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Chinese Culture

A Brief Look at the Rich Culture of China

 

China is a vast country with a culture going back at least 5,000 years. When visiting China, visitors will be immediately confronted with the various ways this culture is lived out by millions of Chinese every single day. Below, we offer a very brief introduction to essence of what constitutes Chinese culture to help you enjoy your trip a little more and give you a sense of just what it means to be Chinese.

Ready to explore the history and culture of China for yourself?  Our China travel experts are waiting to answer your questions — call us at (888) 878-1777 today!

Click on the icon to learn more about some of the most important aspects of Chinese culture:

Beijing Opera
Chinese Kungfu
Chinese Tea
Chinese Zodiac Signs
Table Manners
China Cuisine
Chinese Festivals

To take a look at some of our most popular China tours, check out our affordable tours page, or read more about life in China by checking out our travel tips!

Beijing Opera

With a history of more than 200 years, Beijing opera, the essence of Chinese culture, is an intricate combination of music, vocal performance, mime, dance, and acrobatics, which is lauded by foreign visitors and local Chinese. Beijing opera originated in Beijing around 1840 during the Qing Dynasty and came into its heyday in 1930, when its popularity caught on throughout Hebei Province, including nearby Tianjin.

Now, Beijing opera has become one of the largest influential opera forms in the world. Characterized by its rich characters, sophisticated performances, and overwhelming momentum, Beijing opera has become representative of Chinese opera as a whole.

The Roots of Beijing Opera

Beijing opera is derived from four local operas, Hui opera in Anhui, Han opera in Hubei, Kun opera in Jiangsu, and Qinqiang opera in Shaanxi, which drawn from the merits of these local operas and created in its own style. Beijing opera is of the Banqing style, which applies gongs, drums, erhu (“Chinese violin”) or other types of stringed huqin and yueqin (“moon guitar”) to accompany.

Speech, song, dance, and combat are the four classic performing arts in Beijing opera, which are the basic skills required for performers who are typically instructed in such since their youth. There are many roles in Beijing opera, mainly Sheng, Dan, Jing, and Chou, each of which has its own related costumes and mask-paintings. Masks with different colors have different meaning, which is used to portray the character of the roles and illustrate their emotional state.

Chinese Kung Fu

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Chinese Kung Fu, also known as Wushu, is a traditional sports originated in ancient China, which is a remarkable combination of exercise, practical self-defense, and discipline which has become one of the more well-known parts of Chinese culture.

Chinese Kung Fu features dynamic and fluid motions. It is usually practiced with bare hands, while sometimes participants make use of some simple weapons like the cudgel.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, many sects of Chinese Kung Fu were created and thrived; probably the best known are Taichi, Xingyi Quan and Baguan Quan. Since the foundation of People’s Republic of China in 1949, Chinese Kung Fu has experienced a flourishing in popularity across the globe.

Shaolin Kung Fu

Shaolin Kung Fu (or Shaolin wushu) is one of the oldest and most widely-recognized forms of Chinese Kung Fu, combining Zen Buddhism with Kung Fu martial arts. Shaolin Kung Fu originated in Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng city in Hepan province, where loft peaks, verdant trees, crisp fresh air, and the tranquil atmosphere made for a perfect place to practice Kung Fu without distraction.

Tai Chi

Tai Chi, another style of Chinese martial arts, is widely known for its long history and inasmuch as it can contribute to a longer life, which has become a popular fitness activity outside of China. During a visit to China, you may see many people, particularly the old, are practicing Taichi in open areas in the morning.

Famous Actors

Bruce Lee, a famous Chinese-American martial artist and actor, has made great contributions to the development of Chinese Kong Fu. Since the release of his films which heavily feature martial arts, Chinese Kong Fu has dramatically increased in popularity all over the world.

Chinese Tea

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When speaking about Chinese culture, tea drinking needs to be mentioned. Chinese tea culture is the ancient tradition of making and consuming tea, which differs from such traditions in Europe and Japan.

China is home to many different kinds of tea, including Green tea, Oolong tea, Black Tea, scented tea, white tea and yellow tea, each of which has its own distinct color, scent, and taste.

