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Home >Holidays & Festivals >

  Traditional Festivals of the Han People in China

China is a unified country of many different nationalities, among whom the han are over 90 percent. For several thousand years they have developed osme unique traditional festivals such as the Spring Festival, the clear and Bright Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, and the Mid-autumn Festival. These and the customs observed at the these times are so popular that to some degree at least they reflect the history, traditions, cultural characteristics and national psychology of the Chinese people, and are therefore part of their national character.

The Spring Festival (Chun Jie)

Spring FestivalThe Spring Festival is the biggest traditional festival in China. It falls on the first day of the first month by the Chinese lunar calendar or farming calendar - in late January or mid February. It has been celebrated for some 4,000 years.

In the past, however, it was not called Spring Festival (Chun Jie) but New Year's Day (Guo Nian), After the fall of the last feudal dynasty and the establishment of a republic in 1911, when tge Gregorian calendar was officially adopted, people began calling the first day of the first month by the Gregorian calendar New Year's Day, and the first day of the first month by the lunar calendar the spring Festival.

Of course there is a legend about the Chinese New yar. In ancient China there was a strange savage beast the came out on the night of every 30the day of the 12the lunar month. It was called the Nian. One such New Year's Eve the nian came to a village, accidentally encountering two boys who were trying to see who could crack their whip the best. The Nian was so scared by the cracking sound that it ran away forever. It came to a second village where two read gowns hung up on a door to dry scared it away again. It came to a third village, this time to be frightened away by lights. From this, people learned that the Nian was afraid of three things: Noise, red, and lights. To defend themselves against the Nian, they devised many methods that gradually found their way into the customs observed at the New year Celebrations,

In fact, in ancient Chinese lexicons the character nian meant "harvest". In the classic Chronicles of the Spring and Autumn Perod( Zuoshi Chunqiu), nian is Defined as " the ripening ofhte five principal cereals". Therefore, " Having nian" meant having a cumper harvest. This usage is still in use today.

Although China has a large territory and many races living together, most of them share the customs of Spring Festival.

On the eve of the Spring Festival, Chinese, whether northerners or southerners, enjoy a family reunion sitting around a stove, feasting and chatting well into the night or even until daybreak. Early the nest morning they eat dumplings or New Year cakes. Then they start visiting their relatives and friends, and receive them.

Another popular custom is pasting Spring Couplets(chun lian) on their gates expressing their reflections on the past year and their hopes for the coming one. This custom has existed for over a thousand years.

The first couplets written in history were these two lines:

A New Year to Take in Surplus Fortune.
A Fine Festival to Call in Eternal Spring.

People also like to decorate their rooms with New year pictures and their windows with paper cuts, adding more festive atmosphere.

"Amidst the sound of firecrackers, the year is out" Setting off firecrackers during the Spring Festival Brings happy excitement to people in general and the children in particular. At night, firecrackers are set off in the centers of cities and towns, and in the farmer's courtyards in the countryside as well, a colorful and lively scene for everybody.

To make the occasion even more festive, people light flower-decorated lanterns. Some are hung in the house, some on the doorway, others are made for the children to carry around here and there for everybody.

To make the occasion even more festive, people light flower decorated lanterns. Some are hung in the house, some on the doorway, others are made for the children to carry around here and there for fun.

Other popular things during the Spring Festival are the widely popular yangge folk dance, walking and performing on stilts, the lion dance, dramas,, operas, the land boat dance, the dragon lanter dance, etc.

The Lantern Festival (Yuan Xiao Jie)

Lantern FestivalThe 15th day of the 1st lunar month, another important traditional festival, follows the Spring Festival. Books written in ancient China refer to it as Shangyuan Jie (the 15th day of the 1st lunar month). It is called Yuan Xiao jie because xiao means "evening" and the whole phrase referes to the Lantern Festival, as it's called today.

