Chinese culture is historically rich and varied, colored with a variety of elements that make it among the richest cultures in the world. One of the most well known symbols of Chinese culture is the dragon, which is without a doubt among the most common of Chinese cultural symbols.
It is not historically clear from where or how the use of the dragon originated. The dragon looks like a mixture of animals, including a snake, alligator and lizard. Chinese emperors considered themselves the real dragons and the sons of heaven. Thus, the beds they slept in were called dragon beds, their thrones called dragon seats and their ceremonial clothes dragon robes.
The dragon is traditionally believed by the Chinese to govern rainfall. It has the power to decide where and when rain will fall. The dragon symbol also plays an important, if not irreplaceable, part in many Chinese festivals, especially the Dragon Boat Festival, which has become a popular event around the world.
Below are some of the most prominent and celebrated Chinese festivals. However, it must be noted that not all of these festivals are regularly celebrated. Neither do all these festivals contain important rituals, but are sometimes just an excuse to rejoice.
The Chinese New Year
Known in Indonesia as Imlek, Chinese New Year celebrations here incorporate customs, beliefs and practices brought to Indonesia by Chinese immigrants who still follow the practices passed down from their parents. In 2002 Imlek was declared a national holiday, to the delight of millions of Chinese Indonesians.
The Chinese calendar is based on a combination of lunar and solar movements. Each lunar year is represented by one of 12 animals, also called the Chinese zodiac. The Chinese insert an extra month once every two to three years to compensate for differences between the lunar calendar and solar movements, similar to adding an extra day for a leap year. This is why Chinese New Year falls on a different day each year.
The celebrations start with the New Moon on the first day of the year, and end on the full moon 15 days later. In Indonesia, however, celebrations begin well in advance of the actual date! As the year draws to a close, ethnic Chinese tie up loose ends and put things in order, so that they can begin the New Year with a fresh start and a clean slate. Businesspeople balance their books and collect or pay debts.
An important part of the preparations is the thorough cleaning of the family home. This is not only to receive guests, but is also a symbolic 'sweeping away' of any evil spirits that might be lurking in dark corners or behind heavy pieces of furniture that are rarely moved. Shopping is also part of the Chinese New Year package! Historically, New Year's Day was one of a few days when hard-working Chinese peasants allowed themselves a day of rest. In Indonesia, most shop owners close their shops for three to five days.
On Chinese New Year's eve, family members gather to observe customs and share a traditional meal, usually at the home of the eldest family member. Respect is paid to the god of wealth and other gods whom the family wants to remain on good terms with. It is also common to exchange gifts. The gift and its value depend on the social status of the giver and the receiver. Aside from costly or exotic food, flowers are also considered an auspicious gift as the Chinese know that without flowers, fruits cannot form.
The Moon Festival
This festival falls on the 15th of the eighth Chinese lunar month and is often called the Mid-Autun Festival. For the Chinese, this festival is as important as Christmas or Thanksgiving in the West. Legend says that Chang Er flew to the moon, where she has lived ever since. A silhouette of her dancing is thought to be visible on the moon during the festival.
The festival is also an occasion for families to get together, eat moon cakes and sing poems - a scene believed to represent a perfect world. This festival is also a time of romance for couples. Even lovers who are apart can look up at the moon at the same time and feel the "intimacy".
The Dragon Boat Festival
This festival is called Duan Wu Jie in Chinese, with Jie meaning festival. It is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. The most popular theory on the origin of the festival is that it began as a commemoration of the patriotic poet Qu Yuan. Other theories have also been embraced, since many elements of the festival were in existence long before Yuan's time.
One theory suggests the festival is associated with the dragon because two of the most important activities in the festival - boat racing and eating zongzi, a kind of dumpling - are related to dragons. Another theory is that it originated from the taboo of evil days. The fifth month is considered an evil month, and its fifth day bad day. But the story of Yuan is the preferred theory. Yuan was a wise and erudite man whose fight against corruption antagonized court officials, who exerted their evil influence over the emperor. Yuan was exiled and flung himself into a river.
