Chinese Culture through Foreign Languages—Holidays and Festivals
Traditional Holidays in Taiwan
The Chinese lunar calendar fixes the dates of the majority of traditional Chinese holidays. The entire calendar is regulated according to the laws of the natural universe and the cycles of the moon. In Taiwan, people can consult a small volume entitled The Lunar Way or, more popularly, The Great Book, which offers all sorts of information and common wisdom about the ebb and flow of nature and the ways of universe. According to research compiled by the noted institute The Academia Sinica, as many as 83% of all Taiwanese families own a copy of The Great Book.
Below is a description of several important traditional holidays with brief explanations. Specific times are linked to the lunar cycle.
The traditional Chinese New Year begins with the Spring Festival, which usually falls in the western calendar between the end of January and the middle of February. The first day of the Spring Festival is devoted to paying respect to the family’s ancestors. The place in the home dedicated to ancestor worship is the family altar called ting tang. A table sits before the altar, and upon the table family members place various dishes of food, flowers, and other objects suitable for a ritualistic offering (incense, fruit and candles, for example). The ancestor worship ceremony calls for the participation of all the members of the family.
Taiwan’s “Chinese New Year” is quite lively. Extended families gather together as a single family, and relatives exchange joyful greetings and words of congratulations for the new year. Firecrackers are lit to frighten away bad fortune and add to the general color and noisy, festive atmosphere of the holiday.
January 15 on the lunar calendar is Lantern Festival, and with its arrival, the period of Chinese New Year officially ends. On this day, all over Taiwan, lights in lanterns of every shape and kind glow brightly. Everyone enjoys eating sweet pudding-like dumplings called yuan xiao and trying to solve riddles attached to the lanterns.
The month of March finds many of Taiwan’s deities celebrating their birthdays. Temples in virtually every corner of the land sponsor a variety of activities and celebrations. Among the celebrations, a particularly rich ritual marks the safe arrival after a long sea voyage of the goddess Mazu. Two of the most famous of all Mazu temples in Taiwan are called Bei Gang and Da Jia, and the Ma Tzu celebration is especially important for both. This feast for the goddess draws tens of housands of pilgrims from all around who participate in worship services in her honor in tour buses.
The fourth month on the lunar calendar celebrates Qing Ming Jie, popularly known as “Tomb Sweeping Day.” Qing Ming Jie originally occurred on the 15th day after the spring equinox, but in more modern times, to make travel back and forth to cemeteries more convenient for families, the government established the feast as an official holiday on the western calendar for April 4 or 5. Qing Ming Jie ceremonies occur at gravesites in cemeteries everywhere. It is common for loved ones to make ritual offerings of dishes of pork, chicken, and fish, and of wine or other preferred spirits, or other special foods. Family members may also burn ritual “money” in hopes of making life in the other world easier for their loved ones.
May 5th on the lunar calendar is Duan Wu Jie, or “Dragon Boat Festival.” Many legends are attached to this feast, but the most widely known of the legends commemorates the ancient Chinese poet named Qu Yuan. These are the days on which many families gather together to shape hefty rice dumplings with their hands, wrap them in carefully selected bamboo leaves, and steam them to tasty perfection. Many Taiwanese draw colorful couplets on banners in large Chinese script that feature poetic verses or literary flourishes, and decorate doorways and walls with the banners. Dragon boat races are popular, and the hotly contested competitions on nearby rivers add to the color and excitement of Duan Wu Chieh.
In addition to marking the romantic “Chinese Valentine’s Day” on the 7th night of the 7th month, the 7th month of the lunar year also features gui yue, the Ghost Month. It is widely believed that during this special time, the doors of hell are opened, and ghosts are let free to wander about. As a result, the 7th month of the lunar year finds many Taiwanese extremely sensitive to a passel of taboos. If you are wise, goes the common advice, do not sell or buy a house during gui yue, do not buy a new car, do not marry, do not embark on long journeys, and so on and so forth. The most crucial day for gui yue is the 15th day, called Zhongyuan Pudu Festival. On this special day, it is thought that ghosts are likely to appear to wreak havoc among the living. Therefore, on the 15th day of the 7th month, people are apt to stay put safely at home or to go to temples to make ritual offerings to show respect to “good brothers of the past,” sharing a hope that the gruesome “they” will not bring threats and harm to human affairs.
The 15th day of the 8th month is zhong qiu jie, or “Mid-autumn Festival.” This is the birthday of several divinities at this time of year, and so families gather to offer yue bing, popularly called “moon cakes” (heavy with oil, fat and calories, but also quite delicious), as well as fruit and other snacks to the powers above. Yue bing are round in shape, and sweet in flavor. Chinese therefore view the cakes as symbolic of family life that is happy and harmonious (“round,” making a complete circle). In the past it was common for families to gather on zhong qiu jie to enjoy moon cakes and a festive meal as they looked at the sky above to admire the “beauty on the moon.” In recent years, however, the holiday has changed somewhat. Now families enjoy cooking meat and vegetables over live fires of glowing coal, and adding condiments such as barbeque sauce.
The 11th lunar month (December 22 or 23 on the western calendar) celebrates dong zhi, winter solstice. This is another interesting holiday. On dong zhi it is popular to eat tang yuan, a sweet and sticky, stew-like soup which is supposed to stir thoughts of family unity and sweet good fortune. The eating of the “sticky” dough balls in tang yuan may prompt contemplation of “sticking” another year onto a person’s life. In addition to these aspects of the feast, Chinese may well show respect at their family altars for ancestors with ritual offerings of tang yuan and special prayers, another effort to plead for heavenly blessings.
Many activities to pave the way for a good guo nian or “Chinese New Year” occur in the 12th month of the lunar calendar.
On the 24th day of the month, Chinese may make ritual sacrifices to divinities of the houses in which they live. This is called “worshiping the god of the hearth.” Traditional belief has it that this is the day the god of the hearth returns to the Jade Emperor to offer a public report on the good or bad conduct of everyone in the family. It is therefore important to insure that sweet words be spoken in the presence of these divinities. Offerings of sweet candy are deemed highly effective.
The 30th day is chu xi, the last night of the lunar year. The whole family has kept busy on this day hanging ritual couplets all around to welcome the new year with words that seek good luck and blessings for the time ahead. The evening hours find families enjoying a meal that displays tuan yuan, or “unity as a family” and “wholeness.” The word for “fish” in Mandarin is yu (similar to the German “u” with an umlaut) and rhymes with the word for “overabundance.” Fish plays an important role in the dinner then, and symbolizes the family’s hope that the new year will be prosperous and, yes, full of abundance.
On this day, people see themselves another year older. The whole family shares words and smiles and stay up to “bring in the new year” (shou shui). On this night, people go to sleep in the early hours of the morning, when they can almost hear the sound of firecrackers exploding outside their windows.
As you consider the range of Taiwanese holidays over the course of a year, you are able to see how these special occasions reveal close links between human life and the world of spirits, and of ties with the ancestors of old. Passing through these various celebrations, in addition to lines that connect the lives of predecessors and the powers of the spirits above, you can also see that the people of Taiwan relate their holidays to enduring relationships in their personal lives. Ritualized celebrations like the ones pictured above call for Chinese people to participate closely in the lives of one another.
- In Chinese culture, what calendar is used to set up holidays?
- Which holiday from this essay do you think is most interesting?
- What are your opinions about Ghost Month?
- What characteristics can one see in traditional Chinese holidays?
- Which holiday activities have you participated in? What were they like?
- Please compare and contrast holiday activities in Chinese and Western culture.
- Please choose a traditional Chinese holiday and try to describe it using English.