In China, drinking tea is usually referred as tasting tea, which not only refers to discerning the quality of the tea, but the tradition also has to do with engaging in reflective thought and interacting socially while drinking tea.

A short respite from the business of life, make a cup of tea and taste it in a tranquil place on your own can be not only invigoration but also refreshes the soul. Generally, the Chinese look to drink tea somewhere tranquil atmosphere where crisp fresh air is available.

Gardens in China are world famous, where breathtaking scenery and a peaceful ambiance is available. Drinking tea in such gardens never fails to be a fantastic experience and is common among the Chinese.

Chinese Zodiac Signs

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The Zodiac is prevalent among many countries in Asia, Eastern Europe, and North Africa, and China is certainly no exception.  Chinese zodiac signs, also known as “Shengxiao” in Chinese, is a scheme, which uses Twelve Earthly Branches and 12 animals to symbolize the year when a person is born. The cycle of the Chinese zodiac signs is completed every 12 years. 

The zodiac traditionally begins with the sign of the Rat. The twelve zodiac signs are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig, each of which has its matching earth branch and character. In Chinese astrology, the animal signs assigned by year represent what others perceive you as being or how you present yourself.

The zodiac signs also have another function, that is, reckoned by a person’s age from the sign of the person. Knowing the current sign of the year, a person’s perceived age would then be deduced. For example, if it is the year of ox is in 2011, then persons born during the year of the ox are either 12, 24, 36, or 48 years old in 2011, while persons born in the year of the rabbit are two years younger than those born in the year of the ox.

Chinese Zodiac years of birth are known as Ben Ming Nian in Chinese, in which people usually wear something red like to avoid bad luck during this year, such as socks, a ribbon, clothes, underwear, a waistband or a bracelet and the like.

The following are characteristics traditionally assigned to individuals born during their respective sign:

1. Rat – 鼠 (Yang, 1st Trine, Fixed Element Water)

Forthright, tenacious, intense, meticulous, charismatic, sensitive, hardworking, industrious, charming, eloquent, sociable, artistic, shrewd. Can be manipulative, vindictive, self-destructive, mendacious, venal, obstinate, critical, over-ambitious, ruthless, intolerant, scheming.

2. Ox – 牛 (Water buffalo in Vietnam) (Yin, 2nd Trine, Fixed Element Water)

Dependable, ambitious, calm, methodical, born leader, patient, hardworking, conventional, steady, modest, logical, resolute, tenacious. Can be stubborn, narrow-minded, materialistic, rigid, demanding.

3. Tiger – 虎 (Yang, 3rd Trine, Fixed Element Wood)

Unpredictable, rebellious, colorful, powerful, passionate, daring, impulsive, vigorous, stimulating, sincere, affectionate, humanitarian, generous. Can be restless, reckless, impatient, quick-tempered, obstinate, selfish, aggressive, moody.

4. Rabbit – 兔 (Cat in Vietnam) (Yin, 4th Trine, Fixed Element Wood)

Gracious, good friend, kind, sensitive, soft-spoken, amiable, elegant, reserved, cautious, artistic, thorough, tender, self-assured, shy, astute, compassionate,lucky, flexible. Can be moody, detached, superficial, self-indulgent, opportunistic, stubborn.

5. Dragon – 龍 (Yang, 1st Trine, Fixed Element Wood)

Magnanimous, stately, vigorous, strong, self-assured, proud, noble, direct, dignified, jealous, eccentric, intellectual, fiery, passionate, decisive, pioneering, artistic, generous, loyal. Can be tactless, arrogant, imperious, tyrannical, demanding, intolerant, dogmatic, violent, impetuous, brash.

6. Snake – 蛇 (Yin, 2nd Trine, Fixed Element Fire)

Deep thinker, wise, mystic, graceful, soft-spoken, sensual, creative, prudent, shrewd, elegant, cautious, responsible, calm, strong, constant, purposeful. Can be loner, bad communicator, possessive, hedonistic, self-doubting, distrustful, mendacious, suffocating, cold.

7. Horse – 馬 (Yang, 3rd Trine, Fixed Element Fire)

Cheerful, popular, quick-witted, changeable, earthy, perceptive, talkative, agile—mentally and physically, magnetic, intelligent, astute, flexible, open-minded. Can be fickle, arrogant, childish, anxious, rude, gullible, stubborn.

