Ching Ming

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Ching Ming (Pure and Bright Festival, Spring Festival)

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: April 5 or 6; fourth or fifth day of the third lunar month
Where Celebrated: China, and by Chinese communities in the United States and throughout the world
Symbols and Customs: Ancestral Graves, Cold Food, Kites, Willow
Related Holidays: Li Ch'un


Ching Ming means "Pure and Bright," an apt name for a Chinese festival that takes place at the beginning of spring. Although LI CH'UN celebrates the first day of spring, it usually occurs in February when the weather is still cold and the nights are long. Ching Ming marks the real start of spring. It is always observed 106 days after the WINTER SOLSTICE and two weeks after the VERNAL EQUINOX .

The Chinese lunisolar calendar is based on the oldest system of time measurement still in use. It is widely employed in Asian countries to set the dates of seasonal festivals. The CHINESE NEW YEAR takes place on the new moon nearest to the point which is defined in the West as the fifteenth degree on the zodiacal sign of Aquarius. Each of twelve months in the Chinese year is twenty-nine or thirty days long and is divided into two parts, each of which is two weeks long. The Chinese calendar, like all lunisolar systems, requires periodic adjustment to keep the lunar and solar cycles integrated; therefore, an intercalary month is added when necessary.

The names of each of the twenty-four two-week periods sometimes correspond to seasonal festivals celebrated during the period. Beginning with the New Year, which takes place in late January or early February, these periods are known by the following names: Spring Begins (New Year and LI CH'UN), the Rain Water, the Excited Insects, the VERNAL EQUINOX, the Clear and Bright (CHING MING), the Grain Rains, the Summer Begins, the Grain Fills, the Grain in Ear, the SUMMER SOLSTICE (DOUBLE FIFTH), the Slight Heat, the Great Heat, the Autumn Begins, the Limit of Heat, the White Dew (MIDAUTUMN FESTIVAL ), the AUTUMN EQUINOX, the Cold Dew, the Hoar Frost Descends, the Winter Begins, the Little Snow, the Heavy Snow, the WINTER SOLSTICE , the Little Cold, and the Great Cold.

Ching Ming was originally a festival of life renewal celebrated with dancing, singing, and picnicking. Eggs would be boiled and colored, then broken to symbolize the opening and dispersal of life. The emperor would plant trees on the palace grounds; villagers would place pine branches, a symbol of longevity, in front of their doors and hang sprigs of WILLOW under the eaves of their houses to ward off the forces of evil. Much like ARBOR DAY in the United States, this holiday was also known as the Tree Planting Festival (Chih Shu Chieh).

Over a period of several centuries, the Spring Festival changed from a celebration of new life to a commemoration of dead ancestors, similar to ALL SOULS' DAY in Europe and elsewhere. This transition is less puzzling to the Chinese, who regard the dead as intimately connected with life because they are responsible for ensuring fertility in the family as well as the fields. Nowadays Ching Ming is observed with a ceremonial meal at the family tomb. Graves are cleaned and repaired, and offerings of food and "spirit money" are made to keep the ancestors happy and ensure a good harvest. Ching Ming


Ancestral Graves

The Chinese believe that one of the several souls belonging to each person remains near the grave where it can stay in contact with family members. Because this spirit has the power to cause harm or promote good, it must be offered food, music, and burnt sacrifices so it will be favorably disposed toward the living.

Chinese families at one time had private burial grounds outside the city walls, often in the midst of cultivated fields. But the shortage of land has made public cemeteries more common. Early on the morning of Ching Ming, families carrying food, sticks of incense, and paper money tied up in cloth bundles go to visit their ancestral graves. They begin by cutting down any weeds that have grown up around the grave and sweeping away the dirt. The food is set out on stone altar-tables-with an emphasis on dishes the ancestor was fond of-and the paper money is usually left on the grave with a stone or lump of clay to hold it in place. After the spirits of the dead have been worshipped according to prescribed ritual, the family may dine near the graves or return home to feast on the food that was offered.

Those who can't visit their family graves at Ching Ming offer prayers to their ancestors and make an offering of paper bags decorated with two human figures in flowery robes. Between the figures there is a space where the names of those buried in the family graveyard can be listed. The bags are then filled with paper money, placed on an altar with fruit, sweets, and tea, and burned before sundown because the ancestors must return to their graves before the city gates close at nightfall. Most Chinese, however, make a special effort to be home in time for the Spring Festival.

