Off the Beaten Path: A Guide to China’s Lesser-Known Festivals

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From winter wonderland to tropical fiesta, and religious ceremonies to New Year celebrations, China’s varied terrain and diverse ethnic communities promise an endless array of natural, cultural, and athletic experiences for every traveler. Outside the usual suspects like Spring Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival, here’s our list of China’s lesser-known festivals that also deserve a bucket-list spot.


January

Harbin Ice & Snow Festival (Harbin, Heilongjiang)

Held annually in January in Harbin, Heilongjiang, the northernmost province in China, this winter carnival features illuminated ice sculptures of imposing sizes and intricate designs. The main site, Ice and Snow World, has over the years, replicated landmarks from around the world in ice, including the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris. For thrill-seekers, visitors can also join in an ever-expanding list of activities, among them, riding 500-meter-long ice slides and taking in the night views of the city on a 40-story tall Ferris wheel.

China's lesser-known festivals: Harbin Ice & Snow Festival
Ice sculptures at the Ice and Snow World

February/March

Lantern Festival (China-wide)

Wrapping up the Chinese New Year celebrations, the Lantern Festival falls on the 15th day of the lunisolar calendar (February or early March in the Gregorian calendar). Its Chinese name, yuanxiao, intimates the first full moon of the year, whereas the English translation plays up the colorful lanterns. On this day, families gather to admire lanterns, eat traditional foods like tangyuan (sticky rice balls filled with sweet sesame or peanut paste), and partake in various cultural activities like solving literary riddles written on lanterns.

Monlam Chenmo (Tibet)

Also known as The Great Prayer Festival, Monlam Chenmo takes place in February or early March and is celebrated across western China’s ethnic Tibetan areas. A tradition started some 600 years ago, monks from the main monasteries gather at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, performing a range of religious rituals. Many pilgrims from all over Tibet join in the chants, prayers, and teachings, wishing for good fortune in the new year.

China's lesser-known festivals: The Great Prayer Festival aka Monlam Chenmo in Tibet
Prayer wheels in Jokhang temple

Sanduo Festival (Lijiang, Yunnan)

Falling on the eighth day of the second month of the lunisolar calendar (usually March in the Gregorian calendar), the Sanduo Festival is native to the Naxi people inhabiting the southwestern region of China, mainly Yunnan and parts of Sichuan. Sanduo, the most powerful god in local beliefs, is thought to be the incarnation of a mountain range and the protector of the Naxi people. To pay homage to him, people gather from near and far at his eponymous temple. The extensive ceremony-cum-celebration involves lots of dancing, singing, incense burning, and, coincidentally, a sacrificial lamb.


April

March Street (Dali, Yunnan)

Held in the third month of the lunisolar calendar (usually April in the Gregorian calendar), the March Street of the Bai ethnic group is both a commercial fair and a celebration in the Dali areas of Yunnan. Various goods like tea, medicine, and livestock change hands at the market. And with the crowd come spectacles. Locals and traders from other regions engage in days of horse racing, dancing, and singing, entertaining themselves and visitors alike.

China's lesser-known festivals: March Street in Dali, Yunnan
Crowd in Dali Ancient City

Dai New Year (Xishuangbanna, Yunnan)

Celebrated in the fourth month of the Dai calendar (April in the Gregorian calendar), this vibrant festival marks the New Year for the Dai ethnic group in southern Yunnan. Sharing similar roots with the Songkran in Thailand, the festival involves splashing water on each other to bestow good fortune and to ward off illnesses and natural disasters. Other activities include dragon boat racing, setting off bamboo rockets, and an indulging amount of traditional dance.


May

Great Wall Marathon (Tianjin)

First iterated in 1999, this May sporting event offers runners a unique opportunity to run along the Huangya Pass of the Great Wall, built over 1,400 years ago.  Physically and mentally challenging, the route cuts through sections of the Great Wall that are largely unrestored and come with steep elevation gains in some areas. But the reward is commensurate. As runners weave through local villages, they are cheered on by local villages, a much-needed boost for the final climb up to the tower—counting over 5,000 steps—for a spectacular view of the surrounding area.

