Like other major cultures, the Chinese observe and celebrate many festivals throughout the year. Among all celebrations, none are considered as important as the Four Great Festivals. These being:
• The Lunar New Year
• Qing Ming
• Duanwu Festival i.e. the Dragon Boat Festival
• Zhongqiu Festival i.e. the Mooncake Festival
With the exception of Qing Ming, you’re in for a visual and gourmet treat, if you’re visiting Chinese cities during these festivals.
Note too that all four festivals are celebrated using dates of the lunar calendar. Thus, their corresponding dates on the Gregorian calendar vary each year.
- Lunar New Year
Typical Gregorian Calendar Date: Late January to Mid February
Actual Lunar Calendar Date: First fifteen days of the Chinese Lunar Calendar
The most important ethnic festival for the Chinese, preparations for the “Spring Festival” typically begins a month before the actual dates. Overnight, shops will put up glitzy red and gold decorations. Before long, Lunar New Year bazaars and food fairs will appear all over Chinese cities too.
Larger cities will furthermore host elaborate festive light-ups and cultural performances.
Come the Eve, Chinese cities shut down to allow families to gather for the all-important Reunion Dinner; this, the equivalent of Christmas Eve or Thanksgiving dinner in the West. Cities thereafter slowly return to business with the arrival of the New Year. Home visits, festive fairs, and public performances such as dragon and lion dances will be the norm till the fifteenth day.
The short of it, visiting Chinese cities during the Lunar New Year season is a visual and cultural extravaganza. Naturally, you’ll have a plethora of colorful festive foods to try too.
- Qing Ming
Typical Gregorian Calendar Date: April 4, 5, or 6
Actual Lunar Calendar Date: First day of the fifth Chinese lunisolar term
Also known as the Tomb Sweeping Festival, Qing Ming is the most solemn of the Four Great Chinese Festivals. Chinese families would gather to clean the graves of ancestors and offer incense. Often, food items would also be used during prayer rituals. These dishes would then be left at the graves.
As Qing Ming falls on the first day of the fifth solar term of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, it typically happens on the 4th, 5th, or 6th of April. Coming to associated foods, there is no famous Qing Ming dish although the green Qingtuan glutinous rice dumpling has been popular in China in recent years.
Lastly, Qing Ming is noted for its association with the ancient Hanshi (cold food) observation. The name Qing Ming itself means “clear and bright” too.
- Duanwu Festival
Typical Gregorian Calendar Date: Late May to Mid June
Actual Lunar Calendar Date: Fifth day of the fifth lunar month
More commonly known as the Dragon Boat Festival in the West, Duanwu began as an agricultural ritual but evolved into a commemoration of Chinese cultural heroes. Particularly, the patriotic Qu Yuan from the Warring States Era.
Symbolized by the eponymous Dragon Boat races and the consumption of triangular, glutinous rice dumplings known as Zongzi, Duanwu also marks the beginning of summer on the Chinese Lunar calendar. Interestingly, this culturally significant festival was not a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China till recent years, although celebrations have never stopped.
With the virtues celebrated by the festival still regarded as among the most important in Chinese culture, it is likely Duanwu will continue to be celebrated for a long time. The rising popularity of Dragon Boat Racing as an international competitive sport further ensures this.
- Zhongqiu Festival
Typical Gregorian Calendar Date: September to Early October
Actual Lunar Calendar Date: The fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month
While more commonly called the Mooncake Festival in the West, Zhongqiu actually means “Mid Autumn” in Chinese. An ancient festival with agricultural and historical roots, Zhongqiu is today most heavily associated with the myth of Chang’e and the moon.
In Chinese mythology, the beautiful Chang’e was forever separated from her husband after ingesting an elixir of immortality; she “flew” to the moon. Her heartbroken husband, Houyi, then honored her memory by offering Chang’e’s favorite fruits and cakes before the moon.
Jump forth to today, modern mooncakes are said to resemble the cakes offered by Houyi. On and around the actual festival, Chinese children also carry lanterns at parks and gardens.
Finally, the Mid Autumn Festival is considered the most romantic Chinese ethnic festival. Many young Chinese couples thus opt to marry during the eighth lunar month.