So February is upon us and those of us living in China know exactly what that means…while other countries are busy buying chocolates, picking out flowery cards and plunking down money for long stemmed roses we are busy stocking upon fireworks, breaking out the red packets, and readying our stomachs for a two week gorge fest. That’s right it’s Chinese New Year.
Many times people not living or visiting China ask for a description of what Chinese New Year is like. This can be rather tricky as there is no single equivalent in the western calendar. Really it’s like Christmas, New Year, Boxing Day, Hanukah, and May Day thrown into a two week celebration with fireworks, lots and lots of fireworks.
It’s a description like that that makes it essential to not only get a western perspective but a Chinese one as well. Chinese culture can be difficult to wrap your head around and so we decided to co-write this in order to give a multifaceted view of the Chinese New Year.
The Spring Festival is the most important celebration of the year in China. Although the meaning and the ways of celebrating the Spring Festival are changing with time, the important status of the Spring Festival will never change.
Chinese Spring Festival has a long history of four thousand years. Initially, it had no name or even a fixed date. It was simply called "the age" according to the position of Jupiter in the night sky. By 1000 BCE, people used "the year", which means "Great Harvest" to represent the Spring Festival.
According to the traditional custom, the Spring Festival lasts from the 23rd day of the 12 th lunar month to the 15th day of the 1st lunar month, and the climax is New Years Eve and the first day of first lunar month. The lunar calendar and the Julian Calendar are not the same, the lunar months float around and so the Chinese New Year is on a different day almost every year. This year the New Year lands on February 6thand 7th with the 15th day, or Lantern Festival falling on February 21st.
People carry out a lot of activities all over the country to welcome the Spring Festival. In the countryside, this kind of preparation starts from the beginning of the 12th lunar month. On the 24th, all the families begin the spring cleaning, which is symbolic of ridding yourself and your home of ill-fortune. Almost all homes buy new clothes and bed sheets in order to start the fresh New Year!
Another addition is the New Year paintings and Spring Festival couplets that are pasted on entrance doors to all homes and offices. Walking around the block at this special time of year will bedazzle you with all the red and gold banners. If you don’t know by now, Chinese people are very superstitious and red and gold are very auspicious colors in dealing with fortune and wealth.
On almost all doors you will find the Chinese character 福 (fu) which means good fortune. Take a closer look and you will see that it is turned upside down. It’s like this as a phonetic play on words, without getting too involved in a Chinese lesson, it symbolized that luck has arrived (dao le). A more uncommonly known fact is that the sign on the door is, in fact, for guests whom arrive and that there should be another 福 inside the house to bring luck on the house.
The spring festival is the time of year for food. For two weeks nota day will go by that some friend or some relative isn’t having a banquet. Some on the Traditional Chinese New Year foods like Nian-gao (年糕), eight treasures rice pudding (八宝饭) are staples of the season that are looked forward to. Other foods such as; assorted candies (什锦糖果, literal translation means sweet and fortune), candied winter melon (糖冬瓜, means growth and good health), watermelon seeds (西瓜籽, means joy, happiness, truth and sincerity), cumquat (金桔, means prosperity), red dates (红枣, means prosperity), candied lotus seed (糖莲子, means many descendents to come), and peanut candy (花生糖, means sweet), all have double meanings, to serve and eat these items not only gives you luck in the coming year but also demonstrate the past harvest year’s success.
For the reunion dinner, Jiaozi (饺子) is absolutely necessary for the northern Chinese families, while the Tang-yuan (汤圆) is for the southern Chinese. Other foods are necessary too because of their profound meaning. Fish (鱼, means surplus) is a need at the dinner table although it is usually not eaten. People greet each other and recall the past year, as well as look forward to the coming year.
After dinner, families stay-up awaiting the clock to strike midnight. This is a significant tradition during the holiday. For the elderly, staying-up represents cherishing time, while for the youngsters means prolonging the parents’ longevity. Just past midnight the New Year arrives with a flash of fireworks and the scent of gunpowder that can go on for more an hour. To realize that at that moment one 6th of the world’s population are doing the same thing at the same time is as exciting as it is awe inspiring.
By the first day of first lunar month, people wearing festive dresses begin their New Year’s visits, to see families, friends and loved ones. They greet each other "Happy New Year" and "Happy Spring Festival" and invite guests to drink tea and chat at their home. Children receive red packets (压岁钱) from older adults, these usually contain money and other small items. This gift it meant to drive the evils out of children, similar to the idea of getting coal in their stocking unless they behave, it also demonstrates the love and cherishment of children that is very prevalent in the Chinese culture.
There are many activities spanning New Years day to the lantern festival 15 days later. The northern Chinese hold temple fairs (庙会 miao hui). These fairs usually occur from the first to the seventh day of the month and are a mixture of traditional activities such as songs and dancing with more modern games, rides, and performances. Some of the more traditional aspects include martial arts exhibitions, acrobatic displays, traditional Opera, and folk dancing.
Vendors from far and wide come to set up shops and sell books, magazines, paintings, toys, tasty snacks, and dried or fresh fruit. There's plenty of food to tempt even the most finicky eater including sugar-coated wax berries speared onto meter-long sticks, hot sweet potatoes and sticky pancakes with red been filling. You can also find traditional Chinese crafts such as kites and painted masks taken from Peking Opera characters. Acrobats and other performers are on hand to keep the crowds entertained throughout the day and into the evening.
The southern Chinese like the lantern fairs better. In the warm spring, flowers bloom, and a multitude of lanterns appear enhancing the festive feeling with a rainbow of colors and light. People go out to see the beautiful lanterns, often these lanterns have riddles written on them and a family past time is to read these riddles and come up with an answer together.
As modernity encroaches on the new year more and more people stay as home to watch the televisions specials. It is no doubt that China is changing, with these changes come the adaptation of traditional celebration. As China’s standard of living rises travel and vacation are becoming more of the tradition, and this translates into restaurants now offering big Spring Festival dinners, something that only 5 years ago would have been unheard of.
No matter what plan you have for the two weeks of February 7th – 21st take some time, meet with friends, go to their homes, eat dinner. This is the time to grab hold of the mythic Chinese culture, and ride along. It is this time of year when dinner invitations are rampant, small gifts are prevalent, and friendship is built upon. This is the time of year when, like spring, life is renewed and new beginnings brought fourth, it’s a time of looking back fondly and looking forward expectantly.
With each crack of a firework the bad fortune and bad luck is scared away, with each explosion of color in the night sky the light guides the coming year. This is an event that has been happening for almost four thousand years, the fire works maybe a little better, the food more varied but little else has changed and in four thousand years from now little else will change. It’s one of the best times to be in China, and one of the easiest times to learn about this amazing culture.