The Chinese culture lends great credence to observing and performing certain customs at fixed periods each year. As the Chinese calendar sometimes contains thirteen months these periods occur on different dates. This intercalary month appears twice in five consecutive years and conforms the calendar year to the solar years’. The months have no definitive name and are spoken of as the first, second, third, etc., month or moon. The number of days in the month corresponds to the time it takes the moon to make one complete revolution around the earth.

1. The Chinese New Year Festival

The New Year Festival is the most important holiday period of the Chinese year. The principal ceremony is making offerings to the gods and ancestors. Traditionally, all debts are supposed to be paid before the year ends and business is suspended for fourteen days while “the world is given over to the pleasure and merriment”. Paper door gods are pasted on the front doors and strips of red paper with characters implying happiness, wealth, good fortune, longevity are placed on the lintels.” Like Westerners many families stay up all night to ‘see the old year out and greet the new.’ It may begin as early as four or five o’clock in the morning on the first day of the year with the ‘presentation of rice to heaven and earth’. Tables in the home are covered with red cloth adorned with cedar or flowers with offerings of rice, vegetables, tea, wine, incense and candles. Decorations are displayed everywhere and once the arrangements have been made firecrackers are set off in front of the house.

Traditionally, on the third and fourth days ‘boatwomen’ and children visit the wealthy, knock on the doors singing songs and receive cakes and food. The fourth day observes the ceremony of ‘receiving the gods’. This refers to the ‘Kitchen God’, the God of Wealth’, the ‘God of Happiness’, who come down from heaven and begin their duties on earth for the coming year. The ‘Kitchen God’ is of particular importance as a picture of this individual hangs near the stove and “on the twenty-fourth of the twelfth month this god feasts on sweets and a paper chariot is burned to provide him with a carriage to ascend to heaven where he will make a report on the conduct of the household for the past year. On New Year’s Eve, the picture is removed from its place on the wall and burned, firecrackers are set off and a hilarious indulgent feast of eating and drinking begins. “When the fourth day of the New Year arrives, the head of the family pays homage to the returned gods and places a new picture on the wall, after which many Chinese return to work”.

During the first half of the first month bands of musicians and groups of actors perform the ‘Dragon Play’ constantly. On the tenth and eleventh day the people begin to display paper lanterns and by the nights of the fourteenth the lanterns are strung from every possible vantage point. The Feast of Lanterns dates back to the Hans dynasty and it is observed on the night of the fifteenth where the lanterns are all shapes, sizes, patterns and colours. The festival ends with the parade of the dragon. This mystical creature may be more than one hundred feet in length and may require as many men to carry it. As it winds its way through the lantern decorated streets people surround it on all sides carrying their own lanterns while setting off firecrackers. This is the climax and official ending of the New Year’s holiday.

2. Ch’ing Ming

The Ch’ing Ming is observed about the third day of the third moon, or to be exact, one hundred and six days after the winter solstice. The day is always specified in the Imperial Calendar and is a time when the Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors and present offerings before the tablets of these departed spirits.

It is generally agreed that, the hanging of willow is an omen of good and it is thought to ward off evil influences and wicked spirits. Houses are decorated with foliage, willow branches hang from the tiling above the front door along with those placed throughout the house. To honour the dearly departed, no fire is kindled for three days prior to the first day. Fires are rekindled after the graves have been put in order and offerings made. General festivities are indulged and include family picnics and excursions to the country.

3. Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated during the first five days of the fifth moon. On the morning of the first day it is the custom to hang from the doorposts and windows a few leaves of Artemisia and the sweet-flag tied together. The children are dressed in their best and they flock to the lake or river to watch the racing of the Dragon boats.

The boats used are about one hundred and twenty-five feet long, two and one-half feet deep, and five and one half feet wide. The bow of the boat is generally a carved Dragon’s head, the stern represents the Dragon’s tail. Besides the rowers there are men who wave the flags and beat the gongs to encourage the rowers.

The origin of The Dragon Boat Festival goes back to 295 B.C. when a statesman named Ch’u Yuan of Ying, is said to have drowned himself in the river Mi-lo after being falsely accused by one of the petty princes of the state and as a protest against the corrupt condition of the government. Ch’u Yuan was loved by the people for his virtue and fidelity. Search parties were sent out in boats in an endeavor to find the body. Not being successful they prepared a rice-cake called ‘tsung’, made of glutinous rice and wrapped in leaves. The Dragon Boat Festival is a re-enactment of that story in the form of a race. Their boats are decorated and gongs are beaten as they race to the spot where the tragedy occurred and celebrate the spirit of a loyal statesman by making an offering.

