Change of weather, rich food mark the arrival of Qingming

Qingming, literally meaning “clear and bright,” is known in China as the tomb-sweeping day, but its origins lie in the solar terms and suggests a change of climate.
Zhang Ciyun / SHINE

Qingming, literally meaning “clear and bright,” is known in China as the tomb-sweeping day, but its origins lie in the solar terms and suggests a change of climate.

Qingming usually occurs on April 4 or April 5 when the sun’s elliptical longitude reaches 15 degrees, marking a noticeable warm weather and rich food sources.

This year, it will fall on April 4.

The arrival of Qingming signals the end of the “three periods of waiting” — waiting for the tung flower to blossom, waiting for the field mouse to go back to the caves, and waiting for the rainbows to show up in the sky.

It is marked by frequent rain, especially in south China including Shanghai. It is still a good season to plant seeds, while some farmers also start rearing silkworms. Outings, flying kites, playing cuju (ancient football) and planting trees are among the activities that mark the arrival of Qingming.

It is also the time to enjoy “knife fish” (coilia ectenes), spiral shell and green tea.

Knife fish, one of the three delicacies of the Yangtze River, is enjoyed especially before Qingming Festival as its soft edible bones reportedly hardens after that. The fish can fetch as much as 8,000 yuan (US$1,159.42) per kilogram.

Spiral shells, similarly, taste most succulent and tender around Qingming when they are ready to reproduce.

Green tea picked and processed before Qingming usually has the best quality and fragrance.

In fact, Qingming was originally a day meant for celebrations just like lichun, or Spring Begins, while it was for Hanshi Festival (the 105th day after the dongzhi, or Winter Solstice) that people commemorated their ancestors thousands of years ago. But with Hanshi falling a day before or after Qingming, the two annual events gradually became one.

Over the years Hanshi was forgotten, but its customs like avoiding fire, sweeping tombs and eating cold foods became part of the Qingming rituals.

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Tomb sweeping

Apart from appreciating what Mother Nature has to offer in spring, the day is marked in China by visits to the tombs. The family tomb is cleaned and the weeds removed, grave inscriptions touched up, withered flowers replaced and food and fruits placed as offerings to the ancestors.

Cooked food is particularly placed in an orderly manner in front of the gravestone as a “treat” to the spirit of ancestors. Qingtuan, or green rice balls, is a must during Qingming, while other dishes are usually what the ancestors preferred when they were alive. Some families also offer wines and cigarettes.

Candles are lit and incense, paper money and paper ingots burned. The paper money is supposed to ensure a comfortable afterlife. People also offer paper computers and mobile phones to ensure the ancestors stay “up to date.”

The commemoration ends when family members kowtow and pray. Some even talk at the graves as if communicating with the dead.

After all the rituals are done, the food offerings are then collectively shared and eaten by the family members, especially the young, as a way to collect “blessings from the ancestors.”

The practice of worshipping ancestors is based on three beliefs: that a person’s good or bad fortune is influenced by the souls of the departed; that all the ancestors have the same material needs as they had when they were alive; and that the departed can bless and assist those who are still alive.

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Festival food

Qingtuan (green sticky rice ball)

These round green sticky rice balls with sweet fillings are popular in the regions south of the Yangtze River including Shanghai.

Sticky rice flour are dyed with grounded wild vegetable juice, and then shaped into balls. Sweet bean paste mixed with lard is the most common filling, but there are also creative fillings depending on local tastes.

Green rice ball with dried meat floss and salty yolk has, off late, become immensely popular in Shanghai.

Qingtuan are usually steamed with a fine layer of oil on the surface. When ready, they look like jade and have a light grass scent. It is served as an offering at the tombs and even enjoyed for spring outing.

Sanzi (fried dough twist)

Sanzi, also called hanju in ancient China, served as a fast food and did not require heating as no fire was allowed during the Hanshi Festival. It is basically noodles twisted in rings. The noodles are cooked, shaped and fried in hot oil, and is easy to carry.

The sanzi in north China is usually made of wheat flour, while those in south prefer rice flour. Of course, different seasonings give sanzi different tastes in different regions. Those made by Uygur, Dongxiang, Naxi and Hui ethnic groups are among the most popular ones.

Egg

Cooked eggs also served the purpose when fire was forbidden. Some people paint the eggs with colors and give them away as gifts to friends during the Qingming Festival.

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