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Festivals in China

by Hannah Lockett | May 17, 2019

Festivals and celebrations form a large part of Chinese culture. Most are based on the Chinese lunar calendar, to tie in with the traditional farming way of life. Other, more modern festivals, are based on the solar calendar. From Chinese New Year, which sees the whole country shut down for two weeks, to the more personal family orientated Qingming, there are many different festivals in China, throughout the year, and we have listed the main ones for you below.

January, February and March Festivals

January – Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival – An annual winter festival that takes place each year in Harbin, northern China, officially opening on 5th January, and now is the largest ice and snow festival in the world. The festival includes the world’s biggest ice sculptures.

January – Laba Festival (Làbā jié – A traditional Chinese festival mainly celebrated by Han people in the north, it is regarded as the prelude to the Chinese Spring Festival. It falls on the eighth day of the twelfth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (usually in January). The twelfth month is called ‘La’ and eight is pronounced ‘Ba’, which together give the festival its name. To celebrate, people make and eat porridge, giving it the alternative name of the Rice Porridge Festival.

February – Chinese New Year – Spring Festival (Chūnjié ) – The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is the longest and most important national holiday in China. The national holiday begins on the first of the Lunar Calendar and lasts until the 15th of the first month. The shops will be closed during the first five days, with some not opening until the very end.

February / March – Lantern Festival (Yuanxiao 元宵节) – Celebrated on the 15th day of the first Chinese lunar month, the Lantern Festival traditionally marks the end of the Chinese New Year (Spring Festival). People go out to look at the moon, send up Chinese paper lanterns, eat and enjoy time with family and friends.

February / March – Tibetan New Year – Losar, or Tibetan New Year, is a three-day festival that mixes sacred and secular, with prayers, ceremonies, the hanging of prayer flags, sacred and folk dancing. It is a time for all things to be purified and renewed. The date of Losar changes from year to year.

February / March – Blue Dragon Festival (Zhonghe or Longtaitou 龙抬头) – The Blue Dragon Festival, is closely tied to China’s ancient farming culture. It’s a traditional holiday meant to welcome the earliest signs of spring, and is marked in rural areas, by spring cleaning the house, getting a haircut and eating ‘Dragon’ foods such as dumplings and pancakes.

March – Flower Festival – The 15th day of the second lunar month, marks Hua Zhao Jie, or the traditional Flower Festival, a day when Chinese people celebrate the birthday of the flower goddess. There are events and parades featuring hanfu, or traditional Chinese clothing, and ceremonies to honour the flower goddess.

April, May and June Festivals

March / April – Birthday of Guanyin (Guàn yīn dàn ) – Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, the most revered of Buddhist Bodhisattvas, intercedes on behalf of any who pray to her. Her birthday is traditionally marked by a minor festival on the 19th of the second lunar month. One of the holiest places dedicated to her is on Putuo Island, Zhejiang.

April – Cold Food Festival (Hánshí Jié 寒食节) – Cold Food day commemorates the story of Jie Zitui a loyal servant who is said to have cut off part of his own thigh to offer sustenance to his starving master. To mark the event no fires are lit and all food is served cold. Mainly it marks the time when the fires used over the winter are extinguished and the ashes cleared away – so there is no fire available for cooking. It is a minor festival held on the eve of Qing Ming, and mainly celebrated in Shanxi province.

April – Clear and Bright Festival (Qīng Míng Jié 清明节) – Qing Ming day is traditionally when the family tomb is cleaned, swept and fresh offerings are laid out for the ancestors. This festival is anchored to the solar year rather than lunar year and so always falls between April 4th to 6th. It marks the start of Spring and is associated with kite flying. .

April – Water Splashing Festival (Pō shuǐ jié ) – The Dai people from Yunnan, have great fun getting very wet on April 13th each year, commemorating a victory over a water demon that had kidnapped seven young sisters.

April – Shangsi (Double Third Festival 上巳节) – Shangsi, is an ancient festival celebrated on the third day of the third lunar month. Its origins are unknown for sure, but it was traditionally marked by people holding a riverside sacrifice ceremony, to honour their ancestors, and using herbs to cleanse their bodies, bathe in the river. Following that,  the young men and women would go for an outing, as described in Shi Jing (The Book of Songs).

June – Dragon Boat Festival (Duānwǔjié ) – The Dragon Boat Festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month which is often near the summer solstice. As well as procuring rain from water-controlling dragons, it commemorates the life of Qu Yuan, an incorruptible public official who drowned himself in defiance of unjust rule, and the many boats that went out in search for his body. During the festival, two teams of 15-30 people race each other in ‘Dragon Boats’.

June – Rain Festival – Rain Festival (Yǔ jié ) – Rain is essential for crops and another minor festival, the Rain Festival, like the Dragon Boat festival, is associated with rain on the 13th of the fifth lunar month. Ceremonies used to seek just the quantity of rain, not too little and not too much.

July, August and September Festivals

July – Half Year Festival (Bàn nián jié ) – The 1st day of the 6th month, half way through the lunar calendar year, is a time to reflect on the year so far. Mainly celebrated in southern China, the Half Year Festival can be treated as an echo of the New Year Festival, with fire crackers, zong zi (glutinous rice) and family get-togethers. It is a minor festival and not a public holiday.

July – Clothes Drying Day (Shài yī jié ) – As the sun’s heat reaches its full power this minor festival is set aside to lay out anything that needs drying in the sun. Clothes Drying Day takes place on the sixth day of the sixth lunar month. The legend is that the Dragon King, ruler of water, spent this day drying its scales. Another tale is that it was the day when the Buddhist scriptures that were being carried into China in the ‘Journey to the West’ were laid out to dry; and so temples used to bring out the Classic scriptures for a good airing.

