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Learning Traditional Chinese Holidays

written by: davidmakofsky • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 8/2/2012

You may know some basic Chinese, such as the Romanized alphabet (pinyin), common greetings, and so forth. Now, take it to the next level and learn about Chinese culture and language, starting with traditional Chinese holidays!

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    Holidays and the Ancient Chinese Civilization

    Especially with an ancient civilization such as that of China, one of the best ways to study language and culture is through traditional holidays. Two types of holidays are celebrated in the People’s Republic of China: First the traditional holidays, which reflect the ancient customs, religion, and philosophy of this 5,000 year old civilization. Second, the modern public holidays which reflect the powerful public ideology of the New China.

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    Vocabulary Associated with the Chinese Lunar Year

    As with the Jewish and Islamic calendar, the Chinese traditional holidays are based on a Lunar year. Since the official national calendar is Gregorian (Western) this means that the actual day the holiday is celebrated changes from year to year. The Chinese New Year is a celebrated as a Spring Festival, but first let’s review the seasons.

    • 春天 chūntiān is spring or it can be called 春季 chūnjì or primrose season
    • chūn is life or spring
    • 夏季 xìajì summer
    • 秋天 qiútiān autumn
    • qiú is also associated with the falling of leaves
    • 冬季 dōngjì winter
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    The Spring Festival

    The yearly holidays begin with the Spring Festival. Chúxī 除夕 is the last day of the old lunar year and Xīnnián 新年is the first day of the new lunar year. In 2010, Chúxī is February 13 and xīnnián is February 14. The character Chú represents getting rid of something. xīnnián 新年 is also relatively straightforward. Xīn is the Chinese character for ‘new’ andnián is the Chinese character for ‘year’

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    Celebration of the Spring Festival

    The holiday is celebrated with the family – major cities are often half deserted, which reminds us of the short time it has been since China was a rural society. . Chinese “religion" as it were, is family and ancestor based, with its focus being on the family. Houses are swept clean, and posters of “door gods" are traditionally placed on front doors. Fireworks are set off. Foods associated with the New Year are niángāo 年糕, literally “year cake" which is not a cake at all but a sweet, stretchy, sticky pudding, and a Chinese favorite shòumiàn 寿命 which literally mean long life but which are also long uncut noodles. Shòumiàn are longevity noodles, so that one’s age may last the length of the long noodle.

    The evening before is a family reunion dinner, often a ten course meal. A whole fish may symbolize abundance for the coming year, but the family may also eat chicken. This holiday is celebrated with parades, fireworks, and festivities in china, and in Chinatowns all over the world. It is also celebrated in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and other Asian countries.

    shòumiàn 寿命 means “long life", and it is also a long noodle associated with longevity

    niángāo 年糕 is literally year niàn() cake gāo ()

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    The Lantern Festival

    Spring festival closes with the Lantern Festival (元宵节 yuánxiāojié) which is held on the 15th day aft the first month of the Chinese calendar. It marks the end of the celebrations starting the Chinese New Year, February 25, 2010. At the end of the festival, family members will return to their jobs in the city. There is traditionally a lantern parade and lion dance. Lion and dragon dances are an important part of ceremonies. Teams of dancers carry an image of Chinese dragons on poles. The lead dancers lift, dip, thrust and sweep the head, which may contain animated features controlled by a dancer and is sometimes rigged to belch smoke from pyrotechnic devices.

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    The Mid Autumn Festival

    Autumn or the harvest season is associated with the Mid Autumn Festival (中秋节 Zhōngqiūjié), which will be celebrated on September 22, 2010. Zhōng, , is a widely used character in Chinese. The country is called Zhōng guo, or the middle country by its citizens.

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    The Legend of the Autumn Festival

    The holiday Zhōngqiūjié is a very romantic holiday tied to the richness of Autumn. Associated with this holiday is a Chinese fable. In remote antiquity, there were ten suns rising in the sky, which scorched all crops and drove people into dire poverty. A hero named Hòu Yì (后弈) was greatly worried by this, and so he ascended to the top of the Kunlun Mountain. Using his superhuman strength to full extent, he drew his extraordinary bow and shot down the nine superfluous suns one after another. He also ordered the last sun to rise and set according to time. He gained the attention of the Empress of Heaven. Through a mix up, an elixir given to Hòu Yì by the empress was taken by Hòu Yì’s wife, Chang’E. Chang’E was transported to the moon, and Hou Yi was left to worship from afar his beautiful wife, now the moon. What is perhaps the last beautiful moon of the season is then worshiped, and moon cakes are eaten.

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    Mid Winter Festival and Its Legend

    The winter solstice is celebrated as a mid-Winter festival, Dōngzhì 冬至.. It falls directly on or around December 22 of each year. The holiday is strongly associated with Yin (female) forces diminishing and Yang (masculine) forces growing stronger in the cosmos. It is actually on the day that the sun shines weakly and daylight is shortened

    It is a tradition that family members come on this day to celebrate the Mid-Winter Festival together. The inhabitants of the south generally make and enjoy Tāngyuān, which is a glutinous rice ball that represents unity. The northern Chinese make dumplings on this day. It is believed that the tradition of eating dumplings during Winter Solstice originated with Zhang Zhongjing from the Hán Dynasty. He felt sorry for the poor people who were cold and had frostbite on their ears, so he ordered his chef to make dumplings and pass them out to the people to help them stay warm. Zhang named the dumplings "qū hán jiāo ěr tāng ," meaning soup that takes away the cold. 汤汁一样的

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    QingMing Festival, Tomb Sweeping Day

    The Qingming Festival 清明节; Qīngmíngjié, Ching Ming or Tomb Sweeping Day is a traditional Chinese festival on the 104th day after the winter solstice (or the 15th day from the Spring Equinox), April 5, 2010.Tomb sweeping day (Qīng Míng jié) is a day of mourning for ancestors. The family will visit, clean, and make offerings to the dead ancestors. The essence of Chinese civilization and culture is to honor patrimonial figures, often symbolically an emperor. Its name denotes a time for people to go outside and enjoy the greenery of springtime (踏青 Tàqīng, "treading on the greenery"), and tend to the graves of departed ones

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    Your new vocabulary can not only improve your understanding of the Chinese language, it can improve your understanding of the people who speak Chinese.