April 25, 2020
Holidays are an essential part of Chinese culture. Most are festive, and all involve family. The vast majority of Chinese holidays stem from local traditions that have existed for thousands of years, while others were born of modern political and cultural movements.
While the Chinese celebrate seven major public holidays each year, China also observes festivals like Women’s Day, Youth Day, Army Day and several others. This article will focus on China’s main national public holidays.
Chinese Festivals, Past and Present
China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, with a vast history spanning virtually every area of human endeavor. Because of this, it should come as no surprise that certain festivals date back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and many originate from ancient harvest rituals. While some traditions remain, modern-day Chinese holidays differ significantly from their early counterparts.
What are the major Chinese holidays and how are they celebrated?
1. New Year’s Day | 元旦 | yuán dàn
The first Chinese holiday of the year is the same as in the Western world: New Year’s Day. This holiday is celebrated on January 1st and schools and public offices are closed for a day.
Also called “International New Year” to help distinguish it from the Chinese Lunar New Year, it is based on the Gregorian calendar and is the least traditional of the yearly Chinese holidays. Nevertheless, it has gained popularity over the past few years. Malls and shops throughout China are now often decorated for this grand occasion, and it’s also turned into a great time to enjoy major discounts.
2. Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) | 春节 | chūn jié
The second major public holiday each calendar year is Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival. This holiday is considered the most important of all Chinese holidays. Since it’s based on the Chinese lunar calendar, the actual date varies from year to year, but it’s usually celebrated in late January or early February.
The festival began around 4,000 years ago, and it’s a time-honored tradition throughout China and many other Asian countries, including Vietnam and Singapore. Red becomes the most common color seen in China during this time as it’s considered a lucky, festive color.
Legend says red is also a good way to keep the Nian monster away. During the Chinese New Year, the Nian monster is believed to emerge from hiding in search of food, attacking villages and devouring animals and humans along the way! Wearing red is thought to drive the monster away and welcome good fortune for the upcoming year. The Nian monster is also said to be highly sensitive to loud noises, which is why people traditionally set off fireworks during this time.
During Spring Festival, there’s a strong focus on ensuring good luck for the upcoming year. Thus, several superstitions remain in practice to this day. Negative talk is greatly discouraged, and it’s all but forbidden to speak of death and illness. The unlucky number four (四 sì) should be avoided during this time, as its spoken form sounds similar to the word for death (死 sǐ).
3. Qingming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Day) | 清明节 | qīng míng jié
The year’s third Chinese public holiday is Qingming Festival, also known as the Pure Brightness Festival or Tomb-Sweeping Day. Dating back 2,500 years, Qingming Festival symbolizes the Chinese people’s deep-rooted respect for their ancestors. On this day, Chinese families traditionally visit their ancestors’ tombs to clear and sweep them. Qingming Festival is observed on the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, either April 4th, 5th or 6th in any given year.
Many also burn offerings of imitation paper money, also known as “hell money,” on or near their ancestors’ tombs so that their loved ones can make purchases in the afterlife. The Qingming Festival allows the living to honor the departed by performing maintenance on their graves and praying for them. Once the ritual tomb sweeping is completed, the rest of the day is dedicated to family outings and there may even be singing and dancing.
4. 劳动节 Labor Day (May Day) | 劳动节 | láo dòng jié
The calendar year’s fourth Chinese holiday, Labor Day, coincides with International Workers’ Day: May 1st. This holiday, which honors workers of all types, normally lasts three days. Unfortunately, workers usually have to make up two of these three days on a later weekend.
Labor Day is also referred to as May Day, or 五一节 (wǔ yī jié), in China.
5. Dragon Boat Festival | 端午节 | duān wǔ jié
The fifth yearly public holiday in China is the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar, typically in June on the Gregorian calendar. With over 2,000 years of history, this is one of the most traditional Chinese festivals, and also one of the ones that involves the most superstitions.
There are two common origin stories for the Dragon Boat Festival: one is superstitious, and the other historic. The fifth month of the year is considered bad luck, especially on its fifth day, and one legend says that the festival was born to keep bad luck and evil spirits away. However, the best-known legend behind the Dragon Boat Festival is that it commemorates the death of Qu Yuan, a poet and politician who lived circa 340 to 278 BC.
Legend says that Qu Yuan, after being accused of treason and banished from political office, committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River. He was so loved by the people that locals rushed to their boats to save him or at least recover his body. This is said to be the origin of the festival’s most famous activity: dragon boat races.
