Chinese Festivals

January 22, 2008

China is famous for its unique festivals. Check out the history and traditions of several major festivals and learn a little more about what makes this country so interesting.

Chun Jie (Spring Festival, also called Chinese New Year)

The Spring Festival is the biggest festival of the year in China. The Spring Festival is held on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar and will last for 15 days. This day falls in late January or mid February. People will travel long distances to be with their family at this time. There are many traditions associated with Chinese New Year.  In the days leading up to Chinese New Year, people will thoroughly clean their houses, repay debts, cut their hair, and buy new clothes. On the last day of the old year, families get together for a large meal. In many parts of China a sticky-sweet glutinous rice pudding is served (nian gao), and in other parts they serve steamed dumplings (jiaozi). The family stays up late talking and at midnight, they will set off firecrackers to drive away evil spirits and greet the New Year.

The next morning people put on their new clothes and visit their friends and relatives to wish them a happy and prosperous new year. Visitors are served sweet meats, melon seeds, fruits, and delicacies like puffed rice cakes, dumplings, and deep fried round doughnuts. The visitors will give a red packet (Hongbao) to all the unmarried children of the family before leaving. There are parades held at this time with lion and dragon dancing.

Much superstition is followed on Chinese New Year. The lights on the porch and in the parlor are not turned off on New Year’s Day. The house is not swept during the first week of New Year’s in fear of sweeping out the good fortune. No knife is used, even for cooking. No arguing or words with bad connotations are to be used (defeat, illness, operations, coffin, and death). People are very careful with dishes because a broken dish on New Year’s Day will indicate bad luck for the coming year. The celebration lasts for 15 days.

During Chinese New Year, people decorate their homes in many ways. Red is a lucky color symbolizing luck and wealth. Red decorations will be seen throughout the home. Doors are decorated with vertical scrolls that have sayings meaning good luck. The living room is decorated with pomelos, oranges, and tangerines. The golden color of these fruits symbolizes money is thought to bring fortune in the New Year.

There is one story that is commonly told around Chinese New Year. It is the story of a beast called Nian. It is said that on the last day of the 12th lunar month when food was scarce, he would invade villages to eat human beings and beasts because he was hungry. The people did not like this and were scared of the Nian. On one New Year’s Eve, the Nian came to a village and accidentally encountered 2 boys who were seeing who could crack their whip the best. The Nian was so scared by the cracking sound that it ran away forever. It came to a second village where 2 red gowns hung up on a door to dry and it was scared away again. It came to a third village and this time it was frightened away by lights. The people learned that the Nian was afraid of 3 things noise, red and light. To defend themselves against the Nian, they devised many methods that found their way into the customs observed at the Chinese New Year celebration.

Zhong Yuan Jie (Lantern Festival)

The lantern festival is on the first full moon of the New Year (the 15th day of the first lunar month). On this day, people display lanterns of all shapes and sizes, and red lanterns can be seen all around. Celebrations include fireworks, people walking on stilts, and folk dancing. In some areas, it is popular to hang riddles from the lanterns and prizes are given to the people who guess the correct answer.

The common snack during the lantern festival is called Tangyuan. It is a small dumpling ball made of glutinous rice flower. There are a variety of different fillings for the tangyuan, most are sweet or salty. There are many legends of the origin of the lantern festival. One legend says that in ancient times, the Lantern Festival was a time to worship the god of Heaven. That god controlled the destiny of the human world and would decide when to inflict storms, drought, and famine upon the people. On this festival, the emperor could ask the god of Heaven for good health and prosperity for himself and his people.

Another legend tells the story of a girl named Yuan Xiao, who worked as a servant in the emperor’s palace. The servants were not allowed to leave the palace and though she had many friends, she was still homesick. She befriended a minister called Shuo Dong Fang and he thought of a plan to allow her to visit her family. Shou told the emperor that the Supreme Deity of Heaven had ordered the god of fire to burn the city of Chan’an on the 16th day of Lunar New Year. He told the emperor that the only way to divert this was to flood the city streets with red lanterns. Shou asked that Yuan Xiao present dumplings to the God of Fire. On the 15th day of Lunar New Year, the palace maids paraded on the streets with lanterns. The emperor ordered the city of Chang’an to keep busy the entire night playing with lanterns and setting off firecrackers. Yuan Xiao took the dumplings that were intended as an offering and shared them with her family.

Qing Ming Jie (Clear and Bright Festival)

Qingming Festival is celebrated on the 12th day of the 3rd lunar month (around April 4th or 5th). This is a day set aside for families to remember their ancestors. It is a fundamental belief for the people to pay respect to their ancestors. On the day of Qingming Festival, people will go to the graveyard and clean the graves of their ancestors and mourn those who have died. At the grave site, weeds are pulled and dirt is swept away. Families will often burn offerings and spirit money at the graves to help their family in the “afterlife.” This day is especially important because the Chinese people think of dead things and graveyards as unclean, so to avoid having bad luck, they do not go to graveyards. Qingming Festival and Chongyang Festival in the fall are the only days that they will enter a graveyard.

