When we talk about Chinese New Year, we should be aware of the fact that there are actually two New Years in China. One is widely known as Spring Festival (春节) or Lunar New Year. It abides by the Chinese lunar calendar and falls on different dates in Gregorian calendar almost every year. The other one is known as Yuan Dan (元旦) or New Year, which is fixed on January 1st.
Being the most important festival in China, Spring Festival is celebrated by the Han nationality and most of Chinese ethnic minorities except the Tibetans, Bai, and Dai people, etc. And the Spring Festival in the ethnic minority regions often carries distinctive ethnic features and is quite different from that of the Han people. It is also celebrated in some neighboring countries like Korea, Japan, Vietnam, etc., whose culture has been influenced by Chinese culture and in overseas Chinese communities.
In China, we prefer to call it Xin Nian (新年) or Guo Nian (过年) which literally means to celebrate the New Year. In the narrow sense, Spring Festival refers to the Chinese New Year’s Eve (Chu Xi 除夕), 30th of Lunar December which falls on 18th February 2015 and Chinese New Year’s Day (Zheng Yue Chu Yi 正月初一), 1st of Lunar January which falls on 19th February 2015. But broadly speaking, it lasts from Lunar December 23rd or 24th of the year to Lunar January 15th of the next year in Chinese lunar calendar. Spring Festival has many symbolic meanings. It symbolizes not only a farewell to the old year and a welcome to the brand-new year but also the reunion of family members. Year by year, when the Spring Festival approaches, numerous Chinese people far away from home hurry back one after another for the family reunion. To go back home when the Spring Festival draws near has been deeply rooted in Chinese people’s heart for thousands of years. It is something of Chinese characteristic branded indelibly on us.
Spring Festival Custom
Spring Festival has a series of traditional activities, or rather, must-dos. These have been handed down from generation to generation and hence are a very important part of the Chinese culture. But in different regions, there are variations. The mainstream traditions are listed as below in time sequence.
祭灶(小年) Kitchen God Worshipping
Kitchen God Worshipping generally takes place on Lunar December, 23rd or 24th. It is an influential and popular traditional activity of China, which indicates the beginning of Spring Festival. Kitchen God refers to the god residing in the kitchen. Chinese believe each family has a Kitchen God who protects and supervises the family. There is often a small holy shrine for the god in each kitchen. Those who don’t have a shrine in their kitchens often stick a portrait of the god on the kitchen wall. Sometimes, you may come across a family who has a portrait of both Kitchen God and Kitchen Goddess, the wife of Kitchen God.
Why do the Chinese worship Kitchen God and offer sacrifice to him when the Chinese New Year draws near? It is because they believe at the end of each year the god will ascend to the heaven to report to Jade Emperor, the king of all Chinese gods, what the family have done during the year, both good deeds and bad deeds. And Jade Emperor will judge by the report whether the family should be punished or awarded. Therefore, what the Kitchen God reports to the Jade Emperor is directly connected with the family’s future fate. They offer sacrifice to please the god hoping that the god can put in a good word for them. And the couplet beside the portrait often reveals the hope. It reads: “Report good deeds in heaven, protect the family on earth.”
扫尘 House Cleaning
After Kitchen God Worshipping, the Chinese people will start to sweep up the house. In China it is a convention to do a thorough house cleaning before the Spring Festival. If you travel around China at that time, you will find the whole country, men and women, old and young, is busy with the house cleaning, washing whatever can be washed such as all sorts of utensils, all the bedding and curtains, etc. The cleaning often lasts for several days. You may be puzzled about why it lasts so long. It is because the cleaning symbolizes getting rid of the old rotten luck to make way for the new good future. Hence the Chinese pay special attention to it. They often do the cleaning as carefully as possible. And you may get a subtle feeling that the Chinese people are making their great efforts to greet the coming holy Spring Festival.
