Apr 052019
 

Today (or close to it) is the traditional Chinese Cold Food or Hanshi Festival which developed from the local commemoration of the death of the Jin nobleman Jie Zitui in the 7th century BCE. Its name derives from the tradition of avoiding the lighting of any kind of fire, even for the preparation of food. Cold Food Festival is not an official holiday in any country or region, but it continues to see some observance in China, Korea, and Vietnam generally as part of Tomb-Sweeping Festivals (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/qingming-festival/ ).

The usual story for the origin of the Cold Food and Tomb-Sweeping Festivals concerns the 7th-century-BC Jin nobleman Jie Zhitui, a model of self-sacrificing loyalty. During the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history, the Zhou Kingdom began to break up into its constituent parts and their lords gained more and more freedom from central control. One of these states was Jin, around modern Shanxi. As was common among wealthy Chinese at the time, its lord had many wives. One of them, Li Ji, was of lower status and came from the Rong tribes who lived to China’s west, but successfully schemed to become a full wife and to establish her son as the lord’s successor. Her older stepson Ji Chong’er was framed for revolting against the lord in 655 BCE, forcing the prince to flee for his life to his mother’s family among the Di tribes north of China. Only 15 of his men followed him into exile. These included Jie Zhitui, who entertained the prince with his poems and music. He was so considerate of his lord that once, when their supplies were stolen while traveling through Wey, he used meat from his own thigh to make soup to relieve the prince’s hunger.

In 636 BC, the duke of Qin finally invaded Jin on Chong’er’s behalf and installed him as its duke. (Posthumously, he became known as the “Wen” or “Civilized Duke” of Jin.) In 635 BCE, the new duke was generous to those who had helped him in adversity but overlooked Jie, who sadly withdrew into poor obscurity in the forests near Mt Mian. The duke sent repeated envoys to lure Jie back to court, but he felt no ambition for political power. Too loyal to directly criticize his master but too principled to accept a place in a corrupt administration, he opted to simply remain in seclusion. Annoyed, the duke ordered a forest fire to be started around three sides of the mountain to smoke Jie and his mother out of hiding.

Instead of coming out, they were burnt alive. Jie’s charred corpse was found still standing, embracing or tightly bound to a tree. In his remorse, the duke renamed the mountain Mt. Jie, established the town still known as Jiexiu (“Jie’s Rest”), and inaugurated the Cold Food Festival as a memorial period for Jie. In addition to the festival, the story also occasioned the Chinese proverb: “while some can burn off an entire mountain, others are kept from even lighting up to eat their rice”.

The Cold Food Festival is first mentioned in Huan Tan’s New Discussions, composed around the beginning of the 1st century CE. It records that the commoners of Taiyuan Commandery avoided using fire in preparing their food for five days around midwinter, upholding this taboo even when they are gravely ill. This was done in Jie Zhitui’s honor. A biography in the Book of the Later Han relates how the magistrate for Bingzhou (i.e., Taiyuan) found people rich and poor observing a “dragon taboo” against lighting a fire during the month of Jie’s death in midwinter, lest they anger his spirit. Many of the old and young died every year because of the hardship this brought. The magistrate Zhou Ju (周舉) wrote an oration around 130 CE praising Jie but admonishing the people for a tradition that harmed so many that it could not have been what the sage intended. He then had the oration displayed at Jie’s temple and distributed among the poor. This did not end the Cold Food Festival, but the biography notes that local superstitions did improve “to a certain extent”.

At some point over the next century,  moved from the festival moved from the middle of winter to late spring, 105 days after the dongzhi solar term. Since it also spread from Taiyuan to the surrounding commanderies of Shangdang, Xihe, and Yanmen and was still causing some hardship, The Han warlord Cao Cao attempted to outlaw the Cold Food Festival in 206 CE. The heads of offending families were liable for 6 months’ hard labor, their local official was liable for one month himself, and their magistrate was to lose one month’s salary. Cao Cao’s effort was a failure, with observance of the Cold Food Festival on Qingming and for up to a month around it being reported by the mid-3rd century. Shi Le, the Jie emperor of the Later Zhao in the early 4th century, again tried to forbid it. The next year a massive hailstorm devastated crops and forests throughout Shanxi. On the advice of his ministers, he again approved the festival in the region around Taiyuan. The Northern Wei similarly banned the festival in 478 and 496, but were also compelled to approve its observance around Mt Mian. These prohibitions failed to such an extent that, by the time of Jia Sixie’s c. 540 Qimin Yaoshu, a day-long Cold Food Festival had spread across most of China, moved to the day before the Qingming solar term.

The Cold Food Festival grew to a three-day period and began to incorporate ancestral veneration under the Tang and remained more important than celebrations of the Qingming solar term as late as the Song. The present Tomb-Sweeping Festival on Qingming grew by incorporating the Cold Food observances along with the separate holiday of Shangsi. The Cold Food Festival had almost completely disappeared by the end of the Qing.

