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Spring Festival: Chinese Lunar New Year

Updated on April 18, 2014

As many people know, January 23rd is January 1st in Chinese lunar calendar, which is 2012 lunar New Year of Dragon. Ancient Chinese 4,000 years ago invented lunar calendar, which is based on the moon activity cycle instead of the sun. According to it, there are 354 or 355 days in one year. Chinese people had used lunar calendar until 1911, when the Republic of China had founded and began to use the solar calendar. However, the Lunar New Year still keeps its powerful position, and becomes the most severe traditional festival in China, and by comparision, the common New Year appears much less important for Chinese people.

The year of dragon
The year of dragon | Source

In order to welcome the Day, people commonly do a complete cleaning, take a bath, get a new haircut, buy new clothes, prepare various food, and purchase the new-year pictures with couplets and fireworks. All these activities have the same theme, “to ring out the old year and usher in the new”, to welcome a new year and another spring”. Therefore, the Lunar New Year is commonly called “Spring Festival”. Spring Festival has had more than 4,000 years history. In the period of primitive commune society, the sovereignty was transferred by abdication. Currently, there arose on this piece of land three great sovereigns, Yao, Shun and Yu, who were considered as three out of five common ancestors of Chinese People. Sovereign Shun led his people to worship the Heaven and the Earth on the day when he came to the throne. Since then, the day had been considered as the first day of a year, and the first month was called “yuan month”. People celebrated the first day, which was the origin of “Spring Festival”. However, which month was the “yuan month” was different in following several dynasties. For example, the first Emperor for the united feudal nation, Qin Shi Huang(259 B.C.-210 B.C.), made the October as the first month. Until the period of Han Wu Emperor (156 B.C.-87 B.C.), the first month in lunar calendar was not officially confirmed as the “yuan month”.

Royal sacrifice on Spring Festival
Royal sacrifice on Spring Festival | Source
The folk dance of Zhuang minor group
The folk dance of Zhuang minor group | Source

Spring Festival is for a celebration day with entertainment and sacrifice together. On this day, all gods and ancestors enjoy devotion and offerings from humans. People thank gods and ancestors for their blessings in the past one year, and petition for a happy, fortunate and prosprerous coming one year. On New Year Eve, all families sit together having a big dinner, talking, thanking and wishing, then at the middle night, every family plays fireworks, officially say goodbye to the old one year. The sound of fireworks exploding could be like pouring rain, spreading far in the space, through the past and the future. Ancient people began to worship gods and ancestors in very seriousness. Big families would have done it in strict family ranks, which could be the greatest event happened in the family. Many people stay up all night to watch the new year in, and people who go to bed also get up early, then that pouring-rain-like-explosion-sound catches its second summit in the early morning on New Year Day. The fireworks cannot be played until every family member get up from bed and dress up in new, and people cannot have breakfast until after the fireworks were played. Then, relatives and friends greet each other, and children get money usually in a small red paper bag as the lunar new year gift to wish luck and safe. Pubic people perform entertainment programs probably on streets and plazas, such as dragon and lion dance, new youngge (a folk dance), walking on stilts in ancient dress, and acrobatic tricks. Those celebrating activities can last half month.

In present days, except that the sacrifice has become less essential, all other traditions are still popular.

To clean dust

After Jizao Festival on December 23rd in lunar calendar, people begin to prepare officially to welcome the New Year. To do a complete cleaning is necessary. Whether out- or in- door, front- or back- yard, every corner is supposed to be clean without any dust, which means to clear out all regrets in old days, or say, to remove the old and spread the new.

