Western Easter v. Eastern Chingming

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).

Creative Commons photo by Benjamin Chan
Creative Commons photo by Benjamin Chan

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

My roommates are making Easter eggs!
My roommates are making Easter eggs!

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:

Easter

by Edmund Spenser

Most glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day,
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin;
And, having harrowd hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin;
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye,
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin,
May live for ever in felicity!
And that Thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love Thee for the same againe;
And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy,
With love may one another entertayne!
So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought,
—Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.

Easter (extract)

By W. B. Yeats

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.

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.

People also do outdoor things for fun to celebrate Chingming, like hiking and flying kites, enjoying the fabulous spring time.

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):

Poem 1

清明

作者:杜牧(约公元803-852年)

清明时节雨纷纷,路上行人欲断魂。
借问酒家何处有,牧童遥指杏花村。

清明

作者:杜牧(約西元803-852年)

清明時節雨紛紛,路上行人欲斷魂。
借問酒家何處有,牧童遙指杏花村。

Chingming

By Mu Du (around 803-852)

When it rains continuously on Chingming, pedestrians are in the swirl of extreme gloom.
When one stranger asked where the restaurant was, one little shepherd pointed to Almond Flowers.
(NOTE: “Almond Flowers” is the name of the restaurant)

Poem 2

无题

作者:曹雪芹(1724-1763

阶下儿童仰面看,清明装点最堪宜。
游丝一断浑无力,莫向东风怨别离。

無題

作者:曹雪芹(1724-1763

階下兒童仰面看,清明裝點最堪宜。
遊絲一斷渾無力,莫向東風怨別離。

Untitled

By Xueqin Cao (1724-1763)

Little children on the stairs are facing upward to see it,
This most appropriate decoration on Chingming;
When the string tied to it is broken,
When the person can’t get it back,
Oh, please please don’t complain about this to East Wind.
(NOTE: This poem is originally a puzzle. It describes the features of this “decoration” and appeal people to
guess what it is talking about. Yes, the answer is “kite.”)

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!