Festivals in China
China’s rich ethnic diversity has given it a whole host of festivals and holidays, some of which are unique to individual areas, while others are celebrated nationally.
In the 1990s the government introduced so-called “Golden Weeks” to help develop the tourist industry and these week-long national holidays (Chinese New Year, Labor Day and National Day) see China’s emerging middle classes all taking a break in the same time period. Transport services are booked beyond capacity, hotels are bursting at the seams and everyone inflates their prices.
Traveling during these periods, you’ll truly come to grips with the fact that China is the most populous nation on earth, and these weeks have become so troublesome that, in recent years, some Chinese families have elected to stay at home and relax, although you’d never guess that when you see the number of people visiting tourist sights.
In addition to the holidays and festivals listed below, there are also countless regional celebrations and Western celebrations such as Christmas and New Year are becoming increasingly popular.
Chinese New Year (Spring Festival; Jan/Feb)
The start of the Lunar New Year is the most important of all Chinese festivals and falls between January 21st and February 20th. It will fall on February 7th in 2008 and January 26th in 2009.
Each year one
of the 12 zodiac animals is ushered in and the whole nation (and Chinese world) celebrates the week-long holiday – it’s a time when people return to their hometowns to be with their families. In preparation for the holiday, it’s customary to give a thorough “spring-cleaning” to the house and buy new clothes for the coming year.
On New Year’s Eve the whole family sits down to enjoy a feast. Among a host of dishes, fish usually takes pride of place, symbolic of abundance and prosperity. Fruits, especially oranges are seen to represent regeneration, and these are often eaten after the meal. Red is an auspicious color in China and after the meal children are given red envelopes (hong bao) containing money.
The money is usually given in amounts that feature the numbers one, six and eight, which are lucky. People also put red banners on their doors to welcome in the New Year and there are public celebrations, often involving lion dances, pounding drums and spirit-scaring firecrackers.
Lantern Festival (Feb/March)
This festival marks the end of the New Year’s celebrations and is held on the first full moon of the year. Lanterns are made from paper and silk and are hung outside homes and along the streets, which makes for a magical atmosphere.
Lanterns were traditionally red or yellow and of a conventional shape, but today in the cities you can see all manner of creations – from monkeys to spacecraft! During the festival glutinous rice dumplings stuffed with sweet fillings are a popular snack.
Tomb Sweeping Day (Qingming Festival; April)
Ancestor worship is still popular in China and the Qingming Festival is a day put aside for cleaning family graves. In the countryside, tombs are swept, cleaned and often decorated. However, in urban areas it is law to cremate the dead, so tomb sweeping is a less common practice, although ancestors are still commemorated. The festival usually falls on April 4th or 5th.
Labor Day (May 1st)
The start of another of China’s three golden weeks.
Youth Day (May 4th)
Youth Day commemorates the 1919 student demonstrations in Tian’anmen Square, which led to the May Fourth Movement.
Children’s Day (June 4th)
Kids go on field trips around the country, so beware if you’re heading to a major sight!
Dragon Boat Festival (June/July)
This is one of the most spectacular of Chinese festivals, involving teams across the country racing boats adorned as dragons, spurred on by the steady sound of an onboard drummer. The festival commemorates the suicide of the poet Qu Yuan, and the boats are re-enacting the unsuccessful chase to try and save him.
Bamboo-wrapped glutinous rice parcels (zongzi) are the food to eat during the festival. The festival takes place on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month and races can be seen on rivers around the country.
Ghost Month (Aug/Sept)
This is the time when ghosts return to earth and is regarded as an inauspicious time to travel, particularly on water. Unless you’re afraid of ghosts this should make it a good time to visit China, but you’ll find that plenty of Chinese don’t seem too scared either!
Confucius’ Birthday (Sept 28th)
The Old Sage’s birth is celebrated with elaborate ceremonies at Confucian temples around the country.
Moon Festival (Mid-Autumn Festival; Sept/Oct)
This festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon is at its brightest. Delicious but filling mooncakes are eaten and it’s a popular time for a barbeque under the moonlight.
This week-long holiday celebrates the foundation of the People’s Republic.
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