The best festivals in China

We pick the best Chinese festivals for culture, tradition and more

Image: Kathy Dragon
Don't have the time or funds to leave the country? Don't worry, China has plenty of great festivals to keep you entertained this year.

Best Chinese festivals for… tradition

Yi and Bai torch festivals
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Image: Jay Wei via Wikimedia Commons

The Yi and Bai minorities in Yunnan and Sichuan have a fun – if at times terrifying – way of ensuring they bring good luck to their communities. On certain days during the sixth lunar month, they take to their fields with long torches to drive away insects and evil spirits, then dance in formations resembling fiery dragons. The scary bit is when they chuck sawdust at each-other’s torches, creating great balls of fire. Backpacker favourite Dali in Yunnan is a good spot to take in the action – just make sure that you keep to a safe distance!

Nanjing Lantern Festival
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Image: Jason Powers

The Lantern Festival celebrated at Nanjing’s Confucius Temple is of such renown that it even gets a shout-out in the 18th-century classic Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber. Nowadays the festival extends all over Nanjing. Between Spring Festival and the Lantern Festival over 500,000 lanterns reportedly (hey, we’re not counting but there certainly are thousands) illuminate the Ming Dynasty walls, the Qinhuai river and many other districts in the city. Alongside these traditional lights, you’ll find performances of folk arts and pop-up street food stalls.

Dai watersplashing festivals
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Image: Jay Wei

Along with the rest of Southeast Asia, the Dai people of Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region – who are ethnically, culturally and linguistically close to the Thai – celebrate their New Year in mid-April by getting wet and wild. Their version of Thailand’s Songkran is relatively muted for the first two days, with families visiting temples and washing Buddha statues. But on day three the mass water fight begins and water is dumped out of windows and sprayed from cars at anyone within range. Head to the region’s capital, Jinghong, for the biggest splash.

Miao rice courtship festival
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Image: Fang Hong via Wikimedia Commons

China already has three Valentine’s Day-type festivals, but the Miao minority communities in the villages around Kaili in eastern Guizhou celebrate another, far less commercial courtship festival in spring. The event (sometimes called the Sisters’ Meal Festival or the Sisters’ Rice Festival) sees all the single ladies of the community dress in their finest silver necklaces and headdresses, and in bright, embroidered traditional clothing. They dance to the tune of lusheng pipes and prepare sticky rice balls flavoured and naturally dyed with berries and leaves, that they then present to the young man their heart desires.

Saga Dawa
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Image: Bow Witlox via Wikimeda Commons

Honouring the birth, enlightenment and entry into Nirvana of Buddha, Saga Dawa is the most important festival in Tibet. Celebrated throughout the entire fourth lunar month of their calendar, this religious holiday is prime time for making pilgrimages. You’ll find hundreds of Tibetans circumambulating monasteries and temples across the region, while, at the holy Mount Kailash, celebrants festoon a symbolic flagpole with prayer flags and toss colourful prayer papers into the wind.

Best Chinese festivals for… culture

Pingyao International Photography Festival
For one week in September, the walled city of Pingyao becomes a giant open-air photo gallery (pip919.com). Some 13,000 blown-up images from 1,700 international photographers hang everywhere, from the Ming Dynasty ramparts to the insides of disused factories and temples. You’ll find pictures from Magnum masters, as well as some of the photographers themselves wandering around the cobbled streets. And if you’re an aspiring photographer the city’s traditional curved roofs and numerous lanterns create plenty of opportunities for you, too, to snap some prime pics.

Xi’an Ancient Culture and Art Festival
As the one-time capital and the starting point for visiting the ancient tombs containing the Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an is a top spot to soak up Chinese history at any time of year. Visit in September, though, and you’ll be treated to even more as the city puts on its Ancient Culture and Art Festival. Throughout the month, craft stalls sell everything from tacky miniature Terracotta Warriors to more refined paper cuttings, while drum and dragon processions, acrobats and shadow puppet shows fill the streets near the Ming Dynasty city walls. At night the parapets are all aglow with lantern shows.

Best Chinese festivals for… sports

Naadam in Inner Mongolia
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Image: Isolethetv via Wikimedia Commons

Home to four million ethnic Mongols, inner Mongolia also celebrates the Naadam traditional Mongolian sports festival. But while Naadam is held between July 11 and 13 in the country of Mongolia, to tie in with its independence day, in China’s inner Mongolia province, these archery, horse-riding and wrestling competitions normally take place on different dates in different places from June to September. One of the easiest to get to is the festival held in the Gegentala Grassland: this stretch of open plains is a three-hour drive from Hohhot and it’s easy to rent a ride or join a tour out from there.

Shaolin martial arts festival
The home of Chinese martial arts, Shaolin Temple, welcomes over 1,500 athletes from more than 70 countries to compete in its international Wushu Festival every year in October. Expect to marvel in wonder at kids and scarily flexible adults battling it out in hundreds of matches. As is the case at Shaolin throughout the rest of the year, you can also expect plenty of performances, too – think row upon row of shaven-headed, costumed athletes holding weapons and moving in perfect unison. Kapow!

Yueyang dragon boat festival
Dragon boating takes place all over China during Duanwu (Dragon Boat) Festival, but nowhere are the celebrations bigger than in Yueyang. This large city in Hunan is located on the Miluo, the river in which the Warring States period poet Qu Yuan committed ritual suicide in protest against state corruption. According to legend, a number of people rushed to save Qu’s body from being eaten by fish by drumming the water with oars and tossing the fish sticky rice parcels (zongzi) to eat instead; Duanwu is all about honouring Qu’s sacrifice by imitating these people. During Yueyang international Dragon Boat Festival, the city holds boat races attended by crews from all over the world, puts on painting and calligraphy exhibitions in memory of Qu, and has plenty of food stalls selling tasty treats including – you guessed it – zongzi.

Best Chinese festivals for… landscapes

Jilin Rime Ice and Snow Festival
Harbin and Sapporo have the big sculptures, but the Jilin Rime ice and Snow Festival boasts a grand spectacle courtesy of Mother Nature. in winter, white crystals of ice coat trees like sugar dusting all along the Songhua River. Alongside this natural phenomenon, known scientifically as ‘rime’, the city puts on festivities from late December to February that include ice lanterns, snow sports competitions and fireworks. Visitors can also head to Songhua Lake to ride horse-drawn sleighs and watch brave swimmers in the icy waters.

Taihu Lake Plum Blossom Festival
For cherry blossom season in Japan you need deep pockets or to book at least half a year in advance for early buyer deals. A cheaper alternative is the plum blossom festival held late February to early March at two locations by Taihu Lake, on the outskirts of Suzhou. Sea of Fragrant Snow Park (Xiangxue Hai), near Guangfu town, has trees dating back over 300 years, which were praised in poetry penned by the Emperor Qianlong, no less, while the Linwudong scenic area on Xishan island boasts 30 varieties of plum trees interspersed with pretty pavilions. Get lost in the fragrant petals and enjoy the folk songs, dances, photography exhibitions and craft stalls also held at this time.

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