Backgrounders June 3, 2024


by Aditi Dash


China's four recognized festivals are the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Qingming Festival. The contemporary status of these festivals is the outcome of changes in the calendar and selective recognition by the ROC and PRC over the decades. The four officially recognised festivals draw from a predominantly Han Chinese background, and the unique festivals of ethnic minorities do not earn the same recognition. The festivals have come to represent more than an affinity for folklore and superstitious belief, as they are now commercially viable for the tourism industry of China.


Festivals are community celebrations that form around expressions of religion, folklore or seasonal occurrences. In China, festivals are often the result of centuries of local beliefs and traditions that amalgamate into unique expressions of culture. A single commonality between almost every Chinese festival is their original social context; ancient China was a majorly agrarian society following a seasonal and lunisolar based time-tracking system. The traditional Chinese calendar marked the passage of time through agricultural phases, differing from the western Gregorian calendar which focuses solely on the orbit of the Earth. Originating in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC), the calendar labels each of its 24 divisions with a natural phenomenon that is expected to occur at the time. The result is a framework to understand crop timings, harvest seasons and auspicious dates and times necessary for rituals and celebrations. Given the vast geographical size of China and the various communities inhabiting it, it is no surprise that the calendar itself has been subject to change as the various ruling powers rose and fell.

The current status and popularity of Chinese festivals is preceded by a history of political complications. The Republic of China’s (ROC) 1912 decision to adopt the Gregorian calendar in place of the lunisolar agrarian calendars was met with backlash due to the dismissal of Chinese culture through denouncing traditional festivals. The rich cultural heritage of Chinese celebrations faced several decades of erasure starting from 1912. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) began to recognize certain festivals only after 1949, however the “old customs” were still criticized and denounced. This led to discrepancies in public holidays and closures as well as the use of legal force to ensure citizens’ cooperation with the new decrees. The system began to change in the 1970s as people began to advocate for holidays during the Chinese New Year. Simultaneously, the people of China began to foster more positive feelings towards traditional values and festivals, leading to a revitalization of interest. By 2006, six out of the countless festivals of China were registered as Intangible Cultural Heritage via UNESCO, and the four most widely celebrated were made public holidays. The contemporary status of the festivals is the outcome of the changes in the calendar and the selective recognition of the ROC and PRC over the decades.

The four recognized festivals are the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Qingming Festival. These festivals majorly originate from the Han majority ethnic group, though most are celebrated in some form by ethnic minorities and non-Chinese Asian countries. These festivals do not correspond directly to Gregorian dates, but are rather decided based on lunar and solar cycles tracked through traditional calendars.

Spring Festival - Chinese New Year

The first day of the Chinese Lunar Calendar is celebrated as the Spring Festival, commonly referred to as Chinese New Year. However, the festivities traditionally begin days before the day of the New Year. The festival has evolved to be the most significant Chinese holiday of the year, celebrated for over 15 days with at least 5 days off from work. While legally banned between 1967 and 1980, the traditional celebrations have been reinstated and promoted as part of China’s cultural heritage in recent times. As shops and stores are closed during the main days of the celebration, gifts and food items are bought in advance to prepare for the celebration. Travel to China is the significant during this time of the year as Chinese migrants living abroad return to their homes to reunite with family and friends to celebrate the upcoming year, however due to the great volumes of migration out of China, those who opt to not return also tend to participate in local celebrations. The Chinese diaspora of America, Europe and neighboring Asian countries have been known to celebrate variations of the iconic and ancient festival.

Originating in the period of the Western Zhou (1046-771 BC), the Spring Festival was a sacred dedication to the gods as the agricultural season slowed in winter. The people are said to have drunk rice wine and sacrificed lamb alongside other ritualistic behaviours in the 10th month of the solar calendar. The primitive form of the festival occurred in late-Autumn, and is described in The Book of Songs (11th to 7th BCE) in the poem “July”. The Qin Dynasty’s adoption of the lunisolar Calendar led to the unification of various rituals onto the same day, the first day of the first lunar month. The rituals began to expand and spread throughout Qin China to include activities held in different regions and times, and by the end of the 5th century, the traditional festivities of the Spring Festival were crystallized. Tang dynasty culture marked a change in the festivities from superstition to recreational. The festivities began to include watching dragon and lion dances, making time for relatives, eating special foods and staying up all night on New Year’s eve to celebrate. The function of the festivities shifted from superstition to socialization as a result of the economic and political prosperity of the dynasty in power.

