Originating in Ancient Times
Most of the traditional festivals originated in ancient times, and gradually developed and were assimilated into people’s social life over time. Like the progress of society, they are the product of the development of human society to a certain stage. Most of these ancient Chinese festivals are related to astronomy, the calendar system, mathematics, and solar terms.
According to the movement of the sun and the moon, changes in weather, the growth of animals and plants as well as other natural phenomena, Chinese ancestors defined the 24 solar terms, summed up the rule of four seasons, and determined the day when the two solar terms intersected as a festival. The emergence of the concept of the festival reflects Chinese people’s understanding and respect for nature. By the Warring States period (475-221 BC), the 24 solar terms in a year had been basically finalized.
Each traditional festival has its own activities, such as lantern shows, dragon boat racing, rituals of worship, and offering sacrifices to ancestors, all of which reveal the rich and colorful social life of ancient Chinese.
It should be noted that this column primarily focuses on some of the major traditional festivals of the Han ethnic group. China is a multi-ethnic country, with each ethnic group having their own cultural customs. We hope that in the near future, we can also introduce the customs of other ethnic groups in China.
Evolution over Thousands of Years
Most of the festivals first appeared in the pre-Qin period (prior to 221 B.C.), and evolved over the following centuries. The earliest are usually related to totem worship and superstitious activities, but later as time passed, the contents of the festivals gradually integrated other factors. For example, myths and legends added romantic color to the festivals, with religion also exerting its own impact. Some historical figures were given eternal remembrance, all of which have been condensed and embedded into the festivals.
By the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), China’s major festivals had basically been established. The Han Dynasty was the first phase of phenomenal progress after the reunification of China, with stable politics and economy plus significant development of science and culture, which provided good conditions for the final formation of the festivals.
In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), festivals were more about entertainment and formalities, becoming real holidays. Many sports and fun activities became part of them. Soon, festivals become fashionable and created their own universal appeal.
Over the long course of history, scholars, poets, and literati have composed numerous classics for each festival, which are oft-quoted and widely loved and circulated, endowing Chinese traditional festivals with profound cultural connotations, rendering them brilliant, romantic, appealing to both refined and popular tastes. China’s festivals are characterized by a strong cohesive power and extensive inclusiveness. When it comes to festivals, the whole country celebrates them together. These events are therefore valuable spiritual and cultural heritage of the Chinese nation.
Intangible Cultural Heritage
Traditional festivals are an important carrier of national culture. During the long process of historical development, a host of excellent cultural elements of the Chinese nation have become integrated in them, which are a great spiritual wealth for the whole nation, and exert positive effect in shaping national identity and cultivating national spirit.
Traditional festivals not only help people to increase their knowledge and gain enlightenment, but also contribute to promoting virtues, cultivating noble sentiment, and advancing traditions. They also play an important role in enhancing national cohesion, maintaining social harmony and stability, elevating the soft power of the country, and strengthening the competitiveness of the country.
In order to protect traditional festivals, China adjusted the national statutory holidays in 2007, listing the Qingming Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, and the Mid-Autumn Festival as statutory holidays alongside the Spring Festival.
In addition, China is also strengthening the protection of intangible cultural heritage including festivals. Traditional festivals have been added into the list of intangible cultural heritage at all levels. In 2006, the list of the first batch of national intangible cultural heritage was published. There were 70 items in the folk custom category, most of which were traditional festivals, including some important traditional festivals of ethnic minorities. Spring Festival, Qingming Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, Double Seventh Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, and Double Ninth Festival were all on the list, along with the 24 solar terms. In 2008, the Lantern Festival was included on the list of the second batch of national intangible cultural heritage. In 2011, Zhonghe Festival (on the second day of the second lunar month) and Zhongyuan Festival (on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month) were added to the list of the third batch of national intangible cultural heritage.
In 2009, China’s Dragon Boat Festival was included in the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage. In 2016, the 24 solar terms were accepted on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
As China continues to open up to the world, it also pays more attention to cultural protection and inheritance.