A 12-month guide to China’s best festivals

A 12-month guide to China’s best festivals

As the masses head for the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, here's a year-long look at the country's top celebrations

China's incredible Harbin Ice and Snow Festival has begun, kicking off another big year of celebrations in China. 

Some of the events provide insight into China's cultural diversity. Others simply showcase the nation's love of a good party. 

Here are 12 of the year's top festivals, one for each month.

January: Harbin Ice and Snow Festival 

This year's Harbin Ice and Snow Festival has a fairy tale theme, featuring ice castles and character sculptures equipped with LED lights.

Now in its 29th year, the city-wide Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is a celebration of art and light -- and, of course, ice and snow -- featuring incredible, life-size castles, structures and colorful lanterns all constructed from meter-thick blocks of ice pulled from the Harbin's Songhua River and lit with LED lights.

During the festival the entire Siberian-esque city, located in frigid northeast China, becomes an ice and snow playground.

Sun Island hosts snow sculpture exhibitions, Ice and Snow World is where you'll find the frozen buildings and the ice lantern show is in Zhaolin Garden.

When/where: January 5 until mid-February; Harbin, Heilongjiang province

February: Spring Festival (Chinese New Year)

Chinese folk artists perform the lion dance at a temple fair in Beijing to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

On February 10, Chinese people all over the world will usher in the Year of the Snake with lion dances, fireworks, special foods, temple visits and other red-hued festivities. 

Not surprisingly, there's no better or more crowded place to celebrate Chinese New Year (also known as Spring Festival) than China.  

In Shanghai, thousands will head for Longhua Temple, the city's oldest temple dating back more than 1,800 years, to attend bell-ringing ceremonies on New Year's Eve and Lunar New Year's Eve.

Beijing residents will hit one of the hundreds of temple fairs taking place in the city. The most famous takes place at Dongyue Temple, where revelers party for five days as they take in shows that include acrobatics and opera. 

Millions of Chinese travel during the Chinese New Year period, meaning visitors should plan for crowds and book planes and trains early. 

More on CNN: 6 Shanghai dishes, 6 delicious ways to be lucky

March: Gongcheng Peach Blossom Festival 

To the Chinese, peach blossoms symbolize life, growth and prosperity.

A dazzling way to welcome the spring, this flower festival in Guilin, Guangxi province, marks the yearly resurgence of the area’s abundant peach blossoms.

Chengdu native Anne Wang, 28, loves the natural vibrant colors on display.

“Some are dark red, while others are really light pink,” says Wang. “Together, they look like a painting.”

During the festival, people sample local oil tea, a concoction of fried tea leaves, spices and puffed rice.

When/where: Dates in 2013 are yet to be announced but the month-long festival usually starts early March; Gongcheng, Guilin, Guangxi province

April: Water Splashing Festival 

The wetter the better. Dai people splash water on each other to celebrate the New Year.

Much like Thailand's Songkran, China's ethnic Dai minority celebrates its New Year with a water fight that stems from an ancient Indian Brahman practice.

Xishuangbanna, in China's Yunnan province, has a particularly large Dai population and is the best place to observe and take part in the bathing of the Buddha.

Signifying good luck and health, the traditional splashing of water is guaranteed to turn into a massive battle spiced up by water guns made of bamboo.

When/where: The 2013 Dai New Year takes place April 12-15, 2013; Xishuangbanna is in China's Yunnan province, which borders Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.

May: Buddha Bathing Festival 

Now that's one clean Buddha.

For a more traditional Buddhist ceremony, the Shaolin Temple’s hometown of Dengfeng hosts an annual Buddha Bathing Festival in celebration of the original Buddha Sakyamuni’s birthday.

A figure of the Buddha is placed in a bowl surrounded by an altar of flowers that represents his birthplace, the Garden of Lumbini. It's then bathed in holy water, which monks themselves later use.

Meant to drive away evil and cleanse the spirit, the purification ceremony is followed by traditional dance, meditation and feasting.

When/where: The fourth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar (May 17, 2013); Dengfeng, Henan province

June: Dragon Boat Festival

The drummer's job is to lead the paddlers' strokes with a rhythmic beat.

Also known as Duanwu Jie, China's Dragon Boat Festival is known for its dramatic and inspired boat designs, on display during river races, and tasty triangle rice dumplings called zongzi.

Some believe the festival was originally held to memorialize the suicide of Qu Yuan, a 14th-century-BC poet who drowned himself in protest of his country's takeover by the state of Qin.