Yuan Xiao Jie dates back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220). Sima Qian (c. 145 or 135-B.C), author of Records of the Historian, considered it an important festival when he advised Emperor Wudi to revised the calendar and adopt the Tiachu calendar (used from 104 B.C. to A.D. 85)

On the night o Yuan Xiao Jie there is an exhibition of lanterns that attracts many spectators. This custom at first had something to do with night curfew in ancient china. Since the Zhou Dynasty (11th century-256 B.C.), the common people had been to go outdoors or get together at nights. The curfew was not relaxed until the Han dynasty, when the rite of sacrifice to the Heavenly King took place throughout the night. This was probably the first time the curfew was lifted and the at people were allowed to come out to watch the lanterns.

It is a 1300-year-long tradition that for the Lantern Festival every family eat Yuanxiao(here it means a ball-like glutinous rice flour dough stuffed with sweet things). It is also known as fuyanzi (floating ball) because when boiled they float on the surface of the soup ( tangyuan) (balls in soup) or fengou (dough fruit). People eat it as a symbol of family reunion and a sweet life. Gradually people have come to call it just yuanxiao for short. At any rate, it is so tasty that everyone likes it.

The ingredients of the stuffing are white sugar, brown sugar, color dressings, rose, bean paste, sesame, ashed walnuts, etc. The yuanxiao are prepared by boiling, steaming or frying. Today, before the festival, the shops in all the cities, towns and villages in China make plenty of yuanxiao for the celebrator.

Clear and Bright Festival (Qingming Jie)

Qingming is one of the twenty-four solar terms that the ancient Chinese gave to the twenty-four divisions of their year. Coming fifteen days later than the Spring Equinox, it falls around April. 5. this is the time people go out for the warm weather, clear bright sky and gentle breeze. Ti is a good time for plowing and sowing, too. Farmers have proverbs for this time of the year:"Melons and beans are sown around Qingming" and "Tree are planted no later than Qingming".

The Clear and Bright Festival originated in the spring and Autunm Period (770-476 B.C.). Historical books unearthed from tombs of the Warring States Perod( 475-221) B. C.) contain the earliest record of the festival. It was meant, it is said, to com-memorate Jie Zitui, a minister of Chong Er, son of Duke Xian of the State of Jin, one of the warring states. When chong Er was forced to live in exile, and he wished to eat some meat but none was available, Jie Zitui stealthily cut some flesh off his own arm and cooed it for him. Later Chong Er became the ruler and he gave orders to reward his followers. Not interested in wealth or position, Jie Zitui went with his mother to Mianshan Mountain in today's Shanxi Province and lived a secluded life there. It was the time of the year when Qingming is celebrated now. Chong Er, wanting to reward Jie Zitui with an important position, tried to find him in the great mountain but couldn't. So he set the mountain on fire, figuring that Jie Zitui would run out to save his life. Instead, Jie Zitui and his mother were burned to death, with their arms clinging to a scorched willow tree. Such a spirit, that would rather die than come out to enter officialdom, was highly praised. Later, on the day of his death every year, people did no make a fire in their kitchens but just ate prepared cold food. Gradually it became a custom. Thus today Qingming is also known as the "festival of eating things cold" and "no fire day".

Staring in the Qin (221-207 B.C.) and Han dynasties, it has also become the day when people go to sweep clean the graves of their ancestors and mourn the dead.

Also, in the Tangy Dynasty on this day, city inhabitants began going for an outing in the countryside, an affair know as Taqing, or treading on the green. The custom was most popular in the Song and Ming dynasties. The most frequented place was a riverside. The famous long horizontal scroll painting riverside Scenes at Qingming by Zhang zeduan in the song dynasty best depicts the busy, booming scene during the festival

Another old custom is "inserting willow twigs". Back from an outing, people break off some willow branches and carry them home to put into the house wall under the eaves, an act supposed to keep insects away. Insects away. People in Guangdong Province put willow twigs at the bottom of dry wells to keep evil spirits away. Women in Suzhou and Huangzhou make garlands of willow tree twigs and wear them on their heads as a wish for their youth to stay forever. This gae rise to a saying: "Wearing no willow rings on the day of Qingming, a young woman will son be growing gray."

