HUANG Shu-min and Haiwang YUAN

For overseas Chinese the Lion and Dragon Dance, as well as an especially festive marketplace boasting stalls devoted to food, cultural exhibits, and calligraphy, is a much-anticipated New Year’s event in Chinatowns worldwide. PHOTO BY PAUL AND BERNICE NOLL.

Spring Festival, or Chinese Lunar New Year, is as important to the Chinese in China and around the world as Christmas is to the West. It has a legendary origin and a rich tradition of celebrations including ancestor worship, fireworks, feasting, shopping, gift-giving, and, most important, reuniting with family. Lasting fifteen days, the Spring Festival season ends with a Lantern Festival.

The Spring Festival, or Chinese Lunar New Year (Nongli Nian), is the most important seasonal festival in China. It marks the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Unlike the Western New Year, the Lunar New Year is not fixed to a particular date but instead is determined by the phase of the moon. The new year traditionally begins on the first new moon of the first lunar month of the year, usually in late January or early February. The festival, however, extends from the sixteenth day of the twelfth month to the fifteen day of the first month. It is the longest festival in China’s calendar of festivals and affects every aspect of life.

An Ancient Celebration

The Chinese character for the word nian (year) sheds some light on the festival’s origins. Its oracle-bone glyph indicates a person carrying a bundle of grain. Records show that more than 3,000 years ago the Chinese already had begun celebrating their harvests and offering sacrifices to their ancestors at the beginning of the new year. A legend, however, tells a different story. Nian was a long-horned monster preying on humans every New Year’s Eve. A god taught them to survive this attack by decorating their houses in red, keeping all their lights on, and burning bamboo to create loud crackling noises. Because “to survive Nian,” or guonian, sounds like “to celebrate the year,” the festival tradition came into being.

The traditional (pre-twentieth century) Chinese calendar followed the movement of the moon in determining the yearly cycles. Each month begins with the new moon on the first day, reaches its midpoint (or full moon) on the fifteenth, and ends the month with the descending moon on the twenty-ninth or thirtieth day. This yearly cycle contains twelve months, numerically named (the first month, the second month, and so forth), each having between twenty-eight and thirty days, for a total of 354 days. In general, traditional Chinese used this lunar calendar (yinli) as the reference point to record or plan personal events, such as a birth date, wedding, and funeral (in feng shui calculations) and seasonal festivals. Following this system, the Lunar New Year’s Eve falls on the evening of the thirtieth day of the twelfth month.

Calendar Reckoning

In spite of its importance in predicting the rhythm of the moon, especially the appearance of the full moon, the lunar calendar is incompatible with the rotation of the sun, which dictates that the yearly cycle should be 365.24 days. To accommodate the discrepancy between the sun and the moon in determining the length of the yearly cycle, a solar calculation system was inserted in ancient China around 104 BCE. This solar calendar divides the yearly cycle into twenty-four solar “nodes” (jie ? or jieqi ??) spaced approximately fifteen or sixteen days apart to reach the total of 365 days. The primary nodes are the spring equinox ??, summer solstice ??, autumn equinox ??, and winter solstice ??.

The juxtaposition of these two calendar systems, however, puts the Chinese New Year, which is based on the period between successive new moons, at odds with the solar calendar of the year. Throughout much of Chinese dynastic history, from the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE) to the early twentieth century, the reconciliation of the two incompatible reckoning systems had become one of the major official responsibilities through the issuing of the imperial calendar (huangli) by the court each year. The imperial calendar uses the lunar cycle to calculate major annual events but affixes the solar nodes alongside to indicate major seasonal changes and the time for proper agricultural activities.

The Nationalist Revolution in 1911–1912 and the Communist Revolution in 1949 not only brought about fundamental changes in political institutions but also removed the lunar calendar as the official reckoning system of the year in an attempt to “modernize” China. The Gregorian calendar was adopted as the official calendar, and New Year’s Day was moved to 1 January of each year. At the same time, the Lunar New Year was renamed the Spring Festival.

