Festivals & Holidays
In a country as big as China, this list is by no means complete, especially since some culturally diverse places like Yunnan have various local holidays throughout the year (see HERE). Other regional festivals are mentioned in the city sections of each provincial chapter under “Festivals,” so make sure to check each one when traveling to see which one is taking place during your visit.
New Year’s Day (Yuán Dàn; 元旦) – Nationwide. This one sticks to the Gregorian calendar to give all those bringing in the New Year a chance to sleep the hangover off. Most companies, Chinese and Western ones, have this day off, so things might seem a little slow around town. But you can be sure that New Year’s Eve, especially in big cities, will be hopping with plenty of partying, drinking and dancing. January 1.
January or February
Spring Festival or Chinese New Year (Chūn Jié; 春节) – Nationwide. This is the time for lion dances and other celebrations in Hong Kong, Macau, and Chinatowns worldwide, but in Mainland China it’s mainly a time to relax, hang out with friends and family, and, most importantly, feast. Chinese people travel en masse to their hometowns during this time, in what some have called the world’s largest annual migration of human beings. For this reason, you may not want to travel around Spring Festival: prices are soaring, tickets will be sold out in a heartbeat, and it brings new meaning to feeling like a canned sardine in transportation. Fireworks are now restricted in larger cities, but that doesn’t prevent the locals from staging ear-popping elaborate shows. The date of Spring Festival changes with the lunar calendar. It falls on the day of the first new moon after January 21 and can be no later than February 20.
Chinese New Year Dates:
February 19, 2015 (holiday February 19 – 25)
February 8, 2016 (holiday February 8 – 14)
February or March
Lantern Festival (Yuánxiāo Jié; 元宵节). Nationwide. On this day, particularly in the southern regions, you’ll see glowing lanterns fly up into the sky during the evening: a way for the locals to make wishes for the new year. The festival always falls 15 days after Spring Festival. Eaten during the Lantern Festival, tangyuan (汤圆) is a glutinous rice ball typically filled with sweet red bean paste, sesame paste, or peanut butter. The Chinese people believe the round shape of the balls, and the bowls in which they are served symbolize family togetherness, and that eating tangyuan may bring the family happiness and good luck in the new year. Learn more about the Lantern festival at the bottom of the page.
Kongming Lanterns fill the air during the Lantern Festival
Monlam Festival (Qídǎo Jié; 祈祷节). This particular festival is limited to Tibet and areas with large Tibetan influences like western Sichuan, southern Gansu and Qinghai Provinces. Monasteries are open to all, and there is religious dancing, music and offerings of torma (yak butter sculptures). This is also when the “sunning of the Buddha” occurs: a silk thangka is consecrated and becomes the living Buddha in the minds of believers. Typically, the festival culminates in the parading of the Maitreya Buddha through the town. It occurs from the fourth to the 16th days of the first lunar month.
Dancers in Tibet celebrating the Monlam Festival
Performing the ‘Divine Dance’
Tomb-Sweeping Festival (Qīngmíng Jié; 清明节) – Nationwide. Tomb-Sweeping is a family outing to honor ancestors by visiting and “sweeping” their graves and making offerings of snacks, alcohol and paper money. Always April 4 or 5.
China honors its dead on tomb-sweeping day
May Day (Wǔyī Guójì Láodòng Jié; 五一国际劳动节) – Nationwide. A national and international holiday that’s also referred to as “International Worker’s Day.” In China, some cities may host parades or other quirky events to honor the “hard working proletariat class” in true communist fashion, but most use the time off as an excuse to travel or catch up on sleep. Always May 1.
Dragon Boat Festival (Duānwǔ Jié; 端午节) – Nationwide. This popular holiday is to commemorate the poet and minister Qu Yuan (340 – 278 BCE), who warned the Kingdom of Chu about allying itself with the rival Kingdom of Qin. Qu Yuan was banished for his warning, but nearly three decades later, the Kingdom of Qin broke the alliance and took over Chu. Qu Yuan was so disgraced that he committed suicide by jumping in the river. His followers quickly rushed out in boats to try and save him, but they were too late. Later, they threw pieces of glutinous rice ino the water to distract the fish from eating his body. Today, Dragon Boat races are held during this holiday, and everyone eats zòngzi (粽子; glutinous rice snacks wrapped in bamboo leaves) to remember Qu Yuan’s patriotism. It always takes place on the fifth lunar day of the fifth lunar month.
