Discovering China

Festivals

 
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  • fireworks
    fireworks

    An important part of Chinese culture and tradition, festivals are generally happy and colorful affairs that reaffirm ancient beliefs and customs. The biggest and most important festival is Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year. This brings families together for several days: the home is cleaned and everyone dresses up in new clothes; decorations are put up and gifts exchanged; and finally there is always time for a lively and noisy carnival climaxing in a brilliant display of pyrotechnics. Nearly all the festival elements and rituals are geared towards bringing good luck and prosperity. In business, all debts should be settled by Chinese New Year. Overall, the festivities last about 15 days but the whole country closes down for only four.

    Spectacular fireworks

    Hongbao
    Hongbao
    Firecrackers
    Firecrackers

    Hongbao

    These decorative red envelopes symbolize luck and wealth and bring about both as they contain money – they are typically given to children on New Year’s Eve.

    New Year would not be complete without fireworks. Some major cities put on impressive all-night displays. Fireworks were originally intended to ward off evil spirits, or perhaps wake up the dragon who would create rain in the coming year and guarantee a good harvest.

    Firecrackers

    Strings of firecrackers are set off at New Year making the streets noisy and, potentially, dangerous places. Beijing tried to ban these in the center of the city supposedly driving people out to the suburbs for noisy fun.

    Chinese astrology

    Lion dance
    Lion dance
    Performed at New Year and other
    festivals. Usually two people are required
    to play the lion. The dance demands more
    martial arts skills than the Dragon Dance,
    also performed on these occasions.
    Drummers
    Drummers
    At the Spring Festival, processions of dancers
    and drummers march over the New Year
    period up until the Lantern Festival. Like
    the firecrackers, the noise of the drumming
    is supposed to keep the evil spirits away.

    Each year is associated with one of twelve animal signs, which repeat in a cycle. At New Year people talk of welcoming, for example, the "Year of the Dog." In Chinese astrology, people born under a specific animal sign are supposed to have some of the characteristics attributed to the animal.

    • Tiger 2010, in China he is deemed the king of the animals.
    • Rabbit 2011, associated with longevity and believed to live in the moon.
    • Dragon 2012, symbol of China, the emperor, and the positive Yang element (see The Power of Qi ).
    • Snake 2013, an ancient ancestor, Fuxi, was thought to be half-human and half-snake.
    • Horse 2014, symbol of freedom.
    • Sheep 2015, signifying peace and creativity.
    • Monkey 2016, associated with fun and genius, as in the story of the Monkey King.
    • Rooster 2017 has 5 virtues: refinement, courage, assertiveness, benevolence, and reliability.
    • Dog 2018, considered lucky in Chinese mythology.
    • Pig 2019, associated with fertility and virility.
    • Rat 2020, welcomed as a clever protector and bringer of wealth.
    • Ox 2021, Laozi, the Daoist philosopher, is often shown sitting on an ox.
    Rice Pyramids or Zongzi
    Rice Pyramids or Zongzi
    A type of mooncake
    A type of mooncake

    Festival Food

    Each festival has its special food: jiaozi (boiled dumplings) are usually eaten for New Year especially in the North of China; yuanxiao (glutinous rice balls) feature during the Lantern Festival and can be made with a sweet or savory filling; and zongzi (sticky rice pyramids wrapped in bamboo leaves) are served at the Dragon Boat Festival. The Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on a full moon, brings mooncakes. Made to a thousand recipes with savory or sweet fillings, the cake symbolizes the moon.

    China Through the Year

    A red lantern lucky symbol
    A red lantern lucky symbol

    The traditional Chinese festivals are tied to the lunar calendar, which has 29.5 days a month, and this means the solar dates change every year. Festivals associated with Communism – National Day and Labor Day, for example – are usually fixed to the Western calendar. Religious festivals, kept alive in Hong Kong, Tibet, and other areas of the Chinese-speaking world, are gradually making a comeback in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and outlying areas such as Inner Mongolia have their own distinctive festivals. Some celebrations of foreign origin such as Christmas are also observed. Before the important New Year Festival, there are weeks of preparation. Most offices and shops are closed for three days, but many tend to take a week-long break at this time. As most Chinese return to their family home, travel is very difficult.

    Spring (Feb–Apr)

    This is the time of year when Chinese people try to settle old debts and make time to meet with friends and family members. The arrival of peach blossom is a signal of rejuvenation and the Spring Festival celebrates the start of the ancient cycle of plowing and sowing.