8. Sheep, Goat, or Ram – 羊 (Yin, 4th Trine, Fixed Element Fire)

Righteous, sincere, sympathetic, mild-mannered, shy, artistic, creative, gentle, compassionate, understanding, mothering, determined, peaceful, generous, seeks security. Can be moody, indecisive, over-passive, worrier, pessimistic, over-sensitive, complainer, weak-willed.

9. Monkey – 猴 (Yang, 1st Trine, Fixed Element Metal)

Inventor, motivator, improviser, quick-witted, inquisitive, flexible, innovative, problem solver, self-assured, sociable, artistic, polite, dignified, competitive, objective, factual, intellectual. Can be egotistical, vain, selfish, reckless, snobbish, deceptive, manipulative, cunning, jealous, suspicious.

10. Rooster – 雞 (Yin, 2nd Trine, Fixed Element Metal)

Acute, neat, meticulous, organized, self-assured, decisive, conservative, critical, perfectionist, alert, zealous, practical, scientific, responsible. Can be over-zealous and critical, puritanical, egotistical, abrasive, opinionated, given to empty bravado.

11. Dog – 狗 (Yang, 3rd Trine, Fixed Element Metal)

Honest, intelligent, straightforward, loyal, sense of justice and fair play, attractive, amicable, unpretentious, sociable, open-minded, idealistic, moralistic, practical, affectionate, sensitive, easy going. Can be cynical, lazy, cold, judgmental, pessimistic, worrier, stubborn, quarrelsome.

12. Pig – 猪 (Wild boar in Japan and Elephant in Northern Thailand) (Yin, 4th Trine, Fixed Element Water)

Honest, gallant, sturdy, sociable, peace-loving, patient, loyal, hard-working, trusting, sincere, calm, understanding, thoughtful, scrupulous, passionate, intelligent.
Can be naïve, over-reliant, self-indulgent, gullible, fatalistic, materialistic.

Find Your Animal Year!

Rat Ox Tiger Rabbit Dragon Snake Horse Goat Monkey Rooster Dog Pig
1900 1901 1902 1903 1904 1905 1906 1907 1908 1909 1910 1911
1912 1913 1914 1915 1916 1917 1918 1919 1920 1921 1922 1923
1924 1925 1926 1927 1928 1929 1930 1931 1932 1933 1934 1935
1936 1937 1938 1939 1940 1941 1942 1943 1944 1945 1946 1947
1948 1949 1950 1951 1952 1953 1954 1955 1956 1957 1958 1959
1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 1965 1966 1967 1968 1969 1970 1971
1972 1973 1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983
1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995
1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2027 2028 2029 2030 2031
2032 2033 2034 2035 2036 2037 2038 2039 2040 2041 2042 2043
2044 2045 2046 2047 2048 2049 2050 2051 2052 2053 2054 2055
2056 2057 2058 2059 2060 2061 2062 2063 2064 2065 2066 2067
2068 2069 2070 2071 2072 2073 2074 2075 2076 2077 2078 2079
2080 2081 2082 2083 2084 2085 2086 2087 2088 2089 2090 2091
2092 2093 2094 2095 2096 2097 2098 2099 2100 2101 2102 2103

Table Manners

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Table manners are an important component of Chinese culture, which are usually expressed through inviting guests, seating, eating, using chopsticks, and use of teapots.

Inviting guests

When the guest enters the room, the hosts stands until the guest sits down. Dishes are usually ordered by the host while guests are expected to keep silent. Before dining, a toast initiated by the host is usually made, when guests express their thanks for the invitation. When the dishes arrive, the host will invite the guest(s) of honor to taste first.

Seating

In China, a round table is commonly used for eating. On this occasion, the seat facing the entrance is the seat of honor, which should be reserved for the people with the highest status. The seats on the left-hand-side of the seat-of-honor are in descending order of importance. 

Eating

Food is mostly served by chopsticks and the hand is seldom used with some exceptions. While eating and drinking soup, no noise should be made. While dining, the host should take care of all his guests are able to enjoy the dishes. While someone is picking up food from dishes with chopsticks, the Lazy Susan (or rotating table) should never be turned.

