Synopsis of Chinese Culture: Traditional Chinese Festivals

Xin Yuan

PureInsight | June 26, 2006


Celebrating the New Year

In ancient China there was a strange beast called "nian" with a long
head and sharp horn and it was extremely fierce. "Nian" dwelled deep in
the sea the whole year, but on every New Year's Eve it would climb onto
the shore to devour livestock and harm humans. Because of it, on every
New Year's Eve, all the villagers would take their old and young deep
into the mountains to hide from harm from "nian."

On New Year's eve one year, as the people were all busy collecting
their possessions in preparation for their retreat to the mountains, a
grey haired man appeared in the village. He asked an old woman to allow
him to stay in her home for just one night and assured her that he
would certainly chase away the beast. No one believed him. The old
woman urged him to go to the mountains with the other people to hide.
The old man steadfastly refused. Seeing that he could not be persuaded,
the villagers departed without him.

When the beast arrived at the village to wreck havoc as usual, it was
met with a sudden sound of exploding firecrackers. "Nian" was shivering
all over and dared not proceed any further as it was most frightened by
red color, flames, and explosive sounds. At that moment the large door
opened wide and the old man, wearing red clothes, laughed heartily.
"Nian" was startled. It turned pale, turned tail and fled!

On the next day, as the people returned from deep in the mountains,
they found the village intact and safe. They suddenly realized what had
happened. The old man was a deity who had come to help the people drive
away the beast "nian". They also found the three precious items that
the old man had brought to chase the beast away. From then on, on every
New Year's eve, every family would hang up red banners, set off fire
crackers, and light their lamps the whole night through, awaiting the
New Year. The custom spread far and wide and became a grand traditional
celebration of the "passing of nian" ("nian" in Chinese means "year")
for the Chinese people.

Chinese people refer to the period of time from the twenty-third day to
the thirtieth day of the twelfth lunar month right before the Chinese
New Year as the "small nian". Every family is supposed to clean their
surroundings in preparation to receive the New Year.

Besides cleaning the surroundings, each Chinese family is also supposed
to make the New Year's purchases for the upcoming festival, including
chickens, ducks, fish and meat, fruits, and sweets. Every family also
prepares presents to bring along when they visit their friends and
relatives. They also buy new clothes for the children.

In the evening of New Year's Eve, the whole family gathers together. In
Northern China, dumplings are eaten. The Chinese word for dumpling,
"jiao" and the Chinese word for "together" are homophonic (same
sounding), so the dumplings symbolize the family being all together and
happy. At the same time, "jiao" also means the coming of the New Year.
In Southern China, people eat the sweet New Year cake (made from
glutinous rice flour), which symbolizes sweet life and making
advancement during the New Year (in Chinese, the Chinese word for
"cake" and "making advancement" have the same "gao" sound). At the
stroke of twelve at midnight, every family starts lighting firecrackers!

On the first day of the New Year, people wear their new clothes and
wish their elders a happy New Year. When the children wish the elders a
happy New Year, they receive some money for the New Year. On the second
and third days, people visit their friends and relatives to wish them a
happy New Year.

The streets during the New Year period in China are generally thronged
with people. At some places there are special events such as lion
dances, dragon dances, flower markets, and temple fairs.

After the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, which is the day of
the Lantern Festival, the Chinese New Year celebrations are considered
to be over.

The Lantern Festival (the 15th day of the first lunar month)

Every year on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, Chinese people celebrate the traditional Lantern Festival.

The first month of the lunar calendar is known as the "yuan" month, and
the ancient Chinese people call nights "xiao," so the fifteenth day of
the first lunar month is known as the "Yuan Xiao Festival" (also known
as the Lantern Festival). That night is the first full moon of the year
and that is also the first night when spring returns to the great
earth. From historical recordings, it is known that people in the
Western Han Dynasty (206 to 6 BC) were already celebrating the "Lantern

The "Lantern Festival" was celebrated for different numbers of days in
different Chinese dynasties. In the Han Dynasty it was celebrated for
one day, in the Tang Dynasty (618 – 905 AD) for three days, and in the
Song Dynasty (960 – 1126AD) up to five days. In the Ming Dynasty (1368
-1628AD) lanterns were lit on the 8th day of the first lunar month and
weren't put out until the evening of the 17th for a total of ten days.
In the Qing Dynasty (1644 -1908AD), it was changed to four or five
days, but there were more dragon dances, lion dances, walking on
stilts, doing the "yangko" dance (left and right twisting dance) and so
on. Today, the celebration is only for one day.