Some writers say the festival originated at a much earlier date, probably with the object to curry favour of the beneficent dragon in the hope that he would send down plenty of rain for the crops.


4. The Mid Autumn Festival

The Moon Festival has several names. It is sometimes called the Mid-Autumn Festival, Rewarding the Moon, or the Festival of Re-union. This last name originated during the Yuan dynasty when the Chinese rose against their Mongolian oppressors, went into Mongolia, rescued their imprisoned Emperor and placed Mongolia once more under Chinese rule. This has become one of the greatest of Chinese Festivals. For several nights prior to the sixteenth two pagodas are illuminated. The highest hills are visited and incense is burned to heaven and earth. The evening of the last day is given to general worship of ancestral tablets and household gods by each individual family. The moon shines brighter on the fifteenth of the eighth month than at any other time during the year and the birthday of the moon shape is in the form of a horse and rider, a pagoda or a fish. It is decorated with red, yellow, green, brown, white and sometimes gold leaf. These cakes with fruit are placed upon a table on a veranda and are eaten with friends and relatives in sight of the moon. These are offerings made to departed spirits; afterwards, the time is given to enjoyment and holiday-making by way of rewarding the moon.

Many female deities are worshipped at this time, the most prominent one being the Mother of the Measure or the Seven-star Mother, who is said to live in the Great Bear constellation. The Moon is worshipped as a benign goddess and presents and congratulations are exchanged between fiends and relatives during the Moon Festival.

Click here to see a Children performing an Umbrella Dance from the Dragon Boat Festival


5. Kung Fu Tea Ceremony

It was in the south-west part of China where Chinese tea was found and originated. This area is covered by a large primeval forest where the warm and moist sub tropical climate has been the perfect cradle for tea trees. In fact, huge 2,700 year old wild tea trees and 800 year old planted tea trees can still be found there. It was in the 5th century that tea went beyond the Chinese border. The phonetic pronunciation of “tea” in Mandarin is Cha, and in XiaMenese in the Fujian province it is called Tay. Cha and Tay defined two classes of tea and followed different timelines and routes of being introduced to the rest of the world. Cha found its way to Persia, Arabia, Turkey, Russia, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Tay was introduced much later than Cha but reached much farther. Near the end of the Ming Dynasty 1644 AD, British merchants had established trading posts in XiaMen discovered Chinese tea as a potential trade product. It was called Tay, the British spelled as “tea”. It became widely accepted in Western cultures and is a descendent of Tay. There are eight classes of Chinese tea: Green tea; Oolong tea; Black tea; Red tea; White tea; Yellow tea; Flower Scented tea; and, compressed tea. When it comes to brewing, different classes of tea have optimal water temperatures. Brewing time and the number of infusions varies depending on the kind of Chinese tea being used. A good cup of tea has the following attributes: Gan or bitterness, flavour, smoothness, aroma, and colour.

In casual settings, there is tea and on serious occasions there again is tea. The tea custom honours a storied past in marriage, showing respect, apologizing, and saying thank you. In a traditional Chinese marriage ceremony, the bride and groom kneel in front of their parents and serve them tea. That is a gesture of gratefulness. For parents desiring their son to be married they speak of wanting to drink the daughter-in-laws tea. When served tea the recipient may thank the pourer by knocking with bent index and middle fingers on the table. This custom began in the Ching dynasty some 300-400 years ago, the story goes like this; the Emperor liked to dress casually when visiting his kingdom. The servants were instructed to maintain a low profile during his visit and thus prevent the identity of their master being revealed. One day at a restaurant, after pouring himself a cup of tea, the emperor filled the servant’s cup. The servant saw this as a great honour and out of reflex wanted to kneel before the emperor and was stopped. So instead the servant kneed with his fingers. This “thanks” knock is still practiced today.

6. Traditions

Chinese Wedding Customs

Chinese people have a storied past and have lived in separate regions throughout the world. Each region has its own food, dialect and customs. Similarly, the wedding customs of a particular region are no different. The customs presented have been taken from Hong Kong.

