Each year as the spring arrives, hundreds
of millions, perhaps billions of people celebrate Chinese New Year. Its vibrant history and
rich symbolism manifest in everything from dance to food. To help explain some of that
history and meaning here are The Tent’s TOP 10 Chinese New Year Facts The date for Chinese New Year, also known
as the Spring Festival, is determined by the Lunar Calendar. Lunar months begin on the
day of the dark moon, also called the new moon, and end on the day before the next dark
moon; with each month lasting for 29 or 30 days. This means that in the Gregorian Calendar,
the one most commonly used, the Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year,
although it will always fall between January 21st and February 20th. According to Chinese
Mythology, the beginning of the New Year started because of the Nian, a beast that lives under
the sea or in the mountains, and that comes out of hiding around New Year to eat livestock,
crops, and villagers…especially children. To protect themselves from the Nian, the villagers
would prepare food and leave on their doorstep. It was believed that once the Nian ate all
the food, it would leave the villagers alone. However one day, a villager was visited by
a god who told the villager to cover his house with red paper and to place firecrackers in
front of his house to scare the Nian; and it worked! From then on, right before the
New Year, they decided to hang red lanterns, post springtime scrolls, and lite firecrackers
in front of their houses. The Nian never came back, starting the first of many New Year’s
traditions that we will examine. The Shengxiao, which literally mean “birth
likeness”, is also known as the Chinese zodiac. Like western astrology, the cycle is divided
into 12 parts, each ascribing personality traits and life events. However, the Chinese
zodiac’s 12-part cycle corresponds to years and is represented by 12 animals. In order
they are: the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse,
the goat, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and the pig. The order of the animals comes
from a very old folk story: 13 animals were in a race to meet the Jade Emperor, who had
decreed to name the years on the calendar based on the order the animals would finish
the race. It’s a tale that shows the different personalities and the struggles they each
faced to finish the race. The Rat proved to be the smartest one finishing by hiding
in the ear of the ox, while the Pig got hungry during the race so he stopped to eat and take
a nap finishing last…at the start of the race, there also was a Cat, but sadly it drowned
trying to cross the river, and therefore, never made it in the zodiac. Chinese Astrology gets even more complex than
what is commonly known in western culture. While you are assigned an animal based on
the year you were born, there are also animal signs based on months (also known as inner
animals), based on the days (also known as true animals) and based on the hours (also
known as secret animals). Furthermore, in addition to the zodiac cycle of 12 animals,
there is a 10-year cycle of Celestial Stems, which are associated with one of the five
elements of Chinese Astrology: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Each element is rotated
every two years, with each one of those two years being associated with either the yin
or the yang. Combining all that up means that there’s a unique cycle that repeats every
60 years. 2015 is the year of the Goat…more specifically
the year of the Yin – Wood – Goat. It is the eighth sign of the 12-year cycle. Although
the sign usually refers to a goat, the Chinese word “yang” can refer to goats, sheeps, and
rams therefore it not uncommon to hear people celebrate the year of the sheep or the year
of the ram. Chinese Astrology describes goats, sheeps, and rams, with the addition of the
wood element, as peace-loving, kind, and popular…but also as clingy and resistant to change. Today, Chinese New Year is celebrated in many
countries and cities around the world, predominantly those with a large Chinese population. The
San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival and Parade is the largest event of its kind outside
of Asia. The festivities include people marching down Grant and Kearny streets while carrying
colorful flags, banners, lanterns, drums, and firecrackers. Other North American cities
celebrating with a parade include Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, Wellington, Toronto,
Vancouver and even smaller cities have started hosting celebrations. The London festivities
include concerts and performances on Trafalgar Square that attract close to half a million
people each year. Sydney also celebrates the Chinese New Year with large appeal. The events
there last for 3 weeks and they include outdoor markets, Chinese opera performances, dragonboat
races, a film festival, and multiples parades attended by hundreds of thousands of people
each year. Chinese New Year celebrations are deeply rooted
in family and welcoming in the new year. Shared meals are deeply symbolic to both of these
components and they are reflected in traditional food homophones,
words that sound the same but have different meanings. Four Chinese New
Year dishes are noodles, fish, dumplings, and sticky cake. First, Noodles are a quintessential
Chinese food period. During the New Year, uncut noodles, the longer the better, represent
longevity. Fish(魚), pronounced yú is a homophone for “surpluses”(餘yú), and is
often eaten or just displayed and saved for the day after. If you head south towards
Canton, the main Chinese new year dumpling is thought to resemble ancient Chinese gold
ingots signifying wealth and prosperity. Finally there isn’t a better way to end a New Year’s
meal than with some sweet Niangao, a popular eastern Chinese dessert which literally means
sticky cake, but is pronunciation as “a more prosperous new year (年高 lit. year high)”.
