Chinese New Year


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Tibetan Folktales book cover
Princess Peacock book cover
The Magic Lotus Lantern book cover
Book cover: This Is China: The First 5,000 Years
Chinese New Year book cover
Berkshire Encyclopedia of China book cover

When Is the Chinese New Year

It may sound strange, but it is true: few Chinese can tell when the Chinese New Year is each year without referring to a Chinese calendar. Therefore, you cannot talk of the Chinese New Year without mentioning the Chinese calendar first.

A Chinese calendar consists of both the Western Gregorian and an indigeneous lunar-solar calendrical systems. The Chinese lunar-solar calendar divides a year into twelve month of 30 or 29 days. Adding a leap month every seven years, it coordinates well with the Western calendar. The dual-system calendar reflects the Chinese ingenuity.

A Chinese calendar will not be complete without a twenty-four jieqi (solar terms) system closely related to the changes of Mother Nature—a very useful tool for farmers, telling them when to plant and harvest.

The Twenty-four Jieqi (Solar Terms)

The twenty-four jieqi (solar terms) have fifteen days each. The first is called Lichun (Beginning of Spring) The first day of Lichun is the Chinese New Year's Day and the entire jieqi is the Chinese New Year season. The climax of the New Year usually lasts three to five days. Find out from the following table when the Chinese New Year will be in the coming years:
2007: February 18   2008: February 07
2009: January 26   2010: February 14
2011: February 03   2012: January 23
2013: February 10   2014: January 31
2015: February 19   2016: February 08
Visit this perpetual calendar to look for Chinese New Year dates in the past or in the future.

The 2nd jieqi is Yushui (Rain Water), followed by Jingzhe (Waking of Insects), Chunfen (Spring Equinox), Qingming (Pure Brightness), Guyu (Grain Rain), Lixia (Beginning of Summer), Xiaoman (Grain Full), Mangzhong (Grain in Ear), Lixia (Summer Solstice ), Xiaoshu (Slight Heat), Dashu (Great Heat), Liqiu (Beginning of Autumn), Chushu (Limited Heat), Bailu (White Dew), Qiufen (Autumnal Equinox), Hanlu (Cold Dew), Shuangjiang (Frost's Descent), Lidong (Beginning of Winter), Xiaoxue (Slight Snow), Daxue (Great Snow), Dongzhi (Winter Solstice), Xiaohan (Slight Cold), and Dahan (Great Cold). Visit Wikipedia for a detailed explanation of the twenty-four jieqi.

On the Chinese Calendar, you will also find such terminology as Tiangan (Heavenly Stem) and Dizhi (Earthly Branch), a peculiar Chinese way of counting the years. A combination of 12 Tiangan and 10 Dizhi creates a 60-year cycle, and time progresses in a cyclical instead of a linear fashion, as is true with the Western calendar. To help remember the years created with the combination of the symbols of Tiangan and Dizhi, the Chinese assign an animal to each of the 12 years with a different symbol of Tiangan. The animals are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Boar.

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Origin of the Chinese New Year

The Chinese New Year is now popularly known as the Spring Festival because it starts from the Begining of Spring, the first of the 24 jieqi. Its origin is too old to be traced. Several explanations are hanging around. All agree, however, that the word nian (year) was originally the name of a monster that started to prey on people the night before the beginning of a new year in accordance with the Chinese calendar.

One legend goes that the monster nian had a very big mouth that would swallow a great many people with one gulp. People were very scared. One day, an old man came to their rescue, offering to subdue nian. When n ian came, he said to it, "I hear that you are very resourceful, but can you swallow the other beasts of prey on earth instead of people who are by no means of your worthy opponents?" So, nian eliminated a great number of the beasts that had preyed on people and their domestic animals and drove what was left into the depth of forests and mountains.

Then, the old man mounted the beast and left. He turned out to be an Immortal. Now that nian was gone and other beasts of prey were also scared into forests, people began to enjoy their peaceful life. Before the old man's departure, he had told them to put up red paper decorations on their windows and doors, and burn bamboos to make cracking noises before a new year to deter nian from sneaking back, for red was the color the beast feared the most.

The tradition of observing the conquest of the beast nian has been carried on from generation to generation. The term guonian, which originally meant "survive the nian" has gradually become "celebrate the (New) Year" as the word guo has a double meaning of "pass-over" and "observe." Today, the custom of pasting red paper (now couplets with words of good wishes) and firing fire-crackers is still going strong. However, people have long forgotten why they are doing all this, except that they feel the color and the sound add a lot to the excitement of the New Year celebration.

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Traditions of Chinese New Year

Even though the climax of the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, lasts only three or five days, including the New Year's Eve, the New Year season extends from the late twelfth month of the previous year to the middle of the first month of the new year. A month before the New Year is a good time for shopping. People will pour out their money to buy presents, decorations, food and clothing. Transportation department, railroad in particular, is nervously waiting for the onslaught of a billion travellers who take their days off around the New Year to rush back home for a family renunion from all parts of the country.

