Approximately one in five people in the world is Chinese. That means that Chinese New Year or “Spring Festival” as it is called in China is celebrated by more than 20% of the planet! It’s the most important holiday in China and to Chinese people everywhere.
In fact, there may be even more people celebrating every year as this holiday is also celebrated in Vietnam, North and South Korea, Laos and other Asian countries by people of different ethnic backgrounds.
It’s also one of the longest continuous holidays in the world at fifteen days. All stores in China are closed so people will typically buy 年货 nian huo, New Year products like food, gifts and new clothes the month before.
Chinese people are traditionally supposed to return to their parents’ home and spend the first five days only with family. This is why Chinese New Year has been called the biggest mass migration of humanity in the world with an estimated three billion people travelling around the country in the days up to the holiday.
Family and the passing down of the family name to the next generation is very important in Chinese culture and society so it is not unusual for some desperate singles in China to hire fake boyfriends or girlfriends to take home to their parents during the Chinese New Year to try and convince family that they’re close to settling down and having children. There’s even a mobile app for this!
You’ll also hear Chinese New Year called “Lunar New Year” in English as the date of the holiday is dictated by the lunar calendar and has no set date and is based on the first appearance of the new moon between 21 January and 20 February in the Western or Gregorian calendar.
Although China officially switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1929, the lunar calendar is still important, and all major holidays are still set by this calendar. Some people also still calculate their ages and birthdays by this calendar. In the old system you are already one year’s old at the time of birth and your age increases by one year every lunar New Year. The Chinese lunar age is called虛歲; 虚岁 xūsuì; “fake age” and the Gregorian age is called實歲; 实岁 shísùi “real age.”
You may know that the Chinese lunar calendar also has its own horoscope which unlike its western counterpart has one animal sign per year rather than signs for every month.
The animal for the western year 2020 in the Chinese calendar is the rat. People born under the sign of the rat are typically outgoing, sociable, cheerful and easy to get along with. The year of your Chinese horoscope animal is called 本命年běn mìng nián, or rebirth year in Mandarin.
If you’d like to calculate your Chinese lunar age and animal here’s a fun link: https://www.prokerala.com/general/calendar/chinese-age.php
Another interesting fact is that the year of your animal sign is believed to be unlucky rather than lucky. There are different explanations for this.
The Chinese believe that children can easily be taken away by demons and this danger is especially apparent in your běn mìng nián. Red is the color associated with protection and good fortune. This is why you will see homes and buildings in China decorated in red during lunar new year. Also, some people will wear red clothes, jewelry and other personal items at New Year.
Legend says there was a particularly scary demon called 年 Nian, “year” who would appear every New Year’s Eve. People would cower in their homes at this time except for one small boy who was brave enough to scare off the monster with firecrackers. This is why letting off firecrackers and also fireworks are an integral part of Chinese New Year celebrations. Fireworks and firecrackers are supposed to ward off demons and evil spirits. The lion in the New Year’s lion dance of Southern China is thought to be a representation of Nian and is “frightened off” with firecrackers.
Talking of red, this is why the traditional New Year’s gift of money is presented in red envelopes or pockets. This money is supposed to help transfer good fortune from parents and grandparents to their kids, bosses to their employees and between friends. In the modern age, digital virtual red envelopes have become popular. People like to send one into group chats and watch the others fight for the money. This is called 抢红包 qiang hongbao literally “snatching red pockets”.
There are many other interesting traditions associated with Chinese New Year. For example, you’re not supposed to shower on New Year’s Day or throw out the trash until the fifth days so as not to wash or throw away any good luck.
Also, it’s taboo to utter certain “bad luck” words such as death, pain, sick, ghost, empty, pain, poor, break and kill. There are even some regional variations on this. For example, in Mandarin, 苹果 apple is pronounced píng guǒ, but in Shanghainese, it is bing gu, which sounds like “passed away from sickness.”
It’s not good to break anything made of glass or ceramics. If you do, you are supposed to wrap it up in red paper and say 岁岁平安 suì suì píng ān which means “may you have peace year after year” and then throw the broken pieces in a lake or river.
It’s also forbidden to use sharp objects like knives or scissors as these are believed to “cut off streams” of wealth and success. This means that haircuts are out too.
It’s also not recommended to visit your wife’s family on the first day of New Year as everyone is supposed to be with their own family on the first day. If you do it means you have marriage problems and there will also be bad luck for your whole family to follow.
New Year is also seen as a time of understanding, reconciliation and relaxation so it’s not a time to ask for debt repayments, to fight or even to cry.
Avoiding taking medicine, not visiting the doctor or getting shots is also common practice at this time unless you are seriously ill as this is supposed to ensure that you won’t get sick for the whole year.
One of the most interesting New Year’s “no-no’s” is wishing someone the equivalent of Happy New Year while they are still in bed. If you do apparently that person will end up bed-ridden the whole year!
Food is also a very important element of the Chinese New Year celebrations and popular dishes include dumplings in the North, spring rolls in the South and a soup with rice called 汤圆 tangyuan in Mandarin. This soup is especially auspicious as it sounds like 团圆tuanyuan which means “reunion.”
Seasonal Deserts include发糕 Fa gao which is like a kind of sponge cake. The character for fa is the same one used in the expression 发财 fa cai which means “get rich” in Mandarin so is obviously very appropriate.
恭喜发财! Gong xi fa cai! In Mandarin and Gong hei fat choy! in Cantonese is the traditional New Year’s greetings which means “Congratulations on the fortune!”
Happy Chinese New Year 2020, Year of the Rat Everyone!