New Year. During the latter years of imperial Chinese history, the most important family gathering was the New Year festival, a time when the whole family joined in celebration. During this festive season, families celebrated their prosperity and prayed for continued success. The New Year was also a time for paying respects to the ancestors and the God of Wealth.
Party. The celebration of the New Year started early in the morning of the first day of the lunar year. For most families the kin-clan gathered and celebrated the five parts of the holiday ceremony. Individuals were expected to make sacrificial offerings to heaven and earth; to worship the god or goddess belonging to the family tradition; to worship deceased ancestors; to prostrate themselves before living parents and grandparents (it was the time parents and grandparents offered small change, or “blessed money,” to their children or grandchildren); and to visit each other upon the invitation to feasts or to exchange gifts among relatives and friends. All these activities took place in the name of Bai Nian (New Year’s greetings), which constituted an indispensable part of socialization, important not only for common people but also for government officials who wanted to keep close ties to one another.
Entertainment. Feasts and fireworks characterized the first day of the New Year. Homes were hung with special woodblock prints depicting various scenes, such as of a prosperous household, of the God of Wealth and his assistants hauling carts of gold and silver into the family courtyard, or of a bevy of young boys collecting strings of coins from ever bearing money trees. In general, however, the first half of the month was filled with a variety of entertainments, such as the dragon dance, music presentations, and operas, usually sponsored by wealthy families in local communities. Many customs have been retained and continue even in modern times. The traditional New Year celebration is now called the “Spring Festival,” because China officially adopted the Western calendar in 1949. Like many other countries, China now celebrates New Year’s Day on 1 January.
Demon Hunter. The legend of Zhong Kui contributed to another custom in imperial Chinese society. It was related to the culture of ghosts, in which vengeful spirits could be merciless toward those who did not serve them properly. Only Zhong Kui, a human exorcist, could subdue or expel them. According to Patricia Buckley Ebrey, editor of Chinese Civilization and Society: A Sourcebook (1981), the legend originated in a Tang story:
On the fifteenth day of the seventh month after a person’s death there was another important festival called the “Ghost Festival,” which is said to have originated in the Tang dynasty. The following is a summary of the story of Mulian [Mu-lien]:
Since the death of his parents, Mu-lien (Maudgalyayana) has become a monk and has therefore given up his lay name of Lo-pu. Thanks to his good religious life he has attained to the grade of arbat and, “supported by the power of the Buddha,” he comes at last to the hall of heaven. From here he begins to look round for his parents but finds only his father; of his mother there is no sign. In tears, he asks the Buddha after her and learns that, as a result of unpardonable misdeeds (which she need not necessarily have committed herself) she has been condemned to hell. He at once prepares to seek her there. But he cannot find her in any of the more supportable purgatories. Finally, however, Mu-lien learns from a guardian of the lowest and most terrible hell that she may well be there and he induces him to call out her name through the various tiers. At this very moment the mother is having eighteen iron nails driven through her body and dares not open her mouth lest yet more unpleasant treatment befall her. But a servant of hell recognizes her and asks why she does not announce her presence, since her son, the monk, Mu-lien, is asking for her. She answers that she has no son of this name or calling. Thereupon Mu-lien explains that during her life-time, when he was a layman, his name was Lo-pu. At this she recognizes her son and he leads her out of the lowest hell. But they advance no further than the region of the hunger-spirits (preta). There the mother is plagued by a terrible hunger which cannot be satisfied, for all food is changed to flames and all liquor to pus before her eyes. So Mu-lien asks the Buddha for advice and learns that on the fifteenth day of the seventh month on the occasion of the UUambana festival arranged for the hunger-spirits his mother will receive a meal. Shortly after this the mother is re-born as a black dog. Mu-lien then also returns to the human world and at last finds his mother by a pagoda in the capital. He now recites Buddhist sutras without intermission for seven days and seven nights and accumulates such great merit thereby that his mother is restored to human form. The dog’s coat is hung as a memento on a tree near the pagoda. At last Mu-lien brings his mother into the presence of the Buddha, who absolves her of all the sins of previous existences.
Source: Werner Eichhorn, Kulturgeschichte Chinas, translated as Chinese Civilization: An Introduction, by Janet Seligman (New York: Praeger, 1969), pp. 225-226.