The festival follows a sequence of activities conducted over several days. Festivities begin with rituals to allow the kitchen God, Zao Jun (灶君) to depart the home and ascend to heaven to report on the activities of the house to the Jade Emperor. The New Year’s Eve is celebrated with offerings and feasts, with a focus on reuniting with family as elders distribute money to the children of the family. The décor associated with superstitious belief is set up, and the family stays awake till the beginning of the New Year. The following 15 days of the festival are celebrated with firecrackers, incense and the worship of household Gods and superstitious rituals to ensure good fortune for the coming year. The festivities end with a Lantern festival on the 15th day.

The superstitions behind the rituals of Chinese New Year vary from region to region. The most common myth to explain the festival is story of the Chinese people’s victory over their fear of the great mountain beast Nian (年). The story describes the Nian, a beast with an insatiable appetite that tormented human civilization once a year. The people of the village would lock their doors, pay respect to their ancestors and feast on the night of Nian’s arrival to spend a final night of harmony with family. The members of the family would stay awake the entire night until the danger passed. A different iteration of the same story describes a different set of rituals to scare away the Nian. A beggar who arrived at a village on the day before the Nian’s annual appearance is said to have been given shelter by an old woman. As a means of thanking her, he began to assemble red paper decorations and firecrackers, which scared the beast away when he arrived at night. The traditions of welcoming the New Year at night and the traditional décor seem to derive from these stories.

The tradition of handing out red envelopes with coins originates from a fear of a different spirit, the “Sui” (祟). Said to appear on New Year’s Eve, the spirit would cause children to fall irreversibly sick, but was thwarted by parents placing a red envelope with coins by the sleeping child. The reflection of moonlight supposedly scares the spirit away, protecting the child from the accursed illness. The story of the Lantern Festival similarly focuses on ancient Chinese mythology; in an attempt to avenge the death of a heavenly swan, killed on Earth, the angered Jade emperor schemed to burn the earth. The humans who caught wind of this plan used firecrackers and lanterns to trick the Jade Emperor into believing the earth was already aflame, thus avoiding his wrath. This practice developed into the Lantern Festival, the final part of the Chinese New Year’s festivities. The sending off of the Stove God is another ancient pagan tradition that continues to survive in modern celebrations. The festivities begin by setting out traditional sweets in the kitchen of the home. The recipient of these sweets is the Chinese Stove God, Zao Jun (灶君), as he is believed to be watching over each house from their kitchen on behalf of the Jade Emperor and reporting the misdeeds occurring over the year. The purpose of the sweets is to literally “sweeten” his words or stick his teeth together, so he refrains from speaking of the negative actions he witnessed. The statues of him are later wiped clean and posters of his image are burnt to represent his departure for the heavens and the new beginnings the family will face in the coming year.

The foods made as part of the celebration are collections of unique traditional treats that originate in folklore. One common food eaten at midnight on New Year’s Eve is jiaozi or Chinese dumplings which are shaped like ingots of silver, symbolizing the wish for fortune in the coming year. A different myth relates their appearance to human ears, tying their origin to the story of the Goddess Nuwa (女娲). The goddess is said to have created humans from clay and sewn their ears in place using thread connected to their mouth. Dumplings would then be eaten around the time of the Spring Festival, as people would be grateful that the goddess stopped their ears from falling off. Other common foods include various rice cakes, turnip cakes, osmanthus-based desserts and others, which vary greatly from region to region, though they all symbolize the wish for longevity, harmony and prosperity in the coming year.

