The festivals of China are an integral part of its predominantly agricultural society. Most are based on the lunar calendar which means that some dates are not set but vary from year to year as does our Easter. Underlying some of the older festivals are the ancient rites and festivities connected with the farming year. Vast political changes have done little to alter the essential elements of these ceremonies though in the cities some modern adaptations have evolved. Below is a diary of the main celebrations that affect children.
This, the most important Chinese festival, falls at the end of January or early February. It is a time for all the family to be together, visit friends, buy new clothes, clean and brighten up the homes and cook, over many days, a variety of special dishes. Brightly coloured paper-cuts are often pasted on the windows and words of happy omen written on scrolls on either side of the door. Strings of firecrackers, originally intended to frighten away evil spirits, are now let off for fun by the children. For those who live or work far from home, several weeks' leave is allowed at this time.
About two weeks after New Year's Day, this festival marks the end of the Spring Festival celebrations. Lanterns adorn homes, restaurants and temples to celebrate the return of Spring and light in a ceremony going back over 2,000 years to the Han dynasty.
This usually falls in early April or late March. Traditionally it was the day when the Chinese visited the graves of their ancestors to leave food and other offerings. For three days before Qing Ming, no fires could be lit in homes, while the graves were being tidied and decorated. In the countryside, Qing Ming marks the start of spring Festival celebrations. Lanterns adorn their ancestors to leave food and other ploughing; in most parts of China the weather will be pleasant and flowers beginning - a good opportunity for picnics. Since Liberation, this festival has tended to become an occasion for paying respect to revolutionary heroes. Schoolchildren are taken to visit their monuments.
This is celebrated early in May in honour of the famous poet and respected statesman Qu Yuan who in the third century BC drowned himself in protest against a corrupt government. The festival gets its name from the races between long boats decorated like dragons, which still take place, especially in South China and symbolise the attempt to rescue the poet from the river. The traditional food consists of pyramid-shaped dumplings made of sticky rice, wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves and steamed. They recall the tradition that people threw rice in the water to feed the fishes so that they would not devour Qu Yuan's body.
Not a traditional festival, Children's Day is kept on 1 June. It is a national holiday for children, observed throughout China (though to a lesser extent in Hong Kong) in common with many other countries throughout the world. Children are taken to films, puppet-shows and other forms of entertainment.
As its name suggests, this festival is kept in September when the moon is full and harvest is being gathered in. It is the custom, especially in the country, to climb hills to watch the full moon rising. Special cakes are eaten, made of pastry filled with ground lotus, sesame seeds, nuts and dates. They recall an uprising against the Mongols in the 14th century when the call to revolt, written on little bits of paper was embedded in cakes and smuggled to patriots.
On 1st October, the People's Republic of China commemorates its founding in 1949. The day is marked by parades, demonstrations of dancing and other festivities. Everyone is on holiday for two days.
© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 reprinted from China Now 123, Page 18, 1987
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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