Chinese Customs & Festivals
Lunar Calendar Goes Around in Cycles
Lunar Calendar Goes Around in Cycles
Spring Festival used to be called New Year's
Day and it is still so in much of the countryside. The year of
1996 marked the start of the "year of the rat"
according to the Chinese lunar calendar.
Why rat? The ancient Chinese called each
succeeding year by the name of an animal. They had 12 such
names and after they had run through the list they started
over again. The year of 1993 was the year of the cock, 1994,
the dog, and the year of 1995, the pig. But the story is much more
complicated than that.
By the Shang Dynasty from 16th to 11th
century BC, unearthed oracle bones show that the Chinese had
devised a complicated method of counting time - first days,
later hours, months and years - called the ganzhi
meaning stems and branches, 10 heavenly stems and 12 earthly
branches. The stems are named jia, yi, bing,
ding, wu, ji, geng, xin, ren,
and gui, but expressed in written Chinese characters.
Think of them as the numbers "one", "two",
"three", etc. The branches are named zi, chou,
yin, mao, chen, si, wu, wei,
shen, you, xu, and hai. Think of
them as the 12 letters of the alphabet (A through L).
Combining them allows you to count to 60 in this way: Jiazi
(1-A); yichou (2-B); bingyin (3-C), etc. When
you reach gui (10), you start over with jia (1),
but you still have two more branches to go before repeating
them; so 11 is jiaxu (1-K), 13 is bingzi (3-A),
35 is wuxu (5-K) and 60 is guihai (10-L).
Once you reach 60, you start over again.
Because this system was used to keep track of days, historians
can identify the date of events extending back at least to 772
BC. Starting about 85 AD in the Eastern Han Dynasty, the Ganzhi
system was used to tabulate the years in cycles of 60.
In Chinese rural areas, the ganzhi
counting system is still widely used for counting years and
days. Modern calendars and watches have generally replaced it
for keeping track of months and hours.
In time, the various animals became
identified with the earthly branches. And various
superstitions, like checking to see if proposed marriage
partners had been born under compatible sign. For instance, a
dragon and a tiger should not marry, nor a cock and a tiger.
If that sounds like Western astrology, there is and even more
remarkable coincidence between the ancient Greek circular
representation of the zodiac with its 12 pictorial symbols
around the rim and the ancient Chinese drawing of the earthly
branches also round and circled by
By 1,400 BC, the Shang Dynasty had established that the year,
a complete cycle of seasons, is 365 1/4 days long, that the
time between two new moons is 29 days, but that a lunar year
(12 "moons" or months) is only 354 days long. To
compensate for this discrepancy, they began to repeat a month
whenever the officials in charge decided they were a month out
of sync. Thus there might be two "seventh months" in
But this was soon abandoned and a 13th month
was added periodically at the end of the year. In the early
period of the Spring and Autumn Period from 770 to 476 BC,
they had figured the length of the year so accurately that
they were adding seven extra months to every 19 years. By 475
BC this calculation had been honed to 144 extra months every
391 years. In the meantime, however, the first
system-repeating various months-had again gained favor but
with an addition: a set method of determining which months
should be repeated.
Between 300-200 BC, a new procedure of
dividing the year into weather cycles was adopted. Called the
24 seasonal points, it was designed to help farm work. With
colorful names like "Excited Insects", "Clear
and Bright", "Grain Rains", and "A Little
Cold", the points were 15 or 16 days apart. Usually, each
solar month would contain two points. But not always so with
the lunar months because two such periods would extend over an
average of 30.4 days and the lunar month is only 29 1/2 days.
Months containing only one point would be repeated.
How the ganzhi cycle of 60 works out
using numbers and letters in place of the characters or words
for the 10 heavenly stems (top row) and the 12 earthly
branches (bottem row).
Pure and Bright Day
The Ching Ming Festival, in the third lunar
month, is the day people visit cemeteries to honor their
ancestors and beautify their graves. For that reason, this is
also called gravesweeping day. It has been a popular festivity
to legend, Chong Er, a nobleman's son who live 2,000 years ago,
was forced to live in wxilw for 19 years. Only a few of his
retainers stuck by him, among them Jie Zitui who was Er's
fortunes changed, he wanted to reward accept no weath nor
status for his devotion. Instead, he and his monther retired
to a life of seclusion on a mountain.
Chong Er divined that if he set the mountain
ablaze, he would smoke Jie Zitui and his monther out and then
press reward on them. But after he had reduced the place ti
ashes, Chong Er found his friend and the mother burned and
clingning to a scorched willow tree where they had reparied
rather than accept a prize.
To honor Jie Zitui, people still put out
their kitchen fires and eat cold dihes prepared beforehand.
