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Chinese Festivals

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Chinese New Year or Spring Festival

Far and away the most important holiday in China is Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese New Year. To the Chinese people it is as important as Christmas to people in the West and should always be spent with family. It is a time for people to look back over their work in the previous year and to look forward with hope and anticipation that the New Year will be happy, auspicious, prosperous and peaceful. Chinese people always celebrate the Chinese New Year no matter where they are.

The dates for this annual celebration are determined by the lunar calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar, so the timing of the holiday varies from late January to early February. To the ordinary Chinese, the festival actually begins on the eve of the lunar New Year's Day and ends on the fifth day of the first month of the lunar calendar. But the 15th of the first month, which normally is called the Lantern Festival, means the official end of the Spring Festival in many parts of the country.

Preparations for the New Year begin the last few days of the last moon, when houses are thoroughly cleaned, debts repaid, hair cut and new clothes purchased. Houses are festooned with paper scrolls bearing auspicious antithetical couplets (as show on both sides of the page) and people burn incense at home and in the temples to pay respect to ancestors and ask the gods for good health in the coming months.

There are many legends about the Chinese New Year with one of the most popular being about a strange animal called Nian in Chinese and Year in English. It was said that Nian was so strong and ferocious that his roar could shake the skies and the earth and in cold winters when he could find no prey in the mountains he would come down to attack the villages.

People lived in fear of Nian and over time discovered that he was afraid of three things: The colour Red, Flame and Sound. Therefore, one winter before Nian was about to come down from the mountains, the villagers put up red colours, lit fires in front of every house and stayed up all night making different sounds. Nian was so frightened by this demonstration he went away never to return.

To commemorate this victory and ensure their continued safety, people put antithetical couplets on their front doors, lit candles and lanterns, beat drums and strike gourds, and stayed up most of the night to wish each other Happy New Year the next morning.

This custom has been passed down through the centuries and may be why Red is so popular with Chinese people, and firecrackers, lanterns, Gongs and Drums are so much a part of the celebrations at New Year. Traditional New Year celebrations also incorporate a lion dance to bring prosperity, and fire crackers to ward off evil spirits and welcome a new beginning.

Guo Nian meaning passing the year, is the common term among the Chinese people for celebrating the Spring Festival but don't forget to say Gong Xi Fa Cai next Chinese New Year.

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Chinese New Year

The Lantern Festival

The 15th day of the first lunar month is Yuanxiao Jie or The Lantern Festival. Each year, there is an exhibition of coloured lanterns at night, every family hangs red lanterns over their gates, children carry all kinds of coloured lanterns, and in streets and squares, coloured lantern sheds are built for lantern exhibitions. Everyone has a part in the Lantern Festival and all go to see the myriad lanterns festooning the neighbourhood.

The Lantern Festival is a traditional festival for the whole of China but the way the lanterns are made differs according to the natural environment. So lanterns made in the north are quite unique to the ones made in the south. In Northern Shaanxi Province, women in the countryside use sorghum stalks to make lantern frames, then paste red paper on the frames. In this way, they make all sorts of lanterns, such as pumpkins, persimmons and even sheep lanterns. They also cut potatoes into a bowl shape, fill them with oil, add lamp wicks, and cover the potatoes with red paper lampshades. Even the cave dwellers of the region engage in the festivities hanging red lanterns over the gates of their caves. Willow trees are also decorated with coloured paper or hung with Red lanterns. The trees are then called lantern trees or spark trees.

Beijing was the capital of several dynasties in Chinese history and on the Lantern Festival all sorts of lanterns were hung in the palace. Artists made fancy lanterns whose frames were made with fine carved wood and covered with silk, gauze, glass and sliced ox horn on which pictures of landscapes, flowers and birds were painted. At the Dengshikou (Lantern Fair Gateway) near Wangfujing Street lantern exhibitions were held during the imperial times.

Harbin in North China is very special as the city is very cold in the first lunar month. During Lantern Festival it is called the ice city as a lot of the lanterns are made with ice. The sparking, crystal-clear lanterns festooning the streets are truly magical.

Fujian has an abundance of rain, so the buildings on both sides of its streets have overhanging upper storeys known as qi lou to shelter pedestrians from the rain. On the Lantern Festival colourful lanterns are hung over the qi lou. Streets sometimes have thousands of coloured lanterns hung along them. Lanterns come in different shapes, such as bird, animal, flower and fish. Some lanterns are shaped like fruit, such as oranges, lychee and pineapples while some are very modern like rocket and satellite lanterns. Some lanterns send fragrant smells out to waft on the breeze as they contain Sandalwood incense.

