Ah, Easter is approaching! It is April 8 this year, when Christians will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and many Americans will have a four-day break from this Friday to next Monday to mark the holiday. But did you know there is also a festival in the East Asian culture for remembering the dead and praying for the happiness of those people in another world? Did you know most people in East Asia this year will also have nearly four days off for that?
As a matter of fact, this festival also falls in the beginning of April. It is today: Chingming Festival (literally: Pure Brightness Festival)!
So, today, let’s have an interesting comparison and contrast between these two “ghost festivals” that are most famous respectively in the western and the eastern world!
Origin, Naming and Time
Easter is a religious holiday to celebrate Jesus’s resurrection and a public holiday for nearly all Christian countries.
The word Easter actually comes from the name of a goddess in Anglo-Saxon paganism – “Ēostre,” who was celebrated on the spring equinox and who the month of April was once named after. As time goes by, “Ēostre” gets changed into today’s “Easter.”
Easter always falls on a Sunday, usually in April, but it is based on the cycle of the moon, so the actual date changes each year (and the date is different in Western Christianity and Easter Orthodox Christianity because of differences in their calendars).
Chingming is a special day to memorialize the dead.
It is the 5th solar “term” (or “period”) in the traditional East Asian lunisolar calendar. This calendar divides one year into 24 solar “terms,” and each “term” is defined by unique features of climate and seasons. Chingming is the 5th “term,” which begins 15 days after the spring equinox (the 4th “term”) according to Calendar (a famous reference book in ancient China). It features vernal plants, fresh air, and the clear sky. This is how the name was created: “Chingming” literally means “clear and bright” in Chinese.
The date for Chingming is comparatively fixed on the civil calendar: the day before or after April 5. As a traditional festival, this is a rare case, since most traditional East Asian festivals are based on the lunar calendar and consequently their corresponding dates on the civil calendar are movable. But the date of Chingming is tied to the change of seasons.
Customs, Symbolic Meanings & Literature
On Easter, people in America usually dye boiled eggs in various colors, and might hold an Easter egg hunt, in which children search for eggs that have been hidden. The Easter Bunny is also a traditional part of the Easter celebration, and it’s common to give children bunnies (a toy bunny or even a real one) for celebration.
Both eggs and bunnies come from celebrating spring and the renewal of life. Eggs symbolize birth, and the cracking of eggs can depict Jesus’s resurrection from the dead. Bunnies represent fertility – there’s a saying that goes, “to breed like bunnies.”
Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) and William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), both of whom are among the most literary figures in the century they lived in, have poems with a shared title “Easter,” which show the joint meaning of Easter as a religious holiday and celebration of spring:
by Edmund Spenser
Most glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day,
By W. B. Yeats
Hearts with one purpose alone
When Chingming comes, people in China commonly choose to go to their dead friends, relatives or ancestors’ tombs to remember them. This was extremely important in the ancient time, when Chingming became a primary holiday, because obedience and piety to the dead is regarded as a kind of virtue emphasized by the ancient orthodox values.
As the ancient Chinese scholar Tzeng Tzu (曾子) said, “when people seriously attend the funerals and memorize the dead people, the society will be harmonious” (“慎终追远，民德归厚矣”). The royal family at that time in China even put Chingming in a topmost position, seeing it as a good opportunity to exemplify their virtue in this aspect to the public.
Since there are quite different ways to celebrate Chingming, there is a mixture of both the moan for the dead and the spring exuberance in the ancient literary poems. Here below are two examples (in both Simplified and Traditional Chinese, with my English translation):
By Mu Du (around 803-852)
When it rains continuously on Chingming, pedestrians are in the swirl of extreme gloom.
By Xueqin Cao (1724-1763)
Little children on the stairs are facing upward to see it,
Ah, now you may have an understanding of both festivals. Hopefully this article can also be a good one for you to get a little bit sense of the subtly of the two different cultures 🙂 Happy Easter and Chingming! Spring time is coming!