Chopsticks

Chopstick are mostly used in Chinese dining, and certain protocols govern their use. Chopsticks are not used to toy with one’s food or with dishes in common and they should be placed neatly to the side after used. It is impolite to point at someone with chopsticks. Never dig for food in the common dishes with your chopsticks. Obviously, you should never bang your chopsticks as though you were playing the drums.

Teapot

Given the long history of tea drinking in China, use of the teapot also has its own etiquette. The teapot should never be placed pointing someone directly at someone, which is considered quite impolite. If you are getting tea for yourself, make sure to ask others whether they need tea or not first and serve others before serving yourself.

China Cuisine

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With a history going back more than 5,000 years, China boasts a profoundly unique and diverse cuisine which is an integral aspect of Chinese culture. Chinese cuisine is characterized by its special seasonings, specialized cooking methods, diversified cooking materials, and distinctive flavors, making itwell known to citizens of the world.

Chinese cuisine has a number of different styles making up the Eight Culinary Traditions of China: Guangdong (Cantonese) cuisine, Shandong cuisine, Jiangsu cuisine, Sichuan cuisine, Fujian cuisine, Hunan cuisine, Anhui cuisine, and Zhejiang cuisine.  The first four are probably the best known and most influential and well known.

Sichuan Cuisine

Sichuan cuisine is a style of Chinese cuisine originated in the Sichuan Province of southwestern China. Sichuan cuisine is typically prepared with garlic and chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorn, zhitianjiao, peanuts, sesame paste, and ginger, which offers it bold flavor with particularly pungent and spicy notes. Sichuan cuisine is highly favored by native Chinese foreigners due to the spiciness and sourness it produces. The most famous dish of Sichuan cuisine is Hotpot soup.

Anhui Cuisine

Anhui cuisine is derived from the native cooking styles of the people of the Huangshan Mountain region in China and shares similarities with Jiangsu cuisine. Anhui cuisine places less emphasis on seafood but more on a wide variety of local herbs and vegetables. Due to its geography, Anhui province is endowed with fresh bamboo and mushroom crops, which comprise the main raw material for Anhui dishes.

Shandong Cuisine

Shandong Cuisine, also known as Lu cuisine, plays an important role in imperial cuisine and is widely eaten in North China, while it is less popular in the south. Shandong Cuisine is characterized by a variety of cooking techniques. Shandong cuisine makes great use of braised abalone, braised trepang, sweet and sour carp. Jiuzhuan Dachang and Dezhou Chicken should not be missed!

Fujian Cuisine

Fujian cuisine, also known as Min Cuisine, is one of the most famous Eight Cuisines in China.  Edible mushrooms and bamboo shoots are especially utilized to prepare the woodland delicacies. Fujian cuisine is often served in a broth or soup, which is prepared by braising, stewing, steaming and boiling.

Su Cuisine (Jiangsu, Huaiyang Cuisine)

Jiangsu cuisine, also known as Su Cuisine, is one of the major components of Chinese cuisine, which consists of the styles of Yangzhou, Nanjing, Suzhou and Zhenjiang dishes. Jiangsu cuisine is characterized by its distinctive style, special taste, and unique cooking techniques, which makes it quite popular among chefs worldwide. For tasting authentic Jiangsu cuisine, if you are travelling around the region of the lower Yangtze river, make sure your trip includes trying dishes like Jinling salted dried duck, crystal meat (pork heels in a brown sauce), clear crab shell meatballs, Yangzhou steamed Jerky strips, and triple combo duck.

Cantonese Cuisine

Cantonese Cuisine, also known as Yue cuisine, is another major component for Chinese eight cuisines, which enjoys a long history and a good reputation both home and abroad. The most typical Cantonese dish is dim sum, bite-sized small hearty dishes, which are prepared with frying, steaming, stewing, and baking. Other Cantonese dishes like rice rolls, lotus leaf rice, turnip cakes, buns, shui jiao-style dumplings, stir-fried green vegetables, congee porridge, and soups are also quite popular among Cantonese cooks.

