The Lunar New Year: Rituals and Legends
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The Lunar New Year

For Chinese, in China and in ethnic communities around the world, the lunar new year is the most important and most festive holiday of the year. Through centuries of China’s agrarian tradition, this was the one period when farmers could rest from their work in the fields. Family members from near and far would travel to be with loved ones in time to usher out the old year and welcome in the new, with great celebratory flourish. With a calendar dating from the third millennium BCE, the Chinese people have for thousands of years been building on ancient customs of New Year celebrations. Although they may vary from region to region, village to village, and even family to family according to social position, many of these customs are still observed. Today, all over China, during what is now commonly referred to as the Spring Festival, passenger trains, buses, and river boats are packed with holiday travelers; shops do a flurry of business selling gifts, new clothes, and festive foods; kitchens are bustling with preparations for elaborate feasts; and streets are filled with the sounds of firecrackers and seasonal greetings.

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The Chinese Calendar

The marking of the passage of time in China has for millennia been closely linked to the cyclical pattern of agricultural production. The vast majority of the population of this agrarian society has always resided in rural areas and supported itself directly or indirectly by the tilling of the soil. One’s activities were arranged around events necessary to sustain life: plowing the fields, sowing seed, nurturing the crops, and gathering the harvest. As such it was necessary to be able to keep track of the optimal times for performing certain tasks. If a peasant waited too long to plant a crop, he might miss advantageous spring rains; if he hesitated to reap his more delicate vegetables, he might lose them to the first frost.

It was from this necessity that the Chinese lunar calendar was born; and it is this calendar which fixes the dates of the lunar new year and other events related to the holiday season.

Known as both the agricultural calendar and the old calendar, the lunar calendar is also referred to as the Xia calendar because legend holds that it dates from the time of the Xia dynasty (21st to 16th centuries BCE). No sophisticated astronomical instruments were necessary to observe the regular waxing and waning of the moon, and so it is the earth’s satellite itself that is considered to be the earliest instrument of celestial observation. Peasants could measure time by simply recording the revolutions and phases of the moon. While useful for counting time periods, it wasn’t much help in accurately predicting seasonal changes. The ancients knew that there were roughly 29½ days between new moons and that therefore 12 revolutions of the moon required 354 days. While this was relatively close to the time required for the earth to make one turn around the sun (365¼ days) and thus for the seasons to complete one full cycle, it was a great enough difference to render the lunar calendar impractical for foretelling seasonal changes. The same date on a calendar of 12 lunar months would fall at a different seasonal time each year.

To account for the extra half day in each lunar revolution, the calendar makers assigned 29 days to half the months and 30 to the others. To reconcile the differences in lunar measurement with the solar year of four full seasons, one intercalary, or extra month was added every two or three years. The result was a luni-solar calendar that, in each 19-year period, has 12 years with 12 months and seven with 13 months. Oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600 to ca.1050 BCE) offer evidence that the intercalary month had already been adopted by that time.

By the Qin dynasty (221 to 206 BCE) the calendar had been further divided into 24 periods of 15 days each. These are referred to as solar and mid-solar terms, and each is named in accordance with corresponding seasonal changes (e.g., “Waking of Insects,” “Grain Rain,” “Great Heat,” “Frost’s Descent,” etc.). The beginning date of each solar and mid-solar term is determined by the position of the sun in one of the 12 signs of the zodiac, which in Chinese are represented by animals (e.g., rat, ox, tiger, rabbit).

In 104 BCE Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) approved a calendar reform that fixed the beginning of the year on the day of the first new moon after the sun enters the 11th sign of the solar zodiac, or the second new moon after the winter solstice. This is also the first day of the solar term known as “beginning of spring.” For centuries the festival observing the first day of the year was popularly called (lunar) New Year’s Day, or literally, “First morning of the year” (Yuan dan), “Beginning of the first month” (Yuan zheng), or “First day” (Yuan ri). When the Republic of China was founded in 1912, the government officially adopted the Gregorian calendar as the “public calendar,” and recognition of January 1 as the first day of the new year. Since that time lunar New Year’s Day has been commonly known as “Spring Festival.” The old lunar calendar continues to be used popularly in conjunction with the solar-oriented Gregorian calendar as a way of marking traditional observances, the dates of which, like Spring Festival, are dependent on its calculations, and which are closely associated with its agrarian origins.

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Preparations for the New Year

Preparations for New Year festivities begin well in advance of the actual date of the holiday. As the old year draws to a close, there is a tendency to want to tie up loose ends, to put things in order in anticipation of beginning the new year with a fresh start and a clean slate.

