The Origins of the Hakka Gua Zhi
The festival, Tomb Sweeping Day, also called Qing Ming or Clear Bright Festival, falls in the season when one feels the most spirited and refreshed, making it not only the best time for an outing to enjoy the greenery and picturesque scenery of springtime but also a time to reflect upon the past and our roots.
It is a day that makes one feel the closest to his forebears. In worshipping, we have in mind the visage of our beloved ancestors. It seems that their voices are around us. I remember my late grandfather told us that tombs should not be swept on Gu Han Day (孤寒節), the day prior to Tomb Sweeping Day. It is said that our ancestors would not be able to enjoy the food we provide, because no fire is allowed on Gu Han Day, which is also known as Cold Food Day. It is a day without fire, originating from Jie Zhitui’s (介之推) death.
The legend has it that Emperor Jin Xiengong (Duke Xien of Jin) wanted to kill his sons. While the oldest son Shen Sheng committed suicide, his brother, Chong Er (重耳), escaped and exiled himself. After 19 years, Chong Er finally returned to Jin and became the emperor, known as Jin Wen Gong (Duke Wen of Jin). Jie was Chong Er’s loyal companion during the prince’s exile, and had stayed by his side without fail.
So the legend goes. On a cold day Chong Er wished to have some rabbit stew. Jie cut off part of his thigh and made a pot of stew with it for Chong Er. He intended to reward Jie after he became the emperor of Jin. For some unknown reason Jie declined this offer and retired to Mienshan with his mother.
Unable to persuade Jie to work in the court, Jin Wen Gong, heeding the suggestions from his officials, ordered men to set the mountain on fire to force Jie out. Unfortunately, Jie died in the fire. When the fires stopped, Jin Wen Gong was devastated to find the corpses of Jie and his mother next to a willow tree. Greaving on Jie’s death, he cut down the willow tree and returned to the palace. On the same day, Jin Wen Gong worshipped his ancestors. As was the custom, people burnt paper money for ancestors. However, to think of Jie’s corpse, Jin Wen Gong refused to light the fire. Instead, he hung the paper on trees, which became the custom of Gua Zhi, literally to hang papers on the tree. In addition, he did not want to cook food, which gave rise to the Cold Food Day.
When Jin Wen Gong revisited Mianshan the fllowing year, he found that the willow was once again growing. Impressed with the willow’s strong vitality, Jin Wen Gong anointed it as Qing Ming Willow and he even took to wear a sprig of it in his cap. In no instance, people of the nation wore a sprig of willow on Qing Ming. This is reflected in the saying, “In Qing Ming devoid of willow, to age your youth shall kowtow.” Along with this came another custom of placing a willow on the door. In Qi Min Yao Shu, a book concerning how to govern subjects, we can find such words: Placing a branch of willow above the doorway of your house would ward off the spirits.” Even now, there are many Hakka areas in which people still adhere to the custom of placing a branch or sprig of willow on the door to shun the evil spirits. Hakka people in Taiwan do not have this custom, but they believe in Guanshihyin Bodhisattva. In most cases, she is portrayed to have a bottle with a willow in it. Given that the bodhisattva is believed to save us from the bothers in the world, the willow is symbolic of strong vitality.
The reason why the Taiwanese Hakka calls Tomb Sweeping Day “Gua Zhi” might stem from the story of Jie that took place in Shanxi. It is also possible that people of Shanxi, in order to commemorate one of their own, did not burn the paper money but rather hung it on trees. For example, people of Chinyuan County placed paper money on tombs but did not burn them because fire was forbidden; the people of Wuxiang County would first perform the rite for the ancestral grave, and then add dirt to the grave before placing paper money on the grave. The people of Yushe County have also been recorded to hang paper money on trees or place them on the grave mounds, as well as performing a small ritual which they call “Welcoming Zhitui back to the Little Mianshan.”
The reason why the Taiwanese Hakka calls Tomb Sweeping Day “Gua Zhi” might stem from the story of Jie that took place in Shanxi. It is also possible that people of Shanxi, in order to commemorate one of their own, did not burn the paper money but rather hung it on trees. For example, people of Chinyuan County placed paper money on tombs but did not burn them because fire was forbidden; the people of Wuxiang County would first perform the rite for the ancestral grave, and then add dirt to the grave before placing paper money on the grave. The people of Yushe County have alsoPeople in the Hebei area also call the act of Tomb Sweeping “Gua Zhi”, as shown in the text about Changli County Records: “On Tomb Sweeping Day, the people sweep the tombs of their ancestors, place new earth on the graves, and place paper money on the graves.” The term “Gua Zhi” was mentioned in a poem written by Chian Chian-yi, a poet in the Qing dynasty, suggesting it has had roots in culture, history, and literature. been recorded to hang paper money on trees or place them on the grave mounds, as well as performing a small ritual which they call “Welcoming Zhitui back to the Little Mianshan.”
After the tomb sweeping, the act of sharing out the ceremonial foodstuffs to all participants or people watching the ceremony is called “Fen Jiao Mu”, a tradition that could be traced back to the act of begging for food at graveyards by the people of the Qi kingdom in the Seven Kingdoms era. Even to this day there is still a custom of sharing out the ceremonial foodstuffs after “Gua Zhi” in Shanxi Province, and there is a great similarity between what the Shanxi people do and what Taiwanese Hakka do, as can be seen from the records of Ronghe County –
“There are many who go tomb sweeping during Qing Ming. Regardless whether you are a neighbor from far or near or even if you have just move in, as long as you attend, you would receive meat and money.”