Chinese Customs & Festivals

Chinese Lunar Calendar Goes Around in Cycles

Chinese Lunar Calendar Goes Around in Cycles

Spring Festival used to be called New Year's Day and it is still so in much of the countryside. The year of 1996 marked the start of the "year of the rat" according to the Chinese lunar calendar.

Why rat? The ancient Chinese called each succeeding year by the name of an animal. They had 12 such names and after they had run through the list they started over again. The year of 1993 was the year of the cock, 1994, the dog, and the year of 1995, the pig. But the story is much more complicated than that.

By the Shang Dynasty from 16th to 11th century BC, unearthed oracle bones show that the Chinese had devised a complicated method of counting time - first days, later hours, months and years - called the ganzhi meaning stems and branches, 10 heavenly stems and 12 earthly branches. The stems are named jia, yi, bing, ding, wu, ji, geng, xin, ren, and gui, but expressed in written Chinese characters. Think of them as the numbers "one", "two", "three", etc. The branches are named zi, chou, yin, mao, chen, si, wu, wei, shen, you, xu, and hai. Think of them as the 12 letters of the alphabet (A through L). Combining them allows you to count to 60 in this way: Jiazi (1-A); yichou (2-B); bingyin (3-C), etc. When you reach gui (10), you start over with jia (1), but you still have two more branches to go before repeating them; so 11 is jiaxu (1-K), 13 is bingzi (3-A), 35 is wuxu (5-K) and 60 is guihai (10-L).

Once you reach 60, you start over again. Because this system was used to keep track of days, historians can identify the date of events extending back at least to 772 BC. Starting about 85 AD in the Eastern Han Dynasty, the Ganzhi system was used to tabulate the years in cycles of 60.

In Chinese rural areas, the ganzhi counting system is still widely used for counting years and days. Modern calendars and watches have generally replaced it for keeping track of months and hours.

In time, the various animals became identified with the earthly branches. And various superstitions, like checking to see if proposed marriage partners had been born under compatible sign. For instance, a dragon and a tiger should not marry, nor a cock and a tiger. If that sounds like Western astrology, there is and even more remarkable coincidence between the ancient Greek circular representation of the zodiac with its 12 pictorial symbols around the rim and the ancient Chinese drawing of the earthly branches also round and circled by 12 animals. By 1,400 BC, the Shang Dynasty had established that the year, a complete cycle of seasons, is 365 1/4 days long, that the time between two new moons is 29 days, but that a lunar year (12 "moons" or months) is only 354 days long. To compensate for this discrepancy, they began to repeat a month whenever the officials in charge decided they were a month out of sync. Thus there might be two "seventh months" in one year.

But this was soon abandoned and a 13th month was added periodically at the end of the year. In the early period of the Spring and Autumn Period from 770 to 476 BC, they had figured the length of the year so accurately that they were adding seven extra months to every 19 years. By 475 BC this calculation had been honed to 144 extra months every 391 years. In the meantime, however, the first system-repeating various months-had again gained favor but with an addition: a set method of determining which months should be repeated.

Between 300-200 BC, a new procedure of dividing the year into weather cycles was adopted. Called the 24 seasonal points, it was designed to help farm work. With colorful names like "Excited Insects", "Clear and Bright", "Grain Rains", and "A Little Cold", the points were 15 or 16 days apart. Usually, each solar month would contain two points. But not always so with the lunar months because two such periods would extend over an average of 30.4 days and the lunar month is only 29 1/2 days. Months containing only one point would be repeated.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

How the ganzhi cycle of 60 works out using numbers and letters in place of the characters or words for the 10 heavenly stems (top row) and the 12 earthly branches (bottem row).

Pure and Bright Day

The Ching Ming Festival, in the third lunar month, is the day people visit cemeteries to honor their ancestors and beautify their graves. For that reason, this is also called gravesweeping day. It has been a popular festivity to legend, Chong Er, a nobleman's son who live 2,000 years ago, was forced to live in wxilw for 19 years. Only a few of his retainers stuck by him, among them Jie Zitui who was Er's fortunes changed, he wanted to reward accept no weath nor status for his devotion. Instead, he and his monther retired to a life of seclusion on a mountain.

Chong Er divined that if he set the mountain ablaze, he would smoke Jie Zitui and his monther out and then press reward on them. But after he had reduced the place ti ashes, Chong Er found his friend and the mother burned and clingning to a scorched willow tree where they had reparied rather than accept a prize.

To honor Jie Zitui, people still put out their kitchen fires and eat cold dihes prepared beforehand.