During the Lantern Festival, people light lanterns in different colors
and designs and display their lanterns on the streets for others to
admire. Some lanterns have riddles on them for people to solve. People
also feast on "yuan xiao" that night. "Yuan xiao" is made from
glutinous rice, and can be either solid or filled with stuffing. The
various types of stuffing include sweetened bean paste, white sugar,
hawthorn and other types of fruits. They can be served boiled, pan
fried, steamed or deep fried. "Yuan xiao" is also called "tang yuan"
which is close to "tuan yuan" (or "reunion"). It symbolizes that
families are reunited during the festival and are enjoying all the
harmony and happiness.

How did the Lantern Festival originate?

There are many different versions on the origin of the Lantern
Festival. The most widely accepted traces its origin to the Han Dynasty.

Tradition has it that the Han Emperor Wen Di (179 - 156 BC) started the
holiday to commemorate putting down the rebellion by Lu. After the
death of the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang (206 - 194
BC), his son Liu Ying, ascended the throne as Hui Di (194 -187 BC). Liu
Ying was weak by nature, irresolute and hesitant. His mother, Empress
Dowager Lu, eventually took over the power.  After the death of
Emperor Hui Di from illness, the Empress Dowager single-handedly
transferred the power of the government from the Liu clan to her own Lu
clan. The royal officials and the Liu clan felt deeply indignant about
the change. But they dared not comment as they feared the cruel and
ferocious Empress Dowager.

After the death of Empress Dowager Lu, the Lu clan fell into a state of
anxiety out of fear of harm and being pushed out of the imperial court.
Thereupon, they held a secret meeting at the home of General Lu Lu and
planned to stage a rebellion to completely take over the country and
start a new Dynasty.

The meeting was made known to a duke in the Liu clan, Liu Nang. To
protect the Han Dynasty, Liu Nang decided to suppress the rebellion
with military action. Thereafter, he and two other elderly officials
Zhou Bo and Chen Ping who were involved in the founding of the Han
Dynasty led an army against General Lu Lu and eventually suppressed the
"Rebellion of Lu."

After peace was restored, royal officials placed the second son of Liu
Bang, Liu Heng, on the throne. Liu Heng was known as Emperor Wen Di
(179 - 156 BC). The suppression of the rebellion occurred on the
fifteenth day of the first lunar month. As a result, on every fifteenth
day of the first lunar month every year, Emperor Wen Di would leave the
palace to tour the country and celebrate the day with the common
people. He named that day as the day of the "Lantern Festival."
Thereafter, the fifteenth day of the first lunar month became a
universal day of celebration for the people, the "noisy yuan xiao day."

According to historical records, during the reign of the Emperor Wu Di
(140 – 86 BC) in the Han dynasty, the royal court offered sacrifices to
a god called "Tai Yi" (who is the god that rules the entire universe)
on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month as well.

The Dragon Boat Festival (the 5th day of the fifth lunar month)

The fifth day of the fifth lunar month is a traditional Chinese holiday known as the Dragon Boat Festival.

More than two thousand years ago, during the period of the
Spring-Autumn Warring States, the Chinese people began to celebrate the
Dragon Boat Festival. According to historians, the Dragon Boat Festival
originated from the totem festival in the state of Wuyue in southern
China. But people generally attribute the holiday as a memorial to the
Chinese poet Qu Yuan.

Qu Yuan was a Minister in the State of Chu during the Spring-Autumn
period. He was also a well known poet. He was very patriotic. When his
state was overrun by others, he committed suicide by jumping into the
river on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The people of the
State of Chu were sad and went looking for his body along the river.
Some fishermen threw balls made of rice, eggs and other foodstuff into
the river so that the fishes and prawns would be well fed and would not
devour the body of Qu Yuan. Later, fearing that the food would be eaten
by the legendary flood dragon, they found a way of wrapping the rice in
the chinaberry leaves and tied the bundle up with colored silk, and
that was the earliest of the four-cornered cakes (pyramid shaped
dumplings). Nowadays, there are many varieties of such cakes. Some have
sweet fillings such as jujubes and sweetened bean paste, while others
are filled with tasty meat, ham, and egg yoke.

