As the Pure Brightness (Qingming) Festival draws near, qingtuan ("green cake") is re-appearing on shop shelves in Shanghai and other regions in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. This snack, made of rice, black bean paste and barnyard grass, is popular at this time of the year, though few are aware that it is a survivor of a forgotten festival -the Cold Food Festival (Hanshi Jie).
According to tradition, the Cold Food Festival starts today - one day before the Pure Brightness Festival. It lasts for three days, during which people abstain from making a fire and instead eat cold food prepared in advance.
Few places still observe the custom, but in Jiexiu of Shanxi province, where the Cold Food Festival is said to have originated, the custom lives on.
"City people are no longer strict about observing the custom, but in the countryside many people still eat only cold foods on these days. The closer one gets to Mianshan Mountain, the stronger the tradition," says Cheng Xiaoting, a 21-year-old woman from Yi'an village of Jiexiu.
The story goes that during the Spring and Autumn period (770- 476 BC), Jie Zitui, a nobility of the Jin State, followed his exiled lord Chong Er for more than 10 years. He once cut off flesh from his thigh for the hungry Chong Er to eat.
When Chong Er was reinstated as the king of the Jin State, Jie took his mother with him to the Mianshan Mountain of Jiexiu and led a secluded life there. Chong Er sent his men to look for Jie and in order to coax him out of the mountain, they set fire to it.
Unfortunately, Jie would not come out, and he and his mother were burned to death in the mountain. When Chong Er heard of this news, he felt very sad, and ordered that from then on no fire would be made on this day - the day before the Pure Brightness Festival.
Later, the Cold Food Festival became popular all over China. At today's Mianshan Mountain, which has become a tourist attraction, there are great statues of Jie and his mother, to show people's respect for their indifference to fame and money.
However, some scholars believe that the custom of eating cold food started long before the time of Jie, and can be traced to more than 2,000 or 3,000 years ago, when Chinese people followed a custom called "fire change". They believed that old firewood had to be put out with, and replaced, by new firewood to start a new year, or there would be bad luck. Hence, they prepared foods that did not need to be heated before eating, when the old fire was put out.
Li Yaozong, a professor of folklore from the Central University for Nationalities, is one of the scholars holding this view. "The custom of eating cold food has much to do with 'fire change', but the story of Jie personified the custom and endowed it with moral content. That's why it is accepted by more people," Li says.
The Cold Food Festival had been an important festival before the Tang Dynasty (AD618-907). Then it began to decline, until it virtually disappeared in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
Li contends that the Cold Food Festival did not vanish, but became assimilated into the Pure Brightness Festival. In some parts of China, the Pure Brightness Festival is also called the Cold Food Festival.
(China Daily 04/03/2008 page18)