their ancestors. Since fire was forbidden, people could only eat cold food during that period. In the Tang dynasty, Cold Food Festival declined and Qingming Festival became increasingly popular, but the tradition of worshiping ancestors has been maintained until today.
Worshiping ancestors is the most important part of Qingming, and that’s why Qingming Festival is also named Tomb-Sweeping Day. People often set out in the morning. The first thing to do is to clean up weeds around the tombs and add more new soil. Then they kowtow to express respect for their ancestors. People also burn joss paper and make offerings. Paying visit to the tombs not only demonstrates filial duty, arousing common memory of the family, but also promotes the cohesion and sense of identity of family members.
Apart from worshiping ancestors, people also go hiking, plant trees and fly kites during Qingming. In northern China, some regions still keep the tradition of eating cold food. Some people will eat cold pancakes wrapped around raw sow thistle, which is said to improve eye-sight. In southern China, people like to make green dumplings which were once made as offerings to ancestors but now have become a popular snack. The wrapper of green dumplings is made of wormwood and glutinous rice flour. Bean paste and lotus paste are the most commonly chosen fillings. It doesn't taste overly sweet and has a lingering light fragrance.
Qing Ming integrates a natural solar term with cultural customs. It demonstrates that ancient Chinese pursued the harmony among the "sky, earth and people". There is a famous ancient Chinese poem describing Qingming, and below is a translated version by the renowned Chinese translator Xu Yuanchong.
A drizzling rain falls like tears on the Mourning Day;
The mourner's heart is going to break on his way.
Where can a wineshop be found to drown his sad hours?
A cowherd points to a cot 'mid apricot flowers.