Peach-wood boards with names of Shen Tu and Yu Lei on them
Peach-wood boards with names of Shen Tu and Yu Lei on them | Source
A new-year picture with couplets held by the two little people: the word between is a upside-down word for "happiness". The term for "upside-down happiness" has the same pronunciation with the term for "happiness is coming".
A new-year picture with couplets held by the two little people: the word between is a upside-down word for "happiness". The term for "upside-down happiness" has the same pronunciation with the term for "happiness is coming". | Source

To put up new-year pictures and couplets

This traditional activity was started over 1,000 years ago, the late Three Kingdoms Dynasty. It originated from a legendary story. Chinese fairy tales tells a world of ghosts. There is a great mountain in the world, and a peach tree covering 1,500 km on the mountain, and a golden rooster living in the tree. Those ghosts who travel out during the night have to come back in the moment the rooster crows. The entrance of the world locates in the north-east of the tree, and there stands one god on each side of the gate, whose names are Shen Tu and Yu Lei. If a ghost did anything bad when it was out, the two gods would catch and punish it. Therefore, all ghosts are afraid of them. Then, ancient Chinese used peach tree wood to make carvings of Shen Tu and Yu Lei, and then put them at the gate to drive out evils.

By the Song Dynasty, people began to write couplets on the peach-wood board, one sentence on each side. In that case, people could not only use the wooden carvings to refute evils, but express their happy feelings and beautify the front door. Afterwards, people began to use red papers to write couplets to symbol happiness and auspiciousness, and put up those festivity couplets on doors and windows, which embodied the good wishes for a better following year.

The tradition of putting up door-god pictures has been handed down until present days. However, it has generally become door or new-year pictures, i.e. the pictures become various, creative and beautiful, mainly express out the happy feelings, but not just gods pictures any more.


To have family union dinner

Having family union dinner on New Year Eve is the most important and necessary program. Now, as many people know, China is experiencing population explosion with 1.4 billion people. If you used to spend or are spending a Chinese lunar new year in China and see how scarily difficult to buy a train ticket to home before the moment, you would understand how important the union dinner for Chinese people. Millions of farmers flow into cities to make fortune, and they try their best to get back in home for the dinner after work, commonly several days before the Eve. There is a popular saying among them, “Whether having money or not, just go back home for the New Year.”

For a big family, which may include grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, brothers, unmarried sisters, sisters-in-law, nephews, and nieces, to prepare such a big dinner can be really hard. In the past, housewives might be, as my mother was, tired to get sick. However, people nowadays may book reservations in hotels or order take-out. The dinner dishes are various, and no fixed traditional ones. But in north China, dumplings are necessary for the lunch of the New Year Eve, and the breakfast of the New Year Day; in south China, people make new year rise cake with sticky rice.

To watch in the new year

The mid-night has been considered as the most important moment for the new-year celebration since Han dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.). According to historical document, “staying up late to see the new year in” has started in Jin dynasty (265 A.D.-420 A.D.). Specifically, families after new year eve dinner burned candles or oil-lamps, stayed up, talking and joking, to wait for the new year in. Ancient people believed that it could have refuted evils. That old people watch in the new year is said to cherish the time, while for the young, it is said to earn more time for their elderly.

Yasui Qian: New Year Money for Children
Yasui Qian: New Year Money for Children | Source

To play fireworks

People may, as my father does, play fireworks before the lunch and after put up the pictures and couplets on New Year Eve, but the significant moment for that violent-storm-like sound is at both the mid-night and the early morning of the New Year Day. Chinese people admire the color of red. By the way, that unique Chinese red is, at least I think so, amazing. Red symbols happy and lucky in Chinese culture. So, when fireworks are exploded out, those red paper pieces are floating down on the ground like falling petals, which is called “houseful redness”. Those “petals” are generally left alone until next day.

To pay a new year visit

In early morning of the New Year Day, people dress up in new and clean, and go to relatives, friends and neighbours to congratulate one another. At that time, old people assign gift money to their younger generations, mainly young teenagers and children. Sometimes, the gift money for children is put secretly under the pillows when they are sleeping. Traditionally, the money should be put into a red paper bag, like an envelop, or tied by a unique Chinese red string or cord. The money was originally for the healthy and safe growth of the children, but nowadays it is more for a utilitarian role, and therefore, it is rarely given with a wrap or decoration.

