Qingming festival

Traditional festivals in China take on new meanings

October 3, 2014 by Brendan O'Reilly

The ancient traditions of Chinese culture manifest themselves in unique, vibrant festivals. In recent years, as part of an effort to preserve the traditional culture of the Han majority, the Chinese government has reinstated three traditional festivals as public holidays. Ancient festivals have taken on new meanings in a rapidly transforming China, while unofficial celebrations shed light on the changing aspirations of the Chinese people.

There are seven official state holidays in China. Except for a one-day respite on New Year’s Day of the Gregorian calendar, all traditional festivals in China all have explicit political or traditional significance.

The most overtly political holiday in mainland China is National Day (国庆节), celebrated on 1st October. This celebration commemorates the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and also launches the so-called “Golden Week”, an economically-crucial rest period when hundreds of millions of Chinese workers have an entire week off in which to travel and shop.

Labour Day (劳动节) coincides with the International Worker’s Day on 1st May – a rare reminder of China’s nominally socialist polity. Workers receive three days of rest for Labour Day, which are also often spent exploring the possibilities of a consumer society.

One of the most familiar aspects of Chinese culture to Westerners is the Chinese New Year. Based on the traditional Chinese Lunar calendar, it takes place anytime from mid-January to mid-February in the Western calendar. Although occurring well within the coldest weeks of winter, it is optimistically called “Spring Festival” (春节) in colloquial Chinese. Common to many of the cultures of East Asia, from Mongolia to Vietnam and Japan to Tibet, the lunar new year is a raucous time of fireworks, displays of red colours and family reunions.

While the Chinese New Year is the most revered holiday on the Chinese calendar, it is also a time of severe stress for the country’s infrastructure. Traditionally the holiday should be celebrated in one’s hometown, leading to a frantic rush of hundreds of millions of newly urban Chinese back to their ancestral homes before and during the one-week official holiday. A Ministry of Transport spokesperson recently estimated the number of passenger trips in the country during the weeks around Spring Festival to be roughly 3.62bn.

Less familiar to non-Chinese is the celebration of Qingming (清明 ). This festival is somewhat strange for a Chinese traditional celebration in that it is based on the solar cycle, taking place on the fifteenth day after the Spring Equinox (4th or 5th April). The main theme of this holiday is reverence of ancestors. Families head out to clean ancestral graves and burn “hell money” and other offerings to provide comfort to deceased relatives in the afterlife.

Qingming is often referred to as “Tomb-Sweeping Festival” in English. Despite its deep traditional roots, Qingming celebrations have not totally escaped the influences of modern China. In recent years celebrants have started burning paper descriptions of cars, luxury villas and even iPhones to send to their departed loved ones.

Dragon Boat Festival (端午节) proves that Chinese can find just about any excuse to have a celebration. It commemorates Qu Yuan, a poet and minister in the Warring States period (475BCE – 221 BCE) of Chinese history. Rather than submit to unjust rule, Qu drowned himself in a river. The traditional Dragon Boat races originate from a legend of concerned citizens paddling out to save Qu, while the traditional food made of glutinous rice represents the food into the river by Qu’s admirers so that fish would not eat his body. It is celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese lunar calendar (usually sometime in June).

Rounding off the “traditional” Chinese public holidays is “Mid-Autumn Festival” (中秋节), which is held on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month – sometime between early September and the beginning of October. It always coincides with a full moon and is celebrated by lighting floating fire lanterns and eating round “moon cake”. The tradition of eating moon cakes has a nationalist significance for Han Chinese: according to legend, a rebellion against Mongol rule was organized, in part, by messages hidden within moon cakes – which the Mongols refused to eat.

While the traditional Chinese festivals are fascinating in their own right, they also offer insights into the cultural aims of the Chinese state. Qingming, Dragon Boat Festival, and Mid-Autumn Festival were only declared official state holidays in 2008. An article in Xinhua, which asked “How will people spend China’s 1st Qingming Festival Holiday?”,  quoted Professor Xi Zhiqun of Capital Normal University in Beijing as emphasizing the universal appeal of these celebrations: “Qingming, literally meaning Pure Bright, is celebrated by both Han and minority ethnic groups. It is the time when sun shines brightly, trees and grass become green and the nature is again lively.”

Despite Professor Xi’s assurances, Qingming is closely tied to the history and traditions of China’s Han majority. Along with Dragon Boat Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival, the recent official promotion of Qingming points to a turning point in the cultural outlook of the Chinese state and society. As Professor Tang Xiaobing of the University of Michigan explained to China Outlook: “That those time-honoured festivals have become legal holidays is certainly the sign of a comprehensive effort to make Chinese cultural traditions relevant to Chinese society today. It is an effort with broad support and not just of the government’s doing.”

Traditional festivals and customs were once suppressed under Mao Zedong, who sought to smash the “Four Olds” of Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. Since opening up the economy in the 1980s, China’s leaders have been looking for a cultural and moral supplement to socialist ideals in order to shore up their legitimacy. According to Daniel Bell, a professor of political philosophy at Tsinghua University, “the reason that Confucianism is being revived is precisely because there are so many problems in China that need some sort of answer. There’s a need for an increased sense of social responsibility…people sense a kind of moral vacuum.”

Efforts to promote Confucianism can be linked to the opening of the first “Confucius Institutes” to promote Chinese language and culture abroad in 2004. Establishing the three traditional festivals as public holidays in 2008 is a part of a concerted state effort to define and promote Chinese culture.

Of course, explicitly political aims still coincide with cultural efforts. China’s National People’s Congress has recently considered marking 3rd September as an official holiday to mark the victory of allied forces against Japan during the Second World War. The proposal comes at a time of heightened Sino-Japanese tension.

There are a myriad of regional and religious festivals celebrated within China’s vast landscape. Very important amongst a minority of devout Chinese are festivals such as Buddha’s birthday, Christmas and Ramadan. Most controversially, the Chinese government has banned all students and government workers from fasting during Ramadan in the restive Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang.

Not all major celebrations in mainland China can be traced back to traditional cultural expressions or nationalistic impulses. There is now at least one explicitly modern, commercial celebration – Singles Day, held on 11th November (11-11). This “grassroots” holiday only took off within the last decade, but despite its relative novelty its impact is immense. Last year online shopping giant Ali Baba had a record 35bn yuan (roughly $5.75bn) in sales during a 24-hour Singles Day promotional discount.

The economic importance of Chinese holidays – be they organic, political, or traditional – is hard to overstate. Part of the reason for the numerous and sometimes long holidays is a conscious state effort to promote internal tourism. However, these efforts have been hampered by the confusing scheduling of official holidays. Arranging the holidays can be difficult, because many incorporate elements of solar and lunar calendars, and Chinese workers sometimes must work on weekends to “make up” for some of time taken off for longer holidays. This year the Chinese government placed the responsibility of arranging the holidays on a ministerial joint conference headed by vice premier Wang Yang.

Whether modern or ancient, religious or political, Chinese holidays have an immense impact on the country’s society, culture, and economy. The Chinese government must handle the difficult tasks of promoting nationalism and tradition without alienating minorities, and encouraging travel while maintaining infrastructure. Professor Tang of the University of Michigan says the recent additions to Chinese state holidays “should remind us that China is a comparatively young modern nation-state, in spite of its long imperial history.” It will not be easy maintaining ancient traditions while keeping them relevant in the modern world.

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