However,far from sombre, the day is filled with sporting wcwnts and contests, among them kite-flying, Chinese football, cockfighting and dog taces, Kites are a rwmarkable flik art, cut and painted in the shapes of mythological and operatic characters, butterflies, birds, goldfish, frongs, dragonflies and other creatures.

Spring Festival

Spring Festival is Chinese New Year. The New Year is the first day of first month in the lunar calendar. It marks the beginning of Spring Festival. But it is not the official beginning of spring. Lichun is the beginning of spring (1st solar term) in the Chinese lunar calendar. Under the lunar system, Chinese ancient astronomers marked off every 15 days as one solar term calculating the terms according to the positions of the Earth and the Sun. These terms are still used today, especially by the Chinese farmers in planning planting cycles. Lichun is the first day of one of the 15 day terms and usually falls about ten days after Chinese New Year's. For instance, the year of 1983 fell on February 13th. Lichun fell on February 4th. Just as Christmas is the most festive holiday in the Christian world, Spring Festival is the most important holiday in China. It lasts 15 days from the New Year's to Yuanxiao Festival or Lantern Festival. Celebrations last for two weeks and the State Council officially marks Spring Festival with a three-day National Holiday.

On New Year's Eve, families get together to send off the old year and usher in the new, a year which they hope will be rich in harvest, happiness and success. Everybody goes to bed later than uaual. Some spend the night to watch the year go out, chatting or playing card games, watching TV and nibbling sweets and nuts and all sorts of delicacies. For the children, it is a treat to set off firecrackers and fireworks and you can hear them pop and bang throughout the night.

The first two days of the new year are spent visting friends or relatives. Most people go back to work on the fourth day. In the countryside, however, festivities go on until the fifteenth day which is Lantern Festival.

During Lantern Festival, people decorate their homes with colourful lanterns and treat themselves with Yuanxiao, a kind of glutinous rice flour balls stuffed with sweet fillings or meat or dried cassia flower. Throughout China, lanterns of every description are put on public display.

Yuanxian Festival (The First Full Moon of the Lunar Year)

Yuanxiao or "Lantern Festival", on the 15th Day of the 1st Lunar Month, marks the end of the Spring Festival. The Chinese people sometimes call it the Yuanxiao Festival because they like to eat small round dumplings of sticky rice containing sweet fillings. (Literally "yuan" means "round one"; xiao means "overnight".) Some people prefer to call it the "Feast of Lanterns" because from the 11th century of the Song Dynasty, it was a custom to hang out various beautiful lanterns on the 15th of the 1st Lunar months. Along the main streets in many towns and cities different kinds of Chinese lanterns were hung. People from country areas travelled to the busy towns or cities to visit at this time.

This festival scene at night has been vividly described in many operas and novels. In the Chinese classical novel Water Margin, the heroes used this festival as an opportunity to boldly and courageously conquer the so-called "World Renowned City" Damingfu in Shandong Province, where they killed the officials and rescued their friends from prison. This old custom of hanging lanterns was almost forgotten just prior to liberation because of the social poverty and unsettled life of the people. Nowadays, in Beijing, gauze lanterns are hung in shops, some of them having interesting, historical pictures painted on them. Children and young people like to play with lanterns. They can be bought in streets during the Spring Festival.

The game of "Dragon Lantern" is still played in many places in China. A group of people line up, each holding a part of the dragon's body. Everyone in the performance co-operates closely in trying to attract dragon's eyes. The dragon-dance is more difficult to perform than the lion dance, which is also part of the festival.

Mid-Autumn Festival

According to the Chinese lunar calendar, the 15th day of the eighth lunar month is the day for the Mid-Autumn Festival.

A Chinese tradition says in ancient times the Emperor helk ceremonies to offer sacrifices to the sun in spring and to the moon in autumn. Later, the rites bbecame prevalent among the common people. According to the book Nianjie Quhua ("Amusing Stories about the Festivals"), during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) Emperor Xuanzong's travel to the Moon Palace added to the festival's charm and importance. It is said that during a mid-autumn evening, while the Emperor was enjoying the moonlight, a magic Taoist priest named Luo Gongyuan invited him to see the Moon Palace. Luo threw his stick into the air and it streaked across the sky to the moon. Immediately, a silver bridge from the heavens stretched before them. Across the bridge, the Emperor was a magnificent palace. A plaque above the gate read: "Guanghangong" meaning "Vast and Cold Palace". By the gate stood a tall, sweet-scented osmanthus tree, under which a white rabbit mixed a medicine by grotesque mountains and exquisite jade buildings. Hundreds of beautifully-dresses dancing maidens surrounded him accompanied by melodious music and entertaining him with delicious cakes shaped like the full moon.