Emperor Xuanzong encountered first a small demon who stole his favorite concubine’s embroidered perfume bag and his own jade flute and then a large demon who came to the emperor’s aid by not only catching the small demon but gouging out his eyes and eating them. When Xuanzong questioned this helpful demon, the demon introduced himself as Zhong Kui, a man who had committed suicide by dashing his head against the palace steps decades earlier on learning that he had failed the palace examination. In
gratitude for the posthumous honors the Tang emperor had then bestowed on him, Zhong Kui had vowed to rid the world of mischievous demons.
In many regions of China, people posted a portrait of Zhong Kui on their doors, especially on New Year’s day, in hopes of getting his assistance in expelling unwanted ghosts who had invaded their households during the year. Often in those posters, Zhong Kui was depicted as a menacing figure with a dark face, wearing an official’s robe and hat.
Kitchen God. On the morning of the fourth day of the New Year, people performed a ceremony called “receiving the gods.” People believed that it was the time when many family gods descended from heaven to carry out their duties on earth. Kitchen God worshiping was the most important custom practiced at home. A shrine was placed above the stove for the Lord of the Kitchen, who also served as the household guardian angel. The shrine was a kind of altar with a paper representation of the divine figure, with an incense burner on a tiny table at its base. It was commonly believed that the Kitchen God made a trip to Heaven a week before the end of the lunar year to report the family finances of the past year; he came back on the lunar New Year to guard the family for the next year. To send him off to Heaven in a speedy way, people placed a representation of the god in a paper sedan chair and burned it on a tiny altar of twigs outside the front door. To welcome him back, people hung a new portrait of the Kitchen God over the stove at dawn on New Year’s day and placed a cup of wine and bowls of uncooked food, as well as fruit, under the por-trait. In some regions a newlywed couple was required to practice the “coming out of room” ceremony; they were led into the kitchen to worship the Lord of the Kitchen. They performed Kow Ton (kneel and bow) to a picture representing the divinity, which was placed above a small table on which incense and candles were lighted. It was believed that paying early and respectful attention to the divinity would keep the family well supplied with food in the year to come. There were other ceremonies, “keeping company with the gods,” performed in local temples, which were soaked in the smoke of burning incense during the days prior to the fifteenth day of the first month.
Lantern Festival. On the fifteenth day of the first month the Day of Lanterns was observed. Houses and streets were decorated with all types of lanterns, mostly made of bright red paper. Some were cubical; some were shaped as balls; others were circular, square, or oblong; and some resembled different kinds of animals. Chinese characters were often written on the lanterns; the messages carried the owners’ wishes for happiness, wealth, and longevity. The holiday was an occasion of public gathering, when people walked the streets to see the display of colorful lanterns. It was also the evening when young women, usually secluded at home, were allowed by custom to join the crowd. According to historical records, in Tang times the streets were thronged with cheering crowds as “the din of drums filled the heavens, the glare of torches lit up the earth. Many people wore animal masks and men dressed up as women. Singing girls and jugglers went about in fantastic attire.”
Day of Lanterns. In the Song dynasty (960-1279) many love poems described the passions of both young men and women who fell in love at first sight on the evening of the Day of Lanterns. In some regions people celebrated the festival with feasts entertaining family members and relatives. They “ate taro under the lanterns,” a custom that was believed to make people become “bright-eyed” and “clear-sighted” throughout the year. The Day of Lanterns also served as a tradition of literary amusement. Puzzles and riddles were usually written on the lanterns displayed at certain public attractions. People who got the correct answers to the riddles were awarded prizes on the spot.
Lunar Festival. The Qing Ming Festival was usually observed in the latter part of the second month or the first part of the third month of the Chinese lunar year. In the Western calendar it usually occurred early in April. People visited the graves of their ancestors and presented offerings before them. They swept or tidied up the tombs of their ancestors by removing tall grasses or weeds that grew upon
them. “Sweeping tombs” meant more than just cleaning work; it indicated that the dead had living descendants to carry the “famiry’s incense and candles” from one generation to the next—a sign of prosperity and continuity. By custom, a postsacrificial ceremony was observed for the kin to eat the offerings, because it was believed that the spirits consumed the essentials of the food and wine, and that living descendants then had to fmish what was left behind. It was a ritual of sharing with the spirits of the ancestors.