Mid-Autumn Festival

Autumn falls in the seventh, eighth and ninth months of the Chinese Lunar calendar, and the Mid-Autumn festival takes place on the 15th of the eight months. Most of the festivities center around the full moon, as the moons orbit places it at its closest position to the Earth, making it appear larger and brighter than usual. Also called the “Family Reunion Festival”, the festivities are a day for family to gather and partake in the traditions together. The Chinese people traditionally worshipped the moon with offerings of wine and food to pray for good luck and show appreciation for good harvests, alongside other social activities such as games and poetry. The festival was first mentioned in the Western Zhou Dynasty text, “Rites of the Zhou” as early as 3,000 years ago.

The moon is a significant setting for Chinese mythology and folklore, with various characters associated with it. The Jade Rabbit is one such resident of the moon. The rabbit is said to have been blessed by the Jade Emperor for its selfless nature and the Mid-Autumn festival’s full moon marks the day its distinct shape is most visible on the moon. Alternatively, the dark shadow of the moon is also believed to be a large osmanthus tree which blooms annually in autumn. Like the rabbit, the woodcutter Wu Gang inhabits the moon as a result of his goal of becoming immortal, which leads the Jade Emperor to task him with cutting down the eternal osmanthus tree. While every region of China has a moon-related mythology, the most popular story is that of Chang’e, the queen of the lunar realm.

The most commonly told story starts with the hunter, Hou Yi’s, heroic achievement of shooting down calamity-causing suns in the sky. As a reward for his deed, the Queen Mother of the West granted him an elixir of immortality. Unwilling to part with his mortal wife, Chang’e, the elixir was left untouched until Chang’e eventually drinks it to avoid it falling into the wrong hands. The common ending for each variation of the story is Chang’e consuming the elixir and floating to the moon. Hou Yi and the rest of the village commemorated her by placing out offerings, which would eventually become cemented as a staple tradition of the Mid-Autumn Festival as Chinese people pay their respects to the Moon Goddess. Chang’e became the queen of the moon, while Hou Yi was the ruler of the solar realm, and the two are able to meet once a year when the moon is closest to the earth.

While modern Chinese people no longer believe in the spiritual facets of the indigenous religion, the myth of the woman on the moon still represents the Chinese view of the moon as an eternal but lonely symbol, which is visible in Chinese poetry through the ages. The custom of praying to the moon and the mythological figures residing on it are significant facets of the festivities. Traditionally, people would set up altars consisting of clay statues of the Jade Rabbit, offer fruits and tea to the moon and its inhabitants, as well as make place for the family to converse as they observe the moon.

Much like the Spring Festival, the traditional foods made to celebrate vary by region, except for one commonality; the mooncake or yuebing (月饼). First eaten in the Tang Dynasty, the round cakes resemble the moon and represent the concept of happy reunions and are traditionally gifted during the festival. While the mooncakes are a common feature of the festivals, they represent the diversity of the various regions and ethnic groups of China through a variety of fillings and pastry recipes, with new varieties being developed to cater to modern tastes. The tradition of making and sharing mooncakes is not limited to mainland China, as many neighboring countries consume mooncakes as part of their mid-autumn festivities as well.

The political complications involved in the switch from the traditional Chinese Lunar calendar led to significant loss in the customs and meanings associated with the Mid-Autumn festival. The Mid-Autumn festival was formally recognized as a holiday in 2008 and has been undergoing a modern revitalization ever since. The cultural context surrounding most Chinese festivals has seen a great change since their conception, as the shift from agrarian to modern life has changed the meaning behind several of the festival activities. The resurgence of the festivities has a commercial angle, as the production of mooncakes are supported greatly during the festival.

Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival is one of the four UNESCO-recognized intangible cultural heritages of China. Also referred to as the Double Fifth Festival, it is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese Calendar. Unlike the Mid-Autumn Festival or the Spring Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival’s commonly accepted origin lies in a traditional folktale rather than a mythological story. The festival is commemorative of the Chu Dynasty’s Prime Minister and the earliest known Chinese poet during the Warring States period, Qu Yuan. The story states that Qu called for the collaborative effort of the other states against the Qin Dynasty and was shunned for his ideas. Upon the Qin Dynasty’s victory over the Chu, Qu drowned himself in the Miluo river on the fifth day of the fifth month in 278 BC. The traditions followed during the festival derive from the people’s reactions to his death, as they began to row boats and throw food into the river to distract the fish from his body. This story originates from Hubei and coexists with other stories of heroes from other regions.