贴春联，门神，年画，窗花，倒贴福字 Chinese New Year Decoration
It is a convention too for the Chinese to decorate the house with Chinese New Year ornaments. The ornaments are very Chinese. There are several kinds of decorations such as Spring Festival Couplets, the portraits of Door Gods, Chinese New Year Paintings, paper-cuts for window decoration, Reversed Fu, and Chinese knots, etc. They share a common meaning—auspiciousness, which is the core of Chinese New Year decoration. Most of the ornaments are red since red symbolizes auspiciousness in China. The Spring Festival couplets are often handwritten or printed on red long strips of paper. Usually they reveal the great expectation and hope of the Chinese, or the greetings to Spring Festival. A set of Spring Festival Couplet commonly consists of a couplet pasted beside the door and a horizontal scroll bearing an inscription above the door. The portraits of door gods are often adhered to the door for the Chinese believe the two door gods can guard their doors and keep off evil spirits. The traditional Chinese New Year Paintings are often hung on walls inside the house. Paper-cutting is a traditional handicraft of China. Paper-cuts are often used as window decorations. They feature multiple shapes and delicate design. They are not that popular in South China while in North China, they are very common. Reversed Fu is functionally similar to the spring couplets. It is a square piece of red paper with a reversed Chinese character: Fu (福). Chinese knots stand for auspiciousness too. They are a great invention of China, which showcases Chinese people’s cleverness and creativity. Each knot is made of a single unbroken string.
祭祀 Sacrificing Ceremony
Before the Family Reunion Dinner, the Chinese are used to holding a worshipping ceremony to offer sacrifice to the Heaven, gods and ancestors. Due to different local traditions, the worshipping takes on different forms in different regions. In some villages, there are ancestral halls special for the worshipping. A big crowd of people gather together in the hall. Their sacrificial offerings are often placed side by side in a table special for sacrifice. Traditionally, women are not allowed to be present in such a ceremony, which is a manifestation of sexism. But there are exceptions. In my village, women are allowed to attend the ceremony. In cities, people don’t have ancestral halls. They usually enshrine the gods and the ancestral tablets at home and do the worshipping at home. Although difference does exist, the intention of worshipping is the same. That is to show respect and give regards to the Heaven, gods and ancestors, and pray for a happy and prosperous future.
年夜饭 (团圆饭) Dinner on Chinese New Year Eve
Dinner on Chinese New Year Eve, also known as Family Reunion Dinner is a very important part of Chinese Chinese New Year. People pay special attention to it. The food is carefully prepared. Varieties of Chinese traditional dishes, dim sums, fruits, nuts, and candies, etc. in multi-shaped and delicately designed porcelain plates are placed neatly on a round table. The whole family sit around the table, enjoy the delicious food and talk excitedly about what’s new or burst their sides with laughter at somebody’s jokes from time to time. Different from the western table manners which demands quietness and courtesy, ours is more free and full of excitement and laughter. The dinner means the reunion of the family. Hence every member of the family should be present. If there is one absentee, the family will not enjoy the dinner heartily.
压岁钱 Lucky money
Lucky money (Ya Sui Qian), also know as Hong Bao (money in red envelop) is a typical Chinese convention. It is a festival gift given by the elder member of a family to the minors. On the Lunar New Year Eve, the parents and grandparents will give lucky money to the children after the family reunion dinner or put a Hong Bao secretly under the pillow after the children fall asleep. When paying Chinese New Year visits to their relatives, the children will receive lucky money too. The money inside the red envelop is to delight the children. The red envelop symbolizes good luck. Hence it is impolite to unpack the Hong Bao in front of the elders, especially the giver. The amount of lucky money ranks from tens of Yuan to several hundred Yuan. The lucky money is often used by the children to buy firecrackers, snacks, toys, books, and school things.
除夕守岁 Chinese New Year Eve Staying-up
The Chinese people are used to staying up on Chinese New Year Eve. The old people stay up on Chinese New Year Eve to show that they cherish the time. The young people stay up for good health and a long life of their parents. When staying up, some people watch the traditional TV program: Spring Festival Gala Evening. Some play cards or mahjong. Chinese New Year Eve means more for the children. It might be the happiest and freest moment of the year. They are allowed to hang out late and no one asks them to go to bed on time. The children in rural areas usually play games or set off small firecrackers outdoors. Some naughty boy might throw an ignited firecracker secretly at your foot while you don’t even notice it. As it explodes with a bang, it really gives you quite a scare, which is exactly what the boy expects. Then he might give you a disguised innocent smile. You just find yourself unwilling to go serious with a boy’s little trick for such is Spring Festival. But not all children adore firecrackers. Some are afraid of the bangs. When it is midnight, there are midnight snacks, such as Jiaozi, Tofu Soup. After eating the snacks, those who are not sleepy keep on playing. The sleepy ones call it a day and go to bed while the night is still exciting.
