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Chinese Ancestral Festivals: Honoring One’s Ancestry Throughout the Calendar Year

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Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.

Qingming, Zhongyuan, Chongyang, and Chu Xi are collectively known as the Four Great Chinese Ancestral Festivals.

Qingming, Zhongyuan, Chongyang, and Chu Xi are collectively known as the Four Great Chinese Ancestral Festivals.

Chinese Ancestral Festivals

Filial piety occupies an esteemed, immovable position in Chinese culture. Honored as a supreme virtue in countless parables and folktales, the unwillingness to practice filial piety is correspondingly regarded as one of the most unforgivable sins.

Direct proof of the latter can be seen by how all descriptions of the Chinese underworld include some form of hellish punishment for those who refused to care for or honor their parents.

Within Chinese religious practices and customs, filial piety also goes beyond just caring for one’s parents while they are alive. One is expected to also remember one’s forefathers, rigorously uphold family names, and while doing both, practice charity for the forgotten deceased.

The importance placed on these acts is clear from the numerous ancestral festivals throughout the Chinese, i.e., lunar calendar year. Today, the most important of these festivals are grouped together as the Four Great Ancestral Festivals (祭祖四大节, Jizhu Sidajie). In chronological order, the festivals are Qingming, Zhongyuan, Chongyang, and Chu Xi. Chu Xi being the formal name for Chinese New Year’s Eve.

Qingming Jie is the Chinese equivalent of the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Qingming Jie is the Chinese equivalent of the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Qingming Jie (清明节)

Also known in the West as Tomb-Sweeping Day or Ancestors’ Day, Qingming falls on the first day of the fifth solar term of the Chinese lunisolar calendar and is one of the oldest festivals in China.

Evolved from the even older Cold-Food Festival, this is the day when Chinese families visit tombs or columbariums of deceased ancestors. In other words, it’s the equivalent of the Mexican Day of the Dead.

As for origin story, the festival is most commonly said to have originated as a remembrance of Jie Zitui, a nobleman of the State of Jin during the Spring and Autumn Period.

Jie faithfully accompanied his exiled master, Prince Chong’er, after the latter was exiled by the machinations of the evil Li Ji. Regrettably, after Chong’er was restored and enthroned as the Duke of Jin, he neglected Jie, resulting in the heartbroken nobleman retiring to a forest with his elderly mother.

Years later, when Chong’er finally went to the forest in seek of Jie, the Duke was unable to locate his ex-companion. To “smoke” out Jie, literally, the Duke then set fire to the forest. Without surprise, the foolish act ended up killing Jie Zitui and his mother instead.

Filled with remorse, Chong’er then issued an edict forbidding the use of fire, even for cooking purposes, on Jie’s death anniversary. Alternate versions conversely claim commoners refrained from cooking on that day in memory of the tragic nobleman.

Over time, the day absorbed Chinese Spring Equinox traditions of tomb sweeping and ancestors remembrance. By the Song Dynasty era, the name “Cold-Food” has also been replaced by “Qingming,” the latter meaning “bright and clear.”

Returning to modern times, Qingming traditions continue to be widely observed by the Chinese community. This is so even for overseas Chinese communities, such as those in Malaysia, Singapore, and even the United States.

There is no longer any strict observation of dates too; generally, the third lunar month is regarded as the “Qingming month.” Visiting and cleaning tombs on any day of this month are nowadays considered fine.

Debated Origins

Some historians and publications have debated the authenticity of the tale of Jie Zitui's death. Others have highlighted that Qingming, as a spring solstice festival, long existed in China.

The Tang Huiyao (唐会要) chronicle further highlights that in AD 736, Emperor Tang Xuanzong declared the four days around Qingming to be official holidays. Most Chinese historians also believe the practice of tomb sweeping on Qingming to have originated during the Tang Dynasty.

Regardless of origin, the festival is today considered as one of the most important traditional events for the Chinese. It is often also described as one of the Four Great Chinese Festivals, together with the New Year, the Dragon Boat Festival, and the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Zhongyuan Jie is all about charity for the deceased.

Zhongyuan Jie is all about charity for the deceased.

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Zhongyuan Jie (中元节)

Better known as the Chinese Ghost Festival, or the Hungry Ghost Festival, Zhongyuan Jie falls on the fifteenth day of the seventh Lunar month. After Qingming, Zhongyuan could also be regarded as the next most important Chinese festival for the remembrance of ancestors.

Interestingly, the festival also has different religious roots. For Taoists, the day originated from the worship of Di Guan (地官), the divine official with the power to absolve sins and alleviate the suffering of the dead.

For Buddhists, the practice of praying for the suffering deceased stems from a story in the Yulanpeng Sutra. So it was written, Maudgalyayana, a disciple of Gautama Buddha, was pained by the sight of his sinful mother suffering as a hungry ghost (preta) after her passing. When he sought advice from his master, the Buddha told him salvation is only possible by offering alms to monks. Only through the combined prayers of the monastic community could such spirits be saved.

Notably, while Qingming and Zhongyuan both involve prayers for one’s deceased ancestors, and in nearly all cases, the burning of paper offerings for the dead, they differ in several key aspects.