Legend says after he threw himself into the river, dismayed people jumped into their boats and raced in search of Yuan's body. Unsuccessful, they threw zongzi, eggs and other food into the river to feed the fish in the hope of salvaging the body. Since then, the Chinese commemorate Yuan by racing dragon boats and eating zongzi on the anniversary of his death - the fifth of the fifth month.
The most popular food of the festival is surely zongzi. It is made of glutinous rice, preferably wrapped in fresh bamboo leaves, which give a luscious smell and taste. Zongzi can be filled with everything from dates and meat to egg yolks. The most popular shapes for the food are triangle and pyramid.
The Lantern Festival
Falling 14 days after the Chinese New Year, many people look forward to this festival, which marks the end of the New Year celebrations. In China, it is called the Yuanxiao Festival. Yuanxiao is a kind of sweet dumpling made of glutinous rice or wheat flour. Also on the customary menu is yuanxiao (a sort of soup made of boiled flour mixed with vegetables and fruit), paste and bean dough.
On the night of the festival, people take to the streets carrying a variety of lanterns, watching lion or dragon dances, playing Chinese riddles and games, as well as setting off firecrackers. It is said that during the Yuan dynasty a military victory was celebrated with gongs and drums, which has since become tradition for showing joy and happiness.
The Chong Yang Festival
On the ninth of September is the Chong Yang Festival. Based on the traditional theory of yin and yang, both the ninth month and its ninth day belong to the yang, which means positive and masculine. To double it up, they call it the Chong (double) Yang. During the festival people gather for parties. Rejoicers may also take the day to climb mountains or eat special cakes.
The custom of climbing mountains dates back to as early as the Han dynasty (206 BC to 221 AD). Old travel notes say people used to climb to mountain peaks, not only for the beautiful views and poetic inspiration, but also to evade evil spirits and disasters. This practice came from a folk tale about a devil in the Ruhe river. People died whenever this devil arose. A boy named Heng Jing swore to get rid of it and sought a powerful master to teach him how to defeat the evil.
He later encountered an old Taoist, who took him in and taught him his practices. A day before the ninth of September, the master sent the boy off with a package of leaves and liquor-soaked chrysanthemums. Jing instructed the villagers to climb to the top of a nearby mountain with leaves pinned to their clothes and a glass of liquor in their hands. When the devil surfaced, it became dizzy from the scent and Jing was able to kill it with a sword.
People held parties and drank liquor in celebration, which later became a popular part of the tradition.
The Qing Ming Festival
Qing Ming, which means clear and bright, is a festival to honor the dead - it is a time to express one's grief for lost relatives. People often go to clean the graves of family members and take walks in the countryside. During the Tang dynasty, the habit of taking an excursion on the day developed.
It is believed that during the festival spring returns and dominates the earth again. The taste of life is in the air, with sap dripping from trees and buds bursting.
Chinese Valentine's Day
In the Chinese calendar, the seventh of July is regarded as the official day of romance. Traditionally, this day holds special meaning for girls, who burn incense sticks for the gods, begging for a light hand at housework and a perfect match in marriage. Since it falls during the harvest period, melons and fruit are usually placed on a table as an offering.
Of course, there is also a folk tale. A poor man in his early twenties was driven out of his home. With nothing but a few old heads of cattle, he moved into a cottage and people began to call him Niulang (cowboy). One day, his heads of cattle told him that he was a good man and he should go to a brook if he wanted to get married and make his wishes come true. At the brook he saw seven fairies taking a bath and took the clothes of the youngest fairy.
When the fairy was alone, the man went up and asked her to marry him. She agreed and later gave birth to a son and a daughter. It turned out that the fairy was the weaving fairy, who weaved clouds and rainbows, and that without her the sky had became dull. She was forced by the mighty queen to return home.
As she flew into the sky, a line was drawn between her and the man, who was running after her with their children. The line became the Milky Way. Pied magpies were touched and later formed a bridge for the couple. The queen finally agreed that the couple could meet on the seventh day of July every month.