However,far from sombre, the day is filled
with sporting wcwnts and contests, among them kite-flying,
Chinese football, cockfighting and dog taces, Kites are a
rwmarkable flik art, cut and painted in the shapes of
mythological and operatic characters, butterflies, birds,
goldfish, frongs, dragonflies and other creatures.
Spring Festival is Chinese New Year. The New
Year is the first day of first month in the lunar calendar. It
marks the beginning of Spring Festival. But it is not the
official beginning of spring. Lichun is the beginning of
spring (1st solar term) in the Chinese lunar calendar. Under
the lunar system, Chinese ancient astronomers marked off every
15 days as one solar term calculating the terms according to
the positions of the Earth and the Sun. These terms are still
used today, especially by the Chinese farmers in planning
planting cycles. Lichun is the first day of one of the 15 day
terms and usually falls about ten days after Chinese New
Year's. For instance, the year of 1983 fell on February 13th.
Lichun fell on February 4th. Just as Christmas is the most
festive holiday in the Christian world, Spring Festival is the
most important holiday in China. It lasts 15 days from the New
Year's to Yuanxiao Festival or Lantern Festival. Celebrations
last for two weeks and the State Council officially marks
Spring Festival with a three-day National Holiday.
On New Year's Eve, families get together to
send off the old year and usher in the new, a year which they
hope will be rich in harvest, happiness and success. Everybody
goes to bed later than uaual. Some spend the night to watch
the year go out, chatting or playing card games, watching TV
and nibbling sweets and nuts and all sorts of delicacies. For
the children, it is a treat to set off firecrackers and
fireworks and you can hear them pop and
bang throughout the night.
The first two days of the new year are spent
visting friends or relatives. Most people go back to work on
the fourth day. In the countryside, however, festivities go on
until the fifteenth day which is Lantern Festival.
During Lantern Festival, people decorate
their homes with colourful lanterns and treat themselves with
Yuanxiao, a kind of glutinous rice flour balls stuffed with
sweet fillings or meat or dried cassia flower. Throughout
China, lanterns of every description are put on public
(The First Full Moon of the Lunar Year)
Yuanxiao or "Lantern Festival", on
the 15th Day of the 1st Lunar Month, marks the end of the
Spring Festival. The Chinese people sometimes call it the
Yuanxiao Festival because they like to eat small round
dumplings of sticky rice containing sweet fillings. (Literally
"yuan" means "round one"; xiao means
"overnight".) Some people prefer to call it the
"Feast of Lanterns" because from the 11th century of
the Song Dynasty, it was a custom to hang out various
beautiful lanterns on the 15th of the 1st Lunar months. Along
the main streets in many towns and cities different kinds of
Chinese lanterns were hung. People from country areas
travelled to the busy towns or cities to visit at this time.
This festival scene at night has been
vividly described in many operas and novels. In the Chinese
classical novel Water Margin, the heroes used this
festival as an opportunity to boldly and courageously conquer
the so-called "World Renowned City" Damingfu in
Shandong Province, where they killed the officials and rescued
their friends from prison. This old custom of hanging lanterns
was almost forgotten just prior to liberation because of the
social poverty and unsettled life of the people. Nowadays, in
Beijing, gauze lanterns are hung in shops, some of them having
interesting, historical pictures painted on them. Children and
young people like to play with lanterns. They can be bought in
streets during the Spring Festival.
The game of "Dragon Lantern" is
still played in many places in China. A group of people line
up, each holding a part of the dragon's body. Everyone in the
performance co-operates closely in trying to attract dragon's
eyes. The dragon-dance is more difficult to perform than the
lion dance, which is also part of the festival.
to the Chinese lunar calendar, the 15th day of the eighth
lunar month is the day for the Mid-Autumn Festival.
A Chinese tradition says in ancient times
the Emperor helk ceremonies to offer sacrifices to the sun in
spring and to the moon in autumn. Later, the rites bbecame
prevalent among the common people. According to the book
Nianjie Quhua ("Amusing Stories about the
Festivals"), during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) Emperor
Xuanzong's travel to the Moon Palace added to the festival's
charm and importance. It is said that during a mid-autumn
evening, while the Emperor was enjoying the moonlight, a magic
Taoist priest named Luo Gongyuan invited him to see the Moon
Palace. Luo threw his stick into the air and it streaked
across the sky to the moon. Immediately, a silver bridge from
the heavens stretched before them. Across the bridge, the
Emperor was a magnificent palace. A plaque above the gate
read: "Guanghangong" meaning "Vast and Cold
Palace". By the gate stood a tall, sweet-scented
osmanthus tree, under which a white rabbit mixed a medicine by
grotesque mountains and exquisite jade buildings. Hundreds of
beautifully-dresses dancing maidens surrounded him accompanied
by melodious music and entertaining him with delicious cakes
shaped like the full moon.
Upon returning to the earth, the Emperor
ordered cakes modelled after his vision.
