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 (https://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.
- You need 30 grams of barley kernel, 50 grams of apricot pits, maltose
- Soak the barley kernels and apricot pits in warm water overnight.
- Peel the skins off the apricot pits to reveal the white nut.
- [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.
- Filter the pulp through a fine sieve and let a thick slurry flow into a pan.
- Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly.
- Bring the mix to a slow boil and cook for 5 minutes until the almond pulp is thick.
- Put the pulp in a bowl and add maltose to taste (or honey).