The tradition of Dragon boats is an annual race that takes place across China, though mostly on the Yangtze River. Huge, decorated boats, rowed by a large crew of people from the village are used to represent the boats on which the people searched for Qu’s body. It represents friendly competition within the village. The story of Qu Yuan is also the origin of the iconic rice-based treat, Zongzi (粽子), eaten during the festival. Zongzi are bamboo tubes filled with glutinous rice and sealed with lily leaves, specifically prepared to ensure the offerings reach Qu Yuan and are not eaten by dragons. The Dragon Boat festival was made a public holiday in China in 2008, after several decades of being unrecognised.

Tomb-Sweeping Day - Qingming Festival

China’s fourth officially recognized festival is two weeks after the spring equinox. The Qingming Festival is one of familial connections, where the ancestral spirits are commemorated. The festival originated from a more ancient story of the “Smoke-Banning” festival, hanshi jie. The story takes place in the 6th century BC and follows the tragedy of the Jie Zitui. According to one version of the story, Jie offered a section of his own flesh to an exiled prince, Jin Wengong, to save him from starving to death. The prince survived and eventually rose to the position of king, however as he did not appropriately reward Jie, he left for the mountains. In an act of remorse, Wen sought out Jie in the dense forest of the mountain, but the search was futile, until Wen ordered his army to light the forest on fire to force Jie out. This act proved to be fatal, as Wen later discovered the corpses of Jie and his mother under a willow tree, with a letter written in blood. Jin Wengong announced that no fires should be lit on the day, starting the tradition of the hanshi jie. The modern iteration of the Qingming festival also includes notions of fertility and renewal of life, as it falls at the start of spring.

The people of China consider ancestor worship a necessary aspect of life, as the dead are expected to be cared for as a part of a person’s duty. Disrespect towards an ancestor is said to cause the descendants to be punished.  Though concepts like fengshui are condemned and considered non-scientific in the modern China, funerary rites continue to make use of them to ensure the happiness of the deceased. The tombs are visited during the tomb-sweeping day festival, and families are expected to maintain the site by cutting down weeds and sweeping once a year. Incense is burned and food and offerings are arranged in a picnic-like set up. The ancestors are not only housed in their gravesites, but also in ancestral halls in the family home. The spirit is represented by a tablet, and is served fully processed human foods, especially dishes the person enjoyed in life. On the other hand, the grave at the tomb site is offered partially processed and less palatable food, as the gravesite is seen to be an open area where any other spirits may also make use of the offering.

After tending to the ancestors, the festival takes shape as a spring holiday as people play games and enjoy the pleasant weather. One such recreational activity is the tradition of kite flying, which originate from a Spring and Autumn Period tradition over 2,500 years ago. The kites are often shaped to represent animals or folklore characters, and the tradition has been assimilated to countries around the world.


While the People’s Republic of China only recognises these four festivals as official holidays, it is important to note that the large and diverse population of China is home to several other traditions and iterations of these festivities. The four officially recognised festivals draw from a predominantly Han Chinese background, and the unique festivals of ethnic minorities do not earn the same recognition. The cultural significance of the long-standing beliefs behind Chinese festivals inhibits the government’s attempts to enforce secularity. While considered outdated by the PRC, spiritual concepts like feng shui, ancestral worship and mythology are kept alive through the traditional festivities performed throughout China. The Spring Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Dragon Boat festival have come to represent more than an affinity for folklore and superstitious belief, as they are now commercially viable for the tourism industry of China. While policies to outlaw holidays exist and have been enforced, the population of China, as well as the diaspora outside of China, still consider these festivals an important facet of the Chinese identity.


Aditi Dash is an undergraduate student of Literary and Cultural Studies at FLAME University. Her interests span the academic study of literature and art history, as well as anthropological concepts of culture and social behaviour.

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