Saturday, 15 April 2017

Qingming Festival in ancient Chinese poems

The Qingming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, is an important festival in China when people offer sacrifices to their ancestors. It falls on April 4 this year.

In ancient times, the festival prompted poets to compose about their grief regarding the lingering cold in spring and emotional moments while mourning the deceased.

Here are some famous lines from poems in the Tang and Song Dynasties (618-1279) remembering the day. The English translations used in this article are from noted Chinese translator Xu Yuanchong.

1. The Mourning Day

The Mourning Day, written by famed Tang Dynasty poet Du Mu (803-852), is one of the most well-known poems relating to the Qingming Festival. It reads:

A drizzling rain falls like tears on the Mourning Day;

The mourner's heart is going to break on his way.

Where can a wine shop be found to drown his sad hours?

A cowherd points to a cot 'mid apricot flowers.

2. Silk - Washing Stream

Spring sheds a mild and wild light on Cold Food Day;

Jade burner spreads the dying incense like a spray.

Walking, I find my hairpin under pillow stray.

The swallows not yet come, a game of grass we play;

Willow down wafts while mume blossoms fade away.

In drizzling rain at dusk the garden swing won't sway.

Silk—Washing Stream is a poem by Song Dynasty poet Li Qingzhao (1084-1155), one of the leading female poets of the time.

The Cold Food Festival or Hanshi Festival, as mentioned in the poem, is a traditional Chinese holiday celebrated one day before the Qingming Festival. On that day, people only eat cold food. It was not until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that the practice of Hanshi was replaced by Qingming.

3. Tune: Wind Through Pines

Tune: Wind Through Pines is a masterpiece of Song Dynasty poet Wu Wenying (1200-1260). Between the lines lies the author's grief over the rainy spring and parting with beloved ones. Here is an excerpt:

Hearing the wind and rain while mourning for the dead,

Sadly I draft an elegy on flowers.

Over dark green lane hang willow twigs like thread,

We parted before the bowers.

Each twig revealing our tender feeling.

I drown my grief in wine in chilly spring;

Drowsy, I wake again when orioles sing.

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