迎春 Greeting Spring Festival
Year in year out, at 00:00 o’clock on the Chinese New Year Eve, the Chinese all over the nation set off firecrackers to show their greetings to the Spring Festival. And you will find the whole country is immersed in consecutive bangs of firecrackers, which bring about the climax of Spring Festival. Many people crowd into the temples to make a wish or pray for health and harmony for their families.
拜年 Chinese New Year Calls
Paying Chinese New Year calls to relatives and friends is an important convention in China. It is a way of giving one’s best wishes to others. In Chinese, it is Bai Nian. Previously, Bai Nian was different from He Nian, though the two both referred to Chinese New Year calls. The former one means the Chinese New Year calls to the elders. The latter one means the greetings between peers. But nowadays Chinese New Year calls are generalized as Bai Nian, and He Nian is out of use. People often prepare gifts and start to pay Chinese New Year calls on Lunar January 1st. There are several types of Bai Nian: greeting the elders at home, visiting relatives, visiting friends & colleagues, visiting neighbors, etc. The first three are the most important.
Spring Festival Legends
Spring Festival swarms with legends. Behind each convention, there is an interesting story. But I am not going to list all of them. Here go some of them, which may help you understand Spring Festival better.
“年”兽的传说 Legend of Monster Nian
Why do the Chinese celebrate Spring Festival? Why do they call Spring Festival Xin Nian or Guo Nian? The story goes that in ancient China there was a monster: Nian, with horns on its head. Nian lived most of the time in deep sea and only went ashore on Chinese New Year Eve in search for food. Nian was rather fierce. It often swallowed the livestock and hurt the villagers. Thus people escaped to mountains annually on Chinese New Year Eve to avoid the monster. And this year, when the residents of Peach-blossom Village were just about to run away as usual, there came an old beggar. Everybody was busy with packaging, so no one tended to attend him except an old lady living in the east of the village. The kind-hearted lady gave some food to the beggar and advised him to run away to the mountain as soon as possible. At her advice, the old beggar smiled and told her that if she allowed him to spend the night in her home, he would beat off the monster: Nian. But the old lady didn’t believe him. She tried in vain to persuade the beggar. At last she went to the mountain together with the villagers, leaving the beggar alone.
At mid-night, Nian broke into the village only to find that the village was different from usual. In the east end of the village, there is a house with red paper on its doors, bright candlelight inside. The Monster Nian was enraged by the sight. It rushed towards the house fiercely. Suddenly, there came consecutive loud bangs, which stopped the monster and made it tremble with fear. At that moment, the door opened and the beggar in a red robe came out. The monster was so terrified that it fled hastily. The next day, when the villagers came back, they were surprised to find that the villager was in good condition. The old lady suddenly realized the beggar was a god. She told the villagers about this. The villagers went to the old lady’s house. They finally understood that the monster was afraid of red, light, and bangs. The joyful villagers celebrated for expelling Nian. And people in the surrounding villages later heard of the news and all knew how to keep off the monster. From then on, people decorated the house with red things, set off firecrackers, lit up the house and stayed up on the Chinese New Year Eve to avoid the Monster Nian.
