Qing Ming Jie (All Souls’ Day)
Qing Ming Jie (清明节), which can be translated to mean “Clear and Bright Festival” or “Pure and Bright Festival”,1 is similar to All Souls’ Day observed in the Western world.2 It is a festival that falls in early April, 106 days after the December winter solstice.3 Filial piety and ancestral worship are emphasised during Qing Ming. Visiting cemeteries and columbaria with food and other offerings for deceased relatives marks this important period of remembrance.
Qing Ming originally started out as a festival for the elites during the Zhou dynasty (1125–255 BC). Emperors and high-ranking officials would perform solemn rites in ancestral temples during this period. It was only after the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 23) that Qing Ming became a festival for the masses, with prayers and offerings conducted at gravesites instead of ancestral temples.4
Many scholars have argued, though others have disagreed, that the origins of Qing Ming can be traced to Han Shi Jie (寒食节), the “Cold Food Festival”. Popular legend has it that during the late Zhou dynasty in China, Duke Wen of the feudal state of Qin invited his faithful subject Chieh Chih Tui (Jie Zi Tui, 介子推) to serve him after becoming the ruler of a small principality. However, the filial Chieh declined the invitation and retired to the mountains to look after his parents, though some sources mention only his mother. In order to force Chieh out of the mountain, Duke Wen ordered his troops to set the forest on fire. Unfortunately, Chieh chose to remain where he was and was burnt to death.5
To commemorate Chieh, Duke Wen ordered all fires to be put out on the anniversary of the former’s death, thus marking the beginning of Han Shi Jie where people had to eat uncooked food. This festival fell on the 105th day after the December winter solstice, with Qing Ming occurring the next day.6 Similar to Qing Ming, this festival was commemorated by making tomb offerings to deceased ancestors.7 However, the practice of celebrating Han Shi Jie went into decline from the Tang period onwards, and Qing Ming replaced it as the occasion for paying homage to ancestors.8
Rites and ceremonies
In line with traditional practice, visits to ancestors’ graves, niches or tablets can be made within 10 days before or after Qing Ming.9
Descendants buy or make offerings before paying homage to their ancestors. These offerings vary but may include meats such as chicken, duck, pork and fish, and other varieties of food and drink such as cakes, fruits, vegetables, rice, wine and tea.10 If the ancestral tablet is placed in a Buddhist columbarium or temple, the offerings presented will be vegetarian in nature.11
On the day itself, the likelihood of traffic congestion, especially around cemeteries and columbaria, motivates families to set off early.12 For those visiting graves, sao mu (扫墓, meaning to “sweep the grave”) is undertaken before worshipping begins. This process includes trimming the grass and removing the weeds that have grown on the site, as well as cleaning the tombstone and repainting faded engravings.13
At the grave, it is customary that offerings are first made to Tu Di Gong (土地公, “God of the Soil”), an important deity worshipped by the Taoists. Offerings are also made to appease wandering spirits who have no one to offer sacrifices to them. This appeasement is made to discourage these spirits from touching the offerings laid out for the family’s ancestors.14
The general practices of worshipping ancestors are fairly similar whether it is done at a cemetery, columbarium or temple. Food offerings are laid out in front of the grave or niche or at the temple altar. Red candles and joss sticks are also lit. Descendants pay their respects by kowtowing, kneeling or bowing before the grave, niche or tablet, usually with lighted joss sticks in their hands. Traditionally, male members of the family offer their prayers first, followed by the females.15
Next, mock money and paper gifts are burned to ensure that the ancestors are not short of material comforts in the afterworld. These paper offerings include replicas of various items such as clothing and accessories, houses, cars, servants, televisions and mobile phones.16 Some believe that the paper gifts must be labelled with the names of both the deceased and the descendants to ensure that their ancestors receive the items on the other side.17