Dragon Boat Festival Dates:
June 20, 2015 (holiday June 20 – 22)
June 9, 2016 (holiday June 9 – 11)
Crowds gather to watch the dragon boat racing
Rozi Heyt (Kāizhāi Jié; 开斋节) – Mostly in Xinjiang, Ningxia and other places with a high concentration of Muslims. The biggest festival in the Islamic world, Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan, and believers are keen for a feast. Presents are exchanged, alms are given to the poor, and the markets are bustling. In Kazakh and Tajik areas in Xinjiang, this is often celebrated with a “lamb snatching” competition where a dead lamb is fought over by two teams mounted on horses. The festival is held on the first day of the tenth month (Shawwal) of the Islamic calendar.
Rozi Heyt Dates:
July 17, 2015
July 5, 2016
Prayers in Ningxia
Praying outside Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar
July or August
Naadam (Nàdámù; 那达慕) – Inner Mongolia, especially Hohhot at the racetrack Saima Chang, and the Hulunbuir Grasslands. This rowdy Mongolian festival features wrestling, archery, and horse and camel racing. Naadam is the most fun way to experience Mongolian culture at its best, and there are tons of traditional snacks, drinks and souvenirs for sale all around the festive sites. It’s usually in mid-August, but it can be as early as July. Dates differ from place to place, so check out the Inner Mongolia chapter for more.
Carrying Hada (traditional silk greeting gifts) in performance
Traditional wrestling performance
International Beer Festival (Guójì Píjiǔ Jié; 国际啤酒节) – Only in Qingdao, Shandong. Over a million visitors descend on this seaside resort for its famous annual Bavarian bacchanal, which features everything from beer tasting and drinking contests for adults, to amusement-park rides for kids. There are even German-themed bands in the massive beer halls and enough steins to sink a battle ship; you may feel like you’re in Deutschland! Second week of August.
Double Seventh Festival (Qīxī Jié; 七夕节) – Nationwide. Couples roam the streets with roses and lock arms in the park, and restaurants have romantic table-for-two specials during this version of Chinese Valentine’s Day. It’s the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, usually in August, but the gals got lucky on this one because the Chinese have also started to celebrate February 14 to get a second romantic holiday!
The newlyweds perform the traditional matrimonial custom of locking up the Same Heart Lock.
Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhōngqiū Jié; 中秋节) – Nationwide. One of the most popular holidays along with Spring Festival, it’s celebrated in Hong Kong, Macau, and Chinese communities overseas, but in Mainland China the last remnant of the festival is the giving and eating of yuèbǐng (月饼; moon cakes), circular pies with sweet or meat fillings. In Chinese culture, a round shape symbolizes completeness and unity. Thus, the sharing of round mooncakes among family members signify the completeness and unity of families. Traditionally it’s a time to sit and admire or read poetry under the full moon, but pollution in many areas has made the moon largely invisible... The 15th day of the eighth lunar month (usually September).
Mid-Autumn Festival Dates:
September 27, 2015 (holiday September 26 – 28)
September 15, 2016 (holiday September 15 – 17)
Chang'e, the Moon Goddess of Immortality
Typical lotus bean-filled mooncakes eaten during the festival
People eating under the full moon on the beach
September or October
Corban Festival (Gǔ’ěrbāng Jié; 古尔邦节) – Mostly in Xinjiang, Ningxia and other places with a high concentration of Muslims. Known around the world as the Festival of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha), this is celebrated by Muslims throughout China. It honors the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice everything to God, even his own son Ishmael. Celebrations in Kashgar involve tightrope-walking in the main square and dancing outside the Id Kah Mosque. The four-day festival is held 70 days after the breaking of the fast of Ramadan, on the 10th day of the 12th month (Dhul-Hijjah) on the Islamic calendar.
Muslims praying at the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, to mark Eid-al-Adha.
