From Chinese New Year to The Hungry Ghost Festival, these are 6 of the most popular Chinese festivals to earmark on your calendar.
It would be an understatement to say that festivals form an important part of Chinese history and culture, what with the many, many days of celebration happening throughout the year. While each festival has its own unique origin and set of customs, they are all rich with culture, traditions, and delicious food, and almost all accompanied by dazzling displays that illuminate the street.
Many of the celebrations commemorated within Chinese culture have been occurring for thousands and thousands of years and are still happening to this day. However, not all of the traditions from ancient China have been able to withstand the test of time. Scroll on as we delve into these ancient Chinese festival traditions, whilst also touching upon the new traditions that have come to light as the generations have progressed. Readers should note that the dates will often vary from year to year as they are celebrated according to the Chinese calendar, so be sure to check for the most up-to-date dates before making any plans.
To know more about the most popular Chinese festivals, check out this list of Chinese festivals.
6 Popular Chinese festivals
1Chinese New Year
First on our list of Chinese festivals is Chinese New Year (also known as the Spring Festival, Chūnjié (春节)), which incidentally is probably the most important of all the popular Chinese holidays. With around 3,500 years of history, the holiday originated with the Chinese lunar calendar, which is why it’s often also referred to as Lunar New Year. According to legend, the origins of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical lion-like monster called Nian who would terrorise villages every new year. Once it was discovered that the beast was afraid of the colour red, loud noises, and fire, villagers began the tradition of staying up all night, letting off fireworks and adorning their homes with red decorations (symbolising wealth and good fortune) to ward off Nian. To this day, the Chinese still wear red during Chinese New Year to scare away spirits of bad fortune.
A national holiday in China, the festival has come to be regarded as a ‘reunion’ holiday, with Chinese families traveling in droves from all corners of the world to be with their family in what’s become known as the largest annual human migration in the world. Fittingly, the tradition of having a family feast on Chinese New Year eve is called the ‘reunion dinner’ (团年饭), and is believed to be the most important meal of the year boasting an excess of food and drink.
Although many of the ancient Chinese New Year traditions are still at large, the younger generations have adapted many of them to suit the society around them. For example, the tradition of giving red packets has very recently adapted amongst some younger circles, with many opting to send virtual red packets through the immensely popular Chinese social media app, WeChat. To learn more about how the customs and traditions surrounding Chinese New Year have changed over time, check out this informative article that focuses on the past 50 years, courtesy of China Highlights.
Mid-Autumn Festival also known as Lantern Festival, Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival, Zhōngqiū jié (中秋节)) is a holiday that is all about the appreciation of the moon, and is one of the most popular Chinese festivals to date. There are many legends tied to the origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival, from the story of Chang’e (the goddess that floated up to the moon) to the jade rabbit in the moon. Fittingly, the festival is supposed to take place on the day that the moon is at its brightest and fullest. Like with most popular Chinese festivals, it is typical to spend the holiday dining with family, with one of the most common traditions being eating and gifting mooncakes. Aside from gazing at the moon, people are also expected to gift other items to their friends and families, such as fruit or even fresh hairy crab.
Despite many of the Mid-Autumn Festivals traditions still being carried out to this day, some traditions have been lost over the years. For example, in ancient China, many families would go outside and worship the moon and the goddess Chang’e. However, in this day and age, it’s quite rare to find the younger generation worshiping the moon. It’s far more common to see families dining together either at home or at a restaurant, feasting on mooncakes, and creating beautifully adorned hanging paper lanterns.
Another popular Chinese holiday is Qingming (清明) (also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day), a festival that commemorates the life of the departed through an elaborate set of rituals. These rituals are all about continuing to pay respects to your ancestors by continuing the upkeep of their graves. Every year, family members will congregate together as they clean and sweep their ancestors’ graves. Offerings of traditional dishes such as roast suckling pig, whole steamed chicken, and an impressive array of fruits are also made to their ancestors as a mark of respect. The tradition of burning joss sticks and joss paper (also known as ghost money) is a common Qing Ming practice. A means of honouring the dead, it is believed that the ritual transmits money to their deceased relatives, ensuring their comfort in the afterlife.
Today, many of the traditions associated with Qingming are unable to be carried out by some of the younger generation. This is due to the fact that more and more Chinese are opting to live abroad, making the act of traveling to one’s ancestor’s grave pretty difficult. Although this festival may not be commonly practiced by the younger generation, these traditions are still strictly observed by the older generations that are still living in the same country or city as their ancestors.
4Dragon Boat Festival
The origin of the Dragon Boat Festival (also known as Duan Wu Jie (端午节)) is nothing short of unique. In ancient China, locals paddled out on boats to scare the fish away and retrieve the body of Qu Yuan (a patriotic poet who drowned himself in the river when the Chu state fell in 278BC). The dragon boat races that still happen till this day are symbolic attempts to rescue and recover the body of Qu Yuan. As one of the oldest and most traditional festivals, there are a few traditions that take place on the day that locals like to practice, such as eating zongzi or hanging calamus and wormwood on doors to dispel evil and bring health.
Although the tradition of dragon boat racing is still at large, some of the other less well-known traditions are slowly fading, and are more commonly practiced in the Chinese countryside. A national holiday celebrated throughout China and beloved by many, Dragon Boat Festival is as fun and boisterous as it sounds, with the races gaining popularity.
Held on the only day of the year when the night is the longest and the day is the shortest, and when the yin qualities of darkness and cold are at their height (symbolising that yang is just around the corner), the Winter Solstice Festival (also known as Dōngzhì Festival (冬至)) is a day meant for eating warm and hearty food. The most commonly enjoyed food during this occasion is tangyuan, a Chinese dessert which is supposed to symbolise family, unity, and prosperity.
Celebrated by the Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese, Winter Solstice is a long carried out tradition with years of history and customs that differ depending on where you hail from, with some rituals involving lamb and others dumplings, wontons, or porridge. To learn more about this popular Chinese festival, check out our feature on Dongzhi Festival (冬至, Dōngzhì).
6The Hungry Ghost Festival
Celebrated over a month-long period, The Hungry Ghost Festival (also known as the Zhongyuan Festival (中元节) in Taoism and Yulanpen Festival (盂兰盆节) in Buddhism) falls on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar new year during Ghost Month, a time when it is believed that troubled spirits are able to roam the streets and haunt the living. As with all Chinese celebrations, the Hungry Ghost Festival is steeped in rich tradition, including: making money and food offerings to the ghosts, burning incense sticks, joss paper, and even little pieces of origami. These acts all share one purpose: to avoid the wrath of these wandering souls.
Customs and superstitions vary but include paying tribute to the deceased, leaving food and paper offerings, releasing floating water lanterns, the staging of traditional Chinese operas, and the handing out of rice. It’s also recommended that you avoid going out too late, don’t go swimming, and don’t sing or whistle.
There is certainly no shortage of tradition and culture in China. Hopefully this list of Chinese festivals has helped to illuminate the origins and traditions behind some of the post popular Chinese holidays.
Feature photo courtesy of Shutterstock, Photo 1 courtesy of National Geographic, Photo 2 courtesy of South China Morning Post, Photo 3 courtesy of Hong Kong Travel Guide, Photo 4 courtesy of Culture Trip, Photo 5 courtesy of China Discovery, Photo 6 courtesy of Legacy of Taste