Over the centuries, many Chinese holidays have slowly faded and lost their meaning in comparison to western holidays that are incorporated into Chinese calendar. While there are some Chinese holidays that spread overseas and are still celebrated, the meaning and feelings have long changed. Not only is the existence of holidays weakening, younger generations are also losing interest in them when it is more or less just a day off from work and school.
For example, Chinese New Year. People in the past will be decorating their houses to get rid of the “bad luck” that gathered during the year to welcome the beginning of a new year. Families will also decorate their houses or buy new clothes in festive red colors. They will sit crowded around the table chattering and laughing over hotpots, bring gifts to visit relatives, or call them through phones and greet them with holiday cheers. But now, these types of customs are fading. Many are either by themselves or not as excited about celebrating as the older generations are.
Here, we’ll be talking about some faded or fading Chinese holidays, what they represent, and what ancient people did during these holidays. The first holiday will be the Cold Food Festival.
Origin of the Cold Food Festival
Cold Food Festival (寒食节, hánshí jié), occurs one or two days before Qingming Festival. It started during the Spring and Autumn Period, also known as the Warring State Period (770 BC - 221 BC). The meaning of this festival is as its name goes by and it’s the only Chinese holiday that goes by the food eaten on that day. Other names include “No Smoke Festival,” “Cold Festival,” and “Hundred Five Festival.” The reason why it’s called the “Hundred Five Festival” is how people figure out when the holiday occurs since it’s dependent on Qingming. It will either be one or two days before Qingming or 105 days after the winter solstice.
The origin of his festival dated back to one person during the Spring and Autumn Period, Jie Zhitui (介子推). He is a Han aristocrat who serves Jin prince, Chong’er, who was considered to be one of the Five Hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period. When Chong’er was the Duke of Jin, there were internal disorders in Jin State so he was forced to flee with his family, starting his life as a runaway. During this time, Chong'er’s loyal followers decreased, leaving only a few ministers remaining. Among them is Jie Zhitui. During their runaway, having enough food was a problem itself. One day Chong’er fainted from starvation or from sickness and Jie Zhitui ended up cutting off a piece of his flesh from his leg, cook them into soup, and fed them to Chong’er who couldn’t swallow anything when he is unconscious. At first, Chong’er was thinking of paying back to Jie Zhitui for saving him, but over time, that thought slowly got forgotten.
19 years later, Chong’er returned and became the emperor. In history he is also known as Duke of Jin. He rewarded his followers heavily upon his return, all of them except Jie Zhitui. Perhaps he refused it himself or Chong'er truly have forgotten him. But story has it that Jie Zhitui himself didn’t think much about this, that he is indifferent to fame and fortune. Perhaps he is saddened by Chong’er forgetting him or he doesn't want to get involved in court’s issues anymore, his only thought is to go back home which he moved to a peaceful place with his mother and live a normal life.
Seeing this, some people think differently than Jie Zhitui and wrote a letter to the Duke of Jin expressing the injustice. The Duke of Jin was reminded of their experience before he became emperor, so he sent people to invite him back to court. Yet no matter how many times or efforts Duke of Jin put in to invite Jie Zhitui back, he blocked everyone outside his door. Later Chong’er personally went to the mountain to invite him back to show his honesty.
When he arrived Jie Zhitui’s house was closed and their neighbor said he already brought his mother and went into hiding deep in the mountain. People were sent to search the mountain, but after days of searching, there are still no results. Among this, someone suggests starting a fire. Thinking Jie Zhitui is a filial son to his mother, if a fire were to start in the mountain, he will carry his mother out. The Duke of Jin decided to start a fire in three directions around the mountain, thinking that this method will eventually drive him out of the mountain in the direction where there is no fire lit. The fire on the mountain burned for three days and three nights and still no presence of Jie Zhitui was seen. Only after the fire is extinguished can people search the mountain again.
This time they finally found him, Jie Zhitui and his mother sat hugging each other and were burned alive under a willow tree. Regretful of his decision, the Duke of Jin can only stand before his corpse, feeling embarrassed, guilty, and pitiful that he lost such a loyal and indifferent to fame and fortune follower. As he stood there, he suddenly saw that there was something stuck in the hole of the willow tree. It ended up being a placket with a poem written in blood. To commemorate Jie Zhitui, Chong’er buried him and his mother in that Mian Mountain which later got another name after Jie Zhitui as Jie Mountain. Temples were also asked to be built on that mountain along with his order for everyone to eat cold food and prohibited from using fire on the day he was burned to death, which gradually got known as the Cold Food Festival.
Jie Zhitui's poem based on origin story; "割肉奉君尽丹心，但愿主公常清明。 柳下作鬼终不见，强似伴君作谏臣。 倘若主公心有我，忆我之时常自省。 臣在九泉心无愧，勤政清明复清明。"
Rough Translation; "Cut flesh to gift the king with all his heart, hope the lord will always be clear. Became a ghost under willow tree and never meet, forcefully accompany king as an minion. If the lord truly has me in his heart, when think of me ofte relfetc upon oneself. The minister (I) have a clear heart in the nether, diligence and clarity to restore clarity."
But whether the origin story is actually true or not still needs to be proven, which may be difficult since it's something that occurred in the Warring State Period. Some people say that Jie Zhitui's poem was later added onto this existing Jie Zhitui person and build this story about cutting flesh, moving into mountain, and burning to death with his mother. People online pointed out that this name Jie Zhitui existed in Zuo Qiuming's "Zuo Zhuan 《左传》," but in the text it did not mentioned anything about that specific origin story. It's only during Han Dynasty that this story start emerging, Qiuxigui's "Cold Food Changed to Fire 《寒食改火考》." If looking at the poem itself, perhaps people in different dynasties have different formats in writing poetries, such as using certain characters in each line and maintaining that way throughout.
The Cold Food Festival is the largest widely known festival across China since ancient times. It lasted over 2000 years and now has faded. The original custom of this holiday is to prohibit people from creating fires and smokes. They will be eating cold food and snacks leftovers or made the day before for this holiday. Some cold foods include leftovers, cold porridge, cold noodles, cold food jam, qingjing rice (assorted rice), and qingtuan (green dumplings). In the early periods, Cold Food Festival would last a month, but eventually, it got shortened to three days.
Image of green dumplings;
Cold Food Festival in modern days
As the year slowly passed, more customs were added to this festival, such as graves sweeping, offerings to ancestors, outings, swings, ball kicking, tug-of-war, and cock fighting. But nowadays people can’t really tell the difference between Qingming and Cold Food Festival since they are so close together and have quite similar meanings. Oftentimes, holidays are combined together as Qingming Festival, and families will visit their family’s graves to sweep and provide offerings.
Perhaps the reason why Cold Food Festival got combined with Qingming is due to advances in technology. Many things depend on fuels, smoke, and fire now. Of course, people can still eat leftovers on this day if they prefer. We got refrigerators to better preserve food than in ancient times, but if there is the custom to eat warm food and many people are used to it, then why do they have to suffer and eat cold leftovers the entire day?