Days before the New Year, every household gives its house a thorough cleaning, hoping to sweep away all the ill-fortune there may have been to make way for the wishful in-coming good luck. People also give their doors and window-panes a new paint, usually in red color. They paste on their doors paper-cuts and spring couplets with the popular themes of "happiness", "wealth", "longevity" "officialdom," and "satisfactory marriage with more children". Paintings of the same themes are put up on the walls of their bedrooms. In traditional families, various kinds of food are offered at the alta of ancestors and gods.

The Eve of the New Year is very carefully observed. Supper is a feast, with all family members around a round table. An increasing number of families choose to have their New Year feast in a restaurant. The main course is jiaozi, dumplings boiled in water. Jiaozi means "the coming of the time of zi" in Chinese. Zi is a Dizhi symbol that marked the time of midnight, the beginning of a day. In this case, it is the day of a new year! Since the middle of 1980's, watching a TV gala produced by the China Central TV station has become part of the tradition of a Chinese New Year celebration. After midnight, it is time for the whole family to sit up while having fun playing cards or board games, or simply chatting. Incidentally, young people today are having a lot of parties with their peers outside their own families. Every light in the house is supposed to be kept on. When the clock strikes twelve, the entire sky will be lit up by fireworks and firecrackers. The light and cracking can make a whole city or village look and sound like a war zone. People's excitement reach its zenith. Some urban areas today begin to ban fireworks and firecrackers for the sake of public safety.

At the daybreak of the New Year, children greet their parents and receive from them presents of cash wrapped up in red paper packages. Then, the family will extend their greetings from door to door, first to their relatives and then their neighbors. In the first few days of the New Year, people are visiting each other to express their New Year greetings. Since China has the second largest owners of cellphones, sending short messages and making a call has increasingly taking the place of physical visits. New Year is a time of gift exchange. Gifts used to be more of monetary value. Today, flowers are becoming increasingly popular. The visits provide a great opportunity for reconciliation. Old grudges are very easily cast away during the greetings while the air is permeated with warmth, friendliness, and forgiveness.

The time before the Chinese New Year is also a good occasion to clear old debts. Traditionally, Chinese believed in self-sufficiency. Owing debts to others was a disgrace, a notion unthinkable to people in the modern world where credit is the order of the day. As the New Year set in, owners of businesses and individuals would start to settle their account and get ready to pay back their creditors as much as possible if not in full. As market economy is catching up, this pratice still provides a practical chance of reorganizing one's own finance. Nevertheless, living without credit is becoming a fairytale to the younger generation of the Chinese, particularly those in the cities, for some of them are now having a mortgage, and most a few plastics.

For a traditional family, the Chinese New Year is ladden with taboos. Customs and superstitions vary from regions to regions. The following snapshots of practices are based on my childhood recollection of the New Year celebrations with my parents and grandparents in a northern Chinese rural village.

  • People, especially adults, will stay up the night during the New Year's Eve, with as many lights lit as possible inside and outside the house. This practice dubbed as "Observe the Night" is prevalent throughout the country. People expect gods to visit them and bring along with good luck. They fear that they may not be able to find their way in total darkness. (People in the West may be a little smarter by hanging out stockings and let them do the hard job of staying up for Santa, the gift-giver?)
  • Many people will paste a red-paper poster with an upside-down Chinese character fu (Happiness) written on it on places that would most likely catch people's attention, such as the door. They would expect visitors to comment that it is posted "upside-down". The pronunciation of "upside-down" in Chinese is the same as "comes" or "arrives." The visitor's unintentional utterance now becomes "Happiness comes (to your household)," a New Year greeting to the owner of the poster. It is perhaps as smart a trick as some households in United States put up a stop sign post in front of their house, hoping to intercept Santa for his gifts or else
  • Unruly kids will stumble into a lot of taboos. One thing I remember was that they should not speak bad or unlucky words. If they happened to blurt out some, an adult would waste no time wiping his or her mouth with toilet paper to annul the utterance
  • Things white have to be covered up because white is the color of mourning in Chnese culture. The white thing that I still remember vividly is the grinding stones in the family mill
  • Houses are thoroughly cleaned before the New Year's Eve. No one is supposed to pick up the broom on the New Year's Day for fear that he or she may sweep good luck and fortune out of his or her house. The New Year celebration reaches another climax 15 days from the New Year's Day. It is the Festival of Lanterns, an occasion of lantern shows and folk dances everywhere in the country. One typical food for this festival is called tangyuan (ball-shaped dumplings in soup). It is made of glutinous rice rolled into shapes and sizes like ping-pong balls stuffed mostly with sweet and nutty fillings.

The Lantern Festival marks the end of the New Year season, and after it, life becomes daily routines once again.

This description the Chinese New Year celebration may be very limited to my person experience, and the Chinese New Year tradtion may vary from place to place, people to people. But, the spirit underlying the diverse Chinese New Year cultures is the same: a sincere wish of peace and happiness for the family members and friends.

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Copyright by Haiwang Yuan, haiwang.yuan@wku.edu
Last Updated: October 11, 2005

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