Chinese Customs and Wisdoms 1.3

1.3. Chinese Festivals: Keeping Traditions Alive

We all love holidays and the happy gatherings of family and friends that they bring, and the Chinese are no exception. The Chinese celebrate festivals based on the lunar calendar dating back thousands of years. The most popular favourite is Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, which falls on the first day of the first lunar month.

Spring Festival, or chunjie, dates back to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1121 BC–771 BC). Two weeks beforehand, a feeling of pleasurable holiday anticipation permeates the atmosphere. Everything must be prepared just so: music on the streets, decorations and illuminations.

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What I most like about China is that its ancient traditions are still very much alive. Many people, especially those living in countryside, still celebrate chunjie in the traditional manner. This means buying something new to wear, even if it is only a new handkerchief or scarf. Thirty years ago the holiday was a huge celebration because for many it was the only day of the year they allowed themselves the luxury of eating meat. It is no longer a delicacy, and many Chinese can afford to present to their family members and friends extravagantly impractical gifts like flowers. In Beijing alone in 2005 more than 100 million fresh cut flowers were sold during the seven-day holiday.

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On the Spring Festival Eve, all family members get together, even when separated by thousands of kilometers. Transportation companies consequently rake in high profits in the days leading up to it, as almost all of China is on the move.

As it was originally the main meal of the year, chunjie dinner has many different dishes to choose from, but you will see the crescent moon-shaped dumplings (jiaozi) in every household in northern China. Dumplings that have been prepared in advance and traditionally the only dish served in the first five days of the New Year, as in Chinese the words “stir-fry” and “to quarrel” are both pronounced “chao”. This is why women avoid cooking during the first week of the Lunar New Year as they don’t want to use that word to their loved ones. These traditional precautions are a boon to China’s catering industry as that week restaurants are solidly booked several months in advance.

Another “must” dish on the festive table is fish, again, because of pronunciation. In Chinese the words “fish” and “surplus” sound similar, so those who have had fish on the festival might find wealth in the coming year. As one who would not even try to resist the temptation of such easily gained riches, I also have fish on my festive table – just in case.

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On the night of chunjie people celebrate by rushing outside and setting off firecrackers. As it is impossible to sleep that night, the best thing to do is join in, as I usually do. In downtown areas of big cities like Beijing, firecrackers are restricted, but as people find it impossible to celebrate Spring Festival without them, many drive out of the capital to the outskirts and have fun making lots of noise.

During the first week of Spring Festival celebrations villages, towns and cities heave with festivities and performances. Traditional Lion, Dragon, Boat and Mermaid dances are very popular, as are acrobatics, traditional opera performances, and street-traders selling everything from pictures to sweets to sundry souvenirs. Years ago these activities took place around temples, and are still known as temple fairs.  

On April 5, 105 days after the winter solstice there is another important festival, qingming. This day reminds me of the traditional Slavonic Radunitsa festival, when people go to cemeteries to pay their respects to beloved family members who have passed away. In China people do the same and more – they leave special sacrificial paper money on tombs, or tie it to nearby trees. Those far away from their ancestors’ tombs and unable to return burn sacrificial money and other paper objects wherever they are.

According to the Chinese Lunar Calendar, autumn occurs in the seventh, eighth and ninth lunar months. That’s why Mid-Autumn Festival, zhongqiu, another important occasion when all the family gathers, is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month when the moon is at its brightest. 

This holiday, when families gather in courtyards and share a special meal of round eatables like oranges, pomegranates (whose seeds symbolize many children), melons and – last but not least – moon cakes (yuebing), has been celebrated in China since Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). 

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The first stalls selling yuebing appeared more than a thousand years ago in the then capital city of Chan’an (modern Xi’an). Today yuebing are the traditional Chinese dessert, they have become the profitable industry. Insiders say that during holiday week yuebing makers earn around 80 percent of their yearly income. For example, Shanghai consumes 10,000 tons of moon cakes in just one week! 

For me all these Chinese festivals represent an organic connection between venerated themes and traditions and China’s current rapid development. In carrying on the customs of their ancestors from centuries ago and celebrating ancient festivals, fast-moving China brings new life into them. 

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Book “Chinese Customs and Wisdoms” (translated into English by the author) was published in Beijing in 2007 by the Foreign Language Press



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