Ching Ming Ji is a period to remember, honour and pay respect to one’s deceased ancestors and family members. It reinforces filial piety in Chinese society by getting them to make special effort to visit the cemetery to pay their respects to the spirits of their dead ancestors.
Ching Ming literally means “clear and bright” and refers to the weather at the time of the year when most families go to visit their family graves. It falls in early spring and the main activity is the “sweeping of the graves”. The family graves are cleaned of weeds and some repaint the inscription. Incense is lit along with red candles. Offerings are made steamed whole chicken; a piece of roast pork; bowls of rice; wine and fruits. The Hakkas also offer fish (either whole or fish balls) along with other things. The offerings are part of three live things called sam sien – from the sea (fish), from the earth (pork) and from the air (chicken). Some Cantonese also have the custom of offering favorite food items of the deceased and even the favorite brand of cigarette if the person was a smoker.
Fake paper money and sheets of kite paper in different colours are burnt to represent suits of clothing for the spirits. This ensures that the spirits are well provided for in their life in the after-world.
The whole family (including the littlest ones) kneel down and offer their respect to the spirits. They press their hands together and move it up and down in a gesture of respect.
To be practical, this occasion is extended 10 days before and after the actual day. Among some dialect groups, one month is allocated for “sweeping the graves”.
Legend of Ching Ming
In 600 B.C. in Shanxi province, lived a man by the name of Jie Zi Dui. He became a hero when he saved his ailing master’s life by serving him with a piece of flesh from his own leg. In gratitude, the Lord wanted to reward Jie by making him a minister in his court but Jie declined choosing to lead a secluded life with his mother in the mountains.
In order to force Jie out of the mountain, the Lord ordered the mountain to be burnt down. But he underestimated the stubbornness of Jie who chose to get burnt to death than get out of the mountain. Once the lord realized this, he was remorseful. He ordered all fires to be put out on Jie’s death anniversary and all families were to go to the hill-side and worship on this date. Therefore began the “cold food feast” because no food could be cook since no fire could be lit. In Calcutta, this practice of “putting out the fire” is not practiced but the Indian Chinese families do go to the cemeteries to tend to the graves of the ancestors.
Ching Ming is observed any time between 5th March to 5th April. Also, this is one of the two occasions when the huiguans / associations and surname associations hold a banquet (community dinner) for their members. The other occasion is during siu yee (yue laan festival) in the seventh moon.