Chinese Religious Year

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CHINESE RELIGIOUS YEAR . The religious year of traditional China may be visualized as a circular base that is the calendar, upon which three overlays are superimposed. The first overlay shows the annual pan-Chinese observances; the second shows the celebrations of local, popular cults centered on the birthdays of particular deities; the third shows the schedule of official state sacrifices. I shall discuss each of these cycles of observances in turn.

The Religious Year and the Calendar

Traditionally, the dates of religious significance in the year were made known through a calendar issued by the Bureau of Astronomy in the Ministry of Rites. This calendar combined lunar and solar calculations, but for the religious year the former were more important. The waxing and waning of the moon was the most conspicuous indicator of change in the heavens, and the new and full moons thus formed focal points in the nexus of natural and human time. Solstices and equinoxes, as determined by the astronomers, were not so obvious, but were nevertheless important moments in the religious year because of their connection with the dominant or recessive phase of yin and yang.

The official calendar also indicated other kinds of time, of which two were most important in the religious year. The first was the marking of hours, days, months, and years by a cycle of two-character designations formed by sixty combinatory permutations of two series of symbols called the ten celestial stems (tiangan ) and the twelve terrestrial branches (dizhi). The second was the division of the year into twenty-four climatic periods. The pairs serve not simply as a method of marking, but, from the correlations of the stems and branches with other factors in the cosmos, they also hint at the many occult forces affecting the fate of humankind. The division of the year into fortnightly climatic periods is intimately connected with the timing and meaning of major events in the ritual year. These fortnightly periods are called nodes (jie ) or breaths (qi). They derive from observations, both celestial (division of the heavens into degrees) and terrestrial (meteorological phenomena), already made in ancient times. Widely applied throughout China, their descriptive namesclear and bright, a little warm, frost descends, a lot of snowshow their origination in the northern regions, where four distinct seasons obtain. The term jie, which came to designate the fortnightly periods, has retained its correlative meaning of the celebration of rites at fixed times. Hence, the festivals of the year, particularly those tied to the twenty-four climatic periods, are also called jie.

The calendar was not merely a schedule of times and seasons, but was more in the nature of an almanac, spelling out behaviors suitable, and indeed essential, for every season. Eventually it developed into a handbook containing medical lore, moral guidance, and techniques for prognostication and divination. The issuing of the imperial calendar was an act of religious import in itself, in that it was taken as evidence of the divine mandate possessed by the ruling dynasty. In effect, only such a divinely commissioned ruler could reveal the times and influences according to which all people must govern their lives. The concept of a religious year in the Chinese case must thus be understood as a yearlong effort on the part of ruler and people to grasp the complicated processes of the cosmos and make them work for humans. In this overall context the observances of the religious year underline the moments of greatest significance to family, community, occupational group, and state.

Pan-Chinese Observances

Rather than present a schematic overview, the following outline focuses on the island province of Taiwan, where the traditions have been fully preserved amidst the changes of modernization. A Chinese summary of the religious year, the section titled "Suishi yu Shendan" in Ruan Changrui's Zhuangyandi shijie (Taibei, 1982), has been relied upon here.

The twelfth and first months: the New Year

By far the most protracted, the busiest, and the most important of the annual festivals, the New Year begins in the middle of the twelfth month with the Weiya (tail end of the year) observance and continues through to the full moon of the first month. In former times all business came to a virtual standstill during most of this period; nowadays the length of the holiday has been considerably curtailed, but many traditional practices are continued. On "tail end of the year," the twelfth day of the twelfth month, sacrifices are made to Tudigong (the local earth god), the all-important tutelary deity of household and community. On this evening the proprietors of businesses hold feasts for their employees to thank them for their hard work and to wish for a successful new year.

