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Festivals in China

By Charlotte Binns

When it comes to festivals, China has an abundance of colourful and cultural celebrations. These traditions are steeped in rich history, some dating as far back as 2,500 years ago. While Chinese New Year, otherwise known as the Spring Festival, may be the best known festivity, there are plenty of others out there to immerse yourself in. With ceremonies and rituals as diverse as the country itself, here we explore just a few of China’s eclectic festivals.

Chinese New year celebration

Lantern Festival

The Lantern Festival is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month in the lunisolar Chinese calendar. Legend has it that it originally began as an ancient Buddhist ritual, where monks would light lanterns as a sign of respect to Buddha. It was the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) that reportedly encouraged the widespread adoption of this tradition. As Buddhism was flourishing in China, Emperor Ming of Han ordered every household and royal palace to follow suit and light lanterns on that same night. While in the past it would have been exclusively the emperor or noblemen with ornate lanterns, nowadays everyone’s  are extravagantly decorated. They are often red with gold embellishments, these colours symbolising happiness and wealth respectively.

Chinese Lanterns Celebration

Children attach riddles to their lanterns, which if solved correctly are rewarded with a small gift. The festival has also earned itself the title of the “real” Valentine’s Day, as in days gone by young people would have been chaperoned down the street in the hope of finding love. Take the time to walk among the vibrant stilt walkers, lion and dragon dancers, fireworks and bountiful parades that will be taking place over the festival.

Lantern festival dragon

On top of the medley of sounds and sights, the Lantern Festival is renowned for the serving of Tangyuan, a small rice ball served in boiling water or a delicious warm syrup. The round shape of this sumptuous sweet treat is meant to symbolise the full moon. It is typically also served as a dessert during Chinese weddings or at the Winter Solstice Festival.

Tangyuan Lantern festival

The Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival has a fascinating and moving history. Its roots can be traced back nearly 2,000 years to the death of Qu Yuan, known as China’s first poet. Qu Yuan was a trusted and favourable counselor to King Huaiwang. Having advocated some unpopular policies he fell into disrepute with rival courtiers. Their slander resulted in him being banished south of the Yangtze River which supplied the inspiration for some of his famous work including ‘Lament for Ying.’ The story goes that in the year 278 while living in exile, Qu Yuan waded into the Milou River and took his own life as a form of protest against the corruption of the land. Locals and fishermen rushed to save him, but were unable to find his body. So as to keep any fish and evil spirits away, they banged loudly on a drum while splashing the water with their paddles. This ritual is still observed today to pay homage to Qu Yuan who is widely regarded as being responsible for some of the best poetry in the Chinese language.

Dragon Boat Festival race

Celebrations nowadays involve racing long traditional boats - 20 to 40 metres in length with a dragon’s head adorning one end of the vessel - in time to the beat of a drum. Teams typically make a sacrifice to the water deity Ma-tsu before commencing the race. Some choose to wear perfume pouches to keep away evil spirits and promote good health. These colourful silky pouches are hung around children’s necks and filled with perfume or herbal medicines to protect them from evil.

This festival would be incomplete without a traditional delicacy to whet your appetite. The Dragon Boat Festival is associated most widely with zongzi, a sticky rice dumpling typically boiled or steamed inside a bamboo or lotus leaf. Its filling depends on where in China you find it. In the north, they are filled with a delicious sweet red bean paste, while in the south they tend to opt for succulent cured pork belly, sausage, mushroom, and many other savoury delights.

Zongzi Chinese delicacy

Qingming Festival

Also known in English as ‘Tomb-Sweeping Day’ or ‘Ancestor Day,’ this traditional ceremony falls on the first day of the fifth solar month. It celebrates the onset of spring and is a time to remember the dead. Legend states that Qingming originated as a memorial day for Jie Zitui, a loyal aristocrat who died in the year 636 BC. Jie cut a piece from his own leg to feed his hungry lord Duke Wen. Wen forgot to repay this good dead and, 19 years later, sought to make amends by finding Jie. Discovering that Jie had gone to the forest on the treacherous Mount Mian - known also by its Chinese name, Mianshan - to live with his elderly mother, the Duke instructed the forest be set alight to drive Jie out. Sadly both Jie and his mother passed away in this fire. The Duke allegedly ordered there to be three days without fire to pay his respects, during which all food was eaten cold. This is the reputed origin of Hanshi or the Cold Food Festival. The following year, as Wen visited the mountain to honour Jie, he discovered that all the willow trees had fully grown once again. The festival therefore is also a commemoration of life and vitality. Willow branches are placed on doors or gates and are sometimes even carried by well-wishers along the street.

Mianshan mountain

During Qingming families visit the tombs of their ancestors where they pray, tidy the graves and make ritual offerings to the dead. Sacrifices of wine and food are made, and paper resembling money is burnt as an offering to their ancestors and to ward off evil spirits. In the evening, kites are flown with a lantern attached, creating the magical illusion of a sky speckled with stars. Despite the festival’s long history dating back almost 2,500 years, it was only in 2008 that it became an official public holiday in China.

Qingming burning paper
During the festivities qingtuan is extremely popular - a green-coloured dumpling made out of rice and barley grass. It is typically filled with a sweet red or black bean paste. This seasonal delicacy is only available in the early spring when the grass used to make it is harvested. The festival is also an important period for tea-lovers, as green tea leaves picked before this festival are known as ‘pre-qingming’ and can fetch more money as they are said they have a subtler aroma and flavour.

Laba Festival

Otherwise known as the Laba Congee eating event, this festival falls on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month. The timing of the festival has given it its name - “La” is the twelfth month, while “ba” is eight, for the eighth day. The festivities were originally a day to offer sacrifices to ancestors and to celebrate the harvest, heralding the beginning of the Spring Festival. It dates back to the 10th century Song dynasty, when royal families distributed congee to the poor. Congee itself is a type of porridge and is sometimes referred to as eight treasure congee (the number eight being a lucky number in Chinese folklore) due to its composition of eight ingredients. These include dried nuts, rice, beans, lotus seeds, raisins and barley.

Laba Congee festival

If you head to a Buddhist temple during this festivity, you are likely to find Buddhist monks handing out bowls of congee. Tradition states that family members eat the ceremonial dish all together and save some as an offering for a fruitful harvest. Another tradition of this festival is soaking Laba garlic in vinegar for twenty days, which is then used during the Chinese New Year to make delicious dumplings, or jiaozi.

Make it happen

Tempted to experience a Chinese festival for yourself? Our brilliant local experts in China are on hand to help. Simply send them a few details of what you would like to do and they can create a bespoke trip just for you. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.