It is considered essential to visit the family graves at least once a year, because an unswept grave is considered an indication that the family has died out. Neglected tombs, especially those located in fields, might be plowed under, or the land might be sold. The punishment for damaging or tampering with graves-as long as they're obviously being cared for-is harsh.

Cold Food

On the eve of Ching Ming, some Chinese observe the Han Shih (Cold Food) Festival. No fires are lit and nothing hot is eaten for twenty-four hours. This custom can be traced back to an ancient tribal rite whereby a new fire could only be kindled once a year. Han Shih, which originally lasted three days, marked the interval between the extinction of the old fire and the lighting of the new one by rubbing two WILLOW sticks together. Courtiers' children were performing this fire-kindling ceremony in the open space before the Imperial Palace as late as the Tang dynasty (seventh to tenth centuries). The first to set his or her sticks alight received a golden cup and three pieces of silk. This custom is believed to be a survival of an ancient sun-worship and purification ritual practiced by the nomads of the Zhou dynasty, who burned the fields in order to rid them of evil influences and clear the way for spring planting. It may also be linked to the Roman Catholic custom of letting the hearth fire go out on Easter Sunday and rekindling it on Easter Monday.

A myth has also been devised to explain the custom. It involves a faithful servant traveling with his lord who, when misfortune fell and food supplies ran out, cut off a piece of his own flesh to feed his master. Afterward, he fled to the mountains. The lord set fire to the underbrush to chase him out of hiding so he could be properly rewarded, but the hero preferred to burn alive. After his death, the lord proclaimed that people would honor his example by not lighting any fire in their homes for three days and eating cold food.

Observance of the Cold Food feast is dying out in Beijing, but it is still practiced elsewhere in China.


During the war between the states of Chu and Han in the third century B . C . E ., a famous Han general by the name of Han Xin built a giant wooden kite for the great warrior Zhang Liang to ride in. The legend says that Zhang Liang flew above the Chu encampment singing traditional Chu songs, which made the enemy soldiers so homesick that they left their camp and were defeated. To this day Ching Ming is a popular day to fly kites. There are informal kite competitions and formal exhibitions of kites with participants from all over the world.

After people have visited their family graves and paid their respects to the ancestors, they often picnic, play games, and fly kites in a variety of shapes and designs. Some kites illustrate plots from Chinese folk tales or historical legends; others convey good luck wishes. Many are designed to make sounds in the wind or to create special visual effects. This is why the common word in China for kite is fengzheng or "wind zither."


Because it is the first tree to respond to the sun by putting out new leaves, the willow has always been an emblem of spring and erotic awakening. The Chinese phrase "willow feelings and flower wishes" refers to sexual desire. And the expression "looking for flowers and buying willows" means paying a visit to a prostitute. The willow is also a symbol of vitality because it is extremely hardy and will take root almost anywhere. Ching Ming

The origins of the willow's mystical connection to the Spring Festival are somewhat obscure, but according to a popular legend, a rebellious member of the Tang dynasty took the willow as his personal sign. Those willing to support him were asked to hang a willow branch outside their houses. When the signal for revolt was given on the day of the Ching Ming festival, those who had the branch on their houses escaped massacre. Their descendants continued the custom, and to this day, sprigs of willow are hung under the eaves of houses to keep demons away. In some parts of China, women wear willow sprigs in their hair at Ching Ming, and young people wear "willow dogs" (sprouts of willow) all day. There is a saying that "Those who wear no willow at the Ching Ming will be re-born as yellow dogs in future life"-a sufficient threat to ensure that willow is seen everywhere.

In addition to repelling demons, willow also has the ability to attract good. It can draw the spirits of ancestors back to their homes, which is why it is so often used for decorating graves.


Bredon, Juliet, and Igor Mitrophanow. The Moon Year: A Record of Chinese Customs and Festivals. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1927. Eberhard, Wolfram. A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Hill, Jeff, and Peggy Daniels. Life Events and Rites of Passage. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2008. Stepanchuk, Carol, and Charles Wong. Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts: Festivals of China. San Francisco: China Books & Periodicals, 1991.


China Internet Information Center AND cn/english/2001/Apr/10256.htm

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Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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