To welcome a new spring
To welcome a new spring | Source

Starting from the January first in lunar calendar, the festival lasts to fifteenth. A special activity was on each day in ancient time, and some of them have still solid meaning today. Generally speaking, the first day is for general celebration, including playing fireworks, paying visits, congratulating one another, and entertaining; on the second day, the married daughters return back to parents with husbands and children. Gifts are indispensable; the third day is the time when gods and ancestors return back to the heaven, and then people may set a ceremony to send them (of course it was necessary in ancient time). Besides, some folk tales tell that it is the wedding day of mice, so people usually go to bed early not to bother them, and drop some food on the ground; the gods enjoyed the earthly life, and come back on the fourth day, and so people make another ceremony to welcome them back and then send them away again; the fifth day is called “breaking five”, because all those taboos in first days will be broken after this day, and therefore, more taboos for this day. For example, people have to eat dumplings, cannot use raw rice to cook, and women cannot go out. In south China, people will also welcome the God of Wealth to their home, which can be very serious. Firework playing will have its another minor summit; the sixth is the day to send the Ghost of the Poor away; the seventh day is the birthday of humans. In Chinese local religion of Creation by Nuwa, Nuwa created humans on this day; the eighth day is the birthday of paddy rice. If it were sunny, then the paddy would be abundant in following year, and if not, then the paddy would be poor. People usually learn some agricultural knowledge on this day; the ninth day is the birthday of the Heaven God, the greatest god in Chinese local Taoism; the tenth day is for stones, on which all stone tools tend not to be moved to avoid hurting crops; on eleventh, parents invite married daughters and sons-in-law to home, and treat them with food that the Heaven God left on the ninth day, which means not to waste; on twelfth, people begin to prepare the Yuanxiao Festival, i.e. January fifteenth in lunar calendar, which is the last day of the new year celebration, and also another important traditional festival.

Red round lanterns
Red round lanterns | Source

China is a country with multiple nations, and they have different customs for Spring Festival. But generally, they have family union dinner, play fireworks, make dumplings or new-year rise cake and other wonderful meals; hold folk entertainments, and worship gods and ancestors. Spring Festival is an important carrier for Chinese brilliant culture. It shows the wisdom of Chinese People, reflects the national feelings and the enthusiasm of life, and succeeds to Chinese national spirit and ethical value. Although many traditions have been disappearing with the growth of living standard, most customs for this Day have remained. Recently, Chinese Lunar New Year has more and more attention from the whole world, which indicates the approach of the peace, the friend, and cultural exchange among common peoples of the world. Wish such a meaningful festival remain in young and fresh forever; wish our country stronger and stronger and more and more prosperous; wish our world more peaceful and beautiful!


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    • Hui (蕙) profile imageAUTHOR

      Hui (蕙) 

      7 years ago

      Thank you, VirginiaLynne, very much. I, here, pay a new year visit to you and your families to wish you and all your families a happy and prosperous dragon year!

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 

      7 years ago from United States

      Hui--Thanks for such a complete Hub describing all of the events of Chinese New Year in China. I knew some of them but you've really explained it all so thoroughly. I'm going to link to your hub from my recent Hub on teaching this to kids. Great job!

    • Hui (蕙) profile imageAUTHOR

      Hui (蕙) 

      7 years ago

      Thank you, hush. Thank you for you liking our culture and tradition. Actually, it is the time for a lot exchange between the westerns and easterns. For example, hubpages give us a space to meet and know each other.

      Wish you and your families and your this Chinese friend a very happy, safe and healthy dragon year!

    • hush4444 profile image


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      Another fabulous hub, hui! I love all your fascinating details, history, and pictures. I have a very good friend who is Chinese and she's been cleaning house for the last two weeks. Today, she'll buy jai for everyone so that we can all have good luck. Gung Hay Fat Choy!


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