What are China’s biggest cultural festivals?
As a huge and ethnically diverse country, China has multitudes of festivals. Some are celebrated nationwide, others specific to a particular region or minority group. Here’s a guide to some of the most popular and best known festivals in the Middle Kingdom. For a guide to which festivals have Chinese public holidays, see this article.
We’ll present this run through China’s main festivals in the order in which they are celebrated, from the beginning of the lunar year. Predictably enough, we’ll start with the biggest of them all: Chinese New Year, or “Spring Festival” as it’s commonly known in China.
Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year; Jan/Feb)
This is the most important festival to the Chinese people. It is celebrated the first day of the new lunar year, which is why it can fall in either January or February on the Western calendar. Celebrations are not limited to the first day of the new year, however - Chinese families get into the festive mood (with a large number of fireworks) from the last few days of the previous year, and various important dates are marked up until the 15th day of the new year.
During the Spring Festival period, Chinese people worship gods and ancestors, clean their homes, pray for a better year, and take part in many other activities – some somber and reverent, some raucous and fun.
Spring Festival is not only celebrated by Chinese people all over the world, but also marked in North Korea, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and Japan.
In China, Spring Festival is marked with a seven-day national holiday, starting from the last day of the old year or the first of the new year. Note, however, that in order to enjoy the seven consecutive days off, people need to work two extra days on the weekends bookending the festival. So you get seven days off, but two of those are weekend days, and two are “earned” by working extra days on weekends – only three of the seven are “free” vacation days. Some foreign companies opt out of this arrangement, but the majority of organizations in China will operate this holiday procedure. Confused? You’ll get the hang of it eventually.
Spring Festival is an intensely family-focused affair. As a foreigner, you may find yourself getting an invitation to a family celebration if you have close Chinese friends, or marry into a Chinese family. If not, though, you can get involved by making your own dumplings (jiaozi), visiting a temple fair (a kind of cross between a market and a funfair, usually held in the grounds of a temple) to try traditional Chinese snacks, or – if you dare – sit through CCTV’s marathon Spring Festival Gala, a TV variety show that has become a New Year ritual for Chinese families.
Many businesses will close for anything between a few days and two weeks to allow employees to make the trek home to spend the holiday with their families. However, many will also offer discounts to drive sales over the Spring Festival period – you might want to use the opportunity to go bargain-hunting. Just be aware that you won’t be alone.
Lantern Festival (Feb/Mar)
The Lantern Festival can be seen as one part of the Spring Festival celebrations. It falls on the fifteenth day of the first month according to the lunar calendar. In some cities, you’ll see people in parks and in the streets releasing hand-made lanterns to illuminate the night sky; in others, you’ll see no such thing. People also enjoy sharing riddles with each other to celebrate this festival. By far the most prevalent Lantern Festival activity, though, is the simple pleasure of enjoying sweet tangyuan (glutinous rice dumplings filled with a sweet black sesame paste).
Tomb-Sweeping Festival (April 4 or 5)
Tomb-Sweeping Festival, also called Qingming Festival, is celebrated on April 4 or 5. This day is reserved for people to pay their respects to their ancestors by visiting the graves of deceased relatives.
Tomb-Sweeping Festival is a public holiday across China. Citizens get one “free” day off work for Tomb-Sweeping, but the holiday is arranged so that three consecutive days are taken off. As with Spring Festival, two days will be “made up” by working on weekend days before or after the holiday. If the holiday itself falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the “free” day will be on either the Friday or Monday, allowing a three-day weekend.
International Workers’ Day (May 1)
International Workers’ Day falls on May 1, and is celebrated not just in China, but in over 80 countries around the world. As with Tomb-Sweeping Festival, most companies will take three consecutive days of vacation, but only one of these is a public holiday – if the holiday falls midweek, the other two days must be made up for by working on weekends.
Dragon Boat Festival (May/Jun)
Dragon Boat Festival, aka Duanwu Festival, falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. The festival commemorates the patriotism of an ancient poet named Qu Yuan. After his home, the ancient state of Chu, was invaded, Qu Yuan is said to have written a poem to express his love for his country, drowning himself in a river. He was so beloved that the locals raced out in their boats to get to him; when his body could not be found, they dropped zongzi (glutinous rice dumplings with various fillings, wrapped in bamboo leaves) into the river so that the fish would spare his corpse.
To celebrate, modern Chinese people in some parts of the country will take part in dragon boat races on rivers and eat zongzi.
You’re far more likely to see a dragon boat race in southern China than in the north. You’ll also find that in different areas of China, people enjoy different kinds of zongzi. Some prefer salty fillings, others prefer sweet, and debates about which is best are common.
Dragon Boat Festival is another where you’ll get three days consecutively off work, but only one is classed as a public holiday. Again, prepare for a Saturday or Sunday in the office to “earn” your three-day break. If all this working on weekends just to enjoy three days off in a row is starting to sound tedious, you know how many people living in China feel.
Mid-Autumn Festival (Sep/Oct)
Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. In legend, Houyi was a hero who fired arrows to take down nine of the ten suns in the sky. The empress of Heaven gave Houyi an elixir to ensure his immortality. Houyi gave the potion to his beloved Chang’e and asked her to keep it for him. However, confronted by a villain who attempted to take the potion from her, Chang’e was left with no choice but to take the medicine herself. Chang’e ascended to Heaven, becoming a goddess. However, she missed her husband so much that she chose to live on the moon, to be as near to Houyi as she could possibly be. The story goes that every year, on the 15th day of the eighth month, Houyi hosts a banquet to commemorate his wife, and that she can still see him from the moon.
In keeping with the theme of the legend of Chang’e, Chinese people celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival as an occasion for reunion with family and loved ones (though the holiday itself may be too short for all Chinese people to actually make it home). The moon also takes center stage. The moon is at its fullest when the festival comes around, and people take to the streets to admire its glow. People will also enjoy tucking into moon cakes and some may still worship the moon goddess Chang’e.
In Zhejiang province, Mid-Autumn Festival also falls during the period of the highest tides. In some areas, people hang lanterns and share riddles to get into the festive mood.
How long do you think you’re going to get off work to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival? You’re getting the hang of this: three consecutive days off work, but only one is an actual statutory holiday. If Mid-Autumn doesn’t fall neatly on a weekend, prepare to work on the weekend before or after the holiday to earn your vacation.
National Day (October 1)
On October 1, 1949, the People’s Republic of China celebrated its foundation. Ever since, the date has been celebrated as China’s National Day (“Guoqing Jie” in Chinese). City governments will go to great lengths to decorate streets and compounds with flowers, lights and other fanfare. Aside from that, there’s not really any specific way that people mark this holiday: Just get out and enjoy yourself. Be prepared for huge crowds at tourist sites, airports and train stations. And don’t think you’ll escape the crowds simply by leaving China: If you travel to other parts of Asia during this holiday, expect to run into hundreds of Chinese holidaymakers.
You’ve got the drill by now: Seven consecutive days off work, work two extra weekend days before or after the holiday to “earn” them.
“Western” New Year (January 1)
New Year’s Day (January 1) is celebrated worldwide. In China, January 1 is a public holiday, but it’s celebrated with far less gusto than Spring Festival.