During this festival there are also sports such as playing on swings, flying kites, a kind of anciet Chinese football, and cockfighting.

At nowadays, one of the most important parts of Chinese culture is the veneration and honoring of the dead. To honor your dead you must provide a long line of family, hence the importance of the family in Chinese culture. Among the offerings, "spirit money" (paper money) is often burnt, and it is said that during Qingming some true devotees actually scrub the bones of their loved ones.

The Dragon Boat Festival (Duan wu Jie)

Dragon Boat FestivalThe Dragon Boat Festival, Duanwu or Duanyang Jie, falls on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. It was the day for a tribe living in ancient states of Wu and Yue (5,000 years ago in present-day Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces) to offer sacrifices to its totem, the dragon. To defend themselves against insects, drought, flood and other plagues, they created an imaginary dragon to which tey prayed for protection. On theis day sacrifices were made to the dragon and a dragon boat race was held.

The most accepted and authoritative explanation of the festival's arigin is that it commemorates Qu Yuan, a brilliant poet and a minister in charge of the Three Aristocratic Families of the State of Chu During the Warring States Perod (475-221 B.C.)

Qu Yuan was born around 340 B.C. At the age of 36 he was already holding a very importantposition in the court. As an ardent patriot and statesman, he proposed to his sovereign policies regarding diplomatic and domestic affairs. Unfortunately, his progressive views were opposed by corrupt forces, represented by Jin Shang, the king's aide, and Zhenxiu, the Queen consort. Both of them heaped calumnies on Qu yuan and in the end the king decided to banish him.

Living long years in exile, Qu Yuan wrote many beautiful odes expressing his sorrow and concern for his country and people. About 278 B.C. the troops of the State of Qin stormed the capital of Chu and the downfall of the corrupt court was expected at any moment. Despairing of saving his country and fulfilling his political ideals, te 62 years-old poet, holding a stone in his arms, drowned himself in the Miluo River near today's Changsha in Hunnan Province.

Qu Yuan's quest for a way to make his country powerful and prosperous, and his dedication to his ideals, had own the respect of the people. When news of his death came, they rushed from all quarters, rowing boats on the river in an attempt to find his body. This is supposed to be the beginning of the custom of rowing dragon boat on this day. The custom spread until today, at the time every year, dragon boat races take place on rivers and lakes all over the land.

An old writing says, "Qu Yuan threw himself in the Miluo River on May 5 by the lunar calendar and the people of Chu mourned him. Every year at this time they threw bamboo tubes filled with rice into the river as an offering to him". During the reign of the Han Emperor Guangwu (A.D. 25-56), a man by the name of Ou Hui, from Changsha, happened to see a man near the river who said that he was Minister in charge of the Three Aristocratic Families - Qu Yuan's old post. "It is all very well for you to offer me sacrifices," this mansaid to Ou Hui, "but most of them are stolen and devoured by the dragon in the river. In the future, then, please wrap them in chinaberry, leaves and tie them up with colored threads. The dragon is afraid of these two things and thus will never touch them. " The people did as they were told, and this is how zhongzi- the delicious pyramid-shaed dumpling made of glutious rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves are made for the festival today.

There is a great variety of zhongzi made with different stuffing and different flavours. Sountherners make them with pork, ham, diced chicken, sweetened bean paste. Northerners like them make with glutinous rice and millet, dates, sweetened bean paste and candied fruit.

Another interesting custom observed during the Dragon Boat Festival even today is hanging calamus and Chinese mugwort on the door and drinking wine - a practice that probably arose as a protection against the epidemic diseases that were liable to attack in May so close to the summer heat. Later the custom became connected with Qu Yuan, for he hated treacherous court officials as poisonous snakes and demons. Calamus and Chinese mugwort then were kept to protect Qu Yuan's soul against these evil creatures.