    1st lunar month

    Spring Festival (Chun Jie) The main festival – Chinese New Year. Gifts and red envelopes filled with money are exchanged and new shoes and clothes worn.

    Lantern Festival (Feb–Mar) Coinciding with a full moon, this festival marks the end of the fifteen-day New Year period. A great many lanterns bearing auspicious characters or in animal shapes can be seen. Yuanxiao (sticky rice balls) are eaten.

    Colorful parade celebrating Chinese New Year
    Colorful parade celebrating Chinese New Year

    2nd lunar month

    Tibetan New Year Tibetan New Year is marked by the eating of “barley crumb” food and an exchange of Tashi Delek blessings. It is followed by Monlam, the great prayer festival later in the month, and the butter lamp festival.

    A highly elaborate Tibetan butter sculpture
    A highly elaborate Tibetan butter sculpture

    Hong Kong Arts Festival (Feb/Mar) A major international arts festival as well as the premier arts event in Hong Kong. A mix of overseas and local artists provide music, theater, dance, popular entertainment, film and exhibition programs over three or four weeks.

    International Women’s Day (Mar 8) Women have a half or even a whole day’s holiday, while men continue to work.

    3rd lunar month

    Qing Ming Festival, sweeping or tending the ancestors’ graves
    Qing Ming Festival, sweeping or
    tending the ancestors’ graves

    Tree-planting Day (Apr 1) Promoted since the late 1970s by the reformist government, but not an official holiday, this is part of a greening campaign.

    Weifang International Kite Festival (Apr) Flying kites is part of Qingming celebrations. Over 1,000 contestants compete at this festival in Shandong.

    Water Sprinkling Festival (mid-Apr) Exclusive to the Dai people (Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, see The Dai). Marks the Dai lunar New Year, and involves blessing others by sprinkling or splashing them with water, which represents the quelling of the flames of a mythical tyrant demon.

    Qing Ming Festival (Apr) Festival for sweeping the graves and honoring the dead. Food is left on the grave and families often take a picnic with them.

    Hainan Coconut Festival (Apr) Set up in 1992, and a showcase for the local coconut harvest.

    Third Moon Fair (Apr) Dali area. This festival is exclusive to the Buddhist Bai minority in Yunnan. Events include fairs, horse-racing, singing, and dancing.

    Tin Hau Festival (Apr–May) Celebrated in Hong Kong and coastal areas such as Fujian, the birthday of the Heavenly Queen or Mazu (see The Empress of Heaven), who looks after those at sea, is important for fishermen and sailors.

    Summer (May–Jul)

    Once the summer arrives, festivals are often held outdoors. May sees the start of the traveling season as many people go on trips around the country to see family and friends.

    4th lunar month

    International Labor Day (May 1) A week-long holiday around May Day during which travel can be difficult.

    Youth Day (May 4) Commemorates the student movements of 1919, which sparked the evolution of modern China.

    Buddha’s Birthday An important religious festival in Tibet but not officially observed in the PRC, though Buddhists may now do so privately. The festival has a higher profile in Hong Kong, where it is also known as the Festival of the Ten Thousand Buddhas. Buddhists pray for the washing away of sin and the attainment of wisdom and peace.

    “Meet in Beijing” Festival (May) International music and arts festival, including opera, dance, instrumental and vocal concerts.

    5th lunar month

    Dragon Boat Festival – colorful, lively, and exciting to watch
    Dragon Boat Festival – colorful,
    lively, and exciting to watch

    Children’s Day (Jun 1) Cinemas and other places of entertainment are free to children, who are also showered with presents.

    Dragon Boat Festival (or Fifth Moon Festival) (Jun) commemorates the patriotic poet Qu Yuan who drowned himself. Originally religious but now just fun. Teams of rowers compete in long, decorated boats. Rice cakes (zongzi) are eaten. Hong Kong has several very colorful events, one with international teams.

    Shanghai International Film Festival (Jun) First held in October 1993, this is the only accredited A Category international film festival in mainland China.

    6th lunar month

    Founding of Chinese Communist Party (Jul 1) A day to mark the event that took place in 1921 in Shanghai.

    Autumn (Aug–Oct)

    The weather may still be warm in the sub-tropical south, but in the high uplands and central areas it is cooling down. As the leaves turn golden, this is a popular time of the year to travel to festivals.

    7th lunar month

    Army day (Aug 1) Marks the first Communist uprising against the Nationalists in 1927. The theme is unity between the army and the people.

    Lovers’ festival (Aug) A romantic day, this celebrates the story of the earthly cowherd and celestial weaving girl who were separated by the gods but who are annually reunited in the heavens by a bridge of magpies on the seventh day of the seventh moon. It is also known as Seven Sisters Festival.