One example of the unique local customs surrounding the Lantern Festival is in Quanzhou. On the second day of the first lunar month, newly-married couples bring New Year's gifts to the woman's parents. When the couple returns home, the parents give them two lotus lanterns, one white and the other red. On the night of the Lantern Festival, the young couple hang them beside their bed, and light candles in them. They then wait to see which candle burns out first. If the candle in the white one burns out first, it means they will have a baby boy but if the candle in the red one burns out first, they will have a girl.

In previous times, young women and men did not have free social contact. Therefore, the Lantern Festival became an opportunity to look for marriage partners. There is a famous love story from ancient times among the people of Quanzhou. At one Lantern Festival Huang and Wuniang fell in love at first sight. But Wuniang's father was greedy, so his son disguised himself as a tradesman who polished bronze mirrors. He went to Huang's home to polish their bronze mirror and broke it purposely. To pay for the mirror, he sold himself into the Huang family as a slave. By doing so, he had the chance to meet Wuniang secretly. Eventually he and Wuniang ran away from the family and got married.

No matter where you are in China, the Lantern Festival is a time of celebration and sharing in the magic of the beautiful coloured lanterns.

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Duan Wu - A Day in Memory of a Patriotic Poet

The 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar year is called Duan Wu meaning “Day of Right Mid-Day”. It is a day observed everywhere in China dating back to earliest times.

There are a number of legends to explain its origin but the best known story centres on a patriotic court official and poet named Qu Yuan, of the State of Chu during the Warring States Period more than 2,000 years ago. Qu tried to warn the emperor of an increasingly corrupt government, but was not successful. In a last desperate protest, he threw himself into the river and drowned. The State of Chu was soon annexed by the State of Qin. Later, Qu Yuan's sympathizers jumped into boats, beat the water with their oars and made rice dumplings wrapped in reed-leaves (zongzi) and scattered them into the Miluo River in the hope that fish in the river would eat the rice dumplings instead of the body of the deceased poet.

The custom of making rice dumplings spread to the whole country. Today, people eat glutinous rice cakes to mark the occasion.

At the news of the poet's death, the local people had raced out in boats in an effort to locate his body. Later, the activity became a boat race and the boats gradually developed into dragon-boats. In many places along rivers and on the coast today, the holiday also features dragon-boat races. In these high-spirited competitions, teams of rowers stroke their oars in unison to propel sleek, long vessels through the water.

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The Mid-Autumn Festival also known as Moon Festival or Reunion Festival

The traditional Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. On that night, the moon appears to be at its roundest and brightest. It is a time when sons and daughters bring their family members back to their parents' house for a reunion. Sometimes people who have already settled overseas will come back to visit their parents for the Festival which is why this time of the year can also be referred to as the Reunion Festival.

It is said that a long time ago in ancient China, there were 10 suns in the sky and the people's life was very hard because they could not bear to live in the scorching sun. The hero Hou Yi tried hard to shoot down nine of the suns to help people avoid the burning heat. The Goddess Xiwangmu awarded him a pack of miraculous cures and told him that he could fly into the sky to become immortal after taking the medicine. Unfortunately his wife, Chang Er stole the cure and took it. As a result, she flew into the moon on the night of the 15th day of the 8th month - the Mid-Autumn Festival Day. From then on she was called the Goddess of the Moon. The husband could do nothing but sigh and hold a memorial ceremony for his wife with all the delicious food his wife loved laid out in front of him.

When the legend spread, every family began to follow his example. Since then, people in China pass the night in the same way as he did - putting a lot of delicious food and moon cakes on a table outside in the yard to cherish the memory of family members. These words by Su Dong-Po, a famous Chinese poet, express the true feelings of everyone:

So let us wish that man will live long as he can!
Though miles apart, we'll share the beauty she displays.

The essential food on this occasion is moon cakes; a kind of cookie with fillings of sugar, fat, sesame, walnut, the yoke of preserved eggs, ham or other material. After the ceremony, the family will divide the cakes and eat them while watching the biggest and brightest moon of the year. The moon symbolizes family reunion and happiness for the Chinese hence the name Moon Festival.

There is a Chinese fairytale about a fairy called Chang E, who lived on the moon, a wood cutter named Wu Gang and a jade rabbit which was Chang E's pet. In the old days, people paid respect to the fairy Chang E and her pet the jade rabbit at Moon Festival time but this custom has slowly died out.

Another story about the moon cake originates in the Yun Dynasty. The ruler then was a Mongol and he carried out a policy of nationality discrimination. The Han nationality, being the lowest in position, was very downtrodden. A Mongolian soldier was positioned in every family to keep watch on the Han. Because they'd committed all kinds of crimes, the soldiers aroused deep hatred in the people who wanted to kill the intruders. But the people were at a loss to know what to do. It was not easy to keep a planned revolt secret and the leakage of the plan would cause the loss of many people's lives. Then, Zhu Yun-Zhang, the commander of the insurrectionary army got a good idea from his military counsellor, Liu Bo-Wen. Word was sent out to put a piece of paper in every sesame seed cake. On the paper, they called on people to kill the soldiers on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival after they'd eaten the cake.

