It originated from Hanshi Day, literally a day with cold food only, and has a tradition stretching back more than 2,500 years. On Hanshi Day, people were not allowed to use fires to cook, thus it was commonly known as the Cold Food Festival.
Eventually, 300 years ago, Hanshi Day was combined with the Qingming Festival, but later most people abandoned the cold food ritual.
The festival is an opportunity for people to commemorate and honor their ancestors. Young and old visit the graves or burial grounds of their ancestors, to clean the graves, pray and present offerings to the ancestors.
Traditionally, the family will offer food and drink and burn spirit money and paper replicas of material goods such as a house and servants. It was believed that people still needed all of these things in the afterlife. Then family members will take turns to kowtow before the tomb of the ancestors. The kowtowing ritual in front of the grave is performed in the order of patriarchal seniority within the family.
After the worship at the grave, the whole family will eat the food they have brought as offerings either at the site or in nearby gardens, signifying a family reunion with the ancestors.
The rites have a long tradition in Asia. Some people carry willow branches with them on Qingming, or put willow branches on their gates and front doors. They believe that willow branches help ward off the evil spirits that wander on Qingming. Another common practice is to carry flowers instead of burning paper or incense.
Even though Qingming is not an official holiday in other countries, the overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asian nations, such as those in Singapore and Malaysia, take this festival seriously and observe its traditions faithfully. Qingming in Malaysia is an elaborate family function or a feast usually organized by clan associations to commemorate and honor recently deceased relatives at their grave sites and distant ancestors from China at home altars, clan temples or makeshift altars in Buddhist or Taoist temples.
For the overseas Chinese community, the Qingming Festival is very much a family celebration and at the same time, a family obligation. They see this festival as a time to honor and give thanks to their forefathers.