National Day (Guóqìng Jié; 国庆节) – Nationwide. On this day in 1949, Mao Zedong stood on top of Tian’anmen Tower and announced victory over the KMT Nationalists and China’s transformation into a socialist state. In Beijing, there’s a massive Soviet-style military parade with weapons and tanks rolling down the street to the tune of classical music, and red banners and portraits of Mao are everywhere. Most people get a week off of work (October 1 – 7), so it’s a big travel opportunity for many Chinese.
Military parade on Chang’an Street in 1999 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the PRC
The ceremony of the raising of the flag in Tian’anmen Square
Singles Day (Guānggùn Jié; 光棍节). This is basically the opposite of Valentine’s Day. On 11-11 (Get it? A lot of singles, or “1’s”), bars and clubs hold special events for people to meet significant others. Always November 11.
A Singles Day poster in the style of Mao’s Cult
Christmas Day (Shèngdàn Jié; 圣诞节). Though not a traditional Chinese holiday, many Chinese are beginning to celebrate Christmas. You’ll see pictures of Saint Nick plastered around town, and it seems that every shop, especially in larger cities, play Christmas carols. Churches will also be buzzing on Christmas Day and Christmas Eve if you want to partake in the celebrations. Though most Chinese will work on this day, most expats will have the day off, giving them an excuse to go out and celebrate with friends or return home for the holidays.
Christmas promotion inside a shopping mall
Foreigners celebrating Christmas at Tian’anmen Square
Chinese Lanterns & The Lantern Festival
The lanterns you’ll likely encounter on the streets hanging outside restaurants in China (and Chinatowns throughout the world), are red imitation silk or vinyl stretched over a collapsible metal frame with an electric bulb inside. Traditionally they would be of a similar design but made of oiled rice paper and bamboo with a candle as the source of light.
It is this more traditional design which forms the basis of the Kongming lantern (Kǒngmíng Dēng; 孔明灯), sometimes known as a sky lantern (天灯). It operates on the principle that hot air rises and has been cited as the inspiration for, and precursor of, the hot air balloon.
The skies in China are filled with these lanterns on one night every February or March. Corresponding with the festivals of Daeboreum in Korea and Koshōgatsu in Japan, China’s Lantern Festival is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month: the first full moon of the lunar year. It’s also the final day of the Chinese New Year celebrations bringing the two week long celebration to a close.
The roots of the festival can be traced back as far as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 9) and there are a number of legends surrounding its origins. One such legend is that the lanterns were originally offered in honor of Taiyi, the ancient God of Heaven. It was he who dictated drought, storms and famine on earth and so Qin Shihuang, the first Chinese Emperor offered up the lanterns to request favorable weather conditions and good health for his subjects. The day also marks the birthday of the Taoist god of good fortune, Tianguan, and so some claim the lanterns were burned as entertainment for him.
Another popular legend is that a magnificent crane had once flown down from heaven and was hunted and killed by a group of villagers. The Jade Emperor in heaven was so enraged at this he planned a firestorm to engulf the village on the fifteenth day of the new year. At a loss for how to avoid their impending doom, the villagers turned to a wise man from a neighboring village who suggested each family hang red lanterns outside their houses, have fires on the street, and set off firecrackers on each of the fourteen, fifteen, and sixteenth lunar days. Doing this would give the village the appearance of already being on fire. Sure enough, on the fifteenth lunar day, heavenly troops sent to destroy the village saw the village already ablaze. They reported this back to the Jade Emperor who then decided not to go ahead with his plan.
Tangyuan (汤圆) or xiaoyuan (元宵) are soft and squashy round rice balls traditionally eaten at this time of year. They’re made from glutinous rice mixed with water and sometimes filled with red bean or chocolate-flavor paste or other such fillings. In the south of China the fillings tend to be sweeter whereas in the north more savory.
Although you’re more likely to know it now as just a stop on Line 5 of the Beijing subway, Dengshikou (deng 灯 meaning lantern, shi 市 meaning market) was traditionally a marketplace where the Kongming lanterns were sold during the day and subsequently lit during the evening.
If you’re in the country for the festival be sure to try and find an area where they will be lighting the lanterns as a sky filled with glowing red beacons rising to infinity is a beautiful sight and a spectacular conclusion to the New Year festivities.