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Festivals in Chinese Calendar

The main Chinese Festivals in Singapore are:

  •  Chinese New Year 
  •  Qing Ming Festival 
  •  Mid-Autumn Festival 
  •  Dong Zhi 

However, as Qing Ming Festival and Dong Zhi are mainly astronomical in their origin, we will be only discussing the origins of Chinese Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, followed by a short description of each of their astronomical aspects.

According to a legend popular among farmers, the Chinese word for “year”, Nian, was once the name of a monster in ancient China. The monster slept the whole year round except for the thirtieth day of the twelfth or the final month in the traditional Chinese calendar. On that day, it roamed from place to place, injuring or killing people and livestock. On one New Year’s Eve, Nian came to the village where several buffalo boys were cracking their herding whips in a competition. The monster was so frightened by the loud and explosive sound that it fled to another village. On arrival, it spotted some bright red clothes hanging on the line to dry. Nian was terrified and ran away. When it reached the third village, it stopped in front of a house and peeked through a crack on the door. The bright illumination inside made it feel dizzy. Once again, Nian fled in panic. People thus came to realize that Nian’s fatal weakness was its fear of light, red colour and explosive sound. So to scare away Nian, they started setting off fireworks and firecrackers and putting on red clothes as a way to celebrate the New Year.

When all is said and done, legends are just legends. They cannot change the fact that Spring Festival marks the beginning of a year, according to the lunar calendar

As to the origin of the Spring Festival, one legend has it that during the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th-11th centuries B.C.), a young man named Wan Nian (meaning ten thousand years) was worried about the confusion in the solar terms of the calendar indicating the relative position of the earth’s orbit around d the sun. The confusion had unfavourably affected farming activities. To remedy the difficult situation, Wan Nian carefully recorded the time with a sundial and a clepsydra. Finally, he succeeded in the determining four of the twenty-four solar terms, the Spring Equinox, the Autumn Equinox, the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice. The official responsible for the observation of climatic variations then was a man called A Heng. Being ignorant and incompetent, he was negligent in executing his duty. He tried to put the blame for his dereliction on the common folks whom, he said, had offended the gods. He suggested to King Zuyi to make sacrificial offerings to the gods in order to determine the solar terms. His suggestion was accepted and the king attended the rites at the head of his ministers and other officials. At the same time, a royal edict on offering sacrifices to Heaven was sent across the nation. Amidst all the commotion, Wan Nian requested an audience with the king, taking along his sundial and clepsydra. The king was convinced by his explanation and ordered the construction of a sundial and clepsydra in front of the altar. To ensure that Wan Nian could devote all his time and energy to more accurately measure the solar terms, the king assigned twelve boys to be his attendants.

A Heng, sensing a threat to his position, decided to get rid of Wan Nian. The incompetent official paid an assassin an enormous sum of money to take the life of Wan Nian. Unable to get close to the young man, the assassin tried to shoot him to death at a distance with an arrow. He failed in his treacherous mission, as the arrow succeeded in hitting only Wan Nian’s arm. The assassin was later caught and beheaded. When the king came to the Sun and Moon Pavilion at the altar, the site of the sundial and clepsydra, Wan Nian said to him, “Your Majesty, it’s  midnight now. The old year has been completed and the new year has begun. Please define the beginning period of year. The king said,” Let’s call it the Spring Festival since spring is the first season of the year.” Wan Nian stayed on at the pavilion in pursuit of refining time measurement. After long years of observation and through meticulous calculation, he finally worked out a solar calendar. When he presented it to the king, Wan Nian was already an old man with silvery hair. Deeply touched, the king named the calendar the “Wan Nian Calendar” and granted him the title, ”The Sun and Moon God of Longevity”. People today refer to the traditional Chinese New Year celebration as the Spring Festival and put up pictures of the god of longevity as part of their preparations for the occasion. It is said their purpose in doing so is to commemorate the venerable Wan Nian.

 Around 2000 B.C., there ruled in Imperial China, an emperor, Son of Heaven and Lord of Ten Thousand Years, who had a peculiar talent for sensing by sight alone the phenomena we now called “earth-warming.” One fine summer afternoon, while listening to one of his imperial concubines playing the PiPa (a pear shaped mandolin), and gazing toward his Summer Palace Gazebo, he saw ten suns overlapping each other, beating sharp rays never seen before. Ever conscious of his role as protector of the community, he feared the overpowering suns would scorch the people, dry up wells, rice paddies, lakes and seas. The earth, be dreaded, would overheat and burn to its horrific conclusion.