The adoption of the Gregorian calendar, however, has not dampened popular enthusiasm for the Lunar New Year, nor has it resolved the difficulty in timing the exact day of the holiday. Even today the date of the Spring Festival still fluctuates between 21 January and 20 February and is determined year by year. To accommodate the time needed for celebrating the Spring Festival—invariably called Spring Vacation in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan—all yearly plans of major activities, both public and private, must be individually shaped.

A Family Celebration

Weeks before New Year’s Day, the Chinese go on a shopping spree as Westerners do before Christmas. They shop for food, presents, decorations, and clothing. Presents vary in different regions. Southerners prefer flowers while northerners like pastry and wines. Today, more and more Chinese emphasize the significance of gifts regardless of its monetary values.

Businesses large and small celebrate this festival season with a year-end banquet, generally around mid- to late January. Bonuses of cash in red envelopes are given to employees so that they can travel home for the holiday. In China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, the year-end banquet also signals the beginning of the Lunar New Year holiday season. Most businesses close or curtail operations throughout the holiday season.

The twenty-fourth day of the twelfth lunar month (somewhere between late January and early February) marks the second major ritual that involves individual families. This is the day when each family sends its residential kitchen god back to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven. It is customary for each family to prepare sweet foods, like tanggua (a kind of malt-sugar candy) or foods made from glutinous rice as sacrifices to the kitchen god. The belief is that with his mouth full of sticky and sweet rice, the kitchen god can mumble only a few sweet words when he makes the yearly report about the family to the Jade Emperor.

On New Year’s Eve, all family members gather for the evening meal. By lighting incense before the meal, the head of the family symbolically invites the departed ancestors and deities to join the occasion. The food served at the evening meal varies from region to region. Generally, northerners eat jiaozi (dumplings) as the entree while southerners eat niangao (rice cakes), both supplemented with plenty of meat and vegetable dishes. There are several explanations for the significance of jiaozi. One is that the first character of the word jiao ? is homophonic with ?, which means “intersect,” and the second character zi ? means zishi or “the
time of zi,” which refers to the three hours across the midnight. Jiaozi ?? thus means the time that connects the past and the new year and jiaozi ?? becomes the food for New Year celebration. The word niangao is a pun for “life improved year after year.” Almost all Chinese eat fish ? as part of the feast because it is homonymous with the Chinese word for “abundance” ?; the character is a combination of clothing and food.

After the meal, children pay respects to their parents by bowing (in China) or kowtowing (in Taiwan and Hong Kong) to them. In return parents give their children money in red envelopes. At midnight children and their parents light fireworks, as Americans do on the evening of Independence Day, but they all do it at the same time and in a much larger scale, so much so that the entire sky is lit up. Families stay awake through the night, leaving on all the lights in the house, a tradition known as shousui (watching the year in).

Worshipping ancestors is the first ritual on the morning of New Year’s Day. Traditionally, the Chinese then put on new clothes and visit their kin, friends, and neighbors. In the past people wandered out to greet anyone who crossed their path, but today text-message greetings have increasingly replaced physical visits. In traditional neighborhoods people attend public dragon dancing performances put on by teams of young men who practice martial arts and dancing throughout the year to prepare for the festivities.

The celebrations generally last three to five days while businesses are closed. On the fifth day, businesses start to operate after a ceremony of welcoming the god of wealth, and people begin to go back to work and their routines. Many taboos enforced during the first few days of the New Year season are lifted. For instance, people can dump their trash without fear of casting out their family fortune in the process. The fifth day, known as powu (breaking out of the fifth), is thus celebrated with the eating of jiaozi. Despite this winding down of celebration, the New Year season lingers till the fifteenth day of the month when it reaches its climax.