On every fifth day of the fifth lunar month, Chinese people eat the
four-corned cakes and race in their dragon boats to commemorate Qu
Yuan. The custom of eating the cakes has been very popular for hundreds
of years in China and it has even spread to Korea, Japan and many
countries in southeastern Asia.

The Mid-Autumn Festival (the 15th day of the eighth lunar month)

The mid-autumn festival day is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the
eighth lunar month annually.  It takes place in the middle of
autumn and is hence known as "the mid-autumn festival." It has a full
moon that year. The moon on that night is said to be the roundest and
brightest of the entire year. Hence it is also known as the "Eighth
Month Festival." People traditionally gather that night to look at the
brilliant moon and think of their relatives far away. Therefore the
mid-autumn festival is also known as "the Reunion Festival."

In ancient times, Chinese people offered sacrifices to the god of the
moon on the mid-autumn festival. The sacrifices would include moon
cakes, water melons, grapes and so on. During the Tang Dynasty, the
mid-autumn festival became very important to the Chinese people. During
the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the mid-autumn festival became one of the
most important of the Chinese festivals.

There is a beautiful legend about the Mid-Autumn Festival called "Chang
E Hastening to the Moon." It is said that in ancient China there were
ten suns in the sky. It became so hot that the crops and people died
from the heat. A hero by the name of Hou Yi shot down nine of the suns
and ordered the one remaining to rise and set daily at fixed times. His
deeds brought blessings and happiness to the people. Hou Yi also taught
people to use the bow and arrows to hunt. He had a pretty and
compassionate wife by the name of Chang E. He had many students. One of
them, by the name of Peng Meng, was of dubious character

One day, when Hou Yi went to the Kunlun Mountains, he met a deity who
gave him a packet of immortality potion. It is said that anyone
consuming that potion would immediately become a deity. Huo Yi gave to
potion to Chang E for safe-keeping. When Peng Meng found out about the
potion, he plotted to steal the potion and consume it to become a deity.

Three days later, when Hou Yi went hunting, Peng Meng pretended that he
was ill and stayed behind. Not long after Hou Yi left, Peng Meng tried
to force Chang E to give him the immorality potion. Chang E knew that
she was no match for Peng Meng in a fight. So quickly took the potion
and swallowed it. When she swallowed the potion, her body immediately
floated up and left the ground. She flew into the sky and arrived at
the nearest heavenly body to earth, the moon, and became a deity.

After Hou Yi arrived home, he was grief-stricken. He went to Chang E's
favorite garden at the back of the house and placed an altar there. He
put the favorite food of Chang E, sweet food and fresh fruits, on the
altar to offer as sacrifices to his wife on the moon.

When the people celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival today, the most
important activity is to appreciate the moon and eat moon cake. The
round moon cakes symbolize the fulfillment of their hope for the family
reunion (in Chinese "circle" and "reunion" have the same "yuan" sound."

The Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice is a very important day, marking one of the 24
divisions in the Chinese calendar year. There are still many places in
China that observe the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice is commonly
known as the "Winter Festival." It has several other names such as
"Chang Zhi festival" and "Second Age" and so on. About two thousand
five hundred years ago, during the Spring Autumn period, Chinese people
learned to use earthen sun-dials to determine the day for the Winter
Solstice. Out of the twenty-four divisions in the Chinese lunar
calendar, the Winter Solstice was set first. It occurred on the day of
December 22 or 23 in the solar calendar.

The Winter Solstice is the day in the whole year where the day is
shortest and the night is the longest in the northern hemisphere. After
that date, the day gets longer each day. There is an ancient Chinese,
"With the sun reaching the extreme of the pole, the warm climate
begins; as the sun arrives in the south, the short days arrive; when
the shadow begins to lengthen, it is the ‘Winter Solstice.'" After the
Winter Solstice, all the places in China experience cold winter
weather. That is why the Chinese people call it the "entering of the
nines" (each of the nine day periods commencing after the Winter
Solstice).  In China, there is a popular saying, "the coldest days
of the year are in the three nines and the hottest days of the year are
in the three tens" ("tens" refers to a period of ten days during the

