Li Ch'un

Li Ch'un

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: Early February
Where Celebrated: China, and by Chinese communities throughout the world
Symbols and Customs: Meng Shan, Ox
Colors: Five colors are associated with Li Ch'un: black, white, red, green, and yellow. They represent the five elements (fire, water, metal, wood, earth), the five planets that rule the elements (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), the five kinds of grain grown in China, and the five kinds of weather conditions (see OX ).
Related Holidays: Chinese New Year, Ching Ming ORIGINS

Li Ch'un is the Chinese festival welcoming the start of spring. The Chinese lunisolar calendar is based on the oldest system of time measurement still in use. It is widely employed in Asian countries to set the dates of seasonal festivals. The CHINESE NEW YEAR takes place on the new moon nearest to the point which is defined in the West as the fifteenth degree on the zodiacal sign of Aquarius. Each of twelve months in the Chinese year is twenty-nine or thirty days long and is divided into two parts, each of which is two weeks long. The Chinese calendar, like all lunisolar systems, requires periodic adjustment to keep the lunar and solar cycles integrated; therefore, an intercalary month is added when necessary.

The names of each of the twenty-four two-week periods sometimes correspond to seasonal festivals celebrated during the period. Beginning with the New Year, which takes place in late January or early February, these periods are known by the following names: Spring Begins (New Year and Li Ch'un), the Rain Water, the Excited Insects, the VERNAL EQUINOX, the Clear and Bright (CHING MING), the Grain Rains, the Summer Begins, the Grain Fills, the Grain in Ear, the SUMMER SOLSTICE (DOUBLE FIFTH ), the Slight Heat, the Great Heat, the Autumn Begins, the Limit of Heat, the White Dew (MID-AUTUMN FESTIVAL), the AUTUMN EQUINOX, the Cold Dew, the Hoar Frost Descends, the Winter Begins, the Little Snow, the Heavy Snow, the WINTER SOLSTICE, the Little Cold, and the Great Cold.

At one time Li Ch'un marked the traditional beginning of the farmer's agricultural year, which consisted of twenty-four "solar breaths" or "joints"-fifteen-day periods calculated according to the solar rather than the lunar calendar and named after the characteristics of each season. Li Ch'un means "Spring is here."

In rural areas, Li Ch'un is still observed with plowing ceremonies. A government representative dressed in his official robes arrives early in the morning at an appointed field, where a plow and oxen (or water buffaloes) are waiting near a small shrine. He makes an offering of fruit and sweets to the god of spring and the god of husbandry. After burning incense on the altar, he plows the first furrow in the field.

In towns and urban areas, long and colorful processions are held to welcome spring. There are usually more participants in these processions than spectators. Only soldiers and military officers are prohibited from joining the procession, because the gods who dwell in the heavens consider it a bad omen to see soldiers in the spring. The most prominent figure in the procession is the OX , made of paper and bamboo. When the procession reaches the temple, the image of the ox is burned so that its spirit will ascend to heaven and plead for a prosperous growing season.

The first day of spring is considered an auspicious time for weddings, and many people attend marriage ceremonies on the evening of Li Ch'un.


Meng Shan

Meng Shan or the "spirit driver" plays a prominent part in the spring processions held on Li Ch'un. Made out of stiff paper, he is dressed in a way that is believed to foretell the weather for the coming year. If he is wearing a hat, it will be a dry year; no hat means rain. If he is wearing lots of clothing, it is considered an indication that weather will be hot; little clothing means cold weather. Since Meng Shan is a spirit, he dresses exactly opposite to the way a living man would dress for certain types of weather. If he wears a red belt, there will be a great deal of sickness and many deaths in the coming year; if he wears his white one, good health will be widespread. He drives before him the paper effigy of the OX .


The ox, or water buffalo, is the Chinese symbol for spring, because it is the animal that pulls the plow and draws new life out of the fields. In early observances of Li Ch'un, a live ox was slaughtered, but it was later replaced by a clay effigy. Nowadays the ceremonial ox is made of bamboo (symbolic of long life) covered with strips of paper in five colors: black, white, red, green, and yellow. After the bamboo frame for the ox is built, it is taken to a blind man (or a man who has been blindfolded). He is given an equal number of pieces of each of the five colors, all mixed together, and he pastes them on the framework at random. When the ox is taken out in the streets for the Li Ch'un procession, people study the colors carefully to see which one predominates. If there is more red than any other color, it means that the summer will be hot and dry; yellow means that it will be very windy; green means rain, and so forth.

The ox is prodded and beaten with bamboo poles decorated with strips of colored paper. Sometimes the effigy is filled with grain, which spills out when the ox is beaten. The grain-filled ox is probably a representation of the ancient corn-spirit, responsible for bringing fertility to the fields. The Chinese often put stalks of bamboo stuffed with chicken feathers in the ground in front of their houses on Li Ch'un. The first spring breeze is supposed to blow at the exact moment when the ox is being beaten, and it carries the feathers up into the sky. Sometimes the ox is whipped with willow twigs-willow being a traditional symbol of springtime. This "beating of the spring" is believed to hasten the season's arrival and promote fertilization of the soil.

After the procession is over, both the ox and the spirit driver are burned, and the pieces of charred paper that drift down are kept as good luck charms.


Bredon, Juliet, and Igor Mitrophanow. The Moon Year: A Record of Chinese Customs and Festivals. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1927. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. Stepanchuk, Carol, and Charles Wong. Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts: Festivals of China. San Francisco: China Books & Periodicals, 1991.
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Li Ch'un

February 4 or 5
Li Ch'un is Chinese for "spring is here." This is one of 24 days in the Chinese calendar marking a change of season. The celebration of spring in some places has involved a procession of local dignitaries, dancers, singers, and musicians. Some of these carried a platform holding an ox and his driver made of paper. Each year the Chinese almanac, the T'ung Shu, gives specific instructions about the most auspicious colors to use in creating the ox and driver.
People also traditionally mount a post with feathers outside their homes. The sight of feathers floating in the breeze means that spring has officially arrived.
AnnivHol-2000, p. 21
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 91
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 225, 618
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.