倒贴的“福”字 Story of Reversed Fu
During Spring Festival, Reversed Fu can be seen everywhere. It is a special convention. Many people who don’t know the story of Reversed Fu often feel confused. Why do the Chinese put a reversed Chinese character on the door? Fu means blessings. And originally Fu was not reversed. The story of Reversed Fu has two versions. One goes that the convention dates from Qing Dynasty. One year, on Chinese New Year Eve, the Majordomo of Prince Gong wrote plentiful Fu characters in pieces of red paper, which were to be pasted on the doors. And an illiterate servant made a mistake. He pasted a reversed Fu on the main door. The wife of Prince Gong was annoyed when she found that. To protect the servant, the witty Majordomo said to his mistress: “Madam, please forgive the servant. I often hear people saying that Prince Gong is blessed by the gods. And now Fu is reversed which means the blessings are arriving. It is an auspicious omen.” The word reverse (倒) in Chinese pronounces the same with arrive (到). At his flattering words, the mistress thought: “Then that’s why all the passersby say Fu (blessings) is arriving (reversed) in the mansion of Prince Gong.” She felt pleased and rewarded both the servant and the Majordomo. Later, people deliberately reversed Fu for auspiciousness. And gradually it became a convention. The other one goes that the convention came into being due to the first emperor of Ming Dynasty: Zhu Yuanzhang. Zhu Yuanzhang intended to kill people who didn’t obey him. And Fu was taken as the secret mark. Those who had Fu on their doors wouldn’t be killed. Zhu Yuanzhang’s wife, Empress Ma, was kind-hearted. She informed people of the news and made them stick Fu on their doors before the dawn. There was a family who were illiterate. The family pasted a reversed Fu by mistake. The next day, when the emperor sent his imperial troop to carry out the killing, it turned out that every family had Fu except one who had a reversed Fu. The emperor was so angry that he immediately ordered the imperial troop to kill the family who had a reversed Fu. Empress Ma stopped him and said: “The family knew you would come to their house. They pasted a reversed Fu to please you. It means blessings are arriving.” The emperor thought it was reasonable and canceled his previous order. From then on, people reversed Fu for blessings and in memory of Empress Ma.
扫尘的传说 Story of House Cleaning
Why do the Chinese do house cleaning when the Chinese New Year is coming? It is said that the ancient Chinese believed that each person was attached with San Shi Shen, an immortal being, who followed people like one’s shadow. San Shi Shen was fond of blackening human beings. He frequently defamed people in front of Emperor Jade, the king of all Chinese gods, and made Emperor Jade believe the man’s world was the breeding ground of crime and dirtiness. One day, Shan Shi Shen reported to Emperor Jade that the human beings were cursing him and wanted to overthrow his power. Emperor Jade was thus enraged. He immediately ordered Shan Shi Shen to find out those who offended him, record their crime, and mark the offenders’ houses with cobwebs. Then he commanded Wang Ling Guan, a god in heaven, to descend to the man’s world on Chinese New Year Eve and kill those who had cobwebs under their eaves. Shan Shi Shen was very happy. He marked all the houses with cobwebs. The Kitchen Gods residing in the houses came to know his intention. They had a discussion and finally got the countermeasure. They made people clean the houses carefully before the Chinese New Year Eve. If a house was not clean enough, the Kitchen God would refuse to enter the house. Then on Chinese New Year Eve, when Wang Ling Guan came, he was surprised to find that the man’s world was harmonious, peaceful and clean and there was no cobweb. He went back to the Heaven and report what he had seen to Emperor Jade, who then realized Shan Shi Shen lied to him. At last, Shan Shi Shen was punished and imprisoned forever. And the convention was handed down from generation to generation.
门神的传说 Legend of Door Gods
The Chinese prefer to put portraits of Door Gods on their main doors. As to the origination of Door Gods, there are different versions. Here goes the most reliable one. According to Shan Hai Jing, an ancient mythological and geographic work written in the Warring States period, in ancient China, there was a mountain named Ghost’s World, home for ghosts. At the entrance of Ghost’s World, there stood a huge and heavily leaved peach tree. On the tree lived a golden cock. The cock crowed at dawn, reminding the ghosts who hung out at night to go back to the Ghost’s World through the entrance guarded by two gods: Shen Tu and Yu Lei. Every morning, the two gods stood there, checking on ghosts passing by. If they found a ghost did something evil, they would capture it and feed it to the tigers. Therefore ghosts were frightened of Shen Tu and Yu Lei. People draw portraits of Shen Tu and Yu Lei on peach wood and hung the wood outside the door to keep off evil spirits. The peach wood with Shen Tu and Yu Lei was called Tao Fu. As time went on, different Door Gods came into being. And nowadays you can see varieties of Door Gods. But the convention is still prevailing.
