One of the most interesting experiences of living in China is the opportunity to learn about the various festivals that are home to the country. Coming from America, I’ve grown up taking holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July for granted. These holidays, of course, either do not exist in China at all, or, in the case of Christmas, are celebrated only minimally. Instead, China’s native festivals are cause for both celebrations and reflection. While there are many festivals throughout the year, I will focus on those that occur during the first half of the year.
Chinese New Year (also known as Spring Festival or Lunar New Year) is the biggest celebration of the year throughout the country. The specific date of Chinese New Year is flexible based on the Chinese lunar calendar and will typically land sometime between January 21st and February; in 2019, The Year of the Pig began on Tuesday, February 5th, whereas in 2020, The Year of the Rat will kick off on Saturday, January 25th. Decorative red lanterns will adorn the streets as well as homes and most nooks and crannies. A common and popular custom during CNY is to gift children and teenagers with red envelopes containing an amount of cash, similar to the Western tradition of exchanging gifts on Christmas.
Lantern Festival marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. True to its name, many people light lanterns and release them to the skies during this festival. There are also many fireworks, lantern riddles, and traditional lion and dragon dances. The festival marks the return of spring in the lunar calendar and symbolizes the reunion of families. In 2019, Lantern Festival took place on February 19th; in 2020, the celebrations will happen on February 8th.
Qingming Festival, A.K.A. “Tomb Sweeping” Festival
QingMing Festival takes place on either April 4th or April 5th of every year. Commonly known as “Tomb Sweeping Festival,” the day is primarily dedicated to showing respect to loved ones who have passed away. Traditionally, people will visit the graves of deceased family members and spend time there, while making sure to clean the tombs. Gift offerings are brought to the tombs as well, including deceased’s favorite food and wine, as well as fake money. However, interestingly, the food and mock money are burned to represent hope in the belief that the deceased has food and money of their own in the afterlife.
Beyond respecting the dead, QingMing Festival is also celebrated as an opportunity to appreciate nature. Given the timing of the festival, China is reaping the benefits of spring’s early blossoms. People take advantage of the time away from work and school to enjoy the outdoors, take hikes through nature, strolls through parks, and fly kites. Notably, people cut their kites free, allowing them to fly away to the skies during QingMing. The tradition supposedly brings good fortune and health.
Dragon Boat Festival
The annual Dragon Boat festival serves to honor an ancient Chinese poet, Qu Yuan. The celebration takes place each year on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the same day which Qu Yuan drowned himself rather than seeing China invaded; Dragon Boat took place on June 18th in 2018 and will take place on June 7th in 2019. The festival is more common in southern China because it originated there, but is still recognized throughout the whole country.
The two most common traditions during this festival are to eat zongzi and, appropriately, to race dragon boats. Zongzi is a rice dumpling wrapped in leaves and shaped like a triangle. Fillings vary depending on what region of China you are in. Dragon boats are, of course, boats shaped like dragons. The races likely originated from the idea of boats “racing” to rescue the drowned Qu Yuan. Popularized in China, the races can also be enjoyed in Japan, Vietnam, and even Britain.
Festivals throughout the remainder of the year and beyond
The festivals described above only cover those that take place annually through June. Several more festivals are celebrated in China throughout the remainder of the year, including the Mid-Autumn Festival, Winter Solstice, and more.