Hunan Cuisine

Hunan cuisine, also known as Xiang cuisine, features hot and spicy flavor, fresh aromas, and deep color, which makes itself quite favorable among cooks. Xiang cuisine is commonly prepared with traditional cooking methods like stewing, frying, roasting, braising, and smoking. The region of Hunan is blessed with diverse agricultural resources, which makes for a wide variety of ingredients to utilize.

Zhejiang Cuisine

Zhejiang cuisine, commonly known as Zhe cuisine, is of the Eight Culinary Traditions of China, which is characterized by its non-greasy taste, soft flavor, and mellow fragrance. Zhejiang cuisine is mainly composed of four styles, namely Hangzhou style, Shaoxing style, Ningbo style, and Shanghai style, each of which has its own ingredients. Hangzhou style is rich in bamboo shoots, Shaoxing style, freshwater fish, Ningbo style seafood, and Shanghai style dim sum.

Chinese Festivals

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With a rich history of more than 5,000 years, China enjoys many traditional festivals that you may encounter on a trip to China such as the Spring Festival, Lantern Festival, Tomb-Sweeping Day (Qingming Festival) to the Dragon Festival and Mid-autumn Day, each with its own significance and features. After learning about them, you will have a more well-rounded appreciation for Chinese culture.

Spring Festival

The Spring Festival is one of the most important festivals in China, which is from the first to the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar.  In some respects, the Spring Festival is to China, what Christmas to America. About one month ahead of the Spring Festival, people will begin preparations for it, including cleaning house, shopping and cooking food in anticipation. When celebrating the festival, people will hang red lanterns on doors, and set off firecrackers.

Another important part of the Spring Festival is family reunions as people who live far away from home will return home to be with their families. At dinner, the young offer their best wishes and toast to their elder’s health and happiness.

On the first day of the festival, children will dress in their new clothes and pay a new year’s visit to their relatives, then they will give them new year’s money. In the following days, people will visit relatives and friends, and express their good wishes to the next year to each other. The last day, on the 15th day of the festival is the Lantern Festival.

Since Spring Festival is a traditional Chinese festival, there are still some taboos about it. During Spring Festival, unlucky behaviors and words should be avoided because it is believed bad things may happen if certain words are spoken. Such words as “bad,” “dead,” “kill,” “ache,” and the like are not welcome. Moreover, water should not be sprinkled out of the house, which may bring bad luck to the new year. Also when holding fragile articles like plates, cups, and glasses, one should be particularly careful and never break them. What’s more, neither sweeping the floor nor cutting hair is welcome during the spring festival. In addition, different regions of China have their own taboos on the Spring Festival.

Mid-autumn Day

Mid-autumn day, anther traditional festival in China, is celebrated on August 15th in the lunar calendar every year. On the mid-autumn day, the full moon will appear, which symbolizes reunion in Chinese cultures, so the mid-autumn day is also called Reunion Festival. Since mid-autumn day is an important festival in China, there are some traditional customs for this festival.

Moon Worship

Moon worship is a quite time-honored tradition in China, which could be traced back to the Zhou dynasty in ancient Chinese history. This tradition has been passed down from generation to generation. In modern times, people usually display moon cakes as well as other fruits on the table in the yard. After the moon has “eaten” the moon cakes, they will return to the table and eat the moon cakes with family members to pray for health and happiness.

The delicately-shaped moon cake is a must-have for the Mid-autumn Day, which is made of flour filled with various kinds of fillings like nuts, eggs, beans, and fruits. Since full the moon symbolizes family reunion in Chinese reunion, moon cakes are usually round-shaped. That is why eating moon cakes on the mid-autumn day often makes some Chinese feel homesick.

Lantern Festival

Lantern Festival is another important festival in China, which is celebrated on the 15th of the first month in the lunar calendar every year. The Lantern Festival marks the end of the Spring Festival. The Lantern Festival of 2019 falls on Tuesday February 19th. There are some traditional customs and activities for Lantern Festival, as well.

Watching Lanterns

During the Lantern Festival, splendid lanterns shows are displayed and lanterns of different shapes can be seen everywhere, attracting no small amount of visitors. Accompanying lanterns, various fireworks are lit, which explode into different shapes in the night sky.