    Shoton (Yoghurt festival) (Aug/Sep) Tibetan festival of opera. Takes its name from the yoghurt served by pilgrims to the monks.

    Nadaam Fair (Aug) (Inner Mongolia) Held in Hohhot, Bayanbulak and elsewhere, Inner Mongolia. Horse-racing, wrestling and archery. Women wear their traditional dress. It’s also a trading fair.

    Nakchu Horse Race Festival (Tibet) (Aug) The most important folk festival in Tibet. This takes place in Nakchu. Over a thousand herdsmen then compete in the traditional Tibetan sports of archery horse-racing, and general horsemanship.

    Zhongyuan (Hungry Ghost Festival) Similar to Halloween, a traditional festival combining elements of ancestor worship and Buddhism, suppressed under Communism. Considered an inauspicious time to move house or marry.

    Qingdao International Beer Festival (Aug) Held in the eastern port city of Qingdao, Shandong, home of Tsingtao Beer, brewed from the spring waters of nearby Lao Shan.

    8th lunar month

    Teachers’ Day (Sep 1) Not an established holiday, but it began in the 1980s in response to the anti-intellectualism of the Cultural Revolution.

    Mid Autumn Festival or Zhong Qiu (Sep) Harvest or moon festival when moon cakes are eaten throughout the country and family reunions take place (see Festival Food).

    Shaolin International Martial Arts Festival (Sep) Annual event since 1991 in the city of Zhengzhou.

    Confucius’ Birthday (Sep 28) Gradually regaining popularity in the PRC, after vilification of the sage (born in 551BC) under the Communist regime. The day is celebrated at the Confucian temples in Qufu, Beijing and elsewhere.

    International Fashion Festival (mid-Sep) Dalian. Two weeks of fashion shows by Asian designers, with a spectacular opening parade.

    National day, well-drilled troops on the march
    National day, well-drilled troops on the march

    9th lunar month

    National Day (Oct 1) A great rush of holiday-making takes place during this week-long break. Parades celebrate the founding of the PRC in 1949.

    Double-ninth (Chongyang) Festival (Oct) Double nine signifies double yang (in the yin-yang duality), connected with male assertiveness and strength. Traditionally, people do symbolic things like climb to high places, carry a sprig of dogwood, and drink chrysanthemum wine to drive away evil spirits at this festival, though it’s not observed everywhere.

    Winter (Nov–Jan)

    This season brings a drop in temperatures and relief from the humidity in the south, while central and northern regions usually experience bitter winters. The main traveling season is over but everyone enjoys the lengthy preparations for the Chinese New Year at home.

    10th lunar month

    Zhuang Song Festival (Nov) The Zhuang minority in Guangxi have their own distinctive folk-song and dance tradition. Since 1999 an International Folk Song and Arts Festival has been held in Nanning.

    11th lunar month

    Winter Solstice Chinese astronomers identified this day as early as the Han period. Historically, it has been an important festival, though less so now. In the north, people often eat dumpling soup or dumplings on this day to keep them warm. In the south, people may eat red-bean and sticky rice to drive away evil spirits.

    Christmas Day (Dec 25) Although only a tiny number of the population is Christian, the commercial side of this celebration has taken off with Christmas trees and Shengdan Laoren, a Chinese version of Father Christmas, seen as a popular image. It’s a public holiday in Hong Kong.

    12th lunar month

    Corban Festival (Dec/Jan) Celebrated in Xinjiang, Ningxia, and among Hui people across China, this is a Muslim festival remembering Abraham’s last-minute reprieve to sacrifice a goat instead of his son. Animals are slaughtered for a feast, with singing and dancing.

    New Year’s Day (Jan 1) Overshadowed by the massive Chinese New Year celebrations that take place later in January or February, but it is still a recognized public holiday.

    Public holidays

    • New Year’s Day (Jan 1)
    • Chinese New Year or Spring Festival (Jan/Feb)
    • Quing Ming Festival (Apr)
    • International Labor Day (May 1–3)
    • Dragon Boat Festival (May)
    • National Day (Oct)
    • Weekend shifting

    The weekends before and after the Spring Festival and October holidays are often shifted from year to year toward the 3-day block to allow for a continuous run of 7 days’ holiday. To add to the confusion, the exact days of the holiday are usually not finalized until shortly beforehand. You may wish to avoid traveling during this period because many facilities are closed. Try to confirm the exact dates with a travel agent beforehand.

     

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