Situated south of the Yangtze River, Shanghai has many festivals and customs in common with the region around it. For example, the people of Shanghai eat dumplings made of glutinous rice on Chinese New Year’s Day, green dumplings during the Clear and Bright Festival, zongzi (dumplings made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves) during the Dragon Boat Festival, moon cakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival, glutinous rice cakes during the Double Ninth Festival, and dumplings or rice cakes on New Year’s Eve. Since Shanghai opened up to the outside world as a commercial port, it has become an immigrant society which further enriched its customs and festivals and developed its unique features.
The Spring Festival is the most important traditional Chinese festival. The last day of the lunar year is Chinese New Year’s Eve. All families clean out their houses and go shopping for the big day. They sit down around a table to have dinner at New Year’s Eve. At present, with the improvement of living standards, it has become very fashionable to have dinner with family members at hotels. Many people stay up all night at New Year’s Eve to wait for the advent of the New Year. At the stroke of midnight, everyone welcomes the New Year with noisy firecrackers. On the morning of the first day of this first lunar calendar month, all family members pay homage to their elders, whilst people of the same generation exchange greetings. At the same time, elder family members give money to children who have become older by one year. On the second and third days of the first lunar calendar month, every family sends their best regards to their relatives. However, thanks to modern communication technologies, many people send their New Year’s regards by telephone, SMS, and the Internet.
The legend has it that the birthday of the God of Fortune falls on the fifth day of the first lunar calendar month. It is a very important day for people in Shanghai who desire to get rich. As li can mean both “carp” and “profits” in Chinese, many people offer live carps to the God of Fortune as sacrifice. According to Shanghai customs, firecrackers are set off to welcome the God of Fortune at midnight of the fourth day of the first lunar calendar month.
Everyone wishes for big fortune and good wishes are sent to every person during the Spring Festival. Some employers invite their employees to dinner to foster better relations. Although now a seven day vacation, traditionally, the Spring Festival lasts 15 days.
According to the tradition, the more joyfully the Lantern Festival is celebrated, the better the days ahead would turn out to be. The Lantern Festival marks both the climax and the denouement of the Spring Festival. To enhance the festive atmosphere, some special cultural activities are organized in Shanghai. Examples include the Calligraphy and Art Party in Xuhui District, the Calligraphy and Art Show in Zhabei District, the Party of Spring Couplets in Changning District, the Photography Exhibition in Baoshan District, as well as the dragon and lion dances, boisterous drum and gongs, and lantern riddle games held at Longhua Temple Fair.
The Yuyuan New Year Folk Customs Show in Huangpu District has become the focus of attention of Shanghai during the Lantern Festival. Yuyuan is located near the old Chenghuang Temple and the folk customs show consists of activities such as riddles and an itinerant show based on the theme of “good luck, happiness, pleasure, and good wishes.” Traditional dumplings stuffed with sesame seeds, sweetened bean paste, walnuts, and Chinese date paste still have great appeal while colorful dumplings made with vegetable and fruit juices are also becoming popular.
Clear and Bright Festival
The Clear and Bright Festival usually falls on April 5. It is a time when people are supposed to eat cold foods and pay homage to their dead relatives. On the day, people would go sweep the tombs of their relatives, making offerings and burning joss sticks and paper money. In Shanghai, people usually eat green dumplings made of glutinous rice on the day.
Nowadays, the traditional custom of cleaning tombs has undergone great changes, too. The old elaborate rites have given way to offerings of flowers or wreaths to their own ancestors as well as those revolutionary martyrs who made great contributions to the rise of China.
Dragon Boat Festival
The Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar calendar month, has a 2,000-year history. The custom of dragon boat racing during the Dragon Boat Festival originated from Southern China. A legend goes that Qu Yuan, a poet of the State of Chu in the Warring States period, drowned himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar calendar month. People rowed out in dragon boats to try to rescue their beloved patriot. This gradually evolved into the present day dragon boat races.
In the past, dragon boat races were held on the Huangpu and Suzhou Rivers. Another important custom during the festival is eating zongzi. It is said that people made dumplings with glutinous rice and threw them into the river to protect the body of Qu Yuan from fishes. Today there are many kinds of zongzi stuffed with red beans or meat, as well as those that are made of just plain glutinous rice.
The Mid-Autumn Festival, on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar calendar month, is very important and second only to the Spring Festival to the Chinese. The moon is at its fullest during the Mid-Autumn Festival. When people look up at the bright moon, they tend to remember their relatives who are far from them and hope to be with them. That is also why it is also known as the Reunion Festival.
In old Shanghai, the Mid-Autumn Festival is observed in different ways, such as burning incenses, making colorful lanterns, offering sacrifices to the moon, and enjoying the full moon. With the rapid development of Shanghai, some traditions have gone out of favor. Currently, the most important custom is eating moon cakes as people wish for happiness and the reunion of all family members. In view of their special meanings, moon cakes can be given as gifts to relatives and friends.
The ninth day of the ninth lunar calendar month is named the Double Ninth Festival. The ninth day of the ninth lunar calendar month is regarded as a lucky day by the Chinese. In addition, the homophone of Jiu-jiu (double ninth) in Chinese means “longevity.”
The Double Ninth Festival carries great significance for the Chinese. On that day, people climb mountains, eat cakes, enjoy the chrysanthemum, and drink chrysanthemum wine.
Since 1989, China has designated the ninth day of the ninth lunar calendar month as the Elderly People’s Day. With this, the Double Ninth Festival has now acquired a new meaning and became a festival of respecting, caring, and supporting elderly people.