Guessing Riddles

Guessing lantern riddles is another important part of the Lantern Festival. Each lantern contains a riddle which people will guess. If someone has an answer to a riddle, he can pull the paper from the lantern and ask the organizers to verify the answer. If the answer is right, then little gifts would be awarded. Since this intellectual activity is very exciting and interesting, guessing riddles during the lantern festival is quite popular among many people, old and young, men and women.

Folk Dances

Another common activity during the festival is the exciting folk dances, such as Lion Dance and Walking on the Stilts. In the Lion Dance, two dancers are dressed as a large lion, one as the lion’s head, the other as the loin’s tail. The dancers perform coordinated and rhythmic steps and timed to the music of loud gongs and drums.

Sometimes it jumps, sometimes it roars. Another representative folk dance during the Lantern Festival is walking on the stilts. The performers’ feet are bent onto the stilts and they walk on stilts. Dressed up gorgeously, the performers impersonate different animals, monks, clowns, fishermen and others.

Eating Yuan Xiao

As for food, people usually eat ball-shaped sweet dumplings in this festival, also called Yuan xiao in Chinese, which is made of glutinous rice flour with different fillings. Hence, the Lantern Festival is also called Yuan xiao Festival.

Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival, another traditional festival in China, falls on the May 5th in the lunar calendar every year, which is celebrated to commemorate an ancient patriotic poet named Qu Yuan. Customs pertaining to this festival are:

Eating Rice Dumpling (Zong zi)

On the Dragon Boat Festival, people will eat triangle-shaped rice dumplings, “zong zi” in Chinese, which is made of rice filled with different fillings like dates, nuts, and beans. Many families made rice dumplings at home by themselves. After the rice dumplings are prepared, people will wrap the rice with reed leaves into triangle-shape and then boil it.

Dragon Boat Racing

Another important activity during this festival is holding Dragon Boat races in honor of the great poem Qu Yuan. In a dragon boat race, a competition is held between the teams. The one who reach the final destination first is the winner. It was said that the winning team would bring a bountiful harvest and happiness to the people of their village.  Typically, a team member stands in front of the boat and beats the drum to keep the pace for the other team members.

Making Fragrant Handicrafts for Children

Additionally, people will hang a special wormwood named Ai on the front door to drive out evil spirits. Moreover, women will make handicrafts with different ships and fill them with special fragrant ingredients. When finished, they will hang the delicate handicraft on the childrens’ necks to pray for their health and happiness.

Chinese Valentines’ Day

The Chinese Valentines’ Day, also known as Double Seventh Festival, is another traditional festival in China, which is celebrated on July 7th in the lunar calendar every year and is particularly popular among young people.

When it comes to the origins of the holiday, it was told that there was a poor cowboy, who felt in love with a weaving girl, 7th daughter of the Emperor of Heaven. They lived a happy life together and had two children. When the Emperor of Heaven heard this, he got angry and took the weaving girl back to heaven, while the cowboy held the hands of the weaving girl tightly. Seeing this, the Emperor of Heaven drew the silver river with his hairpin between them and they were separated eventually. The weaving girl was forced to move to the star Vega and the cowboy moved to the star Altair. They are allowed to meet only once a year on the day of 7th day of July lunar month.

It was said that on the Double Seventh Day, people could see the weaving girl and cowboy’s reunion on the Silver River. If you hide yourself under the fruit trellis, you might overhear the conversations between cowboy and weaving girl on this night.

On Chinese Valentine’s Day, people in love usually go to the Matchmaker’s Temple to pray for their love and for the possibility of marriage. Those still single will do the same thing, to ask for good luck of love in the Matchmaker’s temple. On this romantic night, girls usually set tables with fruits displayed to pray for intelligence and love.

Tomb-Sweeping Day

Tomb-sweeping Day, also known as Pure Brightness Day, is one of the most important traditional festivals in China, which usually falls onto 4th, 5th or 6th of April. On tomb-sweeping day, people will visit their ancestors’ graves and mourn for the dead, burn incense, offer food and paper coins. They will also clean the grave area, including removing weeds growing around the tomb and removing dust. After that, some flowers are also presented.

During the days around Qingming, everything is recovered and refreshed, so many outdoor activities like traveling around, flying kites and planting trees are taken up by many people.