On the twenty-fourth day of this month, Zaojun (lord of the cooking stove) leads the various deities assigned to terrestrial duties to the court of Yuhuang Shangdi (supreme emperor of jadelike augustness), ruler of the bureaucratic pantheon in Heaven; there he makes the required annual report. Zaojun is in effect the spirit overseer of the household. Presumably because his report will influence the life span recorded in the heavenly registers, he also is considered one of the siming fujun (arbiters of longevity). On this day, the deity's mouth is smeared with something sweet so that he will have only sweet things to report. The paper icon of Zaojun, found above each stove, is then burnt, the smoke conveying the report directly to Heaven. Once the deities have left for the court of Heaven, the house undergoes a thorough cleaning, which also gets rid of any huiqi (inauspicious breaths). The next day, celestial deities, deputed by the Supreme Emperor of Jadelike Augustness, arrive to make their inspection during the absence of the terrestrial deities. Everyone is on good behavior during this inspection period.

New Year's Eve is called Guonian (the passing of the old year) or Chuxi (the eve of the passing year). It is observed by seven traditional practices:

1. Ci nian (bidding farewell to the old year). Sacrifices are offered to gods and ancestors, to Zaojun, and to Chuangmu, the tutelary mother of the bed. Propitiary sacrifices are also placed at the gate for haoxiong (good elder brothers), that is, bereaved spirits, souls denied their rightful sacrifices, whose resentment constitutes a menace to the living. On the family altar in the main hall are set offerings of cooked rice, other foods, and strings of money. After the sacrifices have been made, firecrackers are set off to scare off demons.

2. Tuanyuanfan yu weilu (family reunion meal and surrounding the stove). The gathering of the family from far and near for the communal meal is also called shousuijiu (wine that safeguards the New Year). A brazier placed under the round table is festooned with coins and described as "warm as spring, the prospering breath of wealth." The family gathering is thus called "surrounding the stove"; should there be a family member who cannot attend the feast, some of his clothing is draped over an empty chair to indicate his symbolic presence and that the family is thinking of him. At this meal the last course is a fish, which must not be eaten, however, for fish is homophonous with having abundance (yu ).

3. Yasuiqian (money of the year that is given away). After the communal feast the elders hand out money to the youngsters. This is also called fen guonianqian (dividing the money of the passing year). In the past, one hundred cash were strung together (the old coppers had a square hole in the center), and even though these have now been replaced by paper money, the meaning is still "may you live one hundred years."

4. Shousui (safeguarding the year). After the elders give money to the children, the family sits around the stove, chatting, joking, and playing games to see the old year out. Safeguarding the year is said to contribute to the longevity of the parents.

5. Tiao huopen (jumping over the fire pan). After the feast, all male members of the family take turns jumping over a pan filled with burning rice straw in front of the family gate. They call out certain auspicious phrases as they do so. The passing over fire signifies purification or making a new beginning.

6. Tie chunlian (pasting up spring scrolls). To welcome the new year, spring scrolls bearing auspicious words are pasted on the gateposts. Pieces of lucky red paper with the graph for spring written on them are pasted on such places as the leaves of the gate and the rice barrels. Other felicitous phrases are pasted elsewhere. The pasting up of spring scrolls derives from the ancient practice of hanging apotropaic peachwood amulets at the gate. There are colored paper scrolls hung over the lintel on blue paper if a male infant has died during the year or on yellow paper if a female infant has died.

7. By ancient custom, on New Year's Eve people attended plays held in front of a temple. If a debtor stayed until dawn of New Year's Day, his creditor would not dare to disturb the gathering by trying to collect the debt. The debt, collectible before the new year, could then be postponed because the new year had arrived. These events were thus called pizexi (fleeing-from-debt plays).

The first five days of the new year are called Xinzheng (correct, or fixed, beginning) or Xinchun (beginning of the new spring). They are greeted with the spring scrolls, firecrackers, and music, while people crowd the streets in a happy bustle. On the first day people eat long noodles symbolic of their hope for longevity. Dressed in new clothes and bearing fruits and other offerings, they go to the temples to burn incense and worship the deities. Then they pay a New Year's call on friends and relatives. On this day everyone takes care to avoid saying or doing things of bad omen. No work is done, and everyone enjoys himself. On the second day newly married girls pay a visit to their natal homes. On the fourth day the deities who had been away at their annual audience at the court of Heaven return to this world and are received with offerings and prayers for good fortune during the new year. With day five life returns temporarily to normal, but the season is not yet over. On the evening of the eighth day everyone takes a bath and observes a fast called Shoushou (safeguarding longevity) until midnight. Then, led by the head of the family, all members of the household perform Dali, the great ritual, consisting of three kneelings and nine knockings (ketou, or kowtow as it is known in the West) and the presentation of incense. Thus is marked the beginning of the ninth day, the birthday of the Supreme Emperor of Jadelike Augustness, by whose indulgence all beings are born and nurtured.