August – Ghost Gate Opens (Guǐ mén kāi ) – The seventh month of the traditional Chinese calendar is associated with ghosts, and Ghost Gate marks the start. The ghost month is considered unlucky, spirits spend the month roaming around, so this is not a good time to start new projects and enterprises. One superstition is to avoid sticking chopsticks upright into a rice bowl, as this invites in the ghosts.

August – Chinese Valentine’s Day (Qīxìjié ) – This festival has its origins as a festival for women, honouring Niulang, a weaver, who was separated by the gods from her cowherd husband. She spent this one dry night with her husband by following a bridge made by magpies. The husband and wife are the stars Vega and Altair, and the bridge is the Milky Way. It is held on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month and nowadays it is marked by exchanging gifts between sweethearts.

August – Hungry Ghost (Yúlánpén ) – Held on the 15th day (full moon) of the 7th lunar (ghost) month, it is also known as the Mid-Year Festival ( zhōng yuán jié). Traditionally hungry ancestors are appeased with offerings of food or incense at the ancestral shrine, and prayers are said for spirits who have no families. Paper flags are hung over doorways to keep out the hungry ghosts.

September – Birthday of Zhuge Liang (Zhū gě wǔ hóu dàn chén 诸葛) – During the Three Kingdoms period, Zhuge Liang the loyal chancellor of the Shu Han kingdom stood out for his virtuous life. His birthday is marked on the 23rd of the 7th lunar month. To mark this day Chinese Lanterns, traditionally said to have been invented by Zhuge Liang, are lit and allowed to drift into the sky.

September – Mid Autumn Festival (Zhōngqiūjié ) – This festival takes place on the full moon in the 8th lunar month, and marks the end of the harvest. Lanterns are lit and large numbers of moon cakes are cooked and eaten. Traditionally, spirits appear to feast on the fruits of the harvest. People climb hills to watch the full moon rise, with the greeting  Kàn yuè liang ‘Look at the bright moon!’

September – Confucius’s Birthday (Modern) (Jì kǒng dà diǎn ) – Traditionally the birthday of the great sage and philosopher Confucius was celebrated on the 27th of the 8th lunar month, particularly at his birthplace of Qufu in Shandong. It is now tied to a specific day, the 28th September each year.

October, November and December Festivals

October – National Day (Guoqingjie 国庆节) – National day marks the founding of the Peoples Republic of China on 1st October 1949. There are often three days of public holiday in all, shifted to give a continuous five day holiday when combined with a weekend.

October – Chong Yang Festival (Zhòngyángjié ) – On the 9th day of the 9th lunar month, people traditionally take to high ground to fly kites as a way of appeasing the spirits. In Chinese numerology, 9 is a strong yang number and is generally inauspicious, so this day has to be treated with respect. Food is laid out to calm the spirits of the ancestors, and as chrysanthemums are usually in flower, chrysanthemum wine is often drunk and petals collected to flavor next year’s batch.

November – Nanjing Massacre Memorial Day (Nán jīng dà tú shā ) – In 2014 a new memorial day was inaugurated to commemorate the many who died when the Japanese invaded Nanjing in 1937.

December – Winter Solstice (Dōngzhì ) – Dongzhi marks the important point of the mid Winter solstice, the shortest day, and is traditionally a time for eating rice balls and dumplings, after offerings have been made to the kitchen god. This festival like Qingming is tied to the sun rather than the moon.

December – Christmas day (Shèng dàn lǎo rén ) – In recent years the observance of Christmas on 25th December, has increased in popularity. It is mainly an excuse to buy presents for children in the cities. As Santa is dressed in lucky red this greatly adds to his appeal. To wish someone ‘Merry Christmas’ you can say  shèng dàn kuài lè.

National Days

There are a number of Days that are celebrated all over the world. Some are serious, some are fun, and some, like ‘Single’s Day’ are invented by retail profits. Whatever the reason, they can be enjoyable days.

March – Womens day (Guó jì fù nǔ jié ) – On the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the 8th March was designated as Women’s Day, with a half or full day’s holiday for women in China.

March – Arbor or Tree Planting Day (Zhí shù jié ) – To make up for widespread deforestation and to keep China well stocked with trees, on 12th March  people go out and plant trees.

May – Labour Day (Láo dòng jié ) – A modern international holiday to mark the toil of workers takes place on 1st May. It is a one day holiday reflecting the socialist / communist history of the Peoples Republic of China.

May – Youth Day – National Youth Day in China, is a celebration of youngsters between the ages of 14 and 28. It was established by the Chinese government in 1949 to honour the memory of the May Fourth Movement of 1919.

June – Childrens Day (Liù yī ér tóng jié ) – This is a recent celebration for children under 14 is held on 1st June each year. Admission to cinemas is free and presents are given.

August – Army day (Jiàn jūn jié ) – A half-day holiday for military personnel, held on the 1st August each year. The date commemorates the Nanchang uprising of August 1st 1927, when Communist forces formed an army unit, for the first time. that routed the Guomindang who were occupying Nanchang.

September – Teachers day (Jiào shī jié ) – Teachers have their own special day, 10th September, when students show respect and give them presents.

November – Singles day (Guāng gùn jié ) – A very recent special day, is ‘Single’s Day’ when young , single people buy themselves presents. The festival originally started in the 1990’s, among the young, single men at Nanjing University, and has caught on amongst single women too. The choice of date is based on the fact that 11.11 has four single ‘ones’ in it. It is now a popular day to declare love and propose marriage.

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