The Story behind Pure Brightness Festival

By Cathy Huang

Chinese people celebrate the Pure Brightness Festival each year, they largely take it as an occasion to offer sacrifice to ancestors. I was unclear of its origin but through Gale Virtual Reference Library (GVRL), Gale’s ebook platform, I found out the fascinating legend behind it.


The Pure Brightness Festival evolved to cherish the memory of Jie Zitui. Tradition has it that during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (770B.C.-221B.C.), Li Ji, a concubine of Duke Xian of Jin State, racked her wits plotting an insidious scheme to murder crown prince Shen Sheng, so as to enable her son Xi Qi to succeed to the throne. Shen Sheng was forced to take his own life. Chong Er, Shen Sheng’s younger brother, went into exile to avoid misfortune, where he was subject to endless humiliation. Most officials fleeing with him went their own ways at separate times, only a handful of loyal men remained with him. One of them was Jie Zitui. One day, Chong Er passed out in hunger, and to save him Jie Zitui cut a piece of flesh from his leg, and roasted it for him. Nineteen years later, Chong Er returned to State Jin and ascended the throne. He was remembered as Duke Wen of Jin, one of the famous five overlords in the Spring and Autumn Period.


When Duke Wen of Jin held power, he gave handsome rewards to the officials who shared happiness and woe with him. However, he forgot about Jie Zitui. Someone complained for Jie Zitui to the duke. And so the Duke Wen of Jin remembered Jie Zitui’ss sacrifice. Feeling ashamed, he immediately sent for Jie Zitui to go to court for rewards and an official post. However, Jie Zitui declined it many times. So Duke Wen of Jin came in person. When he arrived at Jie Zitui’s home, he found the door was shut. Jie Zitui did not want to see him. He hid in Mount Mian (to the southeast of today’s Jiexiu city, Shanxi province), carrying his old mother on hise back. Duke Wen of Jin told palace guards to search for him in the mountain, but they failed to find him.

Someone came up with an idea, saying they could set the mountain on fire, firing up on three sides, and leaving an exit. Jie Zitui would come out by himself when the fire started. Duke Wen of Jin gave an order to burn the mountain. He did not expect that the fire to burn for three days and nights. When the fire died out, Jie Zitui still did not turn up. They went up the mountain, only to find the mother and son died holding a charred big willow tree.

Duke Wen of Jin cried bitterly and bowed before Jie Zitui’s corpse. He saw that Jie Zitui had blocked up a tree hole with his back, and something seemed hidden in the hole. When he pulled it out he saw a piece of robe, inscribed with a blood stained poem. Duke Wen of Jin hid the poem in his sleeves and had Jie Zitui and his mother buried at the foot of the charred willow tree.

To commemorate Jie Zitui, Duke Wen of Jin gave an order to rename Mount Mian into Mount Jie. He had a memorial temple built on the mountain, and named the day of setting the mountain on fire as the Cold Food Festival. Under his explicit instruction, everybody was banned from lighting fire to cook food this day each year, so people ate cold food. Before he left, Duke Wen of Jin cut down a fraction of the burnt willow and made a pair of shoes with it in court. He looked at it every day, sighing “how sad it is indeed.”

The second year, Duke Wen of Jin climbed the mountain in white clothing, a sign of mourning, with officials, grieving over the death of Jie Zitui. When he walked up to the tomb, he saw the willow tree revived, with thousands of green twigs whirling about in the wind. Duke Wen of Jin looked at the resurgent willow tree, as if seeing Jie Zitui. He walked up with confidence, cut off a branch as a treasure, and wove it into a loop, putting it on his head. As the sacrifice ended, Duke Wen of Jin named the thriving old willow tree as “Pure Brightness Willow”, and named the day as the Pure Brightness Festival. Later on, Duke Wen of Jin often brought Jie’s poem with him, as a reminder tp himself when assuming the reigns of government. He was diligent, clear and bright in administration, and used all his efforts to make the country prosperous.

Since then, the subjects of the State of Jin lived and worked in peace and contentment. They cherish the memory of Jie Zitui, who did not pride himself on his own merits, or desire wealth and honor. At the Cold Food Festival the people pinched swallows with flour and jujube paste, clustered them with willow twigs, and inserted them above the door, to summon his soul. They were popularly known as Zitui Swallows. In North China, people ate only cold food cooked in advance, such as jujube cakes and wheat cakes. In South China, people largely took sweet green rice balls and candied lotus roots with sticky rice. In the Pure Brightness Festival, people would also put willow twig loops on their heads, and insert willow twigs around their houses in memory of Jie Zitui.


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About the Author

I joined Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, in August 2015, as a new member of our China team. I'm very happy to work together with the team and it feels like a family. I'm very willing to contribute my skills to help increase awareness of Gale resources and hope more and more researchers worldwide discover Gale's rich Primary Source collections.