In China, the full moon symbolizes
reunion.Whenever the Mid-Autumn Festival sets in, people will
look up at the full silver moon, thinking of their nearby
relatives or friends, as well as those who are far from home.
A line from a verse "The moon at the home village is
exceptionally brighter" expresses those feelings.
On the evening when the full moon rises,
people get together to eat moon cakes. Some cakes will be sent
to absent ones or saved at home for them. The sweet cakes are
stuffed with sugar, red bean paste, melon seeds, dried flower
petals or sesame. The salty ones are stuffed with meat. The
surface of the cakes is patterned with clouds, the moon, the
rabbit, the Guangdong, Suzhou, and Chaozhou styles are
acknowledged as the best.
As the Chinese saying goes, on festive
occasions more than ever we think of our dear ones far away.
Dragon Boat Festival
Duan Wu, or the Dragon Boat Festival, falls on
the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar
calendar. During the festival there are dragon boat races, and
people eat zongzi, pyramid-shaped dumplings wrapped in
bamboo or reed leaves. They are made of glutinous rice and
stuffed with pork, ham, chicken, dates, or sweet bean paste.
The custom of eating zongzi and
holding boat races during the Dragon Boat Festival originated
in memory of Qu Yuan (339-c. 278 BC), a renowned poet,
politician, and thinker who lived over two thousand years ago
in the Chu State during the Warring States Period. Qu, as an
important official of the Chu State, advocated the union of
the six states against Qin as well as political nobility. Qu
was later exiled to what is now the eastern part of Hunan
Province. During his banishment, Qu Yuan did not give up his
fight; he talked, taught, and wrote about his ideas. His works
"Li Sao" and "Tian Wen" are literary
masterpieces as well as invaluable records of China's ancient
culture. When Qu Yuan heard that his country had been defeated
by the powerful Qin State, he was plunged into such deep
despair that he drowned himself in the Miluo River in Hunan
Province on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, 278 BC.
Legend says that when the news spread of
Qu's drowning, the people of the Chu State rushed to the scene
in their boats to search for his body. Since every one wanted
to be the first to find him, the search soon became a race.
Because the court forbade any formal ceremony in his memory,
local people held boat races each year on the anniversary of
Various tales link Qu Yuan and zongzi.
One story says people made dumplings and dropped them into the
river to prevent Qu Yuan from being hungry. Another has its
origin in superstition. People believed that a man's soul
would not be permitted to enter heaven if his body was not
intact; thus, they dropped zongzi into the river in the
hope that the fish would not eat Qu Yuan's body.
Although the stories about Qu Yuan are
popular, some say that the Dragon Boat Festival originated
before his time. Then people considered themselves descendants
of the dragon and worshipped the God Totem. They threw into
the river food which had been put in hollowed-out bamboo or
wrapped in leaves. Then, to the sound of beating drums, they
boarded boats and raced in the river.
In any case, boat-racing is popular along
waterways in many southern cities and towns. On the day of the
festival, boats are decorated in the shape of a dragon with a
drum and a gong on each boat to set the pace. With a shout
"Dragon away", the race starts and the dragon boats
skim over the water, powered by teams of skilled oarsmen who
have been practising for months. Strength, teamwork, and
split-second timing are all important in the race. The oarsmen
often sing songs with an emphatic, drum-beat rhythm as they
race for finish line to the excited cheers from spectators on
both banks of the river.
There are two main kinds of zongzi-Guangdong
and Jiaxing style. Although they are both in the shape of the
pyramid, Guangdong zongzi are longer and have various
kinds of stuffings. Jiaxing zongzi are smaller and are
usually stuffed with pork or bean paste.
There are a number of famous zongzi
stores in China. Wufang Zongzi Store in Jiaxing city, Zhejiang
Province, is one of them. It has existed for more than fifty
years and is well-known for the high quality ingredients, the
distinctive flavour and the careful preparation of its zongzi.
To make zongzi, first wash the
glutinous rice quickly without allowing it to macerate, drain
it for about fifteen minutes, and then mix it with soy sauce,
sugar, and a little salt. Many master chefs use cane sugar ot
sweeten the rice and make the dumpling look brighter. Next,
dice the pork for the stuffing and marinate it in a mixture of
choice soy sauce, sugar, fine salt, kitchen wine, and
monosodium glutamate. Then the wrapping begins. First fold the
bamboo or the reed leaves into a cone. Fill it abot one third
full with rice, and bind it tightly with thread. Finally, put zongzi
into a pot and boil for four hours before eating.
During the Dragon Boat Festival zongzi
make good presents for relatives and friends. They are also an
inexpensive and delicious snack. Because some of the best
ones, such as Wufang zongzi, will keep for over three
months, they can be exported to Hong Kong, Macao, and foreign