China's lesser-known festivals: The Great Wall Marathon in Tianjin
The Huangya Pass of the Great Wall

June

Shangri-la Horse Race Festival (Shangri-la, Yunnan)

Idyllic and mythical, Shangri-la has been known as a Himalayan paradise thanks to the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by the English writer James Hilton. Less known is her dynamic side, proudly on display every June in Diqing, Yunnan. The exhilarating horse races showcase expert horsemanship, a skill passed on through generations in the local Tibetan communities. Equally as a folk festival, the fair draws large groups from neighboring counties, donning the most vibrant traditional dresses and partaking in non-stop dancing and singing for three days straight.

China's lesser-known festivals: Shangri-La Horse Race Festival in Yunnan, June
Horse racing in Zhongding, Yunan

July/August

Torch Festival (Chuxiong,Yunnan)*

The Torch Festival is a traditional festival shared by many ethnic minorities in southwest China, with the Yi and Bai ethnic groups celebrating most prominently. The dates in their local calendars typically correspond to late July or early August in the Gregorian calendar and are believed to be one of the two New Years in their 10-month calendar system. As diverse as the people celebrating, the origin myths include different tales of harnessing the power of fire to fight against the invasion of locusts or to ward off demons. In other versions, fire is seen as the courage of local women not to succumb to conquering tribes. But at all the celebrations, one is sure to see and feel for oneself the imposing bonfires and torch dances performed by locals.

*This is our recommendation for the best place to see the Torch Festival, though it is celebrated in other areas of southwest China as well.

Naadam Festival (Inner Mongolia and Mongolia)

A midsummer fete, you can think of the Naadam as an annual Mongolian Olympics. The main sporting events include horse racing, archery and wrestling, all intricately linked to the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongolian people. Despite its military origin as a venue to inspect troops and divvy up the grasslands, Naadam is now a full-on celebration in Inner Mongolia as well as in China’s northern neighbor, Mongolia. On the vast prairies dotted with colorful yurts, traditional meat and dairy foods are enjoyed by all, along with a fermented horse milk drink.

China's lesser-known festivals: Naadam Festival in Inner Mongolia and Mongolia
Mongolian wrestling as part of the Nadaam celebrations in Hulunbuir, Inner Mongolia.

September

Confucius’ Birthday (Qufu, Shandong)

One of the most well-known Chinese philosophers, Confucius leaves an enduring legacy on how Chinese people see self, family, and state. It’s no surprise that festivals are held to honor his birth on September 28 across the country. The most notable among them are the celebrations held at Confucius’ birthplace, Qufu in Shandong province. Classic music and dance emulating the styles from the Song and Ming dynasties are performed at the Qufu temple. Masterpieces of Chinese calligraphy and painting are also exhibited, often with interactive demonstrations.

China's lesser-known festivals: Confucius' Birthday in Shandong
Main hall of the Confucius Temple in Qufu, Shandong.

October

Chongyang Festival (Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shanghai)

Also known as the Double Ninth Festival, Chongyang falls on the ninth day of the ninth lunisolar month (usually October in the Gregorian calendar). Dedicated to the elderly and longevity, the day is marked by family gatherings, where people pay respects to their elders. The festival is equally remembered for its distinct flavors in Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shanghai, featuring a steamed rice cake covered in dried fruits and nuts, and accompanied by a chrysanthemum wine made just for the occasion.

China's lesser-known festivals: Chongyang Festival
The rice cake typically enjoyed during Chongyang Festival.

November / December

Panwang Festival (Hezhou, Guangxi)*

Usually held in late November or early December, the Panwang festival is celebrated by the Yao ethnic group, scattered across southern China, with the largest population found in Guangxi province. The festival finds its roots in the community gatherings organized to honor Panwang, an ancestral figure. The festival has gradually evolved into a harvest celebration and a social gathering, where young men and women wear intricate headdresses, dance to traditional melodies, and take the opportunity to find potential spouses.

*This is our recommendation for the best place to see the Panwang Festival, though it is celebrated in other areas of Guangxi as well.

Miao New Year (Leishan, Guizhou)*

Typically celebrated post-harvest in November and December, this festival is the most important holiday for the Miao people, an ethnic group inhabiting southwestern China with a large diaspora in the US. During the New Year, communities come alive with music, dances, parades, banquets, and bullfighting competitions, where skillful Hmong men show their strength and bravery in thrilling spectacles.

Off the Beaten Path: A Guide to China’s Lesser-Known Festivals
Miao New Year (photo credit to Guizhou guide, Xiao)

*This is our recommendation for the best place to see the Miao New Year celebrations, though they are celebrated in other areas of Guizhou as well.

By Yang Xiong