饺子的传说 Story of Jiaozi
Jiaozi was originally named Jiaoer (delicate ear). It is said that Jiaozi was originated by Zhang Zhongjing, Medical Sage of China. Zhang Zhongjing lived in East Han Dynasty. He was considered one of the founders of traditional Chinese medical science. His work On Typhoid Fever and Miscellaneous Diseases was taken as medical classics by doctors in different periods. He was not only learned but also selfless and kind-hearted. He committed himself to healing the wounded and rescuing the dying.
That year the winter was extremely cold. A lot of people caught cold and some even had their ears badly frostbitten. To cure people of the frostbite, Zhang Zhongjing made a medicine named Jiaoer. Jiaoer was made from flour, mutton, hot peppers, and a few medicinal herbs which helped people to fend off a chill. It looked like an ear. Zhang Zhongjing cooked Jiaer and handed out the medicine to people who suffered from cold. People felt warm and comfortable all over after they ate Jiaoer. Gradually, they got their frostbitten ears cured. That’s the origination of Jiaozi. In memory of Zhang Zhongjing and to celebrate for recovery, people learned to make Jiaoer and ate it on Chinese New Year’s day. That’s the origination of Jiaozi.
Spring Festival Mascots
Spring Festival Couplet (春联)
Spring Festival Couplet (春联), also known as Door Couplet, symbolizes the Chinese great expectation for the future. It is one of the Spring Festival Mascots and a special literary form of Chinese characteristics. It is an important part of China’s Chinese New Year Culture. Spring Festival Couplet derived from Tao Fu, portraits of Door Gods drawn on peach wood, which were often hung outside the door all through the year to keep off evil spirits. It finally took shape in Song Dynasty and went into prevalence in Ming Dynasty. According to historical records, Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of Ming Dynasty, was pretty fond of composing Spring Festival Couplet. Actually it is not an easy job to create an excellent couplet for there are strict rules. A set of Spring Festival Couplet often consists of Shanglian, Xialian, and Hengpi. Shanglian and Xialian refer to the couplet pasted beside the door. Hengpi refers to the horizontal scroll bearing an inscription pasted above the door. An excellent Spring Festival Couplet must be semantically auspicious and concisely worded. Shanglian and Xialian should have equal number of characters. The latter one must correspond to the former one in meaning. And semantic redundancy should be avoided. Here goes a popular Spring Festival Couplet.
Shanglian: Harmonious Heaven, harmonious earth, harmonious people, harmony of Huaxia
Xialian: Beautiful songs, beautiful dance, beautiful flowers, beauty of tonight
Hengpi: New Spring Festival, great auspiciousness
Chinese New Year Painting
Chinese New Year Painting (年画) is considered a Spring Festival Mascot, too. It is an old handicraft lasting for thousands of years, or rather, the early form of Chinese paintings. Similar to Spring Festival Couplet, Chinese New Year Painting derived from portraits of Door Gods. When it came into being is still unknown. But scholars have found its traces in Du Duan, an ancient writing of East Han Dynasty. Chinese New Year Painting features simplified lines, bright colors, and various subjects. There are paintings about mythology, historical stories, dramatic figures, etc. It often impresses people with a lively atmosphere, embodying the Chinese people’s great expectation. The paintings are mainly watercolor block prints. But different areas have different styles. The most well-known brands are Taohuawu of Jiangsu, Yangliuqing of Tianjing, Yangjiabu of Shandong, and Mianzhu of Sichuan
As a Spring Festival Mascot, firecrackers are a necessity in Spring Festival. It has a history of more than 2000 years. It is said that when it was Chinese New Year Eve, the ancient Chinese would pile a lot of bamboo in their courtyard and set fire to it. As it got heated, the bamboo would explode with great bangs and help to drive away Monster Nian. Later when gunpowder was invented, people started to put gunpowder into bamboo, which contributed to the strength of explosion. In North Song Dynasty, gunpowder rolled in paper, the basic form of firecrackers, came into being and was widely accepted as a replacement for bamboo.