The fifteenth day marks the close of the New Year festivities. It is called Shangyuan Jie (festival of the First Primordial). The triad Shangyuan, Zhongyuan, and Xiayuan, of whom the first is recognized here, are otherwise known in Daoism as the San Guan (three controllers), supervisors of the realms of Heaven, earth, and the waters. In popular religion they are also identified with the three sage-kings of legendary antiquity: Yao, who attained perfect goodness, is the Celestial Controller; Shun, who reclaimed the land, is the Terrestrial Controller; and Yu, who tamed the floods, is the Controller of the Waters. The birthday of each controller is widely celebrated. Sacrifices to the Celestial Controller are presented at dawn on the fifteenth.

The major event of the day, however, takes place in the evening and is called Yuanxiao Jie (festival of the First Primordial night) or Dengjie (lantern festival). The family again gathers at a communal feast, and special round dumplings of the First Primordial night (yuanxiao yuanzi ) are eaten. The roundness of the dumplings is like this first full moon of the year and symbolizes the complete family circle as well as completeness or perfection in general. After dark everyone takes to the streets and temples to show and view ingeniously designed lanterns and to enjoy the boisterous dragon and lion dances accompanied by the din of gongs and drums, and the acrobatics of martial arts troupes. With this festival the season comes to an end.

Second month

On the second day of the second month a minor observance balances the tail end of the year, which, as we saw, falls on the twelfth day of the twelfth month. On the occasion of Touya (head of the year), as on the earlier occasion, the main events are sacrifices to Tudigong and the giving of a feast by the shopkeeper for his employees.

Third month

The second major festival of the year, Qingming Jie, takes place at the beginning of the climatic period called Qingming (clear and bright) and is dedicated to the ancestors. On the first of the month, families visit the ancestral tombs to tidy them up. A sacrificial meal including auspicious red-colored rice, called yimu guo (saluting-the-tomb rice), is offered. The family head divides up longevity noodles and red-colored rice among all the junior relatives. In general, the services at the tomb, called peimu (shoring up the tomb), are quite solemn and impressive. Sacrifices include twelve dishes of edibles in addition to the rice. A peeled egg is left atop the grave to express the idea that the old gives way to the new (xin chen dai xie ). The children share some of the saluting-the-tomb rice and some money. This is called yinmu guo (rice with the seal of the tomb), and shows the abundant virtue of the ancestors, which in turn abides forever among their descendants. When the visit to the grave is ended, a strip of red paper is left on top in commemoration.

Fourth month

The eighth day is the festival of washing the Buddha, whose birthday it is said to be. The image of the Buddha in every temple is ceremonially washed, incense is burned, and scriptures are chanted.

Fifth month

The fifth of this month is called Duanwu (double wu ) because both month and day contain the fifth celestial stem (wu ) in their designations. The great event of the day in the South is the dragon boat races. These are popularly said to be a reenactment of the search for the body of Qu Yuan, a loyal statesman and poet of ancient times who drowned himself when his advice was no longer heeded by his lord. For this day people make a special kind of sweet dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves that was originally supposed to have been thrown into the water for Qu Yuan's spirit to consume. Nowadays, people exchange such dumplings as presents on Duanwu.

Because the fifth month marks the junction of spring and summer and was associated with the onset of epidemic diseases, it has the reputation of being the duyue (poisonous month). Precautions are taken against the depredations of disease-causing spirits: strong yellow wine is drunk; a package of calamus, mugwort, and banian branches wrapped in lucky red paper is suspended above the gate; colored threads are tied around the wrists of children and bags of incense are hung by a red string around their necks. The proximity of the double fifth to the summer solstice, the moment when the ascendancy of yang will begin to give way to yin, no doubt has something to do with the prominence of the Duanwu festival.

