A Quick Guide to Chinese New Year
You’ve heard about China, but what about Chinese New Year? Chinese New Year is one of the largest holidays in the world. Billions of people celebrate it both in and out of China. With the 2021 Chinese New Year coming up, the ReDefiners team thought we would take you on a short tour through the holiday, its meaning, and its traditions. Maybe this year, you’ll notice Chinese New Year celebrations happening near you.
I. What is Chinese New Year and why is it significant?
Simply put, Chinese New Year is the first day of the year according to the traditional Chinese calendar (more on that below).
New Year in Chinese is 新年 [xīn nián], but in China, Chinese New Year is actually more commonly referred to as 春节 [chūn jié] “Spring Festival,” because it marks the beginning of spring. Unlike the New Year of January 1, the Spring Festival traditionally lasts fifteen days. Each day brings different activities intended to brush out the old, usher in the new, honor ancestors, thank heaven, and bring about a long life, luck, prosperity, and good fortune.
Consider the immensity of China’s population and history, the Chinese diaspora, and China’s historical and cultural influence on other East Asian countries. When you add all that up, you get one of the world’s most significant holidays, with celebrants in every corner of the globe and historical roots stretching back thousands of years.
II. When is it celebrated?
Here in the West, and in most of the modern world, time is kept by the Gregorian calendar, which is based on the solar year, or the time it takes the Earth to revolve once around the sun. However, the Gregorian calendar was not always the global standard. To this day, many cultures still keep traditional lunar calendars based on the cycles of the moon, and it is these lunar calendars that determine the dates of their traditional holidays and festivals. There’s the Islamic calendar, the Hebrew calendar, the Thai calendar, and the Chinese calendar, among others. Some of these are lunisolar, since monthly lunar cycles need to be mathematically reconciled with solar years, but that’s not the point--the point is that the passage of time is marked in different ways in different places.
And that brings us to the traditional Chinese calendar, or 农历 [nóng lì] “agricultural calendar.” 农历 is a kind of lunisolar calendar, or 阴阳历 [yīn yáng lì], but everyone calls it the 阴历 [yīn lì] “yin calendar.” So, you’ll sometimes hear Chinese people talking about their 阴历生日 [yīn lì shēng rì] “yin calendar birthday,” and 阴历 and 农历 are used quite interchangeably in everyday conversation. Just know that for most Chinese, both 阴历 and 农历 refer to the traditional Chinese calendar.
One relevant aspect of the traditional Chinese calendar is its relation to the Chinese zodiac, which is its own beast of a subject, with countless astrological and astronomical signs and correspondences and lore dating back to Han times. Suffice to say that each year corresponds to an animal of the Chinese zodiac, and the Chinese zodiac runs in twelve-year cycles.
I won’t go into the intercalations and longitudinal calculations that are used to determine the calendar’s relation to the Chinese zodiac and Gregorian calendar; if you’re interested in the math, you can check out this guide, or this less technical explanation. All you need to know to understand the holiday is that the traditional Chinese calendar starts on the second or third new moon following the winter solstice, usually falling in January or February in the Gregorian calendar, and the first day of the traditional Chinese calendar is Chinese New Year.
In 2020, Chinese New Year fell on January 25, and it initiated the Year of the Rat. The upcoming Chinese New Year will fall on February 12, 2021, and the Year of the Ox will begin.
Because Chinese New Year is determined by the traditional Chinese calendar, which is (mostly) lunar, you might sometimes hear it translated as Lunar New Year. Note that other cultures also have separate lunar new years based on their own calendars, but these often have different names, so the best bet is that if you hear someone talking about The Lunar New Year, they’re probably referring to the Chinese one.
III. Where is it celebrated?
In China, for one. Winter break for Chinese schools and businesses usually begins in the days before Chinese New Year, giving citizens ample time to make travel arrangements.
Also, thanks to China’s huge sociocultural influence on much of the East Asian sphere, a few other countries celebrate a Lunar New Year on roughly the same date as Chinese New Year. These include Korean New Year and Vietnamese New Year, or Tet, each of which have their own distinct traditions influenced by the Chinese holiday.
Finally, Chinese New Year is observed by people of Chinese heritage all over the world. Singapore, for example, is one of several Southeast Asian countries with large populations of ethnic Chinese. Some of these countries recognize the day of Chinese New Year as an official holiday. Here in the US, Chinatowns in major cities host markets, festivals, and performances. Some Chinese immigrants return to China every year to observe the holiday with extended family. Like many other holidays, Chinese New Year is a time for both revelry and remembrance. For children of Chinese descent who grow up outside the Sinosphere, that means getting in touch with a distant but undeniable part of their culture.
IV. How is it celebrated?
China is a large country with 56 ethnic groups, each with their own customs. Regardless, we must start somewhere. Here’s a rundown of the top three things to know about holiday.
For celebrants, Chinese New Year means family reunions.
In China, this results in an annual 春运 [chūn yùn] “spring move, Chunyun,” the roughly month-long period around Chinese New Year during which billions of Chinese workers and emigrants return to their ancestral homelands. They fly across oceans, drive hundreds of miles, and stand in crowded trains for far too many hours in order to greet the new year with their loved ones.