These examples from around China are just a sample from a people who have a deep love
for food and symbolic word play. The dragon and lion dances are two traditional
Chinese dances that are commonly performed during celebrations including Chinese New
Year. The dragon dance can be distinguished from the lion dance as dragon dancers are
large teams of performers that are fully visible by the crowd. On the other hand, lion dancers
operate in two dancer teams and the performers’ faces are only seen occasionally, since they
are inside the lion costume. As classic Chinese symbols, dragons are believed
to bring good luck, therefore the longer the dragon in the dance, the more luck it will
bring to the community. The dance is performed by a team of dancers who manipulate a long
flexible figure of a dragon using poles positioned at regular intervals along the length of the
dragon. Some of its classic movements include: “Cloud Cave”, “Whirlpool”, T’ai chi pattern,
“threading the money”, “”looking for pearl””, and “dragon encircling the pillar.” The
movement “looking for pearl” is emblematic for the pursuit of wisdom. The Dragon dance
also reflects agricultural roots can be seen in the movements for the river dragon deities. The Chinese lion dance has fundamental movements
can be found in most Chinese martial arts. The two main forms of the Chinese lion dance
are the Northern and Southern Lion dances, with many Southeast Asian countries adapting
a form of the later. In Southern Chinese Lion Dancing, the lion consists of a head which
is traditionally constructed using papier-mâché over a bamboo frame, and a body made of fabric
trimmed with fur. The colors of the lion, particularly white, yellow, and black, are
symbolic of the lion’s age but also refer to three historical characters recorded in
the classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Chinese Lion Dance is also performed accompanied
by the beating of drums, cymbals, and gongs. While these dances have been described in
depth, seeing them performed live is the best route to go. The Chinese New Year is often accompanied
by loud, enthusiastic greetings, often referred to as 吉祥話 (jíxiánghùa) in Mandarin,
loosely translated as auspicious words or phrases. The Chinese love for wordplay in
auspicious phrases is often structured in New Year couplets, printed in gold letters
on bright red paper. They probably predate the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), but did not
become widespread until then.Today, they are ubiquitous with Chinese New Year. These greetings
or phrases may also be used before children can receive their red packets.
Some examples include: “May your wealth [gold and jade] come to
fill a hall”, – “May you realize your ambitions”, “Greet the New Year and encounter happiness”, “May all your wishes be fulfilled”, “May your happiness be in
abundance”, “May you hear [in a letter] that all is
well”, and finally “May your happiness and longevity be complete.”
Children and teenagers sometimes jokingly use the phrase 恭喜發財,紅包拿來 “Congratulations
and be prosperous, now give me my red envelope!” This is followed by a heavy beating unless
you’re a really cute kid…just kidding. As previously mentioned, a classic Chinese
New Year tradition is the giving and requesting of red envelopes, also known as “hong bao.”
Hong bao are usually given out by married couples from the previous generation to single
people, especially to children. The red color of the envelope symbolizes good luck and is
supposed to ward off evil spirits. The practice is thought to have originated in the Qin Dynasty
where the elderly would thread coins with a red string. The money was referred to as
yāsuì qián (Chinese: 壓祟錢) or “money warding off evil spirits” and was believed
to protect the person of younger generation from sickness and death. The yasui qian was
replaced by red envelopes when printing presses became more common. Red envelopes continue
to be referred to by such names today. As a last thought, during New Year it is traditional
to put brand new notes inside red envelopes and also to avoid opening the envelopes in
front of the relatives out of courtesy. Chunyun, or the spring festival, is also a
period of travel in China with an extremely high traffic load around the time of the Chinese
New Year. The number of passenger journeys during the Chunyun period has exceeded the
population of China, hitting over 2 billion in 2006 and it has been called the largest
annual human migration in the world. Three main factors are responsible: First, it is
a long-held tradition for most Chinese people to reunite with their families during Chinese
New Year. Since the Chinese economic reforms of the late 1970s, new economic opportunities
have emerged, often at a considerable distance from people’s hometowns. This particular phenomena
is given a human face in the 2009 film, “The Last Train Home” where it connects the migration
with tech companies like Apple. Second, Chinese education reforms have increased the number
of university students, who often study outside of their hometown. The Spring Festival holiday
period falls around the same time frame as their winter break. Among the 194 million
railway passengers of the 2006 Chunyun period were 6.95 million university students. Finally,
because the Spring Festival Period is one of the few week-long holiday periods in the
People’s Republic of China, many people choose to travel for pleasure around this time. Tourism
in mainland China is reaching record levels, further adding
to the pressure on the transportation system. You have heard our TOP10 list for Chinese New Year Facts and now we want to hear yours. How do you celebrate? What questions do you have? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to subscribe!