Water Fun. The Dragon Boat Race was one of the most popular seasonal festivals. It took place on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar year, sometime in June according to the Western calendar. This occasion brought great amusement for both old and young when they watched or joined in racing the dragon boats on a river or lake. These boats were specially designed; they were long and slender in proportion to their width, having an elevated bow resembling a dragon’s head with an open mouth. Each boat could hold ten to fifteen people; one man sat on the head of the dragon, waving a flag directing the rowers, while another stood at the end of the boat beating a large drum. The competition was merely an entertainment rather than a pure sport, and the award for winning the race was more symbolic for its honor than for the value of the prize. The festival of the Dragon Boat Race originated in the Zhou dynasty (771-256 B.C.E.) but prevailed throughout imperial Chinese history, and it continles into the present time. It is said that the festival started as the commemoration of a poet and politician named Chu Yuan, who drowned him-self as a protest against corrupt imperial politics that barred him from carrying out reforms to save his country—the state of Chu. The boat race originally was a search to recover his body. Gradually the boat race became a customary festival that people observed every year in hopes of averting misfortunes. At the end of the race, as described in a witness account by Yang Szu-chang of the Ming dynasty (1368—1644), “the boats carry sacrificial animals, wine, and paper coins and row straight downstream, where the animals and wine are cast into the water, the paper coins are burned, and spells are recited. The purpose of these acts is to make pestilence and premature death flow away with the water. . . . In the evening when the boats return, the people take the water in the boats, mix it with various grasses, and use it to wash their bodies. This is said to prevent bad luck and is a kind of purification.”
Cow Boy and Weaving Girl. On the seventh day of the seventh month there was a major festival, celebrated in many regions, called “the meeting of a cow boy and a weaving girl on the milky way.” It was based on a legendary story that two stars, one representing a “cow boy,” or a young male, and the other “a weaving girl,” or young female, met at the “silver river,” or the Milky Way. The festival was usually observed by unmarried females who celebrated it by lighting incense, in hopes of finding a real love and having a good marriage. Some regional customs required an unmarried girl to thread a needle in the dark or under a table in order to prove her sewing skills. Success was considered a good ornen of a happy and peaceful marriage in the fu ture.
Ghost Festival. On the fifteenth day of the seventh month another important festival was celebrated. The Ghost Festival, said to have originated in the Tang dynasty, was based on the popular legend of Mulian, who risked his life and endured countless sufferings in a journey to the netherworld to save his mother. The morally edifying aspects of the story became a source of the festival, which spawned an important social event observed in later dynas-ties. On this day Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, from well-to-do families to illiterate commoners, put out food in order to feed hungry ghosts suffering in the netherworld. The Japanese monk Ennin, who spent many years in China (838-847), described this festival. He wrote that the forty-odd monasteries in the city of Yangzhou competed with each other to make unusual candles, cakes, and artificial flowers to offer in front of Buddha. “Everyone in the city goes around to the monasteries and performs adoration during this most flourishing festival.” In some regions the Ghost Festival was alternatively called “the middle of the seventh month,” in which family members burned paper clothing and mock paper money for their deceased ancestors in front of the ancestral tablets. It was believed that such observances would provide the dead with clothing and money they might need in the other world in the middle of the year.
Mid-Autumn Festival. On the fifteenth day of the eighth month the Mid-Autumn Festival was celebrated. Like the New Year festival, it was a time of family gatherings. According to the Chinese reckoning, the middle of autumn was thought to be a propitious season of harvest, which brought fruitfulness and joyfulness. People worshiped a full moon, which was believed to occur on this date. The custom also included making various kinds of cakes, always in the shape of the moon. People ate these “moon cakes” in the moonlight as a kind of offering to “reward” or “appreciate” the moon—a silver palace where the goddess Chang Er and her man, Wu Gang, were believed to live in peace and harmony. Many poets in the Tang, Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties extolled the purity of moonlight and used it as a metaphor for love and nostalgia. In popular belief this special moonlight carried greetings, such as a person’s wish, across thousands of miles to his or her loved ones.
Li-Ch’eng Kuo, Chung-Kuo Min Su Shih Hua (Tales of Chinese Folk Customs) (Taiwan: Hankuang Press, 1983).
Leon E. Stover, The Cultural Ecology of Chinese Civilization: Peasants and Elites in the Last of the Agrarian States (New York: PICA Press, 1974).