What was to be done? Quickly he summoned his imperial presence, General Hou Yih, an officer guardsman of the imperial household guards, who distinguished himself as his Lord Protector by having been a very skilled archer of tremendous strength. When he was told of the ten overlapping suns burning brightly at noon and threatening to scorch all on earth, he immediately shot nine arrows aimed at nine suns across the sky. They were reported to be on target, and by the evening, only one sun was going down over the meadows. Earth- warming was no longer a threat to life, limb, and agriculture. His Imperial Majesty and his consort, the Empress, were impressed. Soon, the Goddess of the Western Heavenly Realm beard of General Hou’s giant Leap for mankind. She commissioned him to be architect and imperial builder of a multi-colored rainbow palace from her imperial collection of jade, a gem stone valued highly by the Chinese Imperial Dynasties and henceforth by Chinese people everywhere

Naturally, as a General, he was able to marshal the sinew of armed men for the building project. The Palace was so well built and so appropriate as a fortress that Her Imperial Majesty felt that it would be a tragedy that a man so gifted should die a premature death, either in a battle or by accident. Therefore, she decided to confer eternal life on him by offering as a reward the “Elixir of Immortality-Life Eternal” in the form of the “Pill of Life Eternally” on the singular condition that he was not to swallow it until a full year of prayerful contemplation and fasting at a local monastery. He took it home, but busy with imperial duties, he had it hidden in a secret place without telling his Wife Lady O-Chang about the potent power of the Pill. While away on one of his imperial missions, Lady O-Chang accidentally found the pill in its secret hiding place and swallowed it. Lo and Behold! She was airborne within seconds and bound for eternal banishment to the full brilliant moon above to complement the divine natural beauty of the moon with her own beautiful attributes of form and substance. As she was soaring like an eagle at full flight, contrary to the earthly laws of gravity. General Hou saw this totally unexpected turn of events and took arms in hot pursuit. However, as if by divine intervention, typhoon winds swept and turned him back to earth. His was the earth and all therein to cherish and love till the end of his days Lady O-Chang, on the other hand, became the divinely beautiful Moon Goddess whose celestial realm was the Moon and stars that twinkle like a thousand points of light in a heavenly dance, fluttering, flickering, to and for across the skies at night, delighting one and all, especially during this season of the mid-Autumn Moon, when the celestial Goddess of the moon makes her appearance at the offerings put forward by earth people! Children are asked to concentrate quietly at these prayerful offerings, for deep thoughts and clear minds do sometimes render the unexpected sighting of this phantom goddess of the night. For some five thousand years now, during the August Moon Festival, Chinese elders repeat this epic legend of magic for children and to all who would listen of how, why, and when this Festive Day and Night is celebrated. Lady O-Chang has reached  the status of immortality in the form and substance of the Goddess, as lovely as she ever was while here on earth.

In the 14th century, the eating of moon cakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival was given a new significance. The story goes that when the patriot Zhu Yuan Zhang was plotting to overthrow the Yuan Dynasty, he passed his plans hidden inside the moon cakes to his fellow rebels. Hence, the eating of moon cakes during Mid-Autumn Festival was said to commemorate the patriot Zhu Yuan Zhang and a commemoration of the overthrow of the Mongolians by the Han people.

The Chinese calendar is a luni-solar calendar, therefore meaning that it is based on the observations of the Sun and the Moon. In the solar calendar, among the 24 solar terms, there are 8 principal seasons, which indicate the beginning and the end of the yin and yang elements in the four seasons. They are the Beginning of Spring, the Beginning of Summer, the Beginning of Autumn, the Beginning of Winter, the Spring Equinox, the Autumn Equinox, the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice. The first day of the first lunar month in the lunar calendar is New Year’s Day, marking the beginning of the year. Since the Beginning of Spring (li chun) begins around this day (approximately February 4), the LUNAR NEW YEAR is also known as the Spring Festival, heralding the arrival or approach of the spring.

The QING MING FESTIVAL is based on the solar term of the solar calendar, which is in this case, the 5th solar term known as qing ming. It more or less coincides with April 5 in the Gregorian calendar. By this time, all the trees have sprouted leaves and flowers bloom in the springtime splendour. The people have clear and bright feelings about the occasion. One noteworthy event is that ever since the Tang Dynasty, every Chinese family visits the graves of their ancestors to sweep the graves.

The MID-AUTUMN FESTIVAL is based on the lunar calendar. The fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month is the middle of the autumn according to the Chinese reckoning. During this festival, there should be family reunion with the eating of moon cakes. This mid-autumn festival occurs at a time when the grain is normally stored in the granary and the people celebrate their harvest with a festival. This is also why sometimes the Mid-Autumn Festival is also known as the HARVEST MOON FESTIVAL.

The DONG ZHI is also based on the solar term of the solar calendar, which is in this case, the 22nd solar term known also as dong zhi. It coincides with December 22 of the Gregorian calendar. Dong Zhi is the thanksgiving of the Chinese calendar. “Dong Zhi” literally means “arrival of winter”. Coinciding with the winter solstice, it is an occasion for the family to get together to celebrate the good year they have had. Tang Yuan is cooked and eaten to symbolise unity and harmony within the family. Dong Zhi occurs 6 weeks before Chinese New Year and would normally fall between 21st Dec and 23rd Dec. Notice that among all the Chinese Festivals, only the Qing Ming Festival and Dong Zhi are based on the solar calendar, while the rest are based on the lunar calendar.

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