In business this means balancing the books, paying off old debts, and collecting on loans and charges still due. For those who cannot afford to settle accounts at this time, the pre-holiday season may be spent evading creditors. In old China, it was not uncommon for the pursuit of a debtor to last right up to New Year’s Eve, when the bill collector’s search might be aided by a lantern as the midnight hour approached. Although it was considered vulgar to hound a debtor on New Year’s Day, this convention was circumscribed by another which allowed the creditor to pretend it was still the preceding evening by continuing to carry a lighted lantern on his chase. The safest refuges for one unable to pay a debt were to remain well hidden in one’s home, or to seek asylum in a temple, often that of the city god, where propriety simply did not permit financial transactions.

For the individual, the close of the old year means a look back at the misfortunes of the past and an introspective examination of one’s mistakes and failures. In some parts of China, people use this time just prior to the new year to seek out old friends or associates whom they may not have seen for a while, to renew friendships and talk out any problems that might be standing in the way of an amicable relationship in the future. (Visits to close friends with whom one is on good terms are usually reserved for the first several days of the new year.) A spiritual cleansing of the old — a “good riddance” to the bad luck and negative attitudes of the past — leaves one with a bright and optimistic approach to whatever lies ahead.

Domestically there is a traditional cleansing as well. In decades past, the most thorough “spring cleaning” of the year was initiated as a ritualistic sweeping away of all the evil spirits feared to be lurking in dark corners behind heavy and rarely moved pieces of furniture. Today, the only consideration for the vast majority of Chinese is a spotless presentation of one’s home to the many family members and guests who will be welcomed during the holiday season. Windows are washed, or were repapered in the old days, and the courtyard gate or other wooden parts of the house might be repainted. The old agrarian calendar cites the 20th day of the 12th lunar month as the “day for sweeping floors,” and this date still marks the beginning of the major pre-holiday housecleaning projects in Hong Kong. In much of China, peasants waited until the 23rd (in South China) or the 24th (in the North) to pick up the broom and dust pan. It was on this day that the Kitchen God, or god of the hearth, was scheduled to depart to make his report concerning household activities to the Jade Emperor in heaven. So as not to unnecessarily disturb and possibly offend him, housewives waited until he was on his way before they started moving furniture and raising dust.

Sending the Kitchen God off to heaven was a matter deserving special attention. In residence year-round at the hearth, where he was represented by a prominently displayed picture, or in parts of the South by beautifully calligraphed characters for his name, the Kitchen God observed all the family’s comings and goings. Had they been generous to any beggar at the door? Had they wasted any hard-earned food, which some farmer had toiled and sweated to produce? Measures were taken to insure the kitchen god’s cooperation in giving a glowing report to the Jade Emperor, and thereby winning for the family a little heavenly favor. This included ritual offerings of candies or pastries and wine, and even smearing his lips with honey to make certain that he would only have sweet things to say about the family. Once this was done, the picture of the Kitchen God was torched, and he was off on his yearly journey, not to return until New Year’s Day. The dusting, washing, and scrubbing could then begin. Many believed they should sweep with inward strokes toward the center of the room so as not to whisk any of the family’s good fortune out the door.

Shopping, of course, is another major activity of the holiday season. Historically, New Year’s Day was practically the only day of the year when China’s hard-working peasants allowed themselves to rest. Since it was everybody’s day off, all purchases had to be made before shops and street vendors closed their tills on New Year’s Eve. The exchange of gifts is common practice throughout China. The value of presents depends, of course, on the wealth of the purchaser and, certainly in times past, on the relative social status of giver and receiver. Very often, as is the case today, gift items were relatively expensive or specially-prepared foods. Flowers to brighten the house are a popular item in the markets at this time of year. Wax plum, fragrant white jonquils or narcissus and in Hong Kong, small peach trees, are among the seasonal favorites. So-called New Year prints were another item which for centuries were associated with the New Year festival in much of China. These colorful woodblock prints included portraits of the Kitchen God, to replace the one ritually burned, and favorite scenes from old stories and legends. Auspicious ripe fruit and healthy smiling babies were often featured, and likenesses of door gods, affixed to the front gate to guard against evil spirits or ghosts, were another traditional favorite. Also sold in large quantity, for those who couldn’t write their own, were couplets and single auspicious characters handwritten on bright red paper. The couplets, half of each written on vertical paper banners (duilian), would be pasted on either side of the front gate of a house, often with a complementary horizontal banner placed over the door. Classically poetic in composition, the couplets would express wishes for good fortune, long life, many friends, and the like.

