New Year Means New Holidays in China

china dragon

Americans abroad generally continue to think like Americans. This is not a unique phenomenon since the French generally continue to think like the French, the Brits like Brits and so on.

But China isn’t the U.S. or France or the U.K., and if you have employees posted there, they’ll have certain cultural adjustments to make, and so will your HR department. The Chinese holidays offer a terrific illustration of this.

In the west, we’re used to some consistency in how the holidays fall on the calendar from year to year. They generally occur on a fixed date (think, for example, New Year’s Day on Jan. 1, Independence Day on July 4, Christmas on Dec. 25) or under a fixed formula (Memorial Day falls on the last Monday of May and Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday in November).

While China has adopted the western Gregorian calendar for most other purposes, holidays continue to be set each year using a lunisolar calendar, which is based on the phases of the moon and the position of the earth relative to the sun. (The Gregorian calendar is based exclusively on the earth/sun relationship and doesn’t much care what the moon is up to.)

What this means in practical terms is that the dates of certain holidays—the Dragon Boat Festival, for example, which is sometimes called the Double Five Festival because it’s celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar—occur on different days in different years without much of a pattern from the western point of view.

As a comparison, consider Easter, one of the few western holidays calculated using a lunisolar calendar (because originally based on Passover as calculated using the Hebrew calendar, which is lunisolar). According to Catholic Answers, "Easter is the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon, which is the first full moon on or after March 21. Easter thus always falls between March 22 and April 25."

So there you are.

Death and Love and Revolution

Some Chinese holidays may seem to have U.S. analogs but in fact have different meanings. Labor Day, for example, is celebrated in the U.S. on the first Monday in September and, according to the U.S. Labor Department, is a "a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."

In China, as in many other countries, Labor Day is celebrated on May 1 and has more revolutionary associations.

Other Chinese holidays may seem strange to individuals not familiar with Chinese culture.

The Qingming Festival, for example, is generally rendered in English as Tomb Sweeping Day, which to the western mind may conjure images of Edgar Allan Poe, but for the Chinese is a holiday dating back to the Eighth Century that’s intended as a time for individuals to honor their ancestors by praying at grave sites. (It’s also traditionally a day for couples to begin courting, but that’s a whole other story).

In 2016, the holiday schedule in the People’s Republic is:

  • New Year's: Jan. 1-3
  • Spring Festival: Feb. 7-13
  • Tomb Sweeping Day: April 2-4
  • Labor Day: May 1-2
  • Dragon Boat Festival: June 9-11
  • Mid-Autumn Festival: Sept. 15-17
  • National Holiday: Oct. 1-7

And now, since we’re delving into the Chinese calendar, it’s also worth mentioning that we’ll soon usher in the Year of the Monkey, which runs from Feb. 8, 2016, to Jan. 27, 2017. Individuals born under this sign in the Chinese zodiac, which recurs every 12 years, are generally smart and clever, should wear blue (lucky color) rather than red (unlucky) and if they’re Powerball aficionados, play 1, 7 and 8 but not 2, 5 or 9.

And a little friendly advice to couples who might begin courting during this year’s Qingming Festival. If you’re a Monkey person, look for an Ox or a Rabbit. However, do not get tangled up with a Tiger or Pig, regardless of what may tell you. 

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