Sixth month

The first and fifteenth of this month are occasions for celebrating the completion of the first half of the year. The deities and ancestors receive sacrifices and thanks for their help, with wishes for their continued support during the remainder of the year. On the sixth day, clothing, books, and paintings are aired to rid them of mildew from the spring rains. Old people also air their shouyi (longevity garments), the special coats, embroidered with the graph for longevity, that they will wear to the grave. On the nineteenth of the month many women go to the temples to offer sacrifices to Guanyin (the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara), their most venerated protectress, who is said to have attained the Way (de dao ) and to have ascended to Heaven on this day.

Seventh month

On the seventh day of this month the charming legend of the weaving maid and the cowherd (originally simply the names of two stars) comes alive again. This celestial couple can only meet on this one night each year when magpies form a bridge across the Celestial River (Milky Way). On this day, Qi Niangma (seventh imperial mother, the deity of the weaving-maid star) receives special sacrifices because she is considered an important protector of children. The fifteenth day is Zhongyuan Jie (festival of the Second Primordial). This day is considered the birthday of the Daoist Controller of Earth, or, in popular view, the ancient sage-king Shun. Sacrifices are offered to deities and ancestors at the family altars.

Despite these festivals, the central concern of the seventh month is the problem of bereaved spirits and damned souls. During this month the gates of the dark realm are open, and hungry ghosts (from the Indian concept of preta ) are free to roam about in that invisible but very real dimension that impinges upon the world of the living. Three times during this month religious rituals are performed to counter this danger. On the first day every household sets out generous offerings of food at the entranceway. Incense sticks are placed in bowls, special burial clothes and silver paper spirit-money are burned to send into the invisible dimension. At the gateway is hung a lamp on which are written auspicious words. At the same time that this hospitable attitude is being exhibited, people take good care not to expose themselves to danger.

On the fifteenth, the second and by far the most important of the rituals to cope with the wandering ghosts takes place. The entire community invites these pitiable (and dangerous) visitors to a great feast at which not only will they be able for once to eat their fill, but also will receive the merits that accrue from the religious services held. Pudu, the ritual that assists all souls to cross over to the other shore of salvation, is performed on a large scale both by households and in temples. Altars are erected, sacrifices are offered to the poor souls, and priests, both Buddhist and Daoist, chant their sacred texts. Tall beacon posts are hung with lanterns and pennants to guide the spirits to the ritual places; paper and bamboo rafts take candles or small lamps out on the waters to attract the attention of the souls of the drowned. Finally, on the last day of the month, the spirits must return to their subterranean prisons and the gates are closed for another eleven months. The beacon lanterns are taken down, final sacrifices are presented, and the worlds of the living and the dead return to their normal condition of separation.

Eighth month

This month sees the minor birthday celebrations of two deities, humble in rank, but intimately involved in the daily life of the people. On the third day sacrifices are offered to Zaojun. On the fifteenth day sacrifices are made to Tudigong and also to the ancestors. The offerings include yue bing (moon cakes), for the fifteenth is also the night of the birthday of Yin Niangniang (the goddess of the moon). The full moon of this month is one of the most enjoyable festivals of the year, with fine weather contributing to the pleasure of moon-viewing parties. It no doubt originally had specific connections with the harvest, but that connection is no longer apparent.

Ninth month

Despite the promise that the Chongjiu or Chongyang (double-nine) day seems to hold, with its implication of the fullness of yang (nine is the number given to yang lines in the Yi jing ), nothing seems to remain of any former religious significance of this day. The activities traditionally characterizing double-nine are going for a hike in the hills and flying kites.

Tenth month

Like the ninth month, the tenth is not a time of much religious celebration. On the fifteenth day occurs the Xiayuan Jie (festival of the Third Primordial), and hence the birthday of the Daoist Controller of the Waters or, in popular understanding, the ancient sage-king Yu.

Eleventh month

The important observance of the eleventh month is the Dongjie (winter festival), marking the solstice. Just prior to this day there is another gathering of the family to sacrifice to ancestors, called Qiuji (autumn sacrifice). Then, as winter begins, feasts mark the solstice with special foods such as butong (winter supplements). Soups with dumplings again play on the meaning of the word yuan (round, hence perfect or complete).