Chinese people do love firecrackers. They believe setting off firecrackers can keep off bad luck and bring about prosperity. In cities, such as Beijing
, etc., firecrackers are under restrictions given safety and environmental protection, which means you are not allowed to set off firecrackers freely. In rural areas, as one falls, another rises, the bangs of firecrackers almost go through the whole Spring Festival. To children in rural areas, firecrackers are a big source of fun. They do enjoy setting off firecrackers. And they may spend pretty much of their lucky money in buying firecrackers in the village stores. There are varieties of firecrackers for them to choose from. Most of them need to be ignited by matches. There is a special kind of firecracker, which explodes automatically as you throw it hard enough to the ground.
Lucky Money (压岁钱Ya Sui Qian) is a Spring Festival Mascot, too. Lucky Money has a long history. Its origination can be traced back to Han Dynasty. It was originally called Ya Sheng Qian. Ya Sheng Qian was not the coin in circulation. It was just shaped as coins. People at that time wore it and took it as a lucky talisman. In Tang Dynasty, it was a convention prevailing at court to give out money as a gift for one’s relatives, friends in Spring Festival. Later in Song and Yuan Dynasty, the convention became popular among the civilians and some changes took place. People began to give money as a gift to children. Therefore precisely speaking, Lucky Money came into being in Song or Yuan Dynasty.
Then why was it renamed Ya Sui Qian? It was because the character “岁”, which means “year”, pronounces the same with the character “祟”, which means “evil spirit”. The ancient Chinese believed children were generally weaker than adults and as a result easier to get hurt by the evil spirits. And Ya Sui Qian symbolized an amulet that could hold down the evil spirits. People gave Lucky Money to children in Spring Festival, the beginning of a new Chinese year, hoping that the kids could pass the year and grew up safely. But nowadays, the superstitious meaning of Lucky Money weakens and it is merely a gift to delight the youngsters.
Chinese Knot is considered a Spring Festival Mascot, too. It is a symbol of China known by the world. It is a very old and traditional knot-work. According to historical records, the Chinese began to tie knots to keeping a record of events in remote antiquity. Big knots for big events while small knots for small ones. It became a sort of decorative art in Tang or Song Dynasty. And later in Ming or Qing Dynasty, people named the knots and attached different meanings to them. For example, Ruyi Knot stands for good luck, and Double-fish Knot stands for prosperity, and True-lover Knot symbolizes true love. Chinese Knot is special and unique due to the fact that each Chinese knot is made of a single unbroken string. Chinese Knot varies in color, style, and meaning. Red knots are the commonest and auspiciousness is the essential theme. Nowadays, Chinese Knot has become an important element of modern fashion. And it has developed its own industry, which includes two major series: hanging decorations and dress decorations.
Spring Festival Gala Evening
Spring Festival Gala Evening is a TV show specially designed for Spring Festival. Each year, at 20:00 on Chinese New Year Eve, all the Chinese, men and women, old and young, sit in front of the TV set with their eyes sticking to the screen, some laughing at the comical performances, some criticizing the poor ones. Spring Festival Gala Evening first came into being in 1983. Newborn as it is, it is a significant element of Chinese New Year Culture and plays an important role in modern Chinese life. Spring Festival Gala Evening covers various art forms of Chinese characteristics, such as comic dialogues, short plays, pop music, traditional opera, dancing, acrobatic show, and Wushu show, etc. Each year, the carefully rehearsed performances go on the stage one by one just like hundreds of flowers in bloom, presenting the best of China to all the audience. Each year there are great surprises. For example, the Thousand-Hands Guanyin Show in 2005 brought thunderous applauds. The dancing was performed by 21 deaf-and-dumb girls.
As the music played, the girls danced gracefully to the gesture of their teachers just like they can hear the rhythm. Everybody was touched at that moment. One could easily imagine what great efforts had the girls made to give such a perfect performance. There are disappointments, too. And the Chinese never mince words in commenting sharply on the bad performances, which actually promotes the continuous improvement of Spring Festival Gala Evening. As the Spring Festival is drawing near, now the preparation of 2017 Spring Festival Gala Evening is underway. Everybody is expecting what it will bring. Let’s just wait.