The Cold Food Festival involves a strict taboo against using fire, usually under the superstitious belief that violations led to violent weather. Up to the 6th century, there was a patch of blackened trees on Mt Mian that were used for local worship of Jie Zhitui and had a reputation for miracles. Traditional cold foods included lǐlào (醴酪), a kind of congee flavored with apricot pits and malt sugar. Later activities included visiting ancestral tombs, cock fighting, playing on swings, beating blankets, and tug-of-war games. Nowadays there are only pockets of celebration of the Cold Food Festival although it has influenced some of the activities and traditional foods for the Tomb-Sweeping Festival. In the city of Jiexiu in Shanxi Province, near where Jie died, locals still commemorate the festival, but even there the tradition of eating cold food is no longer practiced.

It is not all that difficult to make lǐlào but getting the ingredients outside of China may be a challenge.  If you can speak Chinese you might be able to get them from a Chinese market. You need to be careful because recipes in English call for “almonds” but this is a mistranslation of the Chinese. The recipe calls for the pits of various species of apricot which look and taste something like bitter almonds, but are not almonds at all. You may be able to find maltose in health food stores. Here is a modern Chinese recipe followed by my loose translation (done with assistance since my Chinese language skills are limited). I could not find a video as an aid, unfortunately.

醴酪

  1. 准备大麦仁30克,新疆巴旦木也就是大杏仁50克,麦芽糖
  2. 大麦仁用清水浸泡一夜,大杏仁剥壳,用温水浸泡一夜
  3. 泡好的杏仁剥掉外衣,留下洁白的杏仁备用
  4. 麦仁和杏仁一起放入料理机的果浆杯内,加入材料2倍的凉白开磨成杏仁浆
  5. 磨好的杏仁浆用细筛过滤,浓浆流入锅里
  6. 开中小火,一边熬煮一边搅拌
  7. 煮到杏仁浆烧开,再继续煮5分钟至杏仁浆浓稠即可
  8. 煮好的杏仁浆盛入碗里,调入麦芽糖即可食用,也可以调入蜂蜜

lǐlào

  1. You need 30 grams of barley kernel, 50 grams of apricot pits, maltose
  2. Soak the barley kernels and apricot pits in warm water overnight.
  3. Peel the skins off the apricot pits to reveal the white nut.
  4. [Not entirely sure of this translation] Put the kernels and pits into a food processor with an equal quantity of water and grind to a pulp.
  5. Filter the pulp through a fine sieve and let a thick slurry flow into a pan.
  6. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly.
  7. Bring the mix to a slow boil and cook for 5 minutes until the almond pulp is thick.
  8. Put the pulp in a bowl and add maltose to taste (or honey).
Apr 052014
 

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Today is the day of the Qingming Festival in China, also known as Pure Brightness Festival, or Clear Bright Festival, or Ancestors Day or Tomb Sweeping Day. It falls on the 104th day after the winter solstice (or the 15th day from the Spring Equinox), so it is a minimally movable feast in that it can sometimes fall a day earlier or later, but normally it falls on 5 April in the Gregorian calendar. Qingming denotes a time for people to go outside and enjoy the greenery of springtime ( “treading on the greenery”) and tend to the graves of departed ones.  There are also special foods for the day usually tinged green from the juice of fresh wild greens of spring.

In China, the holiday is often marked by people paying respects to those who died in events considered sensitive. The April Fifth Movement and the Tiananmen Incident were major events on Qingming in the history of the People’s Republic of China. When Premier Zhou Enlai died in 1976, thousands visited him during the festival to pay their respects. Many also pay respects to victims of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and the graves of Zhao Ziyang and Yang Jia in areas where the right of free expression is generally recognized, as in Hong Kong. In most areas of China, observance of sensitive events is suppressed and all public mention of such events is forbidden. In Taiwan, this national holiday is observed on April 5 because the ruling Kuomintang moved it to that date in commemoration of the death of Chiang Kai-shek. Qingming has been regularly observed as a statutory public holiday in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Its observance was reinstated as a nationwide public holiday in mainland China in 2008.

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On Qingming Festival Chinese people visit the graves or burial grounds of their ancestors. Traditionally, people brought a whole rooster with them to the graves visited, but the occasion has become less formal over time. The festival is also associated with Hanshi Day (literally, “day with cold food only”), a memorial day for Jie Zitui. Jie Zitui who died in 636 BC around this time. He was one of many followers of Duke Wen of Jin prior to his elevation to the nobility. Once, during Wen’s 19 years of exile, they had no food and Jie prepared some meat soup for Wen. Wen enjoyed it immensely and wondered where Jie had obtained the soup. It turned out that Jie had cut a piece of flesh from his own thigh to make it. Wen was so moved that he promised to reward him one day. However, Jie was not the type of person who sought rewards. Instead, he wanted only to help Wen to return to Jin to become king. As soon as Wen became duke, Jie resigned and stayed away from him. Duke Wen rewarded the people who helped him in the previous decades, but for some reason he forgot to reward Jie, who by then had moved into the forest with his mother. Duke Wen went to the forest, but could not find Jie. Heeding suggestions from his officials, Duke Wen ordered men to set the forest on fire to force Jie out. However, Jie died in the fire. Feeling remorseful, Duke Wen ordered three days without fire to honor Jie’s memory. The city where Jie died is still called Jiexiu (literally “the place Jie rests forever”) and Hanshi Day became his permanent memorial.