Popular Cults and the Birthdays of Their Deities

Practically every day of the year is designated as the birthday of one or more of the deities. These deities are of varied origins and may be classified in different ways. Aside from those actually deriving from popular, local religions, they include supernaturals originally connected with the traditions of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. These have largely lost their original significance and are integrated into popular religion where they acquire attributes that suit popular needs. An example of this phenomenon was the identification of the Daoist San Guan (three officials) as the ancient sage-kings Yao, Shun, and Yu. The most famous case is the transformation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Chin., Guanshiyin) into the most popular deity of all, the compassionate mother-figure, Guanyin, whose birthday is celebrated on the nineteenth day of the second month.

A few of the deities that originated in popular cults became so important that they were adopted by the state and became objects of official sacrifices as well. The most outstanding example on Taiwan is Mazu (granny), who was given the highest imperial rank of Tianhou (consort of Heaven). Her most important function is to protect all who must venture upon the waters. (Her birthday is celebrated on the twenty-third day of the third month.) Guan Sheng Da Di (holy great emperor Guan), originally a famous general of the Three Kingdoms period (third century ce), became the greatest of the military gods and protector of the empire; his birthday is celebrated on the thirteenth day of the fifth month. While many popular deities are pan-Chinese, their birthdays celebrated everywhere, there are also many others whose cults are only local, or of importance chiefly to certain groups or occupations.

Religious Year of the State

Since ancient times the state has considered the ritual offering of sacrifices to be one of its most basic duties and prerogatives. The calendar issued by the imperial Bureau of Astronomy gave the annual schedule of official sacrifices, which formed a separate system from the universal festivals and from the birthdays of deities celebrated in the popular cults.

In China, as elsewhere, some observances have become more or less drained of religious content and their original significance forgotten by all but scholars or obscured by later rationalizations. In the religious year as a whole a few themes are conspicuous: concern for unity of the family, including filiality to the ancestors and protection of the children; desire for longevity; hopes for blessings in general; and fear of resentful ghosts and attempts to propitiate them. Aside from these hopes and fears, the colorful practices marking the course of the year may be understood as one of the clearest expressions of traditional popular culture.

See Also

Chinese Religion, article on Popular Religion; Confucianism, article on The Imperial Cult; Yuhuang.


A complete calendar of the religious year can be found in Henri Doré's Recherches sur les superstitions en Chine, 18 vols. (Shanghai, 19111938). Doré's opus has been translated by M. Kennelly as Researches into Chinese Superstitions, 13 vols. (19141938; reprint, Taipei, 1966); see volume 5, pages 563656. An abbreviated calendar can be found in Doré's Manuel des superstitions chinoises, 2d ed. (Shanghai, 1936), pp. 132137. The festival year observed in different localities is described in Justus Doolittle's The Social Life of the Chinese, vol. 2, edited by Paxton Hood (New York, 1868), chaps. 13; J. J. M. de Groot's Les fêtes annuellement célébrées à Émoui (Amoy), 2 vols. (1886; reprint, Taipei, 1977); Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking, (1936; reprint, Hong Kong, 1965), an annotated translation by Derk Bodde of a work by the Manchu author Tun Li-ch'en; Lewis Hodous's Folkways in China (London, 1929); C. S. Wong's A Cycle of Chinese Festivities (Singapore, 1967); and Henry Yi-min Wei and Suzanne Coutanceau's Wine for the Gods; An Account of the Religious Traditions and Beliefs of Taiwan (Taipei, 1976). Wolfram Eberhard's Chinese Festivals (1952; reprint, Taipei, 1972) discusses the origins and significance of some of the major observances. More specialized treatments include Marcel Granet's Fêtes et chansons anciennes de la Chine (Paris, 1919), translated into English by E. D. Edwards as Festivals and Songs of Ancient China (New York, 1932), in which see especially part 2; Derk Bodde's Festivals in Classical China: New Year and Other Annual Observances during the Han Dynasty, 206 b.c.a.d. 220 (Princeton, 1975); Göran Aijmer's The Dragon Boat Festival on the Hupeh-Hunan Plains, Central China (Stockholm, 1964); and Carole Morgan's Le Tableau du Boeuf du Printemps: Étude d'une page de l'almanach chinois (Paris, 1980).

New Sources

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Revised Bibliography

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