Dragon-boat races have a long history in south China. It is also said to commemorate Qu Yuan.

The Double Seventh (Qixi Jie)

Double SeventhThe Festival of the double Seventh takes place on the night of the 7th day of the 7th month. On this night every year, the Cowherd and the Weaving Maid in the skies walk across a bridge spanned by magpies to come together again over the Heavenly River (the Milky Way).Thus it is a night for lovers.

The legend says that the Cowherd lived in the Hexi area west pf China. He was very good at playing the flute. His music so moved the granddaughter of the King of Heaven, the Weaving Maid, that she dropped her weaving and came down to the world and lived with the Cowherd. The King of Heaven was so furious that he ordered her brought back for trial. The Cowherd, together with their children, went after his wife, sailing in the clouds in a boat made out of the horn of his ox. Just as he was about to catch up with her, the Queen Mother of the Western Heaven took a golden pin from her hair and drew a line in the air. At once a heavenly river with roaring waves appeared in the sky, blocking the Cowherd and the Weaving Maid from each other so that they could only look across it at each other. Their true love deeply moved the kindhearted Phoenix, who called all the magpies in the universe to from a bridge over the river fir the lovers to cross and reunite-but only once a year: on the night of the seventh day if the seventh month.

The romantic story appeared in the Han Dynasty when the people, seeing Altair (Alpha) and Vega in the heavens on each side of the Milky Way, created this tale. By Tang Dynasty times, people regarded the night of the Double Seventh as the lucky time for lovers. It was at midnight of the Double Seventh that the Tang Emperor Li Longji and his concubine Yang Yuhuan vowed their love for each other, as the Tang poet Bai Juyi said in his poem "Song of Eternal Sorrow":

Pledging our love for each other in secret
On this seventh night of the seventh mouth,
May we be a pair of lovebirds in the sky,
May we be entwined tree branches on the earth.

The Double Seventh is a traditional festival particularly favored by girls. They all dress gorgeously and show people their ingeniously-made crafts. Thus it is also called Girls' Day.

Because the Weaving Maid was perfect at weaving, the Double Seventh is also the time for girls to beg her to give them a pair of nimble hands. Ancient books record that on in the courtyard for the Weaving Maid, who in turn taught them how to be clever with their fingers.

For their master, the Weaving Maid, to use, the girls fashion everyday utensils out of such things as sesame and melon seeds. They make her a dressing table and other furniture she will need out of slender pieces of wood. They show her their skill by threading a needle in the moonlight.

The girls seek the Weaving Maid's answer to whether they will be skilled or not. One way is to put a small spider in a box to see if it makes a web the next day, and if it does, to see whether it is closely or loosely woven and whether it is well-shaped or not. A neatly woven and well-foretells clever fingers.

Girls in different parts of China search for cleverness from the Weaving Maid in different ways. In Beijing in the afternoon of the 6th day, girls put a bowl of clear water on a table out in the open air. By noon the next day the Weaving Maid will have left her tears in the bowl. Then each girl outs a strand broken off a new whisk broom on the surface of the water. The sunlight tom of strikes the strands different, making their shadows on the bottom of the bowl take different shapes. If it's the one a girl asks for, it means she will get a pair of nimble hands from the Weaving Maid.

In Shanghai, girls beg for cleverness by consecrating melons and fruit to the Weaving Maid. In the south of Fujian Province, they offer sweets to the seven goddesses who have evolved from the one Weaving Maid.

The Mid -Autumn Festival ( Zhonqiu Jie)

Mid -Autumn FestivalEvery year on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month comes Mid-Autumn Festival - so called because the 8th lunar month is in the middle of the autumn season, and ht e15th day is the middle of that month. On this night the moon is supposed to be at the fullest and brightest of the year. It is an age-old tradition that on this night people come out to enjoying the moon and the moon-lit scenery.

