Festival where families and friends gather to eat and drink till they drop are a regular part of life for a Chinese person. Local festivities will be too numerous for me to provide an account for here, but let’s look into the most interesting ones that everyone should know that is not Chinese New Year (which requires an entire chapter on its own).
On the fifth of the fifth month on the Lunar calendar is, to people outside of China, the day of Dragon Boat festival. In Chinese, it is called the Duan Wu festival. Chinese people everywhere around the world have been celebrating this festival but it was only in 2008 that the festival is listed as a public holiday in Mainland China.
There have been debates about the origin of the festival but the most prominent story relates that a patriotic politician called Qu Yuan from the Qu Kingdom jumped to his death into the river when the Kingdom was ravaged in war by armies of the Qin Kingdom in 300BC and he was put on exile for failing a diplomatic mission. Because of how admired he was by the people, the common people could not bear to see his body being eaten by fishes (yes, fishes!), so they started packing ‘zong zi‘, a kind of sticky rice with meat packed into triangular shape with big bamboo leaves and strings and threw them into the river such that the hungry fishes would eat the ‘zong zi’ , instead of Qu Yuan. The loud drumming on dragon boat is also part of the rouse to scare away any fish for the same purpose of preserving the bodies of Qu Yuan. The practice had been repeated since then every year, dragon boats race to the beats of the drummers sat at the front of the boats year after year and this turned eventually into an international sport that everyone knows today. Everywhere in Europe, Dragon boat races that are organized and participated by mixed or full team of Chinese and Europeans rowing together are a common sight, typically on a different day later in the year when the weather is warmer.
After that, on the fourteenth day of the seventh month on the Lunar calendar is the Yun-lan festival. On Yun-lan or Hungry Ghost festival, the period of time when the gates of hell is, according to the legend, opened every year to let the Ghost have a day (or week, depending on where you come from) of respite from the eternal punishment in eighteen levels of hell because of leniency of the Judge of Hell. People pay their respects to their deceased ancestors and any ‘hungry’, wandering spirits that refuse to let go of their pasts by praying for them and offering them ‘food’ and other material comforts. They burn incenses on the streets, the main ‘food types’ for the dead, as well as paper mache dolls as servants, friends or life companions, and many other commodities such as a doll house or a Ferrari, all made out of paper. You would see, usually children, huddling around a tin bucket with a fire in it given by the adults the task of folding paper, painted in the middle with golden color paint, into the shape of an ancient gold ‘sycee’, or gold ingot, then throwing them immediately into the fire such that it will be transferred into another world and be sent to the other world to their ancestors, so that they could use them to buy whatever they might need in the place where they reside.
Your ancestors may still ‘hang around’ even if they are not residing in hell – when they have been doing good most of their lives that would allow them to live peaceful lives after dead. The theories differ per region and per sect of local faith people subscribed to about where these good and well-behaved people go. So almost every household does some kind of ritual around the time of the festival. Many would claim to experience, very likely also induced by the heightened expectations or fears to hallucinate, interactions with spirits during this period. For example, stories abound of people being possessed by ghosts that wish to use physical bodies to accomplish unfinished business on earth. There are also always stories of people having unusually bad luck during this period because they have in some way offended the ghosts that are now roaming free and have supernatural abilities to make your life as miserable as it can be. Hence there are many taboos and rules established to help keep people out of trouble and away from harm, such as never steal offerings for the ghosts people leave behind in public, and always stop to pay respect when you pass by a worshipping site (they could pop up everywhere during the festival). One key thing is not to open any umbrella indoor – this is an important one actually regardless of the time of the year – because Chinese ghosts love to reside inside an umbrella.
Then there is the Mid-Autumn festival. On the fifteenth day of the eighth moon in the Lunar calendar and typically the day when the moon is the roundest and fullest as seen from China, a date that is calculated hundreds of years back by Chinese astrologists that observed the moon’s pattern, people celebrate ‘togetherness’ everywhere with their loved ones.
On the night of the festival, children would go out into the streets, typically into parks, with their paper (or plastic these days) lanterns. The adults would take a stroll under the moonlight while the children would be allowed, once in a year, to ‘play with fire’. It is not as terribly dangerous as it sounds. On this typically breezy summer night, one of the kids’ lantern would inevitably catch on fire when the candle inside touches the side of the paper lantern in as it sways in the wind. Then the adult would produce the big tin box that the mooncakes come in and let the lantern burn inside the box safely. Children would start to light up cheap red candles in the box when the lantern is burnt out and create their own work of burning art with melting waxes. The evening would culminate into a massive bonfire camp with hundred of groups of children huddling over their boxes of fire, telling each other jokes and laughing, having childish fun.
In bigger cities, there might be full-blown markets where people are selling auspicious items, candles that are used up by the bundle, and most importantly mooncakes, made out of lotus seed and egg yokes in the center typically, on the streets. Game stalls would be set up with something called the ‘Lantern Riddles’ for people at the festival to guess and win a small price. A typical ‘Lantern Riddle’ is written on a lantern and it goes like this: ‘The door to heaven. Guess the name of a location’. The answer to this riddle is Kobe, the city in Japan. Since ‘Ko‘ means God, and ‘be’ means house. Another riddle goes like this: ‘The biggest spider web in the world’. And the answer to that is ‘world wide web’. So while many of the riddles are based on word play in Chinese, one can still participate at times with minimal knowledge of Chinese or China.
Visiting China during these times should be rather exciting for anyone interested in local customs, but probably a bit of a shock to anyone who did not like the idea of cities ablaze.