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Chinese Studies: Language Learning

A resource guide for students learning Chinese as a second or foreign language

Spring Festival 春节

Chūnjié - 农历1月1日 - also called Lunar New Year or Chinese New Year

Spring Festival is the most important festival in the Chinese calendar and has been celebrated for over four thousand years. These are some of the biggest travel days in China as many people return to their families, making roads and airports especially jammed.

Many people consider Small Year (小年 xiǎonián) the beginning of the season, which is observed about a week before the festival itself. Small Year is believed to be the day that the Kitchen God (灶王爷 Zào Wángyé) goes to heaven to report on the behavior of families to the Jade Emperor (玉帝 Yùdì). Therefore, everyone wants to be as respectful as possible to the Kitchen God before he leaves. After the Kitchen God leaves, people begin to clean their houses (扫尘 sǎochén) in preparation for the festival.

The most important night of the holiday is New Year's Eve, 除夕 (Chúxì). According to legend, there was a monster named 夕 (), also known as 年 (Nián) which is synonymous with word "year" in Chinese. Once every year the monster would terrorize the villages. However, the monster was afraid of loud noises, fire, bright lights, and the color red. For this reason, Chinese people spend New Year's Eve staying up all night, lighting off firecrackers (放鞭炮 fàng biānpào), and wearing bright red. They will also decorate homes in red, hang lanterns, light candles, and paste sayings called 春联 (chūnlián) on the outside of their doors. Families have a huge feast with their families on the eve of the festival called 年夜 (niányè). It is traditional to eat dumplings, long noodles, chicken, and 年糕 (niángāo), which are cakes made from glutinous rice. Elders give children 红包 (hóngbāo), red envelopes with money inside. Many also will attend a Spring Festival Parade to watch lion dances.

The festival lasts two weeks, with each day having its own special designated activities. The festival time ends with the Lantern Festival.

A doorway decorated with red lanterns and chun lian, traditional Chinese Spring Festival sayings, pasted to each side of the door.People dressed in a lion costume for the lion dance.A gold and red fish pendant.A hand holding a red envelope surrounded by flowers

Lantern Festival 元宵节

Yuánxiāojié - 农历1月15日

The Lantern Festival marks the end of the Spring Festival season. According to one origin story, the Jade Emperor was angry because some villagers killed his favorite crane, so he planned to burn the village down for revenge. In order to prevent him from doing so, the villagers hung up countless lanterns (灯笼 dēnglóng) and set off firecrackers to make it look like the village was already on fire. The plan worked and the village was saved. Therefore, to this day, people create beautiful lantern displays and set off fireworks and firecrackers to celebrate. Some people also release sky lanterns (天灯 tiāndēng), though they are banned in some places because they are a fire hazard.

It is traditional to eat 元宵 (yuánxiāo) or 汤圆 (tāngyuán) on this holiday. They are soft glutinous rice balls with sweet fillings in soup.

Large, colorful dragon lanterns shining bright at nightTangyuan in a bowl.Red sky lanterns being released into the sky

Tomb Sweeping Day 清明节

Qīngmíngjié - 农历4月初

Tomb Sweeping Day, also called the Qingming Festival, is the traditional holiday to pay respect to one's ancestors. On this day, families will venture to their family gravesites to sweep the tombs (扫墓 sǎomù). At the tomb, they also offer sacrifices of food to their loved ones and burn paper money (烧纸钱 shāo zhǐqián) and incense (烧香 shāo xiāng).

In addition to this, Tomb Sweeping day is special because it represents the arrival of spring. In the old times, Tomb Sweeping day was considered the ideal time to plough and sow the fields. Many people also fly kites on this day (放风筝 fàng fēngzhēng). As for food, some famous foods to eat on Tomb Sweeping Day include 馓子 (sǎnzi), which are fried dough twists. In the south, many people enjoy eating 青团 (qīngtuán), which are fried glutinous rice balls colored green with mugwort.

A traditional Chinese gravesite made of stone with the sun shining through the treesChildren flying a red kite across a bridge in the countryside

Double Seventh Festival 七夕

Qīxī - 农历7月7日 - also called Chinese Valentine's Day

This is considered the most romantic holiday on the Chinese calendar. The traditional story of this holiday is called The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl (牛郎织女 Niúláng Zhīnǚ). The weaver girl (织女 Zhīnǚ) was the youngest daughter of the Jade Emperor and Goddess of Heaven (西王母 Xīwángmǔ). Once when she came down to earth, she fell in love with the Cow Herder (牛郎 Niúláng), got married, and had two children. Because the Weaver Girl was an immortal, her marriage with a mortal defied the rules of the heavens. The Goddess of Heaven ordered the soldiers to retrieve the Weaver Girl and separated the lovers. The Cow Herder tried to get back to his wife by carrying their two children with him in an ox hide. To stop him, the Goddess of Heaven created a giant river, the Milky Way (银河 Yínhé), to separate them. In reaction, a group of magpies created a bridge over the Milky Way in order to let the two reunite. Moved by the beautiful scene, the Goddess of Heaven had a change of heart, and from then on allowed the two only to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. 

