China celebrates many secular and religious festivals, three of which – the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), the May 1 Labour Day, and National Day on October 1 – involve nationwide holidays. Avoid travel during these times, as the country’s transport network becomes severely overloaded.
Most festivals take place according to dates in the Chinese lunar calendar, in which the first day of the month is the time when the moon is at its thinnest, with the full moon marking the middle of the month. By the Gregorian calendar used in the West, such festivals fall on a different day every year – check online for the latest dates. Most festivals celebrate the turning of the seasons or auspicious dates, such as the eighth day of the eighth month (eight is a lucky number in China), and are times for gift giving, family reunions, feasting and the setting off of firecrackers. It’s always worth visiting temples on festival days, when the air is thick with incense, and people queue up to kowtow to altars and play games that bring good fortune, such as trying to hit the temple bell by throwing coins.
Aside from the following national festivals, China’s ethnic groups punctuate the year with their own ritual observances, which are described in the relevant chapters of the guide. In Hong Kong, all the national Chinese festivals are celebrated.
January/February Two-week-long Spring Festival. Everything shuts down for a national holiday during the first week.
February Tiancang Festival On the twentieth day of the first lunar month, Chinese peasants celebrate Tiancang, or Granary Filling Day, in the hope of ensuring a good harvest later in the year.
March Guanyin’s Birthday Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Mercy, and probably China’s most popular deity, is celebrated on the nineteenth day of the second lunar month.
April 5 Qingming Festival This festival, also referred to as Tomb Sweeping Day, is the time to visit the graves of ancestors and burn ghost money in honour of the departed.
April 13–15 Dai Water Splashing Festival Anyone on the streets of Xishuangbanna, in Yunnan province, is fair game for a soaking.
May 1 Labour Day A three-day national holiday when everyone goes on the move.
May 4 Youth Day Commemorating the student demonstrators in Tian’anmen Square in 1919, which gave rise to the Nationalist “May Fourth Movement”. It’s marked in most cities with flower displays.
June 1 Children’s Day Most schools go on field trips, so if you’re visiting a popular tourist site, be prepared for mobs of kids in yellow baseball caps.
June/July Dragon-boat Festival On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, dragon-boat races are held in memory of the poet Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in 280 BC. The traditional food to accompany the celebrations is zongzi (lotus-wrapped rice packets). Another three-day public holiday.
August/September Ghost Festival The Chinese equivalent of Halloween, this is a time when ghosts from hell are supposed to walk the earth. It’s not celebrated so much as observed; it’s regarded as an inauspicious time to travel, move house or get married.
September/October Moon Festival On the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, the Chinese celebrate what’s also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival. Moon cakes, containing a rich filling of sugar, lotus-seed paste and walnut, are eaten, and plenty of spirits consumed. The public get a further three days off.
September/October Double Ninth Festival Nine is a number associated with yang, or male energy, and on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month such qualities as assertiveness and strength are celebrated. It’s believed to be a good time for the distillation (and consumption) of spirits.
September 28 Confucius Festival The birthday of Confucius is marked by celebrations at all Confucian temples. It’s a good time to visit Qufu, in Shandong province, when elaborate ceremonies are held at the temple there.
October 1 National Day Another week-long holiday when everyone has time off to celebrate the founding of the People’s Republic. TV is even more dire than usual as it’s full of programmes celebrating Party achievements.
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Spring Festival (Chinese New Year)
Spring Festival (Chinese New Year)
The Spring Festival is two weeks of festivities marking the beginning of the lunar New Year, usually in late January or early February. In Chinese astrology, each year is associated with one of twelve animals, and the passing into a new phase is a momentous occasion. The festival sees China at its most colourful, with shops and houses decorated with good-luck messages. The first day of the festival is marked by a family feast at which jiaozi (dumplings) are eaten, sometimes with coins hidden inside. To bring luck, people dress in red clothes (red being a lucky colour) and eat fish, since the Chinese script for fish resembles the script for “surplus”, something everyone wishes to enjoy during the year. Firecrackers are let off almost constantly to scare ghosts away and, on the fifth day, to honour Cai Shen, god of wealth. Another ghost-scaring tradition is the pasting up of images of door gods at the threshold. Outside the home, New Year is celebrated at temple fairs, which feature acrobats and clouds of smoke as the Chinese light incense sticks to placate the gods. The celebrations end with the lantern festival, when the streets are filled with multicoloured paper lanterns; many places also have flower festivals and street processions with paper dragons and other animals parading through the town. It’s customary at this time to eat tang yuan, glutinous rice balls stuffed with sweet sesame paste.