Several typical dishes are consumed during this festival, including sticky rice dumplings and realgar wine. It’s also customary to wear perfume pouches and hang mugwort leaves and calamus on doors to prevent insects from entering the house during the holiday.
6. Mid-Autumn Festival | 中秋节 | zhōng qiū jié
The sixth public Chinese holiday is the Mid-Autumn Festival. Occurring on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar—the night of the full moon—Mid-Autumn Festival serves as China’s harvest celebration.
Family gatherings are an essential part of the Mid-Autumn Festival, somewhat akin to American Thanksgiving. For Chinese families, this is a time of coming together with loved ones to pray and be thankful for a good harvest and good fortune.
Famously, the Mid-Autumn Festival is often celebrated using paper Chinese lanterns, whether carried around or sent to the skies in their floating form. Another iconic activity associated with this festival is eating mooncakes. A bakery product made with fillings such as lotus seed paste or red beans, mooncakes are considered a delicacy. Gifting mooncakes to friends and acquaintances is also customary during this festive celebration.
7. National Day | 国庆节 | guó qìng jié
The seventh and final annual Chinese public holiday is National Day, celebrated each year on October 1st. National Day celebrates the October 1, 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China.
As part of the celebration, the Chinese government hosts a variety of activities, ranging from concerts to firework displays. Patriotic decorations can be found on display throughout the country. The National Day celebration also includes a major civil-military parade in certain years as well as the national flag-raising ceremony.
How long do Chinese holidays last?
Different Chinese holidays have different lengths. One thing worth noting is the concept of the Golden Week, which is the name given to holidays which last 7 or 8 consecutive days, allowing residents to travel within or outside the country. Often, receiving a full week off means that people are required to adjust their schedules by working on nearby weekends.
The New Year, Tomb-Sweeping Day, Labour Day, Dragon Boat Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival holidays officially only last one day. However, their actual length varies depending on which weekday each falls. If a public holiday lands on a Wednesday, only one day off is granted. If it’s on Tuesday or Thursday, the government sometimes turns the holiday into a four-day weekend. If the holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday, then Monday is also a day off.
As the biggest holiday of the year, the Spring Festival is always a 7-day occurrence, which means people may have to work 6 or 7 continuous days the week before or after in order to make up for work time lost.
Sometimes, National Day and the Mid-Autumn Festival fall within the same range of days. On these occasions, the government turns both into one single “Golden Week” of seven or eight days.
Is China closed for the holidays?
If you are planning to travel in China during a Chinese public holiday, you might be concerned that everything will be closed during your trip. On the contrary, Chinese holidays are some of the most active times for the local economy. Tourism and businesses thrive during major holidays, particularly during the Chinese New Year. However, it’s worth noting that public offices will remain closed during these times, so plan accordingly. This can be particularly bothersome during Golden Weeks, as government offices will remain shut for the entirety of the holiday.
Remember that in Mainland China, Chinese holidays are virtually unaffected by weekends. If the actual date of a given holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the government will move the holiday until the next weekend so everyone can enjoy a few days off, no matter the holidays’ actual date.
Banks are mostly closed during Chinese public holidays. However, they may keep central branches open. If you need to go to the bank during the holidays, head to the city’s financial district, where there’s a greater chance you’ll find an open branch.
Are Thanksgiving and Christmas also celebrated in China?
Traditionally, Thanksgiving and Christmas are not holidays that are celebrated in China. Thanksgiving is essentially a North American holiday, existing solely in the United States and Canada. It is not celebrated in China, and the closest thing to it among Chinese holidays is the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is similarly focused on family and being thankful for the year’s blessings.
Christmas, however, has started to become popular in China in recent years, particularly among younger generations interested in Western culture. There’s even a unique Chinese Christmas tradition of gifting red apples on Christmas Eve, which stems from the fact that the first syllable of the Mandarin word for Christmas Eve (平安夜 Píng’ān Yè) sounds similar to the first syllable of the Mandarin word for apple (苹果 píngguŏ). You can read more about Christmas in China in our previous post!
What are the dates for this year’s Chinese holidays?
Every year, the Chinese government issues an official schedule of public Chinese holidays:
Chinese holidays are some of the oldest in the world and are great times to observe long-standing traditions and soak up the festive atmosphere. These holidays offer a unique chance to get to know the local culture and participate in some of the most enchanting activities China has to offer. Spending the holidays in China is a truly breathtaking experience!