In summary, Qingming is as an occasion for the remembrance of one’s ancestors and beloved deceased. It is also for the cleaning of one’s family tombs. No Chinese family will ever fiddle with the graves of another family.

On the other hand, Zhongyuan Jie involves prayers and offerings for the entire deceased community at large. In other words, charity for the spiritual community.

To give examples, paper offerings are burned at streets for wandering spirits. Formal rituals are also dedicated to all spirits in need. The whole festival is never about just caring for one’s forefathers.

An Important Social Event

Because Zhongyuan Jie rituals involve prayers and offerings for “all,” the festival developed a second identity as an important cultural and social event. For many overseas Chinese communities, such as those in Southeast Asia, the festival doubles as a key social occasion for families and businesses to gather.

Chongyang is nowadays, not widely celebrated outside of East Asia. However, it remains an important ancestral festival in Chinese culture.

Chongyang is nowadays, not widely celebrated outside of East Asia. However, it remains an important ancestral festival in Chinese culture.

Chongyang Jie (重阳节)

Celebrated on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, the “Double Nine” festival stems from traditional beliefs that the number 9 is extremely auspicious.

In Chinese culture, the number 9 is regarded as the number with the strongest Yang, or positive energy. “Chongyang” thus literally means double nine or double positive. On this day, it is customary to drink chrysanthemum liquor or tea, and for some families, to pay respect at the tombs of ancestors. Since the Tang Dynasty, the Chongyang Cake, made from rice flour and adorned with nuts and jujube, is also eaten.

Historically, the festival was “mentioned” as early as BC 239 in the encyclopedic compendium, Lüshi Chunqiu, although in this record, the festival was more of an autumn harvest celebration. Modern researchers such as Zhao Rongguan also believe the festival possibly originated as a day to banish evil/illness, but over time, took on more of a celebratory nature.

Of note, ancient as the Chongyang Festival is, it is not as prominent as the other Chinese ancestral festivals on this list. While it is still observed in places such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, Chinese communities in Southeast Asia largely do not celebrate this festival.

Last but not least, Korea and Japan have their own version of Chongyang. In Japan, the day is known as the Chrysanthemum Festival and is celebrated at temples and shrines on the ninth of September. Chestnut rice and chestnut mochi are also eaten.

Across the sea in Korea, the day is known as Jungyangjeol. Here, the day is a celebration of good health, with activities such as mountain hiking and Chrysanthemum appreciation.

Chrysanthemums and Chongyang

Chrysanthemums are heavily associated with Chongyang because the flower blossoms from July to October i.e. throughout the ninth lunar month. Chrysanthemum-made products have also long been recognized for their health-giving properties in East Asia.

Within Chinese culture, the beautiful bloom is also a symbol of autumn and the flower of the ninth month.

Chu Xi is the formal name for Chinese New Year’s Eve.

Chu Xi is the formal name for Chinese New Year’s Eve.

Chu Xi (除夕), i.e., Chinese New Year’s Eve

The name Chu Xi means “to rid Xi” in Chinese.

According to legend, the deadly monster Nian would descend from the mountains to wreak havoc every Chinese New Year’s Eve. Villages were only able to protect themselves after an immortal taught them to use the color red and the sound of firecrackers to drive the beast away.

These preventive measures then supposedly began the practice of lighting firecrackers and displaying the color red during Chinese New Year. Nian is also alternatively known as “Xi.” Thus, the formal name of the festival.

Jump forth to today, Chu Xi is most famous for being the day when extended Chinese families gather for the all-important “Reunion Dinner.” This occasion, the equivalent of Thanksgiving Dinner or Christmas Dinner.

Before the feast, however, more traditional families and communities would offer prayers to ancestors. There are two reasons for this custom. Other than an expression of filial piety, it is also to pray for blessings for the New Year.

This practice is especially important for Chinese agrarian communities, such as those in the northeast of China. Entire villages would be involved, and the rituals could start as early as two days before Chu Xi, with offerings left at altars till the fifth day of the New Year.

Elsewhere, rituals are simpler, mostly in the form of cleaning ancestral altars or just offering incense at temples.

Whichever way it is done, the prayers are expressions of piety, gratitude, and aspirations. Symbolically speaking, such prayers also involve deceased ancestors in the Reunion Dinner gathering.

References

  • Bloomfield, F. (1993). The Book of Chinese Beliefs. Ballantine Books. ISBN: 0345363590.
  • Roy, Christian. Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia. 2004: 116. ISBN 978-1576070895.
  • 祭祖节_百度百科. 百度百科. (n.d.). https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E7%A5%AD%E7%A5%96%E8%8A%82/753492. [In Chinese]
  • 祭祖_百度百科. 百度百科. (n.d.). https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E7%A5%AD%E7%A5%96/2876313. [In Chinese] [In Chinese]
  • 清明节_百度百科. 百度百科. (n.d.). https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E6%B8%85%E6%98%8E%E8%8A%82/137575. [In Chinese]
  • Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, August 27). Qingming Festival. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qingming_Festival.
  • Sim, C. (2014, July 28). Zhong Yuan Jie (Hungry Ghost Festival). Infopedia. https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_758_2004-12-16.html.
  • Traditional Chinese Festivals. (n.d.). http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/Festivals/78310.htm.


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