At one time arranged marriages were a fact of life in Chinese culture. There have been circumstances where both the bride and groom were very young or not even born. It was an elaborate process for the groom’s parents to look for the right kind of bride for their family. This search embodies the Chinese saying bamboo door is to bamboo door as wooden door is to wooden door. So it was quite normal for the parents to dominate the bride-seeking process. In olden days, girls from rich families were sought out by other rich families and poor girls would likely marry into poor families. The former family was looking for someone to take care of household finances and give birth to sons to inherit the wealth, while the latter families were looking for someone to work hard in the fields and give birth to sons to help out on the farm. The Chinese saying pointing to the bosom as a marriage promise, there are numerous tragic folktales of arranged marriages.

The Proper Procedures

Three Letters and Six Etiquettes

In ancient times formal letters played an important role in communicating as well as events. The Three Letters saw the delivery of the Request Letter, Gift Letter, and Wedding Letter. The first two are sent together. The former confirms the formal arrangement of a marriage and is sent from the groom’s family to the bride’s family along with gifts. It is accompanied by the latter the Gift Letter which is a record of the description and quantity of the gifts. The Wedding Letter is presented to the bride’s family on the day of the wedding. It confirms the act of bringing the bride into the groom’s family.

The Chinese word for etiquette can mean both customs and gifts. The following are the Six Etiquette: Request for Marrying the Bride, Request for Bride and Groom’s birth Dates, Initial Gifts for the Brides Family, Select the Wedding Date, and the Wedding Day.

Request for Marrying the Bride

A spokeswoman is hired once the family has found a young woman the groom wants to marry. The spokeswoman will then communicate their wishes and persuade the potential bride’s family to accept the offer. Both sides will negotiate certain terms. Success is not guaranteed.

Request for Bride and Groom’s Birth Dates

The groom’s family request the bride’s Eight Letters through the spokeswoman. The Chinese calendar has 22 letters and they are used to represent the date. Of those eight represent the bride’s birth date. Along with the eight letters representing the groom’s birth date a fortune teller is hired to determine whether the two match each other. Once the dates are confirmed to be suitable the groom’s family will proceed to the next etiquette.

Initial Gifts for the Bride’s Family

The groom’s family will instruct the spokeswoman to send some initial gifts accompanied by the gift letter to the bride’s family.

Formal Gifts for the Bride’s Family

The groom’s family will pick a good day and send the bride’s family the following bridal gifts: clothing, ornaments, cash, cakes, food and sacrifices for worshiping the ancestors. This act confirms the marriageagreement between the two families.

Select the Wedding Date

The fortune teller will select a good day according to the birthdates of the bride and groom and their respective families.

Wedding Day

On this day the bride’s and groom’s homes will be decorated in red. The groom’s family will send out a procession of servants, musicians and a carriage which is carried by four servants to the bride’s family to bring the bride back. The bride will then be brought back to the groom’s house and the two will perform the marriage ceremony witnessed by all the relatives and friends.

The bride and groom will worship the heavens and the earth, the groom’s ancestors and they will also serve tea to all of their superiors in the family. After that, the superiors will give them red packages lai with monetary gifts and wish them well. The groom’s family will then throw a huge feast for the friends and relatives to celebrate the wedding. All along, the spokeswoman has overseen the whole process and toasts the couple.

After the meal, the newlywed couple will return to the bridal room and some naughty friends may tag- along and play tricks on the groom. When all is done, the couple will drink and toast and the spokeswoman will offer sweets and fruits to the couple to wish them long life and lots of children. After which, the couple will finally be left to themselves and the groom can take off the red cloth that covers the bride’s face.

Preparation for the Wedding

Setting up the Bridal Bed

After the groom’s family has picked a good day as the wedding day, a man who’s considered to have had good fortune all through his life will be hired to move the bridal bed to the right place. Then a lady who’s considered to have had good fortune will make the bed and place certain good fortune food and fruits on the bed. Then the bed will be left untouched until the day of the wedding.


The Bride’s Gifts for the Groom

The bride’s gift to the groom will arrive either a couple of days before the wedding day, or if she has a long distance to travel, the gifts will arrive with her maids on the wedding day. These gifts consist of valuable jewelry and precious stones, kitchen utensils, proper bridal linen such as sheets, pillow covers and clothes. In some regions, the bride’s family is expected to furnish the bridal room with the exception of the bed.

Combing the Hair

On the eve of the wedding both the bride and groom need to find a good fortune woman and man to comb their hair in her or his home respectively. Incense is to be burnt prior to the event. The bride needs to sit next to a window where the moon can be seen. Their hair needs to be combed four times. The first combing symbolizes from the beginning to the end; the second, symbolizes harmony from now till old age; the third, symbolizes sons and grandsons all over the place; the fourth symbolizes good health and a long-lasting marriage. The whole rite symbolizes the adulthood of the couple.