Though boat festivals are held all over the country, Beijing is one of the most popular places to watch races and enjoy accompanying festivities at nearby lakes, such as Qinglong and Houhai.

When: The fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar (June 12, 2013)

More on CNN: Has the Dragon Boat Festival lost its meaning? 

July: Torch Festival

People dance around bonfires on a main Xichang road to celebrate the annual Torch Festival, held to worship the god of fire.

One of the most popular festivals in southwest China, the Torch Festival is celebrated by the country's ethnic Yi minority.

Liangshan holds one of the largest gatherings, which features traditional music and three days of dancing, bull fighting, fireworks, a market fair and, of course, lots of bonfires.

The festival is held to ensure a good harvest during the coming of the new year, held in July according to the Yi's traditional calendar.

When/where: Dates vary depending on area. Most Torch Festivals are held from the 24th to the 26th day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar (July 31-August 2, 2013); Liangshan, home to one of China's largest Yi communities, is in southwest Sichuan. 

August: Qingdao International Beer Festival

Qingdao International Beer Festival: a sobering experience. In its own way.

China might not be the first place one associates with beer, but the Qingdao International Beer Festival is working to change that.

The beach-lined provincial capital of Qingdao throws the largest beer party in Asia every summer to celebrate its hometown brew, the German-style Tsingtao Beer.

The two-week booze bonanza is filled with beer tastings, music, drinking contests, games, parades and live performances.

According to 27-year-old Shanghai native Vivi Zhang, it's a summer highlight.

“I always look forward to going to the Qingdao Beer Festival,” she says, “because it’s a giant outdoor party.”

When/where: The second weekend of August for 16 days (August 10-25, 2013); Qingdao, Shandong province

September: Mid-Autumn Festival

There's more to the Mid-Autumn Festival than mooncakes.

Originally held in honor of Chang'e, the moon goddess of immortality, the moon-themed Mid-Autumn Festival is widely celebrated in Chinese communities around the world. 

Traditionally, people make wishes as they release lanterns into the sky, light incense and dance. The most famous part of the celebration are the mooncakes, small pastries stuffed with various fillings. 

Allen Wu, a 23-year-old Anhui-native, says they're his favorite part of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

"It’s fun to give them out to friends and family, but eating them is the best part.”

When: September 19, 2013

More on CNN: What's the big deal about mooncakes? 

October: Shaoxing Rice Wine Festival 

Shaoxing wine is one of China's most famous varieties of Huangjiu, or traditional Chinese fermented rice wine. It's been in production since imperial times.

The Shaoxing Rice Wine Festival kicked off in 1990 to showcase the historic water town of Shaoxing’s most famous export. 

Visitors sample the spirits, watch live performances and tour the local brewery to see how water from nearby Jianhu Lake (Jianhu-Mirror) is processed into the potent yellow alcohol Chinese love.

The city of 5 million currently produces more than 110,000 tons of rice wine per year.

When/where: Dates in 2013 are yet to be announced. The festival usually starts around mid-October and lasts for a month; Shaoxing, in northeastern Zhejiang province

November: Miaonian Festival

Villagers of Miao ethnic origin dance with tourists in Leishan, Guizho. With a population of nearly 9 million, Miao is one of the largest ethnic minorities in southwest China.

China's Miao ethnic minority is still relatively untouched by tourism, which provides a rare opportunity for visitors to observe and participate in the community's annual New Year’s celebration.

Leishan, in Guizho province, holds one of the busiest Miaonian festivals. 

Miao women wear elaborate traditional garb. Visitors can watch bullfights, horse racing and listen to traditional music played on the lu sheng, a multi-piped bamboo instrument.

When/where: End of year on the Miao Calendar (around mid-November); Leishan, Guizho

December: Dong New Year’s Festival 

Ethnic Chinese Dong girls perform "Song of Cicada." The Dong people are renowned for their choir singing.

Ringing in the traditional New Year with the Dong people in Qiandongnan means spending time with an ethnic group of some 2 million people in China.

This minority has preserved their traditional culture and customs, from intricate architecture and famous drum towers to traditional food, which includes pickled carp and glutinous rice cakes.

The culmination of the festival is the water buffalo fight, which uses specially trained animals.

When/where: The annual event is held from the first to the 11th day of the 11th month of the lunar calendar. This year it will be held from December 3-13. The biggest Dong New Year's Festival takes place in Qiandongnan County, Guizhou province.

Andrea Scarlatelli is an American freelance writer living in Shanghai. After receiving her MA in English Literature, she was bitten by the travel bug and moved overseas.
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