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New Year’s Eve

By New Year’s Eve, family members, some of whom may have traveled long distances to return home, gather for a reunion. In preparation for his return from heaven on New Year’s Day, the new portrait of the Kitchen God is hung, as are the brand new door gods, the duilian (door couplets), and any other festive decor. Some southern families place stalks of sugar cane behind the doors. The height and section-upon-section construction of the sweet stalks represented the family’s hope for a ladder-like ascent to new levels of glory in the coming 12 months. Everyone dresses up, preferably in new clothes, and is on best behavior.

Traditionally, on this last night of the year, the male head of the household led the family in making offerings to various gods of the house and to the ancestors. The ceremonies would begin by sealing the cracks around the door with red paper to prevent the last vestiges of the old year’s bad luck from stealing into the house, and any of the family’s good luck from escaping. Respects would be paid to the god of wealth, the gods of the well, the bed, the hearth, or any others with whom the family wanted to remain on especially good terms. The attention would then turn to the ancestors, to whom sacrifices of food would be given along with burning of incense. Each member of the family would kneel in respect before the ancestral tablets, symbols of many past generations, all the spirits of whom some families believed were in attendance that night. In wealthier households, an entire room might be devoted to use as an ancestral hall, complete with altar, while in poorer families, the ancestral tablets might occupy a modest shed in a corner. Just as important was to show respect to one’s living elders. Younger family members would ketou (kowtow) to members of each generation above them, in order, beginning with the eldest. When children showed respect in this way, they were rewarded with red envelopes (hongbao), which contained New Year’s money (yasui qian).

With the rites of ancestor “worship” complete, the family sat down to perhaps their biggest meal of the year. Often, a place was set for those members who could not return home. In a tradition still observed today, the dishes served on this evening are chosen for the significance of their names or appearances. One very common course is a whole fish, the term for which, yu, is homophonous with the word meaning surplus or abundance, and therefore auspicious. Similarly, a certain sea vegetable, facai, is homophonous with a phrase meaning to become wealthy. In the area around Guangzhou (Canton), one preferred dish is oysters, because in Cantonese, a homonym of oyster, houxi, means “good business”; shrimp, the Cantonese pronunciation of which is ha, sounds like happy laughter, and is therefore often found at such feasts. Clams are sometimes served because they open as they are cooked, signifying the opening of new horizons. Likewise, according to tradition in Shanghai, egg-skin dumplings (danjiao) resemble gold ingots and cellophane noodles look like silver chains. Soy bean sprouts are similar in appearance to a traditional scepter-like art object called ruyi, which also means “to your heart’s content.” For Northerners, one custom still widely observed is the consumption of jiaozi, or meat-filled dumplings, at midnight. Again a case of homonyms, jiaozi also sounds like a term that means the meeting of the last hour of the old year with the first hour of the new. Sweets, nuts, and pastries that most could not usually afford in abundance might be readily available at this time of year.

Sometime before the rooster crowed, the head of the traditional Chinese family would unseal the front door, amidst explosions of long whips of firecrackers, throwing it open to let in the strong and healthy influences of the fresh year. In years past, few people went to bed on New Year’s Eve. A modern Chinese family might stay up late taking advantage of the many special holiday programs broadcast on radio and television. Their ancestors probably passed the first hours of the dawning new year playing games, drinking wine, singing, joking, and telling stories — purposefully making it a night of merriment, which they hoped would set a pattern for the entire year to come.

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New Year Festivities

The custom of some families was to wait until the first day of the year (nian chuyi) to ceremoniously open the main gate or door. It was at this time that the male head of the house in many educated households would write auspicious characters or phrases to be hung at the entrance to the home. Some also waited for this day to approach the ancestral altar for seasonal rites, and to perform ritual ketou. Children in some households awoke the morning of New Year’s Day to find hong bao (red envelopes) under their pillows.

On New Year’s Day and for the next several days, people still follow the custom of exchanging visits — with close relatives first, then with distant relatives and friends. Traditionally, the order of these visits also began with the eldest, and the first day was usually devoted to paternal family relatives. One old superstition was that women shouldn’t go out to visit on the first day, because the household luck might go out with them. In some areas the second day was the day wives went home to visit their natal families, taking children to see their maternal grandparents. During these New Year’s visits (bainian), children and the unmarried younger generation would again receive hongbao. Some Cantonese once believed it risky to visit friends on the second day because they feared that the slightest disagreement might portend a year full of arguments. Gifts are taken to friends and relatives alike, as are hongbao for both children and servants of the house being visited.

