Chinese Customs & Festivals
Traditional festivals are important events in the life of every Chinese, beginning right from childhood. Festivals such as the Chinese New Year, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the Winter Solstice are more or less evenly distributed across the four seasons. In China's traditional agricultural society, festivals served to mark the passing of time.
All Chinese festivals include common elements such as a desire for happiness and well-being, the warding off of misfortune, the experience of the connection between man and heaven, and family reunion. And, of course, festivals are an opportunity for rest and relaxation. The Chinese are hard workers, so festivals and celebrations are a welcomed chance for a change of pace. During China's traditional agricultural society, festivals were even national holidays.
The rhythm of China's traditional festivals was set by the sowing and reaping of crops. The Chinese New Year comes in winter when farmers are unable to work in the fields. The Lantern Festival ends the Chinese New Year season. Tomb-Sweeping Day, which is a day to pay respect to the deceased, comes between spring plowing and summer weeding. The Dragon Boat Festival is held after one of the harvests of the year is completed. The Chung Yuan Festival (to remove the guilt incurred by the sins of the dead) occurs in the middle of summer, when not much work in the fields can be done because it is so hot. The Mid-Autumn Festival is held around the final harvest of the year. The Double Ninth, or Senior Citizens' Festival, occurs as farmers prepare for the coming winter. And the Tung Chih Festival falls on or around winter solstice.
Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival. This is a time for family members to come together to "Guo Nian" or pass into the new year. Money in little red envelopes is given to children for good fortune. Homage is also paid to ancestors and gods. Firecrackers are set off everywhere, and dragon and lion dances are performed from the busiest cities to the most remote villages.
The Lantern Festival has been celebrated since the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-221 A.D.). During this festival, everyone carries colorful lanterns and gathers in public places to have a lantern fair. It is also a time to eat glutinous rice dumplings, which symbolize family unity.
The Dragon Boat Festival commemorates the date when an ancient poet and patriot committed suicide by jumping into the Milou River after losing the trust of the emperor. Because of this, the festival is also called Poet's Festival. According to legend, people launched boats hoping to find his body in order to give it a proper burial. However, they could not find it. The people then threw rice dumplings into the river to satisfy the hunger of the sea creatures, so that the poet's body would not be mutilated. That is the origin of the dragon boat races and the eating of glutinous rice dumplings, consisting of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is a day to worship the Moon God. It is also the birthday of the Earth God. The Chinese use this opportunity to express their gratitude to heaven and earth (represented by moon and earth respectively) for the blessings they have enjoyed. Round moon cakes, symbolic of family unity, are eaten on this day. Unlike most other festivals, the Mid-Autumn Festival is characterized by serenity and delicacy.
The lifestyles of the Chinese people have changed; however, the importance of traditional festivals in their lives has not faded. Along with these major festivals, many other traditional festivals that demonstrate how the importance of tradition and longing for times past play into the lives of the Chinese people are also observed in modern China. Besides the ethnic, geographic, historic, and linguistic ties that unite the Chinese, traditional festivals are one of the strongest bonds reinforcing the cultural identity of the Chinese.
Revised June 2, 2011