At the end of the visit, the food offerings are gathered up after the ancestral spirits are deemed to have had sufficient time to eat their fill.18 The food is brought home and consumed by the family. Qing Ming, therefore, provides an opportunity for the extended family to meet up and have a meal together.19
Variations across dialect groups
Both the Teochew and Hokkien communities practise the custom of placing coloured paper called ya zhi (压纸) on the grave to indicate to others that the descendants have visited the grave.20
For the Teochews, an additional step of eating cockles is performed. After the cockles are eaten, their shells are thrown around the grave. In the past, cockles were used as a form of money. Hence, the throwing of cockle shells indicates a prosperous family with gold scattered all over the ground (钱满地). The strewn cockle shells also indicate to those who pass by that the family has visited the grave.21
The Cantonese practice of worship includes placing three bowls of cooked white rice, three pairs of chopsticks, three cups of Chinese wine, as well as pork, chicken, lettuce, lotus roots and sugar cane in front of the grave.22
With the government exhuming various cemeteries given Singapore’s land scarcity and cremation becoming a widespread practice, visits to columbaria are now more common than cemetery visits.23
Until the 2000s, the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (Singapore Hokkien Clan Association) organised trips to Choa Chu Kang Cemetery during Qing Ming to pay respects at a tombstone that it had erected for those with unmarked graves. These annual visits stopped due to the government’s Choa Chu Kang Cemetery Exhumation Programme, but the practice of remembering these unclaimed dead has been moved to a temple.24
In modern Singapore, many Chinese who are neither Buddhist nor Taoist still honour their deceased relatives during Qing Ming. However, instead of the traditional rites, they observe a moment of silence as a mark of respect when visiting the grave or niche.25 A bouquet of flowers is often offered as well.26
Koh Qi Rui Vincent
1. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, “Qing Ming Jie (All Souls’ Day),” in Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore = Hua ren li su jie ri shou ce (Singapore: Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, 1989), 44–49. (Call no. RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS]); Lai Kuan Fook and Chin Kee Onn, “Chinese All Souls’ Day,” in The Hennessy Book of Chinese Festivals. (Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann Asia, 1984), 41–43. (Call no. RSING 394.2 LAI-[CUS])
2. Choon San Wong, “Homage to the Ancestors,” in An Illustrated Cycle of Chinese Festivities in Malaysia and Singapore (Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, 1987), 129–143. (Call no. RSING 398.33 WON)
3. Leon Comber, “Ch’ing Ming Festival,” in Through the Bamboo Window: Chinese Life & Culture in 1950s, Singapore & Malaya (Singapore: Talisman, Singapore Heritage Society, 2009), 15–18. (Call no. RSING 390.08995105951 COM-[CUS])
4. Lai and Chin, “Chinese All Souls’ Day,” 41–43.
5. Comber, “Ch’ing Ming Festival,” 15–18.
6. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, “Qing Ming Jie (All Souls’ Day), 44–49.
7. Lai and Chin, “Chinese All Souls’ Day,” 41–43.
8. Wong, “Homage to the Ancestors,” 129–143.
9. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, “Qing Ming Jie (All Souls’ Day), 44–49.
10. Lai and Chin, “Chinese All Souls’ Day,” 41–43; Wong, “Homage to the Ancestors,” 129–143.
11. Lin Decheng 林德成 and Ng Say Yong 吴赛勇, Wǒmen de dà rìzi 我们的大日子 [Of Rites and Rituals] (Singapore: MediaCorp Studios, 2000), ep. 4, videodisc. (Call no. Chinese RSING 394.2695957 OF-[CUS])
12. Lin and Ng, Wǒmen de dà rìzi.
13. Lai and Chin, “Chinese All Souls’ Day,” 41–43.
14. Comber, “Ch’ing Ming Festival,” 15–18.
15. Lai and Chin, “Chinese All Souls’ Day,” 41–43.
16. Phua Mei Pin, “An iPad, a Laptop for the Afterlife,” Straits Times, 1 April 2012, 36. (From NewspaperSG); Comber, “Ch’ing Ming Festival,” 15–18.
17. Lin and Ng, Wǒmen de dà rìzi.
18. Comber, “Ch’ing Ming Festival,” 15–18.
19. Lin and Ng, Wǒmen de dà rìzi.
20. Lin and Ng, Wǒmen de dà rìzi.
21. Lin and Ng, Wǒmen de dà rìzi.
22. Comber, “Ch’ing Ming Festival,” 15–18.
23. Phua, “iPad, a Laptop for the Afterlife.”
24. Lin and Ng, Wǒmen de dà rìzi; “A Prayer for Perfect Strangers,” Straits Times, 6 April 1997, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, “Qing Ming Jie (All Souls’ Day), 44–49.
26. Lai and Chin, “Chinese All Souls’ Day,” 41–43.
The information in this article is valid as at 10 August 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.