The Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, is the most celebrated festival in China and a significant occasion in some other East Asian countries. This year, the annual 15-day festival in China and Chinese communities worldwide began on Sunday, Jan 22, 2023. Celebrations will conclude with the Lantern Festival on Feb 5. As it depends on the Moon, the date of the Lunar New Year changes each year, but it always falls sometime between Jan 21 and Feb 20, according to Western calendars.
Legends surround the origins of the Chinese New Year. The stories date back thousands of years ago.
The most famous legend is that thousands of years ago, a monster named Nian, a horned beast, would attack villagers each New Year to eat people and livestock.
One year, a beggar came seeking refuge. An older woman sheltered him, and he promised to chase Nian away. He decorated the homes. At midnight, When Nian came, it stopped seeing the red paper on the doors. Firecrackers started cracking as the monster roared in anger and it trembled in fear. Seeing the beggar dressed in red, it ran away.
The villagers realised that the monster was afraid of loud noises, bright lights, and red colour.
Since then, on New Year's Eve, families have decorated their homes with red and worn red clothes. Firecrackers are set off for public displays at midnight in major cities to millions of private celebrations in China's rural areas. It's a way to scare away evil and welcome the New Year.
The Chinese people love the red decoration couplet poems pasted on both sides of the doorframe to guard against demons during the Spring Festival.
Hanging red scrolls and red paper decorations send messages of good luck, harmony, prosperity and peace for the year ahead.
Another decoration is calligraphy. The most common word is fú, meaning fortune or good luck. The character is displayed right side up or upside down. Upside-down fu means 'fucomes', so it's good luck either way.
At Lunar New Year, it's also traditional to give a bright red envelope, known as hóngbāo, to children hoping for a year of good fortune. The younger generations also give money to their elders as a show of gratitude and for longevity. Nowadays, it's also given to friends and family for good luck.
In the past, currency was in the shape of doughnuts. These coins were tied together with red string. That practice transitioned to being wrapped in red paper and now put into red envelopes.
The year's most important meal is the New Year's Eve reunion dinner. Whether at home or in a restaurant, the seating arrangement also has some special rules. One example is that a traditional table will have four benches. Each seats eight people. The eldest sits in the north, facing the south. Then, in descending order, people sit in the east, west and south. They also add an extra glass at the dinner table, honouring the dead.
Food is an essential part of the Chinese New Year. Food considered lucky, like chicken (ji), Fish (yu), bean curd (doufu), Niángāo (glutinous rice cake), dumplings, and noodles, are served.
Before the festival, many families make delicious laba porridge before the festival with eight unique ingredients signifying family togetherness, safety, wealth and happiness.
Making Dumplings has an interesting myth about the Chinese New Year Nǚwā Goddess. She has the body of a snake and is known as the mother of all life.
The story has it that she created humans with yellow clay. Then she realised that the ears would freeze in winter and break. So she sewed it in place and put the end of the thread in the humans' mouths.
Later, in memory of Nǚwā, people moulded the dough into the shape of ears and stuffed it with meat and vegetables.
New clothes are considered lucky and worn on New Year's Day. The red colour is favoured, and black and white are avoided.
Some traditional popular styles are the Tang suit, the Qipao (the most well-known traditional Chinese dress for women) and Cheongsam (usually worn by men).
Hanfu has a shirt with crossed lapels and long and wide sleeves and a long skirt that sometimes starts above the bosom.
Tang dynasty hanfu influenced the Japanese kimono, while the Ming dynasty influenced the Korean hanbok.
Women use ornate wands in their hair with intricate designs with jewels and trinkets hanging off at the end.
During the Lunar New Year, there are parades and performances. People in traditional dresses perform traditional dances. The dragon is a Chinese symbol of good fortune, so the Dragon dance highlights the celebrations to bring prosperity and good luck for the upcoming year.
In Chinese tradition, each year is represented by one of 12 different animals in cyclic order. The 12 Chinese zodiac animals are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig.
Communities across Asia are welcoming 2023 as the Year of the Rabbit. The Rabbit is a symbol of longevity, peace, and prosperity. Only in Vietnam, it's the Year of the Cat.
The last event of the Chinese New Year is called the Lantern Festival. On this day, people hang glowing lanterns in temples, houses and roads or carry them during a nighttime parade.
The story goes that a hunter killed a heavenly swan when it visited the human world. Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven, was furious and planned to send his knights to burn the earth.
It petrified the lesser gods, and they secretly warned the humans. The humans lit firecrackers that night, and each household hung lanterns. The earth seemed to be in flames which tricked the Jade Emperor. Thus humanity was saved.
As in many cultures, Chinese people traditionally believe that the beginning of the year affects the whole year. For fortune to smile, some taboos are to be followed.
• Avoid negative words like death, sick, empty, pain, poor, break, kill etc.
• Take care not to break ceramics or glass. If something breaks, it should be immediately wrapped with red paper and thrown into a lake or river after the New Year.
• Clean the home before the Spring Festival to sweep away bad luck. Don't clean or throw out the garbage during celebrations (it sweeps away good luck). Don't take a shower on New Year's Day.
• Avoid using scissors, knives or other sharp objects. Even haircutting is forbidden until Lunar Feb 2.
• Don't Borrow money or demand repayment to keep away bad luck
• Adults must avoid fighting or crying.
• Avoid medicine to evade sickness the whole year, except when one is chronically ill.
• Give New Year blessings only when the recipient is out of bed.
• One must bring gifts, but some, like clocks and splitting pears, are taboos.
These taboos are the beliefs of Chinese people formed over thousands of years and must be respected.
There are multiple variations of blessings and greetings for the Chinese New Year. The simplestis, of course, Happy New Year ‘xīn nián kuài lè’
One of the most famous traditional greetings for Chinese New Year is the Cantonese' gong hei fat choi,' (Wishing you happiness and prosperity).
In Mandarin, that's 'gongxi facai' (wishing you to be prosperous in the coming year)
When people meet friends, relatives, colleagues, and even strangers during the festive period, they usually say Xīnnián kuàilè, (Happy Chinese New Year).
Animals do influence one's life. 2020 was the Year of the Rat, and my Chinese Zodiac sign is the rat. My life as a columnist started with the entry of a rat in my house that year!
Superstition? Maybe, but if you knew my story, you would also believe that.
Check your Chinese Zodiac sign. Good Luck!
Happy Chinese New Year of the Rabbit!
[Tasneem Hossain is a multilingual poet, columnist, op-ed and fiction writer, translator and training consultant. She is the Director of the Continuing Education Centre Bangladesh.]
1. Cindy, Chinese New Year 2023: Traditions/Greetings/Food for a Lucky Rabbit Year, China Highlights, Jan 19, 2023
2. Ho, fefe, Chinese New Year Taboos, Chinese New Year.
3. Cindy, Chinese New Year Greetings and Wishes 2023 for Clients, Friends, Family, Boss, China Highlights, Jan 10, 2023