They thought this was indeed a good idea. News spread quickly and secretly among the people. The soldiers were killed and the Mongolian rule was overthrown. Later on, people ate the sesame seed cakes on this day every year to celebrate the victory. Gradually, through the years, the sesame seed cakes have been replaced by the moon cakes of today.

Poems on Moon and Home:

The Mid-Autumn Moon
by Li Qiao
A full moon hangs high in the chilly sky,
All say it's the same everywhere, round and bright.
But how can one be sure thousands of li away
Wind and perhaps rain may not be marring the night?
The Yo-Mei Mountain Moon
by Li Bai
The autumn moon is half round above the Yo-mei Mountain;
The pale light falls in and flows with the water of the Ping-Chiang River.
Tonight I leave Ching-Chi of limpid stream for the three Canyons.
And glide down past Yu-Chow, thinking of you whom I can not see.

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Mid-Autumn Festival

The Chongyang Festival or Double Ninth Festival

The Chongyang Festival falls on the ninth day of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, so it is also known as the Double Ninth Festival.

The festival is based on the theory of Yin and Yang, the two opposing principles in nature. Yin is the feminine and negative principle, while Yang is masculine and positive. The ancients believed that all natural phenomena could be explained by this theory including the number of things. Even numbers belong to Yin and odd numbers to Yang. The ninth day of the ninth lunar month is a day when the two Yang numbers meet, so it is called Chongyang. Chong means double in Chinese.

Chongyang has been an important festival since ancient times. The festival is held in the golden season of autumn at harvest-time. The bright, clear weather and the joy of bringing in the harvest make for a festive and happy atmosphere. The Double Ninth Festival is usually perfect for outdoor activities. Many people go hiking and climbing in the country, some carrying a spray of dogwood, enjoying Mother Nature's final burst of colour before she puts on her dull winter cloak.

It is hard to say when the Chongyang customs were created but there are many stories which are closely related. The book Xu Qi Xie Ji, written by Wu Jun in the sixth century has one such story. In ancient times, there lived a man named Huan Jing. He was learning the magic arts from Fei Changfang, who had become an immortal after many years of practicing Taoism. One day, the two were climbing a mountain. Fei Changfang suddenly stopped and looked very upset. He told Huan Jing, 'On the ninth day of the ninth month, disaster will come to your hometown. You must go home immediately. Remember to make a red bag for each one of your family members and put a spray of dogwood in every one. Then you must all tie your bags to your arms, leave home quickly and climb to the top of a mountain. Most importantly, you must all drink some chrysanthemum wine. Only by doing so can your family avoid this disaster.'

On hearing this, Huan Jing rushed home and asked his family to do exactly as his teacher said. The whole family climbed a nearby mountain and did not return until the evening. When they got back home, they found all their animals dead, including the chickens, sheep, dogs and even the powerful ox. Later Huan Jing told his teacher, Fei Changfang, about what had happened. Fei said the poultry and livestock died in place of Huan Jing's family, who escaped disaster by following his instructions.

And so it happened that climbing a mountain, carrying a spray of dogwood and drinking chrysanthemum wine became the traditional activities of the Chongyang Festival.

The dogwood is a plant with a strong fragrance, and is often used as a Chinese herbal medicine. People in ancient times believed it could drive away evil spirits and prevent one from getting a chill in late autumn. So its history as a medicine goes back many centuries. But the custom of carrying a spray of dogwood during the Double Ninth Festival is slowly dying out and many people, especially young people in the cities, do not even know what a dogwood spray looks like.

Even though the tradition of carrying a few sprigs of dogwood is dying out, that of climbing mountains is reaching new heights.

Early in the Western Han Dynasty, about 2,000 years ago, people used to climb a high platform outside the capital city of Chang'an on the occasion of the Chongyang Festival. For many, it was the last outing of the year before the onset of winter. The custom has now evolved to its present form, when people go climbing to get some exercise as well as enjoy the autumn scenery.

But what about those people who live in flat regions far from any mountain? The problem is solved by going for a picnic and eating cakes. The Chinese word for cake is Gao, a homonym of the Chinese word for high. Mountains are high, so eating cake can, by a stretch of the imagination, take the place of going for a climb.

Since nine is the highest odd digit, people take two of them together to signify longevity. Therefore, the ninth day of the ninth month has become a special day for people to pay their respects to the elderly and a day for the elderly to enjoy themselves. It has also been declared China's day for the elderly.

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Double Ninth Festival