Traditional Chinese Festivals
Spring Festival: The grandest celebration in China
Spring Festival, Chunjie or Chinese New Year, is the most important festival in China.
Given that Chinese people still use a lunisolar calendar for traditional activities, the Spring Festival falls on the 1st day of the 1st lunar month, which is a new moon, and ends fifteen days later with a full moon. Chinese people begin their preparations for the lunar New Year on the early days of the twelfth month of the lunar month.
Although it’s a long period of time, the most important days are the Spring Festival Eve and the first three days. Modern Chinese people are allowed to take seven days off to celebrate the lunar New Year.
Traditionally, a special ritual marked each of the fifteen days. On the first day, a family would visit their oldest members to strengthen their ties, and their guests were welcomed with sweet treats arranged in groups of eight. Eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture since it represents wealth and family union.
It is also during this day that a traditional Buddhist vegetarian dish known as Jai, or Buddha’s delight, is served. The Buddha’s delight recipe calls for eighteen different ingredients.
Lion Dances and Dragon Dances are performed in the streets.
On the second day, people burn pictures of the God of Wealth, Tsai Shen, to help the deity depart safely to heaven; then, on the fifth day people celebrate the God’s of Wealth birthday. During the third day, people who’ve lost an immediate relative within the last three years would pay a visit to their graves. Chinese people used to believe that evil spirits and ghosts roamed free on this day, and deemed house visiting as inauspicious.
The rest of the days include celebrating the “Birthday of Men” on the seventh day, and the birthday of the Jade Emperor on the ninth.
Most modern Chinese people don’t observe these rituals anymore, except for the fifteenth day, when another important celebration, the Lantern Festival takes place.
The Chunjie is also arguably the largest human event on the planet. During the 2017 Spring Festival, the Chinese authorities expected 2.5 billion trips by land, 356 million by rail, 58 million by plane and 43 million by sea over the course of 40 days.
It was also expected that they would spend more than $100 billion on eating and shopping, and buy tickets online at astounding rate of more than 1,000 per second.
Chinese New Year is the world’s largest mass migration.
Lantern Festival: Lighting up the sky
The Lantern Festival can be traced to the Western Han dynasty (206 BC- 25 AD). Each year on the 15th day of the first lunar month, people hang lanterns of various sizes and shapes in the streets.
Chinese people enjoy guessing riddles posted on the lanterns. If they solve the riddle, they may get a small gift from the person who wrote it. Guessing lantern riddles originated during the Song dynasty (960-1279)
During this day people eat rice dumplings called yuanxiao or tangyuan. This dish is made of glutinous rice flour and is filled with rose petals, sesame, bean paste, jujube paste, walnuts, dried fruit, or sugar.
Qingming: The Pure Brightness Festival
The Qingming Festival is a seasonal point to guide farm work, as it is the best time for spring plowing and sowing, and it’s also a moment to remember the departed.
Qingming falls on the first day of the fifth solar term of the lunar calendar, or any day between the 4th and the 5th of April in the Gregorian calendar. On this day, Chinese people offer food, beverages and flowers to their ancestors and sweep their tombs.
In the past, Chinese people celebrated Hanshi, the Cold Food Festival for three consecutive days before Qingming. The Hanshi Festival is no longer popular, and nowadays Chinese enjoy eating green dumplings made of glutinous rice and barley grass called qingtuan. Making qingtuan is not easy and the grass is only edible in the early spring, so trying them is a must during the Qingming Festival.
Qingming is a bittersweet celebration for Chinese people.
Dragon Boat Festival: A legend that moves hearts
The Dragon Boat Festival falls on the fifth day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar.
One of the most popular legends to explain the origins of the Dragon Boat Festival tells the story of one of China’s earliest poets, the State of Chu’s minister, Qu Yuan (340-278 BC). The poet advocated strengthening the Chu’s military power to face the Qin. As a result, King Huai of Chu exiled Qu Yuan. On the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, Qu Yuan threw himself to the Miluo River upon hearing the news that the Qin dynasty’s troops had finally conquered the Chu capital.
People were so moved by Qu Yuan’s death that the fishermen sailed up and down the Miluo River searching for the poet’s body. Others tried to help by throwing zongzi, pyramid-shaped glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in reed or bamboo leaves, in the river to stop fish and shrimp from attempting to ravage Qu Yuan’s body. An old doctor poured a jug of Chinese liquor seasoned with realgar in the water in an attempt to get all aquatic animals drunk.
Despite the fact that centuries have passed since Qu Yuan’s death, people still abide to the traditions, and eat zongzi and drink realgar wine. Modern zongzi, however, have more varied fillings consisting of jujube, bean paste, fresh meat, ham and egg yolk. Some people make them by hand, while others simply purchase ready-to-eat zongzi at supermarkets.
Interestingly enough, dragon racing was an entertainment activity during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) with semi-religious connotations, and may have had little to do with the poet’s decease.
The dragon boat races have spread all over modern China. The races consist of rowing a dragon-shaped canoe to the rhythm of rapid drums. Dragon Boat racing has become so popular and important that since 1980 it joined the list of the State’s sports competition programs, and is held yearly. The winner receives an award called “Qu Yuan Cup”.
Mid-Autumn Festival: All about the moon
The term “Mid-Autumn Festival” appeared for the first time in the Rites of Zhou, a book from the Warring States Period (475-221 BBC). The Song dynasty (960-1127) set the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month as the Mid-Autumn Festival. The Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) elevated the festival to a higher status, and it became as popular as the lunar New Year.
The Mid-Autumn Festival traces its origins to moon sacrificial ceremonies. However it’s also rooted on the moon goddess legend. According to this tale, a brave man called Hou-Yi shot down nine suns that had caused his people too much grieving. Hou Yi received an elixir to become a celestial being, but hesitant to leave his kind wife Chang E behind, the couple decided to hide the magic drink. Chang E was forced to drink the elixir when an evil man tried to steal it from her. Hou Yi saw his wife’s shadow in the moon and after that he began worshipping. The local people soon followed through until it became a tradition.
One of the most iconic items of the Festival is the mooncake. Mooncakes are round pastries with rich fillings usually made of red bean or lotus seed paste, and may contain yolks from salted duck eggs. Mooncakes are also the subject of a famous legend, according to which the Ming revolutionaries overthrew the Mongol rule by hiding messages in the pastries. The messages were scrambled in 4 mooncakes, which were then divided into 16 smaller parts that revealed the message when pieced together. The mooncake was then eaten to destroy the message.