This day also marks the beginning of the planting season. Families will go to the countryside and have a picnic on this day. The people will play games and fly kites. Their kites come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors.  You will see designs representing butterflies, bats, frogs, dragons, and many other animals.

Duanwu Jie (Dragon Boat Festival)

The Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. The dragon boat festival was created in memory of the famous poet Qu Yuan from the 3rd century BC. At a young age, he was given a high position in the government. According to legend, Qu tried to give wise advice to the king, but the king did not want to hear what he had to say. Since the king was unhappy with him, Qu Yuan was sent to an isolated village where he wrote scholarly books and poems. When the government of that time was overthrown because the king did not take Qu Yuan’s advice, he tied a rock to himself, jumped into the Miluo River, and drown. In an attempt to find his body, many of the townspeople rowed boats on the river. They beat drums to scare fish away and they threw rice dumplings into the river to tempt the fish away from eating his body.

Today, people race dragon boats on this day to represent the efforts to rescue Qu Yuan. The dragon boat ranges in length from 50 to 100 feet and can hold up to 80 oarsmen. A wooden dragon head is attached at the bow and a dragon tail at the stern. There is a drum on the boat that is played as the team rows. It is also common for people at this time of year to eat zongzi, pyramid shaped dumplings of rice with a variety of fillings, wrapped in bamboo leaves.

Qixi Jie Festival (Double Seventh)

This holiday takes place on the 7th day of the 7th month. It is known as a lucky time for lovers, so sometimes is called the Chinese Valentine’s Day. Qixi Jia remembers the story of a couple that had great love for each other, but cannot be together. It is said that a cow herder named Niu Lan fell in love with a weaving girl named ZiNi who was the daughter of one of the gods. The weaving girl also loved the cow herder and they got married. While the cow herder tended his cattle, the weaving girl grew silk worms and weaved the silk. They were very happy and had two beautiful children. When the weaving girl’s mother found that her daughter was living on earth and married to this cow herder, she was very angry. She took her daughter back to the home of the gods and she was no longer able to see her husband or children. The father of the weaving girl heard the girls story and had pity on her.  One day a year (Qixi Jie), he allowed the two to meet together on a bridge of magpies in the sky (they are separated by YinHe, Silver River, or Galaxy).

Around China, there are celebrations held. Girls will have weaving and cooking competitions. In other places, young single people will come together for games.

Zhonqiu Jie (Mid-Autumn Festival)

The Mid-Autumn festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. It is one of the biggest Chinese festivals.  This is the day of the year that the moon is supposed to be at its fullest and brightest. This holiday originated from the tradition of making offerings to the sun in the summer and the moon in the fall. Today, people will watch the moon rise and take evening walks outside. For the Mid-Autumn festival, many people will travel great distances to spend the holiday with their family.

During the Mid-Autumn festival, the streets are decorated with lanterns. The favorite snack during the Mid-Autumn festival is a moon cake. Originally, the moon cake was made from lotus seed paste with 1-4 salted egg yolks in the center. Many other kinds of moon cakes have also been developed with fillings such as sesame, red bean, walnut, dried fruits and even chocolate.

The story of the moon cake is from the 14th century. The Mongols ruled over China and a rebel leader developed a plan to rise up against them. He got permission to give gifts to friends as a symbolic gesture to honor the Emperor. This rebel leader rolled up a piece of paper with details of the revolt and put them inside each moon cake. He gave these to his friends so when they cut open the cakes, they would find the message and know when to rise up. His plan worked and this revolt ended the Yuan dynasty and the Mongol’s ruling. This same rebel leader became first the emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

Chongyang Festival (Double Ninth Festival)

The double ninth festival is held on the ninth day of the ninth month. This day is thought to be auspicious. Since this festival is held in autumn, it is a great time for outdoor activities. Many people will climb mountains and enjoy a meal outside. Because it is late in the year, this is usually the last outdoor outing of the year.

Since 9 is the highest odd digit, double nine has come to signify longevity. On this day, people will pay respects to the elderly. This day is also China’s official day for the elderly. The people will also visit the graves of their ancestors to clean the grave site and offer sacrifices to help their ancestors in the afterlife.

This day has a third meaning too. It is the kite festival. Legend has it that there was a man named Han Shin who was very short. He constructed a kite made of wood that he rode in the air to spy on the enemy. Because of his ingenuity, his country won the battle. On this date, kites fill the sky from morning to night. Many people will have clever additions to their kite, to show its superiority.

National Day

National day is on October 1. In October of 1911, the Manchu dynasty was overthrown. On this holiday, the people remember their country.

National day is generally celebrated alongside the Mid-Autumn festival. The people of China have a week off of work at this time. The Chinese people take this time to travel to other places in the country.

National day celebrations are organized and supported by the government. In the morning on National day, many people will gather in Tiananmen Square to watch the flag raising ceremony. There are various activities through the day.  National day always ends with a huge fireworks display.