This day is the Lantern Festival, also known as the Yuanxiao Festival (yuanxiao means “the night of the first yuan,” one of three divisions in the year in ancient China). There are several legends about its otherwise unknown origins. It is believed that a god told humans to light their communities with lanterns to cheat the Emperor of Heaven, who was about to destroy them by the fire of his wrath. Others argue that because deng (lantern) is close to the word ding (population), lantern display is a way of wishing for fertility.

The traditional food of the Lantern Festival, originally called fuyuanzi (floating balls), later adopted the name of yuanxiao in the north and tangyuan (soup balls) in the south. Shaped like meatballs of different sizes, yuanxiao is made of glutinous rice with a candied or meaty stuffing and served with the soup in which it is boiled. Its round shape resembles the full moon that appears that night and symbolizes family unity and harmony.

People pour into the streets to celebrate. During the day people are entertained by shehuo, shows put on mostly by amateurs. The performances include various kinds of folk dances, such as the dragon dance, lion dance, yangge dance (rural folk dance), hanchuan (folk dance with model boat, donkey, and other props), gaoqiao (stilts), and a variety of drum dances. The evening is brightly lit by a fabulous display of lanterns of all sizes, shapes, and materials. Especially catchy among the lanterns are those in the shapes of assorted real and imaginary animals and popular figures appearing in Chinese classics and legends. Clusters of lanterns can be stacked in the shape of a large tortoise, known as aoshan, and can be built into a gate tower called xiulou. Lanterns are everywhere: hung in the air, placed on the ground, and floating on the water. The night concludes with a magnificent display of fireworks.

Like the other traditions of the Chinese New Year, those of the Lantern Festival also vary from place to place. People on the Pescadores archipelago of Taiwan, for instance, observe the custom of qigui (begging for turtles) in addition to the display of lanterns. Temples exhibit turtle-shaped lucky symbols made of all kinds of rice and allow worshipers to take them home. Dubbed pingangui (turtle of peace and security), a rice turtle taken home is believed to bring good luck to the family that houses it.

A Worldwide Party

Though a festival of the Han Chinese, the Spring Festival is also celebrated by twenty-nine of the fifty-five ethnic minorities in China. As a result of cultural diffusion, it is also part of traditions in Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Chinese immigrants have also brought Spring Festival celebrations to their adoptive countries throughout the world.

Further Reading

Bodde, D. (1975). Festivals in classical China: New Year and other annual observances during the Han Dynasty, 206 BCE-220 CE. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Eberhard, W. (1958). Chinese festivals. New York: Abelard-Schuman.

Lim, J. (2004). Zhongguo xin nian xi shu (Popular traditions and customs of Chinese New Year). London: Cypress Book Co.

Yuan, Haiwang. (2006). The magic lotus lantern and other tales from the Han Chinese. World Folklore Series. Westport CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Source: Huang, Shu-min, & Yuan, Haiwang. (2009). New Year (Spring Festival). In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1602–1607. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

These houses in southern China are decorated for the New Year. Small paintings and calligraphy honor the Kitchen God and other auspicious guardians who will keep the evil spirits away from the door. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Children look at a lantern display during the climax of the New Year’s celebrations, the Lantern Festival. The evening will bring a fabulous display of lanterns of all sizes, shapes, and materials. Especially catchy are those in the shapes of real and imaginary animals and popular figures appearing in Chinese classics and legends. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Lucky red New Year’s envelopes, filled with money. Employers give their employees red envelopes containing a New Year’s cash bonus, and children receive red envelopes with money from their parents in return for bowing and paying respects to their elders.

Passersby look at lanterns for sale during the Lantern Festival, the origins of which are the stuff of Chinese legend. One version has it that a god told humans to light their communities with lanterns to cheat the Emperor of Heaven, who was about to destroy them with the fire of his wrath. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

New Year (Spring
Festival) (Nónglì Nián (Ch?njié) ??? (??))|Nónglì Nián (Ch?njié) ??? (??) (New Year (Spring Festival))

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