New Year Holiday in Ancient China

January 2, 2015
Editor: Frank Zhao

A recent survey on holiday schedules during Spring Festival conducted by China's Renmin University stirred discussion among netizens.More than 70% of the participants wanted New Year's Eve to be included in the three-day lunar new year statutory holiday.

The holiday is important for working people who have worked strenuously for a whole year. What was the Spring Festival vacation like in ancient China? Let us take a look.

Emperor Xuanzong in the Tang Dynasty stipulated that ancient officials enjoy 7-day holidays during the Chinese Lunar New Year and Winter Solstice Festival, so there were two "golden weeks" in one year.

The 7-day holiday in the Tang Dynasty started from three days before New Year's Day and lasted for three days after New Year's Day.

Teachers and students in old-style private schools, however, could take their vacation in advance and their holiday could last for a whole month. Most common people, like peasants, never had holidays. They had to sweat on the farmland all the year if necessary.

There were also some rules for officials in the Tang Dynasty that might have disturbed them from enjoying a complete holiday. One of them was that all senior officials had to go to the imperial palace and pay New Year's visits to the emperor early on the morning of the New Year's Day. Then many officials were not able to spend the day with their families, or they had to first meet the emperor before gathering with their families.

Another rule was that the magistrates were not allowed to leave their offices during Spring Festival, so they could only gather with their families in their working places if they wanted to.

During the Emperor Dezong period, there were almost no holidays for senior officials during Spring Festival, who had to take turns going to court, according to odd or even numbers.

In the Song Dynasty, the lunar new year holiday was also 7 days like during the Tang Dynasty, but there was also 7 days off during the Lantern Festival (15th of the first lunar month).

There was a special benefit for local officials. They could enjoy their New Year holiday early from Dec 20th to Jan 20th of the Chinese lunar new year.

However, if you were a high official in the capital, you couldn't take a rest on the new year, and couldn't ask for leave. You had to dress formally and brave the snow to make your way to court in the wee hours. A grand new year celebration was waiting for you.

If you were a common person, then you would have a lot of fun during Spring Festival, as the Song Dynasty capital Kaifeng allowed people to "gamble" for three days. It was a kind of game played during commodity trading. All goods could be included in the gambling, and it might cost 10,000 yuan to buy only an orange if you lost at gambling.
The imperial court reduced holidays during the Ming and early Qing dynasties, which met with more and more opposition among officials. So the government added winter vacation into the officials' holidays. Besides, the lunar new year holiday and winter holiday were both extended to one month.

Therefore, in the Qing Dynasty, officials could enjoy a "golden month" again. With the Winter Solstice Festival, New Year's Day and Lantern Festival added together, these people could take a long vacation for almost one month.

The ancient Chinese dynasties only stipulated officials' vacation system, which were not applicable to common people. So peasants and merchants would have their holidays according to their routines. For example, merchants would stop business during the day to commemorate the gods in some industries, and peasants would take a rest at festival days to worship the god of the land.

At the early Minguo era (which began with the downfall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 and ended with the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949), all government agencies had to work as usual during the lunar new year. If someone was found absent during the New Year's Eve, he would get fired.

The Nationalist Government in Nanjing stipulated a rule to implement the new calendar and abolish the lunar calendar in 1929. Then there was no Spring Festival holiday during Minguo era.

To strictly carry through the regulation, the government would strictly punish people who violated it.

Though the government attempted to forbid people to celebrate the lunar new year, people still did so as usual. And during the new year of the new calendar, only government organs gave new year greetings to each other.

Until the beginning of 1934, considering public opinion, the government had to announce that "Regarding the celebration of the lunar new year, except for government departments, the folk custom shall not be interfered with too much." Then people could celebrate the Spring Festival above board again.

(Source: China Daily)

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