Traditionally, Chinese women celebrated Qixi Festival in a variety of ways, including worshipping the Weaver Girl and eating pastries called 巧果 (qiǎoguǒ). Nowadays, Chinese people celebrate it similarly to Valentine's Day in the west, by giving flowers, chocolates, and candy.

A black ox tied up to a brown brick houseThe Milky Way galaxy behind a mountainous horizon

Ghost Festival 中元节

Zhōngyuánjié - 农历7月15日 - also called the Hungry Ghost Festival

Traditional Chinese belief states that during the entire seventh lunar month, sometimes called Ghost Month or 鬼月 (Guǐyuè), the gates of hell are open, and spirits are free to walk around on earth. Therefore, everyone wants to keep the ghosts happy and prevent them from seeking revenge. The fifteenth day of the month is the peak of the Ghost Month and is the Ghost Festival. Like the Qingming Festival, this day is designated for paying respect to deceased ancestors. Families will have food sacrifices for their ancestors and other ghosts. They will also burn paper money and incense.

During this month, there are also many taboos that you are not supposed to do in order to protect yourself from the ghosts, such as walking alone at night, swimming, humming a song, etc. 

Uncooked meat and vegetable dishes for sacrificeBirds eating sacrificial food that was put out on a table outsideBurning incense sticks

Double Ninth Festival 重阳节

Chóngyáng jié - 农历9月9日

According to the legend, there was once a plague monster in Henan province that emerged and terrorized the village, making everyone sick. A hero named Huan Jing, who had lost his parents to the monster, was determined to find a way to kill it. After searching for the solution for many years, he met an immortal who trained him in swordsmanship and taught him how to defeat the monster. When he was ready, Huan Jing lead all of the people up a mountain. Then, he descended the mountain with chrysanthemum wine (菊花酒 júhuājiǔ) and dogwood fruit (茱萸 zhūyú). Upon meeting him, the monster was overwhelmed by the smell and Huan Jing was able to defeat it easily, saving the village.

In accordance with the story, Double Ninth Festival is a day that many people go hiking or climb mountains (爬山 páshān). It is also traditional to drink chrysanthemum wine or tea (菊花茶 júhuāchá). Chongyang cake (重阳糕 Chóngyánggāo) is a sweet food made from rice flour, sugar, jujubes, and nuts. Double Ninth Festival is also a day to respect the elderly; the number nine in Mandarin (九 jiǔ) sounds similar as the word for old (旧 jiù). Many people take this day to visit and celebrate elderly relatives, visit ancestors' graves, and also pray for health and longevity.

A group of people hiking up a mountainA cup of chrysanthemum tea with flowers and petals floating in the tea

Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节

Zhōngqiújié - 农历9月15日 - Also called Moon Festival

Mid-Autumn Festival is a holiday similar to Thanksgiving in which Chinese families reunite and admire the moon (月亮 yuèliàng). The circular shape of the moon represents the continuity of the family. Most families to have a big feast, and they may also put out colorful lanterns (彩灯 cǎidēng).

The traditional story told during Moon Festival is 嫦娥奔月 (Cháng’é bēn yuè, Chang'e Flies to the Moon). The protagonist, 嫦娥 (Cháng’é), is a beautiful girl who falls in love with 后羿 (Hòu Yì), a hero who ended a severe drought by shooting nine out of ten suns out of the sky. As a reward for his bravery, Hou Yi was gifted an elixir of immortality. He did not want to drink the elixir and leave Chang'e, so he told her to store it away. One day, when Hou Yi was not home, a thief broke into the house and attempted to steal the elixir. In order to prevent him from taking it, 嫦娥 quickly drank the elixir and then ascended into heaven, now separated forever from Hou Yi forever. She flew to the moon because it is closest to the earth, and she now lives there with the Jade Rabbit (月兔 Yuètù or 玉兔 Yùtù), which Chinese people describe as the pattern on the moon.

It is traditional to eat mooncakes (月饼 yuèbǐng), which come in many flavors like red bean paste (豆沙 dōushā), salty egg yolk (蛋黄 dànhuáng), lotus (莲花 liánhuā), and even meat-flavored (肉 ròu). Many people also eat duck (鸭肉 yáròu) and other round, moonlike foods like pomelo (柚子 yòuzi) or lotus root (藕 ǒu).

A traditional tapestry of Chang'e standing underneath a treeTwo golden mooncakes decorated with Chinese characters on topA cartoon drawing of two rabbits in traditional clothing holding a plate of mooncakes, with a giant full moon shining behind them