Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 8, May 7 - 13


Despite the decline in the observance of traditional Chinese cultural holidays, the Comrade still wants his foreign friends to be able to answer redundant and boring questions about them. Chinese kids only get off from school for nine officially recognized 国家节日 guojia jieri (National holidays) every year, but there are many more 民间 minjian (folk) holidays that are taken with varying degrees of seriousness throughout China. China is an agricultural society (hence all the peasants), so it should be no surprise that most traditional Chinese folk holidays revolve around the 农历 nongli (Lunar Calendar). Many of these holidays had been observed annually for thousands of years until they mysteriously and suddenly ceased to be observed about 30 years ago. Hey, what a coincidence! That was right around the time of the 文化大革命 Wenhua Da Geming (Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution).

Despite the decline in the observance of traditional Chinese cultural holidays, the Comrade still wants his foreign friends to be able to answer redundant and boring questions about them. After all, 99 percent of the conversations you have with Chinese people are like a game of Trivial Pursuit, and what could be more trivial than the topic of traditional Chinese holidays?

春节 Chunjie (Spring Festival)
If you don't know that 春节 Chunjie is the Chinese New Year, then you may also be surprised to learn that the Chinese flag is red with yellow stars and the national language is Mandarin. Now why not take a walk outside your garden villa home or five-star hotel room and have a look at China with your own two round eyes instead of through a CNN camera lens?

During Spring Festival, Chinese families get together to eat 年夜饭 nianyefan (the mandatory New Year's Eve meal). The meal consists of 饺子 jiaozi (dumplings) in the North and 黏糕 niangao (an indescribable sticky substance) in the South. Each family must eat a 全鱼 quanyu (whole fish) because the word 鱼 yu (fish) sounds like 余 yu (surplus), as in the expression 年年有余 niannian youyu (here is a surplus year after year), which was the most-favored slogan of the 大跃进 Da Yue Jin (Great Leap Forward).

Another tradition is for 长辈 zhangbei (older generations) to give gifts of money to 晚辈 wanbei (younger generations). This money is called 压岁钱 yasuiqian (lit. "money to hold back the years"). The word 岁 su" (year of age) sounds like 祟 sui (evil spirit or ghost), implying that the money is also supposed to protect children from evil. Actually the money is a cleverly disguised form of investment, since the child is expected to fulfill his or her filial obligations and return the money to the parents when they're old and feeble.

元宵节 Yuan Xiao Jie aka
灯节 Deng jie or Lantern Festival

The name 元宵 yuan xiao consists of 元 yuan, meaning the first month of the Lunar Calendar, and 宵 xiao, from the word 夜宵 ye xiao meaning "night." The chief activity on 元宵节 yuan xiao jie is to eat 汤圆儿 tangyuan'r, which are sticky balls made of (guess what?) rice and filled with bean paste.

As for the 来源 laiyuan (origins) of the holiday, there are many ludicrous stories. The most plausible one contends that a 宫(r) g歯gn (servant in the 皇宫 Huang gong, or Imperial Palace) cooked up a batch of 汤圆儿 tangyuan'r that were so 可口美味 kekou meiwei (delicious) that the Emperor decided to commemorate her culinary skills by declaring a holiday.

People (such as Emperors) had nothing better to do than make or buy paper lanterns and wander the streets with them. Hence the holiday is also called 灯节 Deng Jie (Lantern Festival).

清明节 Qing Ming Jie or
扫墓节 Sao Mu Jie (Grave Sweeping Day)

A line from an ancient Chinese poem reads 清明时节雨纷纷 qingming shijie yufenfen ("during Qingming Festival it rains cats and dogs"). By April 5, the rain has finally abated long enough for dust to settle on the graves. That's when everyone from the 天子 tianzi (lit. "Son of Heaven," or Emperor) to the 庶民 shumin (destitute masses) must come out and 扫墓 saomu (sweep the graves of their ancestors).

泼水节 Po Shui Jie (Water-Splashing Festival)
This festival, which occurs between April 13-15, is popular in 云南省 Yunnan Sheng (Yunnan Province). The idea is to wash away the dirt, sorrow and demons of the old year and ring in the New Year. People resume throwing garbage in the street the following day.

端午节 Duan Wu Jie
During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, 端午节 Duan Wu Jie as called 女儿节 Nu'er Jie (Daughter's Day) and 五月节 Wu Yue Jie (May Day). There are many preposterous tales as to the origins of the holiday. The story that most Chinese buy into is about a poet named 屈原 Qu Yuan who killed himself during the 战国 Zhan Guo (Warring States period). He jumped in the lake on May 5, the supposed day the Chu Dynasty got overthrown by the Qin Dynasty. Now, every May 5, Chinese people eat 粽子 zongzi to commemorate the suicidal minstrel. 粽子 zongzi consist of (what else?) rice and (guess what?) pork wrapped in a leaf and boiled.

中元节 Zhong Yuan Jie
Almost as silly as 鬼节 Gui Jie (Halloween) in the West, 中元节 Zhong Yuan Jie is also known as 鬼月 Gui Yue ("Ghost Month") and has its roots in religion. According to 迷信 mixin (superstition), between late August and late September ghosts from hell are supposed to walk the earth making it dangerous to travel, go swimming, get married or move to a new house.

中秋节 Zhong Qiu Jie (also called 团圆节 Tuan Yuan Jie)
This Holiday, like line-cutting, has 2,000 years of history in China. The 15th day of the eighth month of the Lunar Calendar marks the middle of Spring. The traditional food of 中秋节 Zhong Qiu Jie is 月饼 yue bing (mooncakes). Give them as gifts or use them as bricks to build a house. 祭月 jiyue (worshipping the moon) is also customary, as is 祭奠 jidian (ceremonially sacrificing fruit to the moon). Women also stand in the moonlight in the desperate and deluded hope that they'll get pregnant. Lycanthropes especially enjoy this holiday.

Now you're ready to get out there and astound proletariats old and young with your extensive knowledge of insignificant facts about obscure Chinese holidays. Happy 端午节 Duan Wu Jie!


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