Wedding Day Activities

Wedding Day: Picking up the Bride

The groom will have sent a carriage with four servants to pick his betrothed and musicians will accompany the procession playing wedding music all the way. The carriage will have been adorned with red carrying a lot of gifts for the bride’s family. The bride while at home will put on her bright red wedding gown having jewelry from her parents to wear.

Bride Leaving Home

The bride cannot touch the ground with her feet until she arrives at the groom’s house. Upon the arrival of the groom’s procession his spokeswoman will enter her house and carry her on her back to the carriage. Sometimes a red umbrella is used to shield the bride as the opening of the umbrella symbolizes her bringing many descendants to the groom’s family. As the bride leaves the house her parents and relatives will bid her farewell as she rides in the carriage and leaves home.

Bride Arriving at the Groom’s Home

Upon the arrival of the bride to the groom’s house, the couple will worship the ancestors and worship the heavens and earth. They will then serve tea to the groom’s family according to their seniority and the relatives will be given red packets or bridal jewelry in return.

The Wedding Banquet

To celebrate the marriage, the groom’s family will throw a wedding feast. In ancient times some would take seven days to entertain the relatives during a wedding.

Post Wedding Activities

The Bride Returning Home after 3 Days

Three days after the wedding, the bride is expected to return to her family. The bride will bring along roasted pig and gifts for the family. Some regions require the groom to accompany her. This may be the last time the bride will see her family and she brings many gifts for her family. As a tradition, the bride’s family will also return part of the gifts to the groom’s family as a courtesy.

Modern Chinese Wedding Customs

The traditional wedding customs added to the festive nature of the ceremony. Today most of the customs are not performed to their fullest extent. Most elders prefer the ‘simplified customs’ performed today.

When to get married?

In Hong Kong the wedding plans are not driven by the couple’s relationship. It is often restrained by financial situations. An elaborate Chinese wedding banquet, that most parents require, may take years for the couple to save the necessary money for the wedding. The wedding will not go forward without the agreement of the parents.

Preparation for the Wedding

Exchange Birth Dates and Family Tree

If the groom and the bride’s birthdates are approved by the fortune teller, the two families will exchange their family trees. However, superstition may play a role between the two families and this custom may not be followed.

Send Gifts to Bride’s Family

Today families usually send both the initial gifts and the formal gifts to the bride’s home on one day instead of separating the two events. Most families still consult the Chinese calendar to pick a good day which is normally one month before the wedding.

Instead of sending the whole list of gifts, some couples simplify the gifts because traditional gifts of livestock are impractical. The groom will send dried seafood and a fruit basket to the bride’s family.

As for the monetary gift, the groom will either pay a certain agreed amount to the bride’s family or will offer to pay for all of the wedding costs. The negotiation will then focus on how many tables the groom is able to offer to the bride’s family during the wedding banquet. This can be a contentious issue depending on groom’s financial ability and the size of his family.

Setting up the Bridal Bed

This custom has been vastly simplified, although some brides see to observing as much of the custom as practical. So it can be as simple as changing the linen to the traditional red linen as a symbolic act for setting up the bridal bed.

The Bride’s Gifts for the Groom

Some brides contribute some of the gifts from relatives to pay for the banquet as well and some say that it is considered part of the bride’s gift. The bride will also bring over jewelry her relatives give her on her wedding day as a wedding gift, although this rule is not often followed today.

Combing Hair

This relatively simple custom is often skipped today.

Wedding Day: Picking up the Bride

Today, the bridesmaid will have the most fun during the pick-up of the bride. Early in the morning, the groom and the groomsmen will decorate the cars and drive them over to the bride’s home. At the door, the bridesmaid will prepare a lot of tricky questions for the groom to answer. The groom has to answer these questions and perform certain acts, such as doing push-ups, to demonstrate he is capable of taking care of the bride, or sing out his love for the bride in front of many people. The groomsmen will help the groom pass all these tests. The last test is financial. The groom will pay the bridesmaid with some red packets or good fortune as gifts, then the groom and groomsmen can enter the house and greet the bride.

The couple will then serve tea to the superior in the bride’s family. The bride’s parents will be the first to be served, followed by other relatives. Each one will give the couple some present in return, often red packets and jewelry.

Bride Leaving Home

Today, only the very traditional families will use the red umbrella or throw rice as the bride leaves the house. Most people do not perform any special activities and the bride’s parents and relatives will either go to the Marriage Registrar or the church to attend the wedding ceremony.