Prior to New Year’s Day, family members work together to clean the house, to prepare food, to dust the altars and graves, and to hang up scrolls and knots and other decorations. Together, they watch the national Spring Festival broadcast on television past midnight. In the days following, they eat, drink, exchange gifts, visit relatives and neighbors, set off firecrackers, honor ancestors and gods, enjoy New Year festivities, and make merry.
Hearty eating is a crucial feature of Chinese New Year; everyone eats well throughout the holiday season. Generally, the biggest meal is the one eaten on the evening of the day before the new year, or 除夕 [chú xī]. Meals on New Year’s Day are more subdued and usually composed of leftovers from the day before.
The actual food content differs from region to region, given that the various ethnic groups within China have unique dishes with particular associated meanings. These might include:
Noodles. These are mostly a staple of northern Chinese cuisines. However, with the modern homogenization of Chinese culture, some southerners are picking up the habit too. Long noodles represent long life, and people eat them during New Year celebrations and birthdays.
Fish. The Chinese word 鱼 [yú] “fish” is a homophone for 余 [yú] “plenty.” Thus, a common phrase said around the holiday, 年年有余 [nián nián yǒu yú] “wishing you plenty year after year,” sounds the same as 年年有鱼 “wishing you fish year after year”--which is nonsense. But regardless, the more fish, the more plentiful your wealth.
Meat. Decades ago, when meat was a rarity, families would go all out for Chinese New Year, stacking their tables with more meat than they would see in the entirety of the year. Nowadays, meat is simply an important part of a meal, giving vitality and rounding out the table. In some regions of China, smoked and preserved meat, 腊肉 [là ròu], is eaten and also put on altars for the gods.
Dumplings. Dumplings are another northern Chinese staple. They look like ingots and therefore represent prosperity.
年糕 [nián gāo]. This glutinous rice flour is usually made into a sweet, sticky cake, and various regions have their preferred fillings and methods of preparation. This one is another pun, as 糕 [gāo] “cake” sounds like 高 [gāo] “high,” so there’s an association of 年糕 with raising oneself up or reaching new heights.
汤圆 [tāng yuán]. These are soups of glutinous rice balls, either unfilled or filled with pastes of sesame, nuts, sweet red beans, or others. 汤圆 is eaten on the 15th day of the New Year, known as 元宵节 [yuán xiāo jié] “Yuanxiao Festival.”
The dominant color of Chinese New Year is red, which is actually a lucky color in Chinese culture in general, being associated with joy, prosperity, virtue, and altogether just very auspicious things.
One of the most important and widespread customs of Chinese New Year is the exchanging of red paper envelopes containing money, or 红包 [hóng bāo] “red bundle.” Traditionally, older family members give red envelopes to younger, unmarried family members. Bills are usually new, and the unlucky number four is avoided. WeChat, China’s largest messaging and social media service, allows users to transfer virtual red envelopes. In modern-day China, it’s common for people to send red envelopes in group chats, their contents distributed randomly amongst the first X people to click the icon. It’s also common for bosses to hand out modest red envelopes to their employees, or for friends to toss envelopes at each other for fun.
The color red plays a role elsewhere. The decorations hung up around the house are red; these include red paper stickers or scrolls with auspicious calligraphic characters, such as the upside-down 福 [fú] “prosperity” meant to attract prosperity, or the Chinese couplets, 对联 [duì lián], two lines of concise poetry that people usually hang on either side of the main doorway.
In regions where lion dancing is common, the lions are usually predominantly red. During Yuanxiao, the Lantern Festival, families set off red firecrackers and hang up red lanterns that light up the night as they enjoy their 汤圆. For people whose Zodiac animal is the same as that of the upcoming year, meaning that the upcoming year is their 本命年 [běn mìng nián] “year of birth sign,” the color red is to be worn on their bodies for the entirety of the year, usually by wearing an accessory of some sort.
If you ever make it out to Chinese New Year celebration near you, you’ll likely find yourself floating in a sea of red.
V. What to say?
If there’s any one phrase to learn in Chinese, it might be this one:
新年快乐、恭喜发财 xīn nián kuài lè, gōng xǐ fā cái Happy new year, may you be prosperous!
恭喜 [gōng xǐ] is how you congratulate people in Chinese, so once you know this phrase, you also know what to say when someone graduates--恭喜--or has a child--恭喜--or gets married--恭喜.
There are plenty of other things you might say on Chinese New Year, and you can stack them one after another, like so:
祝你年年有余、步步高升、身体健康、万事如意 zhù nǐ nián nián yǒu yú, bù bù gāo shēng, shēn tǐ jiàn kāng, wàn shì rú yì Wishing you year after year of plenty, constant progress, good health, wishes fulfilled …
And so much more!
If you enjoyed this guide to Chinese New Year, you might consider learning Chinese. After all, there’s no better way to dive into a culture than to learn the language. Start with ReDefiners World Languages today and discover the beauty of Chinese language and culture. ReDefiners offers virtual and in-person courses for all ages. Sign up at www.redefinerswl.org/online or visit our website for more information.