Upon returning to the earth, the Emperor ordered cakes modelled after his vision.

In China, the full moon symbolizes reunion.Whenever the Mid-Autumn Festival sets in, people will look up at the full silver moon, thinking of their nearby relatives or friends, as well as those who are far from home. A line from a verse "The moon at the home village is exceptionally brighter" expresses those feelings.

On the evening when the full moon rises, people get together to eat moon cakes. Some cakes will be sent to absent ones or saved at home for them. The sweet cakes are stuffed with sugar, red bean paste, melon seeds, dried flower petals or sesame. The salty ones are stuffed with meat. The surface of the cakes is patterned with clouds, the moon, the rabbit, the Guangdong, Suzhou, and Chaozhou styles are acknowledged as the best.

As the Chinese saying goes, on festive occasions more than ever we think of our dear ones far away.

Dragon Boat Festival

Duan Wu, or the Dragon Boat Festival, falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. During the festival there are dragon boat races, and people eat zongzi, pyramid-shaped dumplings wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. They are made of glutinous rice and stuffed with pork, ham, chicken, dates, or sweet bean paste.

The custom of eating zongzi and holding boat races during the Dragon Boat Festival originated in memory of Qu Yuan (339-c. 278 BC), a renowned poet, politician, and thinker who lived over two thousand years ago in the Chu State during the Warring States Period. Qu, as an important official of the Chu State, advocated the union of the six states against Qin as well as political nobility. Qu was later exiled to what is now the eastern part of Hunan Province. During his banishment, Qu Yuan did not give up his fight; he talked, taught, and wrote about his ideas. His works "Li Sao" and "Tian Wen" are literary masterpieces as well as invaluable records of China's ancient culture. When Qu Yuan heard that his country had been defeated by the powerful Qin State, he was plunged into such deep despair that he drowned himself in the Miluo River in Hunan Province on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, 278 BC.

Legend says that when the news spread of Qu's drowning, the people of the Chu State rushed to the scene in their boats to search for his body. Since every one wanted to be the first to find him, the search soon became a race. Because the court forbade any formal ceremony in his memory, local people held boat races each year on the anniversary of his death.

Various tales link Qu Yuan and zongzi. One story says people made dumplings and dropped them into the river to prevent Qu Yuan from being hungry. Another has its origin in superstition. People believed that a man's soul would not be permitted to enter heaven if his body was not intact; thus, they dropped zongzi into the river in the hope that the fish would not eat Qu Yuan's body.

Although the stories about Qu Yuan are popular, some say that the Dragon Boat Festival originated before his time. Then people considered themselves descendants of the dragon and worshipped the God Totem. They threw into the river food which had been put in hollowed-out bamboo or wrapped in leaves. Then, to the sound of beating drums, they boarded boats and raced in the river.

In any case, boat-racing is popular along waterways in many southern cities and towns. On the day of the festival, boats are decorated in the shape of a dragon with a drum and a gong on each boat to set the pace. With a shout "Dragon away", the race starts and the dragon boats skim over the water, powered by teams of skilled oarsmen who have been practising for months. Strength, teamwork, and split-second timing are all important in the race. The oarsmen often sing songs with an emphatic, drum-beat rhythm as they race for finish line to the excited cheers from spectators on both banks of the river.

There are two main kinds of zongzi-Guangdong and Jiaxing style. Although they are both in the shape of the pyramid, Guangdong zongzi are longer and have various kinds of stuffings. Jiaxing zongzi are smaller and are usually stuffed with pork or bean paste.

There are a number of famous zongzi stores in China. Wufang Zongzi Store in Jiaxing city, Zhejiang Province, is one of them. It has existed for more than fifty years and is well-known for the high quality ingredients, the distinctive flavour and the careful preparation of its zongzi.

To make zongzi, first wash the glutinous rice quickly without allowing it to macerate, drain it for about fifteen minutes, and then mix it with soy sauce, sugar, and a little salt. Many master chefs use cane sugar ot sweeten the rice and make the dumpling look brighter. Next, dice the pork for the stuffing and marinate it in a mixture of choice soy sauce, sugar, fine salt, kitchen wine, and monosodium glutamate. Then the wrapping begins. First fold the bamboo or the reed leaves into a cone. Fill it abot one third full with rice, and bind it tightly with thread. Finally, put zongzi into a pot and boil for four hours before eating.

During the Dragon Boat Festival zongzi make good presents for relatives and friends. They are also an inexpensive and delicious snack. Because some of the best ones, such as Wufang zongzi, will keep for over three months, they can be exported to Hong Kong, Macao, and foreign countries.



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