Hanshi Festival, Born of a Heartbreaking Tale of Loyalty

2019-05-06 08:41:00 Source:China Today Author:By staff reporter DANG XIAOFEI
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WE mentioned the Hanshi Festival last month in the article about the Qingming Festival. As there’s no festival on the lunar calendar of this month, Hanshi will be the subject matter of this issue.


With a history of more than 2,600 years, Hanshi is the only traditional festival in China named after food, and it is also known as the No Smoke Festival, No Fire Festival, or Cold Food Festival as people are only allowed to eat cold food on this day. Hanshi normally falls around April 3 in the Gregorian calendar, one to two days ahead of the Qingming Festival. It is also a festival to remember ancestors, and was once a major day to offer sacrifices to one’s ancestors.




In most parts of China, fires might start easily in the dry early spring due to the flammable substances stored by people and the spring thunder. As a result, the ancients usually held grand ceremonies of sacrifice in which the fire stored from the previous year would be quenched. Later, they would drill wood to get new fire for a new year. The gap between extinguishing old fire and burning the wood to obtain new fire ranged from three, five, or seven days according to different historical records.

Spectators gather around to witness cockfighting.


During the gap days, fire was forbidden in households. As a result, people would eat what they had prepared previously, namely the cold food, or hanshi in Chinese. That’s how the Hanshi Festival gradually came into being. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it was designated as a national holiday.


As the Hanshi Festival is one to two days ahead of the Qingming festival, they gradually got merged with one another. After the Song Dynasty (960-1279), cold food did not remain a necessity on this day, and over the next 100 years, fire wasn’t forbidden any longer. Gradually, Qingming Festival took over the folk activities of Hanshi to become a major festival on this subject.




There are many legends about the origins of the Hanshi Festival, and the most popular one is connected with two historical figures.


In the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), Chong’er, the prince of Jin, a vassal state back then, was exiled to another state in the company of his minister Jie Zitui. Once they found themselves in the middle of nowhere and starving, and Chong’er was about to faint, Jie Zitui didn’t hesitate a second and cut a piece of flesh from his thigh to make a bowl of soup, which saved the prince’s life. When Chong’er came to consciousness, he was moved to tears.


Nineteen years later, Chong’er went back home and became the ruler of his state, later known as Duke Jinwen, one of the five great rulers in the Spring and Autumn Period. However, when he rewarded those who helped him when he was in exile, he forgot Jie Zitui. Feeling the unfairness of the situation, many people urged Jie to go to the duke and ask for what he deserved, but Jie refused to do so; instead, he chose to live in seclusion with his mother on a mountain in Shanxi Province.


Upon hearing this and recalling Jie’s loyalty, the duke felt ashamed and guilty. He decided to go to the mountain to apologize and promote him. However, Jie was determined to be a hermit and hid somewhere on the mountain. At that moment, someone advised the duke to set a fire to the mountain from three directions and leave an exit on the fourth direction to force Jie to come out.

Sweet green rice balls are a kind of popular cold dish made with rice flour.


The duke heeded the advice. The mountain was devoured in fire, but Jie still did not come out. Later when the fire died out, Jie was found burnt to death with his mother carried on his back under a tree. Seeing this, the duke burst into tears, feeling even guiltier for his selfishness and stubbornness.


The duke later renamed the mountain after Jie, built ancestral halls on it and ordered the whole state to eat only cold food with smoking and lighting fires being strictly forbidden on the day of Jie’s death.


Folk Customs


People do not celebrate this festival any more today, and many of its customs have also been merged into the Qingming Festival, such as tomb sweeping, spring outings, swing playing, cuju, an ancient football-like game, and tug of war, but there were a few intriguing folk customs in its heyday.


Smoking and lighting fires were strictly forbidden every year on this day. In the Tang Dynasty, the elders of a village would make inspection tours to every household where they would insert a chicken feather into the stove ash to check if fire had been lit, and those who did not obey the rules would get punished.


As in every household, people could only have cold food on this day, a number of cold dishes thus came into being, such as cold porridge, cold noodles, cold soup, and dark green rice.

Deep green rice rolls.


People would create poems. As Hanshi is a day to pay tribute to family members or friends who have passed away, poets in ancient China contributed a large number of poems to this subject to express their homesickness or love for their loved ones. In The Complete Anthology of Tang Poetry, there are more than 300 poems on this subject matter.


Cockfighting is a game where two to several cocks fight with each other with spectators watching the fight. This game originated in the Sui Dynasty (581-618). In the succeeding Tang Dynasty, it became one of the major recreational activities in the royal family.


Court banquets would be held. Emperors set court banquets on this day to treat the civil servants since the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589). Later in the Tang Dynasty, on the sidelines of court banquets, the emperor also watched performances together with his ministers and offered handsome rewards to them.


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