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Qingming has a tradition stretching back more than 2,500 years. Its origins are credited to the Tang Emperor Xuanzong in 732. Wealthy citizens in China were reportedly holding too many extravagant and ostentatiously expensive ceremonies in honor of their ancestors. Emperor Xuanzong, seeking to curb this practice, declared that respects could be formally paid at ancestors’ graves only on Qingming.

The Qingming Festival is an opportunity for celebrants to remember and honor their ancestors at grave sites. Young and old pray before the ancestors, sweep the tombs and offer food, tea, wine, chopsticks, joss paper accessories, and libations to the ancestors. The rites have a long tradition in Asia, especially among farmers. Some people carry willow branches with them on Qingming, or put willow branches on their gates or front doors. They believe that willow branches help ward off the evil spirit that wanders on Qingming.

On Qingming, people go on family outings, start the spring plowing, sing, and dance. Qingming was also the time traditionally when young couples started courting. Another popular thing to do is to fly kites in the shapes of animals or characters from Chinese opera. Another common practice is to carry flowers instead of burning paper, incense, or firecrackers.

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Despite having no holiday status, the overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asian nations, such as those in Singapore and Malaysia, take this festival seriously and observe its traditions faithfully. Some Qingming rituals and ancestral veneration decorum observed by the overseas Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore can be dated back to Ming and Qing dynasties. Qingming in Malaysia is an elaborate family function or a clan feast (usually organized by the respective clan association) to commemorate and honor recently deceased relatives at their grave sites and distant ancestors from China at home altars, clan temples, or makeshift altars in Buddhist or Taoist temples. For the overseas Chinese community, the Qingming festival is very much a family celebration and, at the same time, a family obligation. They see this festival as a time of reflection and to honor and give thanks to their forefathers.

Overseas Chinese normally visit the graves of their recently deceased relatives on the nearest weekend to the actual date. According to the ancient custom, grave site veneration is only feasible ten days before and after the Qingming Festival. If the visit is not on the actual date, normally veneration before Qingming is encouraged. The Qingming Festival in Malaysia and Singapore normally starts early in the morning by paying respects to distant ancestors from China at home altars. This is followed by visiting the graves of close relatives in the country. Some follow the concept of filial piety to the extent of visiting the graves of their ancestors in mainland China. Traditionally, the family will burn spirit money and paper replicas of material goods such as cars, homes, phones, and paper servants. In traditional Chinese culture, it is believed that people still need all of those things in the afterlife. Then family members take turns to kowtow three to nine times (depending on the family adherence to traditional values) before the tomb of the ancestors. After the ancestor worship at the grave site, the whole family or the whole clan feast on the food and drink they brought for the worship either at the site or in nearby gardens in a memorial park, signifying family reunion with the ancestors.

The Qingming festival holiday also has significance in the Chinese tea culture since this day divides the fresh green teas by their picking dates. Green teas made from leaves picked before this date are given the prestigious ‘pre-qingming’ designation which commands a much higher price tag. These teas are prized for having much lighter and subtler aromas than those picked after the festival.

The famous Qingming scroll by Zhang Zeduan is an ancient Chinese painting which portrays the scene of Kaifeng city, the capital of the Song Dynasty during a Qingming festival.

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Quingming festival food consists of an assortment of dishes and drinks consumed on the Quingming festival. It includes eggs, rice porridge, cakes, and snacks such as Juan Bao Bing (pancake roll) and Po Zi Guo, a dish made of fruits and leaves of Po Zi Guo tree and prepared in a bamboo steamer.

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Green Tuanzi: It is a traditional Chinese dish, which looks much like a dumpling, and has a green color. The green color comes from the juice of a wild plant and the dumpling skins are made from rice flour.

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Qingming guo is a dish looking like a steamed dumpling, and made of an outer shell of rice, glutinous rice and green wormwood, with a stuffing of beans inside it. Fillings may also include dried bamboo shoots, bacon and mushroom in different regions of China.

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Wuren Rice: It is made of glutinous rice and leaves of wuren tree and is an essential part of Quingming festival food.

It is not really possible to give recipes for these dishes because they involve wild plants that are indigenous to Asia only.  However, I did find this one:

Making Wuren rice is not a complex or a difficult task. Here’s the recipe. Clean the Wuren leaves (vaccinium bracteatum) first, boil the leaves and remove them before adding glutinous rice into the prepared Wuren soup. Drain the glutinous rice after immersing for 9 hours and steam the glutinous rice in a bamboo steamer until the rice is cooked thoroughly. The prepared Wuren rice will have a nice and unique smell with a special flavor compared with common cooked glutinous rice.