The festival is all the more mysterious and interesting because of the moon myths and legends so popular among the people. Literary men and women in all times have written odes to the moon. One of the best-known is this one by the great Tang poet Li Bai:

Looking up, I see the bright moon;
Hanging my head, I feel nostalgic.

For many centuries a full moon has been a symbol of family reunion, particularly reminding travelers of their loved ones at home, and the home ones of the ones who are away. Thus the day is called the Day of Reunion.

In dynasty times it was an imperial ritual to worship the sun in the spring and the moon in the autumn. As time went by , across the country it became a national ritual to worship the moon by prostrating oneself and making offerings. The sacrifice was exquisitely prepared- round cakes known as moon cakes. After the ritual,each family sat around in a circle eating the mooncakes, an act symbolizing the happiness of family reunion.

Historical records show that mooncakes were first make in the shops of Chang'an ( Xi'an in the Tang Dynasty. In the Qing Dynasty they were called Reunion Cakes, and were available everywhere. The mooncake is molded with a Moon Palace and the Moon Rabbit on its surface and comes in different sizes.

Today mooncakes are very popular in China. They are made in different ways from place to place, and their flavors vary too. The differences lies in the fillings, the moldings and the way they are prepared. Thus there are Beijing mooncakes, Suzhou moon-cakes, Guangdong mooncakes, yunnan mooncakes and so on. They are also called by their fillings - bean paste, lotus seed paste, different fruit seeds and nuts, egg yolk, chicken, cassia or date paste. The common ingredients are dough, oil, sugar and maltose.

The Double Ninth Festival (Chongyang Jie)

Double Ninth FestivalThe traditional Double Ninth Festival, as one would suspect, comes on the 9th day of the 9th lunar mouth. In ancient times, the Chinese people regarded nine as a yang (positive or masculine) number. Thus the yang day in the yang mouth was called chongyang (double yang, or double ninth).The Double ninth was a festival day at least two thousand years ago in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).

In that dynast there was a man named Huan Jing who was a disciple of a Daoist priest called Fei Zhangfang. One day Fei warned his disciple: "Disaster will visit your home on the 9th day of the 9th mouth. Everyone in your family must at once make a red pouch, put the seed of the dogwood in it, hang it on their arm and go climb a mountain and drink some chrysanthemum wine there. This may enable you to avoid the disaster."

The pouch was made of gauze and, when filled with dogwood seed, was called a "fragrance pouch". So on that day, Huan Jing and his family did as the Daoist had told him. When they came back from the mountain, they found all their farm animals dead. From that time on, wearing dogwoods seeds, climbing a mountain and drinking chrysanthemum wine have become customs that guard against evils and avert disasters.

This is, after all, a story made up by the ancient Chinese. But it is true that in autumn, wild fruit, seeds and medicinal herbs are ripe for gathering. These are usually in the mountains, and climbing is good for one's health-perhaps a more convincing reason people like climbing mountains at this time of the year.

As the centuries went by, more customs came to be used for the Double Ninth. In the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) every family put chrysanthemum blossoms on its doors. They also made flour cakes, ornamenting them with pomegranate seeds, chestnuts gingko kernels, pine nuts and tiny Dynasty the residents of Beijing made fancy cakes, decorating them with dates and chestnuts. Married daughters were invited back home to join their parents in eating this delicacy.

These customs still exist. The autumn season is neither hot nor cold, and the sky is often cloudless -a time when the chrysanthemum flowers are the in full bloom. Such fine days are exactly right for family outings.

Chinese poets in history wrote many odes to the chrysanthemum. One of the most loved and often-quote is this one by Cen Shen:

I insist on ascending a height;
No one is there to bring me wine.
Alas, how I miss my chrysanthemum garden!
They should bloom here on the battlefield.
The title of this poem is: "The Nine-day March Took My Thoughts Back to My Garden in Chang'an".

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