When friends visit, it is important to serve “lucky” food. One such dish is a platter of dates (zao), peanuts (huasheng), dried longans (guiyuan). and lotus seeds (lianzi). In the common Chinese linguistic practice of combining component parts of compound words to form a composite term, the dish is referred to as zaoshengguizi, or lianshengguizi, which respectively sound like phrases meaning “to soon realize the birth of noble sons,” and “the continuous birth of noble sons.” Peanuts are associated with fertility and longevity as well. Another “lucky” food is Yuan bao cha, a kind of tea named after silver ingots. Two popular sweets are zaogao, date cake made with ground dates added to flour, and a date filling, and a rice cake called niangao. The word for cake, gao, sounds like a term meaning “exalted” or “lofty,” and when preceded by the word for year (nian), is homophonous with a term that means to advance in an upwardly mobile fashion, year by year.

Just as use of lucky words and actions are encouraged at this time, so are there taboos. It is important, for instance, to avoid the number “four” (si), because it sounds like the word for death; any words and their homonyms related to death, illness, or bankruptcy are inauspicious. Kitchen work and sewing are avoided because use of knives, scissors, needles, and other sharp objects is strictly discouraged. Traditionally, one did not pick up a broom on New Year’s Day for fear of accidentally sweeping good luck out the door, and even the sight of one might portend a year full of housekeeping drudgery.

In the days after the new year, it is common to make pilgrimages to temples, especially nowadays for residents of Hong Kong. Theater groups and acrobatic troupes perform in the streets at marketplaces, on temple grounds, or at large public stadiums. Dragon dances, lion dances, stilt-walking performances, and folk pageantry are still particularly popular. In contemporary China, many parents take their children on outings to the park, the zoo, or the movies.

A major holiday for students, workers, and businesses, New Year’s brings virtual suspension of routine activity. Many shops, factories, and offices remain closed for the first few days of the year. In the Canton area, it was once considered especially unprofitable for a shoe store or shoe repair stall to reopen before the entire holiday mason was pasted. The Cantonese word for shoe (hai) sounds like a common expression of grief, and to some signified a bad omen, so no one wanted anything to do with shoes at such a happy time. Even Hong Kong harbor is uncharacteristically quiet at New Year’s. Many fishing and other commercial boats are anchored on New Year’s Eve and sit idle until the first auspicious day of the year for sailing.

Traditionally, a Chinese person counts his or her age by starting on the day of birth with “one.” For every new year observed after that, another year is added. Individuals still celebrate their own natal anniversaries, but do not count themselves one year older until they pass another New Year. For Cantonese, the seventh day of the first month is “Human’s Day,” a day that is observed as everybody’s additional birthday.

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The Lantern Festival

The 15th day of the first lunar month is known as the “Lantern Festival.” The name for this day on the traditional calendar is Yuanshao, which has come to mean the small round dumplings of rice flour conventionally eaten at this time. The Lantern Festival signals the end of the New Year festival period.

Originally, lanterns were said to have been used on this night to help see the gods by torch light. Each family would construct an elaborate paper lantern for this purpose. Now in many parts of China there is great emphasis on the craftsmanship used in making exquisite lanterns in a variety of shapes and styles, which are then often shown at public exhibitions.

The Lantern Festival is another occasion for inviting guests and holding feasts, though on a smaller scale than the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Children can be seen parading around outside carrying colorful paper lanterns. A common festival pastime is to guess answers to riddles written on slips of paper and attached to a lantern. Traditionally, a drum is sounded when the riddle is answered correctly.

By now the new year is already half way into the first month, and virtually everything has returned to normal routine. Businesses have reopened, schools are back in session, and farmers have returned to their labor. The very existence of the society depends on the cyclical pattern of agricultural production, and by extension, the cyclical pattern of the seasons. The calendar says it is time for the first rains of the year, and fields must be readied. A new cycle is well under way.

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Suggested Reading

  • Bredon, Juliet and Igor Mitrophanow. The Moon Year (Originally published in 1927), reprint. Paragon Books Reprint Corporation, New York, 1966.
  • Burkhardt, V.R. Chinese Creeds and Customs. (Originally published in 3 vols., 1955-59), reprint. South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 1982.
  • Eberhard, Wolfram. Chinese Festivals. Schumm, New York, 1952.
  • Institute of the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Ancient China's Technology and Science. Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1983.
  • Latsch, Marie-Luise. Chinese Traditional Festivals. New World Press, Beijing, 1984.
  • Law, Joan and Barbara E. Ward. Chinese Festivals in Hong Kong. South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 1982.
  • Luo Qirong and Yang Renxuan. Zhongguo Nianjie. Kexue Puji Chuban She, Beijing, 1983.
  • Williams, C.A.S. Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs. (Originally published in 1931), rpt. Dover, New York, 1976.

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Acknowledgments: China Institute in America and China Institute Women’s Association
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