The celebration of the Winter Solstice began in the Han Dynasty. It
became very popular in the Tang and Song Dynasties and has been
celebrated till today. In Qing Jia Lu (Records of the Qing Dynasty),
it states, "the Winter Solstice is as important as the New Year."
According to it, after the Winter Solstice, the days grow longer, and
the yang energy gradually
increases. It is the beginning of the rotation of the climate. Thus it
is an auspicious day and must be celebrated. In the Han Dynasty, the
Winter Solstice was known as the "Winter Festival." The government
officials held a celebration rite of "huo dong" (greeting the winter)
and declared it a public holiday." In Later Han Record,
it read, "Before and after the Winter Solstice, the Emperor takes
shelter and rests his body; all the officials stop working and do not
hold court. That will avoid problems later on." Hence, on that day, the
imperial court had a day off to rest. In Jin Records,
it says, "During the Jin Dynasty, the royal court receives
congratulations from all the neighboring states and officials....and
its significance was only second to the New Year." This illustrates the
importance of Winter Solstice in the ancient times.

During the Tang and Song Dynasties, the Winter Solstice was the day to
offer sacrifices to Heaven and the ancestors. On that day, the Emperor
traveled to the countryside to hold a grand ceremony of offering
sacrifices to Heaven. People conducted rites of respect towards their
parents and elders on that day.

There are still locations that celebrate the Winter Solstice in such a
way today. In some regions in northern China, people slaughter goats,
eat dumplings, and eat wonton. In southern China, on Winter Solstice
people eat rice balls, Winter Solstice long noodles and dog meat. The
custom of offering sacrifices to Heaven and ancestors during the Winter
Solstice persists in some regions.

In the past, the people of Beijing used to say: "Eat wonton on the
Winter Solstice and noodles in summer." According to legend, during the
Han Dynasty, the fierce Huns used to harass the border frontiers and
the people there had no peace. Amongst the Hun tribes were two leaders,
Hun and Tun. They were extremely cruel and savage. The Chinese people
hated him to the bone. They rolled meat into the shape of a horn and
borrowed the names of "Hun" and "Tun" and called it "Hun Tun" (or
"wonton"). They ate it to show their hatred toward Hun and Tun. Because
the original "wonton" was invented on the day of the Winter Solstice,
all the families ate "wonton" on that day thereafter.

In Henan Province, dumplings are known as "frozen ears." According to
legend, Zhang Zhongying was a government official in Changsha and a
saintly doctor in Nanyang. After he retired, he went back to his
village. On the way there, it was snowing heavily with the chilling
winds penetrating to the bone. He noticed that poor farmers on both the
banks of the River Bai in Nanyang village wore shabby clothes that did
not cover their entire bodies. Many of the people had frost bitten ears
that were festering. He felt very grieved by that. He instructed his
disciples to erect a shed at Guandong in Nanyang village to provide
medical treatment. He used goat meat, hot pepper, and some anti-cold
medication boiled in a cauldron. The ingredients were then scooped up
and chopped up into fine pieces. He then told his students to wrap up
the chopped ingredients in flour pastry, which had the shape of an ear.
The "ears" were again boiled in the cauldron and the brew was known as
"anti-cold ear rectification soup." He gave the soup to the people.
After eating that, the ears of the people healed. Thereafter, the
people imitated the making of the "ears" and the custom of eating
"anti-cold ears" began. Later on, people called it dumplings and also
"flat food" and "flour pastry soup."  According to one legend, if
people eat dumplings on the Winter Solstice, they won't fear the cold.

The custom of eating dog meat is said to have been started in the Han
Dynasty. According to legends, Emperor Liu Bang ate some dog meat
cooked by Fan Kuai and felt that the flavor was especially delicious
and praised it profusely. From then on, the eating of dog meat became a
popular custom amongst the people.

In the delta region around the Yangtze River in southern China, the
people traditionally eat glutinous rice with red beans on the night of
the Winter Solstice. According to legend, a man by the name of Gong
Gong had a son who did a lot of evil deeds. He died on the day of the
Winter Solstice and became an evil pestilence who continued to harm the
people. But the pestilence was very frightened of red beans. Therefore,
the people would cook and eat red bean rice on Winter Solstice day to
chase the pestilence away and to protect themselves against calamities
and ill health.

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