The Chinese celebrate a wide variety of festivals since ancient times, which have evolved from one dynasty to the next. These festivals are a time to rejoice and reunite and also involve the savouring of various symbolic cuisine. Here’s looking at 3 major festivals:
Chinese New Year (February 5)
Also known as Spring festival, this festival not only contributes to the economy but also helps in bringing society together for one helluva good time! Its origins can be found back to time of rule Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) and involves appeasing ones’ ancestors through participating in traditional rituals that are time honoured, such as cleaning the house in order to cleanse and get rid of bad qi (bad energy) that hasaccumulated over the years and in ritual,food and paper goods are sacrificed as well as setting off firecrackers to remove evil spirits. Elders also give money to kids in colourful envelopes which is a symbol of bringing great life and longevity. This festival is also a way of sending a signal to warn farmers that spring is about to arrive. It occurs in late January or mid-February according to the Gregorian Calendar.
Food also is very important in Chinese New Year and dumplings are a vital delicacy in Chinese cuisine, as well as in the culture. The shape of dumplings is pretty much the same as the shape of a Chinese gold nuggets. Similarly, the shape of grains and sticky rice/Wan Gao, a traditional staple also reminds one of the shape of pieces of gold and hence, they too play an important role in Chinese culture and New Year cuisine. Noodles are eaten in the belief that they will bring longevity. Yu- the Chinese word for ‘fish’- also translates into‘plentiful’ or ‘abundant’ and as a result, eating fish is considered the best way to get a lot of foodduring the whole year.
Lantern Festival (February 19)
China’s Lantern Festival started 2,000 years ago and celebrates reunions at family and society, but was initially started as a ritual to worship the Moon in ancient China. Itis celebrated on the first day of the first month of the Lunar Calendar and falls on the first full moon of New Year and it also celebrates the return of Spring and the end of the Chinese New Year.
The origins of this festival can be traced back to eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) during the reign of Emperor Haming Di, a supporter of Buddhism who heard that the monks liked to light lanterns on the 15th day of the first Lunar month. The emperor liked this tradition and decided to let everyone in his palace and his kingdom light lanterns and candles on the same evening. The lighting of and appreciation of lanterns and candles is seen as a way to express good wishes for the future of ones’ family.
Dragon dances are also held and they are a means of warding off evil spirits and to usher in good fortitude and safety in the coming year. These dragons move from shop to shop, collecting cabbages and red envelopes.
It is also customary to eat tang yuan or yuan Xiao, which are round soup balls afterwhich the festival is named. They’re made from glutinous rice flour with different fillings inside which are usually sweet. So, if you have a sweet tooth, then, are you in for a treat! The most common (and not to forget,mouth-watering) fillings are peanuts with brown sugar, sweet black sesame paste, sweet red bean, etc. and they are generally steamed and served in fermented sweet water. The round shape of the balls also signifies wholeness and togetherness.
Speaking of love and togetherness, this festival is also considered the ‘true’ Chinese Valentine’s Day and one of the reasons for this is due to the fact that in old Chinese times, women were allowed to go outside only on this day to light lanterns, stroll freely, play games and interact with men. This has given rise to many wild and amorous encounters and love stories which then spread as gossip. Apart from this, many people write riddles on lanterns before releasing them in the air in the hopes that their lanterns will float to their beloved or reach their crushes who will reciprocate the love.
Back in Emperor Ming’s dynasty, the citizens would hang lanterns at the palace and in temples. When the emperor decided to combine both these rituals, he further developed the Lantern Festival, giving rise to the current one that is well known in China now. However back then, it would last for a whole month, making it the longest running festival in Ancient China.
The Torch festival celebrated simultaneously with Lantern. In ancient times, torches were used to chase away pests and insects praying for a great harvest. Now, they are used as a means to chase away ill omens and usher in good tidings. During this festival within a festival, the kids gather tree branches and firewood to make into makeshift torches which are lit by adults. They then hold these torches and entire communities gather to dance in thefields from dusk till dawn.
There is also a Vegetable Stealing Festival when a group of girls steal Chinese Cabbage from someone’s fields. It is however forbidden to steal from one’s own family and friends. Later, everyone feasts on the stolen cabbage and it is believed that whoever eats the most will be rewarded with a bride or groom and will be the first to marry. In this case, stealing actually comes with benefits and no jail-time!
Activities that are held during this festival include moon-gazing, lion dances and eating rice balls. The lion dance is a sight to behold as it involves intricately designed lions which have moveable eyes and mouths. Sometimes, the lion will open its mouth to demand food and red envelopes similar to the dragons, while other times, they will roll around and play with the crowds like oversized kittens. Either way, they’re nothing to be scared of and areloved by all.
There are variations of the Lantern festival wherever you may go in China and it is celebrated differently, but with the same pomp and joy and devout spirit by the locals. Similarly, there are variations of the lanterns created and released during this festival, such as palm-sized globe lanterns, the Kangming lantern which is the most famous variation which represents success,hope and happiness and is used to make wishes and the sky lanterns or tian deng (Chinese for ‘adding children’) which are gifted to newlyweds and couples without kids to pass on blessings. The small lanterns are gifted to expectant/pregnant women to wish safety and healthfor mothers and their children. On some regions people also fire up lanterns in order to guess the gender of future kids using the form of the ashes.
And if you thought that this festival was only about the lanterns, then you thought wrong. In the city of Fenyang, the lantern is replaced by swings and there is a saying something like- “Swing during the Lantern festival and there’ll be no aches or pains throughout the year.”
In Hebei, there are Jing Xing La Hua performances involving folks holding fans and parasol-like props whiledancing to the beat of the drum and cymbals.
Mid-Autumn festival (September 13)
This festival is celebrated on the 15th day on the 8th month of the Lunar calendar, usually in the night of full moon between early September and early October of the Gregorian Calendar. It celebrates the fullness of the moon, which has been a deity that the Chinese have worshipped since the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.). The Chineseemperor believed that worshippingand giving offerings to the moonwould bring plentiful harvest for the full year. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D), the officials had begun to hold big parties in honour of the moon, whereas the commoners would drink wine and gaze at the moon.
While Chinese New Year holds dishes like the soup ball in high reverence and each Chinese dish represents a symbol of some kind, similarly mooncakes have become synonymous with the mid-Autumn Festival. These cakes are made from egg-based pastry skin with a sweet dense filling. Traditional mooncake fillings include lotus seed paste, sweet red bean,nuts, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, almonds, egg yolk, jujube paste and a variety of other fillings that will get your mouth watering. Modern flavours like ice cream, fruit flavour and mochi mooncakes have also been introduced recently and have also caught on with the youth now. In Chinese culture, the roundness of the mooncakes symbolises prosperity and togetherness for the whole family. Mooncakes are gifted to friends and family to convey best wishes and to express love to ones’ family and friends.
The only left to do now, is to pack your bags and start your journey, in order to see these amazing events in person. But before you start your adventures in China, make sure to visit the German website from Backpackertrail. There you will find more information on what to expect during your trip!
List of other major festivals
February- Spring Festival
April- Qing Ming Jie
June- Dragon Boat Festival
August- Chinese Valentine’s Day, Spirit festival
October- Double Ninth Festival
December- Christmas Day.