April 4, 2013

The legend of Qingming Jie

The legend of Qingming Jie (Tomb Sweeping Day) includes the story of a courtier named Jie Zitui in the seventh century BC.

In an effort to avoid assassination, Prince Chong'er of Jin went into exile. Because of the hard life this entailed, he saw the number of his courtiers gradually began to dwindle and one day Chong'er, weak from hunger, blacked out. To save the prince, Jie Zitui, one of the few followers he had left, cut a piece of meat from his own leg, roasted it and fed it to the prince.

Nineteen years later, when the prince had risen to become one of China's most powerful lords, he rewarded his followers, but forgot Jie. When the prince's courtiers reminded him of Jie's sacrifice he sent word for him to come to court, but instead Jie hid on Mianshan Mountain in Shanxi province, with his elderly mother.

After having the mountain searched to no avail, the prince had it set on fire from three sides in the hope of driving Jie and his mother into the open on the fourth. The fire raged for three days but Jie did not appear and when the flames calmed down enough for people to return to the mountain they found the bodies of Jie and his mother holding onto a burnt willow tree. Alongside the bodies was a poem written by Jie in his own blood with advice to the prince on how to rule the state.

The prince took the poem and had the mother and son buried under the burnt willow. The mountain was renamed Jieshan Mountain and an ancestral hall was built on it.

The prince made the day on which the fire was set Hanshi Festival, or Cold Food Festival, and said no food should be cooked that day.

The following year, wearing mourning clothes, the prince took his courtiers up the mountain to Jie's tomb, where he saw the willow tree had come back to life. He snapped a twig from the tree and plaited it into a wreath, which he wore, and after sweeping the tomb renamed the willow the Qingming Willow and declared that day Qingming Festival.

Following Jie's suggestions, the prince managed the state well and his people were happy. In order to remember Jie they would attach willow twigs to their doors, the idea being that this could summon his soul.

In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Hanshi and Qingming were merged into one day, Qingming Festival, when people would eat only cold food, sweep their ancestors' tombs and spend time with family and friends.

It’s such a fascinating story. As I read Jie’s story, I thought of the story of Mordecai. Both were forgotten members of a royal court and both led to festivals and celebrations.

To celebrate Jie’s story, and Qingming Jie which followed, people all over the country will go to the graves of their ancestors and light up paper offerings (paper money, cell phones, cars, houses, and even mistresses) to the dead, the idea being that they become real objects in the afterlife.

However, Mordecai’s story led to Purim, a celebration of God’s salvation of the Israelites from an old enemy the Agagites who were to be destroyed by Saul (1 Samuel 15) but who not destroyed until much later (Esther 9).

Who do you celebrate? Do you celebrate men, as in Jie’s story, or do you celebrate God’s salvation?

1 Yang Yang. (2013 Mar 13). Dead Heat, China Daily. Retrieved from http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/epaper/2013-03/29/content_16355720.htm

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