Counting down the days to Chinese New Year requires the cooperation of two chronological time systems. The first of these two is the wide-reaching, all-powerful Gregorian calendar. Introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, this Western solar calendar was first adopted by the Republic of China in 1911, but wasn’t used consistently until the Nationalist Government formally decreed its adoption in January of 1929.1 The Gregorian calendar is used in China much like anywhere else, to organize years into months, months into days, and on and on. This is the calendar that dictates when to celebrate Labor Day, National Day, and most other public and business affairs. However, if you’re planning a wedding, funeral, a move, or opening a business, you’ll be urged by most of the citizenry to consult the other calendar: the Nónglì (农历), a lunar calendar developed centuries ago to coordinate agricultural production.
This spiritual-like adherence to the Nónglì is tied to a supernatural belief in the power of dates, numbers, and alignments in the universe that can be found throughout Asia.2 While the transition to 2015 means memorizing new dates for checkbook entries and a surge in gym memberships, it also heralds the year of the goat when Chinese New Year begins on February 19th. The Lunar New Year, commonly known as Chinese Spring Festival, is China’s biggest annual affair and a tradition that has flourished for almost 4,000 years. Chinese New Year (CNY) is marked by families returning to their hometowns to be together, no matter the distance or cost (or increasingly, the crushing crowds). Travel at this time is so essential that it is given its own term: Chūnyùn, or the Spring Festival travel season. Beginning roughly two weeks before CNY and lasting for around 40 days, Chūnyùn is the contemporary world’s largest annual human migration, with about 3.2 billion trips made by road, 258 million train trips, and 42 million people traveling by air for CNY 2014.3
The Chinese have made homes for themselves in almost every corner of the world, so it’s not an exaggeration to state that CNY is quite the global affair. The largest CNY celebrations outside of Asia are found in London, where crowds that number in the hundreds of thousands flock to the city’s West End to watch lion teams snake through foggy streets. Not to be outdone, two cultural wellsprings of the USA, San Francisco and New York City, also come alive with new breath during CNY, with massive parades and cultural events taking over bustling city life in the name of the Lunar New Year. From Sydney to Paris to Singapore, look anywhere and you’ll find people all over the globe reveling in the exchange of power between Horse and Goat.
The Nónglì or other similar traditional calendars are also used in Thailand, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.4 Particularly close to home are the customs of the hybrid Peranakan culture that has flouirished along Phuket’s crystal shores. A malay word used to denote the cultural group formed of the descendents of Chinese settlers on the island, “Pernakan,” encompasses a rich assemblage of syncretic traditions that blend Chinese, Thai, and Malay customs.5 During the Lunar New Year, Peranakans place emphasis on the sojah, a traditional filial CNY greeting that pays respects to elders by approaching on bended knees with clasped hands.6 This reverence for family and heritage flows through all aspects of the annual CNY celebrations.
Perhaps one of the most widely known aspects of the Chinese calendar system is the collection of twelve enigmatic zodiac animals, which are said to dictate personality and direction, akin to the Libras and Pisces horoscope assignments of the Western world. 2015 ushers in the year of the goat, or less commonly, the sheep. According to tradition, those who hold the distinction of being born under the upcoming year’s goat zodiac are said to possess traits such as calmness, creativity, sympathy, intelligence, and dependability. Goats are also said to be comfortable in groups but prefer solitude and introspective quiet time. Given their alleged low levels of stress, people born in the year of the goat are said to live longer lives, but those that become romantically involved often fall prey to illness. Unfortunately for the mild mannered goat, this zodiac animal is one of the least desirable. So much so that Chinese couples have pushed to have their babies delivered before Lunar New Year’s Eve Day on February 19th, 2015 to ensure “horse babies” over “goat babies.”7 You’d think it would be cause for celebration, but it’s thought to be extremely unlucky for individuals during their animal’s year. Thus, ages 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, and 84 are approached with great caution.
No matter what your zodiac sign, a steadfast requirement for luck, health, and wealth in the New Year is the color red. Red is intrinsic to many cultural traditions within China, but is especially pertinent during the Spring Festival. If you’re lucky (or unlucky) enough to be born in the year of the goat, you’ll place special emphasis on wearing red to ward off the energy and luck that is liable to find you during your benming nian (本命年), your birth year. Traditionalists tie red strings around their wrists or slip bright red underwear on under their clothes for the duration of the year. If you spy a sliver of crimson above a stranger’s waistline this year, you can bet that they are one of the unlucky Goats just trying to get through the year. Those in their benming nian may also be gifted red socks with 踩小人 embroidered on the sides at CNY. This embroidery, roughly translating to “step on the villain” aids the wearer to “step” on bad and immoral people who might bring bad luck into one’s life.
Traipsing around in evil-warding socks and undies is all good and fine, but what is really on people’s minds during CNY are hóngbāo, the little red envelopes slipped into eager hands. Hóngbāo contain the luckiest thing of all – cold hard cash. Although red envelopes are given throughout the year at occasions like birthdays and marriages, hóngbāo are given to the unmarried by the married during CNY, particularly to children.8 Although there are no extant literary sources that can be used to suss out the orgins of red envelopes, Qing dynasty traditions inlcluded the giving of yāsuì qián, “money warding off evil spirits,” to the elderly.9 The talisman-like coins were threaded with red string, which were replaced by envelopes as printing presses became more common in China.10
Along with the red that flounces down the streets in the form of new dresses and that which changes eager hands in envelopes, red is prominently featured in chūnlián (春联), the intricate scrolls that adorn all gates and doors on New Year’s Eve. A variant on the classic duìlián, a couplet in Chinese poetry, chūnlián feature two concise lines that espouse happy thoughts meant to inspire hope for the New Year. While duìlián may be displayed throughout the year, chūnlián are hung only during CNY.