Bride Arriving at the Groom’s Home

The couple will again serve tea to the superior in the groom’s family. The groom’s parents will be the first to be served followed by other relatives. Each one will give the couple some present in return, often red packets and jewelry for the bride. The whole family will then leave for the Marriage Registrar or the church to attend the wedding ceremony.

The Wedding Banquet

This tradition is the one most observed and in Chinese culture one of the most important because the wedding feast is a chance for them to return their relative’s kindness and to announce the marriage of their kids. A wonderful wedding feast allows for face or the respect of others. The observance of this tradition is especially important to the families today.

The wedding banquet is truly more of a parental event than that of the young couple’s. Traditionally, the groom will pay for everything but nowadays, some young couples will pay for every thing together. Once the guest list has been decided the parents will then decide on a menu. A traditional Chinese banquet will include 12 courses. The food is of the utmost importance to the Chinese and in most cases only delicacies are served.

The guests are seated at round tables and sometimes seating plans are made. Each guest will normally bring along monetary gifts. The events in a Chinese wedding banquet have been modified. Some couples hire a master of ceremonies and because of Western influences the best man and the maid of honour often toast the couple. Before the banquet begins most of the guests will participate in one of the national board games, mahjong. When the food is ready the waiters will play modified xylophone wedding music in the background. During the serving of the shark soup the couple will go from table to table and toast the guests thanking them. In return the guests will toast the bride and groom. Once completed the groomsmen and the bridesmaids and friends of the young couple will play certain tricks on them. The goal is to get the groom to show his love for his bride in public. This is similar to the clinking of glasses done at Western weddings. Some of these pranks or tricks may be outrageous.

The bride may change into four or five different gowns over the course of the wedding day. After the pranks have been completed the bride goes and gets changed. As time draws near for the guests to leave, the parents, the couple and the relatives will stand in a line at the door to thank the guests and wish them well as they leave. The Chinese have a retreating line as opposed to the receiving line in Western culture.

Post Wedding Activities

The Bride Returning Home after 3 Days

Today, in certain regions, this rule is still followed where the bride returns to the family with gifts. However, the custom has been simplified in other regions, where the bride will return home on the same day if distance allows. Otherwise, some brides will leave the door, and then return to the house again and count that as returning home.

China: System of Education

Education has always been in important to the Chinese people. Traditionally all Chinese, with rare exception, could read and write. At one time China had no national system of education and although the course of study was not prescribed by the government it was always the same. In the south of China there were also numerous seminaries for the board and education of young ladies, yet traditions upheld the continuity of curriculum. This approach to education was reported to the U.S. joint commission on Chinese Immigration in 1876.

In Chinese education it was essential to study the literature of The Four Shoos: the first was the Lun-Yu, which was a collection of conversations between Confucius and his disciples; the second was the Ta-Heo which was the great learning; the third was the Chung-Yung or the doctrine of the mean; and the fourth piece of literature consisted of the works of Mencius. The first three were recorded sayings and doctrines of Confucius by his disciples. The object was to teach men to be virtuous, so that they might successfully carry out their political and social duties. Once mastered the student may apply to write examinations for the first degree, which corresponds to our Bachelor of Arts degree. This opportunity is offered twice in each three year period.

The student then enters on a study of the Five-Kings, which embraces cosmology, ancient history, poetry, and etiquette. It was reported Confucius attached great importance to the third of five, the She-King, which was a collection of poems. Confucius thought these poems would mold the national character. The fourth, the Le-Ke, or record of rites dealt with national ceremonial knowledge and practices promoting ethics and social order. The fifth, Ch’un Ts’ew or Spring and Autumn, is a history of several reigns.

Throughout the Empire the second degree was offered once in a three year period. This entailed writing examinations which were equivalent to our Master of Arts degree. The examination consisted of two written essays, composing a twelve line poem, and memorized written or verbal recitation of the Sacred Edict. There were another half dozen trials of strength related to the essay and poem sections. Two or three days after the names of the successful candidates were classified according to merit and posted.

A president of a social club of Chinese ancestry gave a speech in San Francisco and spoke of his experience in earning the second degree. He stated that of 12,000 applicants 11,940 returned home with ‘sorrowful hearts.’ Critics were appalled by the statistics. One explanation correlates the number of graduates with the number of government positions available. Culturally, education was the only avenue to all posts of honour and importance.