Flickering among the red decorations are the dazzling fireworks that are another of the best-known CNY traditions. Anyone who has ears knows about what happens at midnight on the first day of CNY. Fireworks light up city skylines, firecrackers are tossed off balconies, and bamboo sticks are burned in the streets, all in an effort to ward off evil spirits. Legend has it that a mythical beast called the Nian would terrorize villagers on the first day of New Year, destroying crops and eating children. Word quickly spread that the beast was afraid of the color red and was frightened by loud noises. In modern China, it is those who crane their necks out of windows for better views who have the most to fear. Despite their storied tradition in Asia, fireworks have been intermittently banned in recent decades. Firecrackers are technically illegal inside of Beijing’s 5th ring road, but authorities overlook their use during the auspicious holiday. Walk through one of the city’s hutongs and you’ll be dragging your hungover feet through a crinkling layer of bright red firecracker papers.
Reverence for the dead is another tradition that looms large during CNY. The burning of míng bì, “Hell cash” or “ghost money,” is practiced in China and throughout Asia. A form of joss paper, these offerings are burnt in veneration of the ancestors. In more recent decades, “Hell notes” have reached staggering denominations of 10,000 to 5,000,000 RMB, suggesting that even the dead get to benefit from China’s booming economy. Those with the ancestors on the other side, the varied gods and deities revered throughout Asia, are also doted upon and receive inordinate amounts of offerings. The Chinese Kitchen God, Zao Jun, the recorder of family functions, is understandably an essential player in CNY festivities, as family is central to celebrating the Lunar New Year.
Each of the fifteen days of the CNY celebrations has a prescribed set of its own rituals and superstitions. Prior to the beginning of CNY, the entire house and grounds must be swept and cleaned thoroughly. Akin to the “Spring Cleaning” of the Western world, it is essential to begin the New Year free from the dirt or bad luck of the preceding year. Consequently, all brooms and pans are swiftly stored away before the first day of the new year, so as not to accidently sweep away any of the freshly arrived good luck.
The all important nián yè fàn, the family reunion dinner, is held on New Year’s Eve. Held in or close to the most senior family member’s home, the lavish meal includes a number of traditional dishes like jīnyuánbǎo (New Year’s dumplings) and niangao (a cake whose name is a homophone for “a more prosperous year”). On first day of the New Year, people abstain from killing animals, and may even refrain from cooking at all. The twelve lucky zodiac animals are also spared at intervals, as it is extremely bad luck to kill or eat a zodiac animal on its corresponding day. Haircuts are also not a good idea at this time. So, if you’ve spotted a fresh style you’re dying to have, too bad for you that the words for “hair” and “prosperity” are homonyms, and you’re like to chop off your chances at wealth along with your split ends.
The fifteenth and final day of CNY marks the celebration of the Yuanxiao Festival, or the Lantern Festival. Countless numbers of glowing red lanterns are strung across alleyways, dangle from roofs, and sway in window frames. Multiple traditions and legends attempt to explain the origins of the Lantern Festival, ranging from a celebration of the North Star deity, to star-crossed lovers, to simply celebrating the modern ability to be mobile at night thanks to man-made light sources. In a nod to the perpetual blend of new and old that may be witnessed throughout quickly moving China, today’s lanterns are often lit up with battery-powered LED “candles.”
Boasting almost 1.4 billion people and 20% of the global population, China has long had a deep impact on the rest of the world. 11 Like it or love it, understand it or not, the traditions and practices of Chinese culture are now (and have been) becoming more and more prominent in our global village. With a rich practice spanning countless centuries, the celebration of Chinese New Year reveals many deeply held tenets of Chinese culture: family, respect, and reverence for tradition, which echo not only in China, but around the world.
The celebration of Chinese New Year is a whirlwind of color, tastes, and smells as the skies are lit up with crackling fireworks and softly glowing lanterns. Born of rich tradition and fueled by the myriad cultures that partake in this grandiose once-a-year event, feting the Lunar New Year is a seriously convivial affair. Never has out with the old and in with the new been more appealing than during the handing of the baton from Horse to Goat. Pull up those lucky red briefs and join island6 for a glamorous celebration of new friends, new kismet, and new art!
1 Jeanne Boden, The Wall Behind China’s Open Door (Brussels: Academic and Scientific Publishers, 2008), 109.
2 Alex Bellos, “Why odd numbers are dodgy, evens are good, and 7 is everyone’s favourite,” http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/apr/13/favourite-number-survey-psychology
3 Adam Century, “Lunar New Year Ushers in Greatest Human Migration,” http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/01/140131-lunar-new-year-china-migration-baidu-map/
7 Jess Macy Yu, “Before the Chinese Year of the Sheep, a Bulge in Births,” The New York Times, Sinosphere. http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/12/28/before-the-chinese-year-of-the-sheep-a-bulge-in-births/?_r=0