Chinese New Year / Spring Festival
1. Chinese New year / Spring festival: an introduction
Chinese New Year is called “Spring Festival” (chun2jie2 / 春节) by Chinese people. New year in “Western” culture is one day, with the main celebration being done on the last night of the year. Spring Festival is different. It covers a period of 2 weeks. It begins at the start of the last week of the Chinese year with “small spring festival”. On the last night of the Chinese year “Spring Festival” starts properly.
In 1912 with the creation of the Republic of China the country switched from the traditional lunar solar Chinese calendar to the modern solar (Gregorian) calendar. This very symbolic shift signals the emergence of a more modern China. It was announced by the legendary Dr Sun Yat-Sen / 孙逸仙 (better known in China mainland as Sun2 Zhong1 Shan2 / 孙中山), who was the provisional president of the new republic. They decided that January 1st 1912 was the January 1st of the first year of the Republic of China and it was called New Year not New Year’s Day.
On September 27th 1949 the Chinese People’s Political Consultative first plenary session decided to establish The People’s Republic of China using the solar calendar used in most of the world. In order to distinguish between the New Year of the solar calendar and the one of the Chinese calendar, the Chinese New Year became “Spring Festival”. At the heart of Spring Festival are myths and a lot of customs that makes it so colorful and convey a lot of the traditional Chinese symbolism, but firstly it is a holiday period.
2. Spring Festival Holiday
The Spring Festival holiday is officially 3 days, but in practice most people take at least 7 days of break. Private companies may give their staff 10-15 days in all. It is the longest and the most important holiday in China and it is comparable to what summer holidays used to be in Europe 20 years ago, everything shutdown or slowdown for 2-3 weeks.
When it is getting close to Spring Festival, the transportation system gets under a lot of pressure, and during the peak time it is called the “mass passenger transportation” (chun1 yun4 / 春运). During peak days between 500,000 and 600,000 passengers travel every day. It is a nightmare to travel anywhere in China during the spring peak transport period. People are everywhere you can see on buses, trains and airplanes. The U.N. officially calls it the largest human migration on earth, and it happens every year! The official estimation is that around 70 million people move around China in public transport during that period.
The busiest transportation system, and the most unpleasant one at that time, is the train. Booking a ticket in cities like Guangzhou can be a serious challenge. If you don’t book the ticket as soon as they go on sale you are not very likely to get a seat. In 2008 at the worst of the cold and energy supply crisis several thousands of people slept in front of the train stations in Guangzhou for days. In the train, you can hardly walk through each wagon, there is a lot of people sitting, standing and laying with lots of luggage in every wagon. If you have to travel by train at that time you should only book a sleeper, soft or hard. If you book a seat you will travel standing for the 20 or 30 hours of your trip, as there is always a poor mother with her 30 kilos of luggage and 2 young kids that will need a seat. Each seat is always sold 2 or 3 times, while sleepers are sold only once. Buses are only marginally less busy and are notoriously more dangerous during that period. Plane is by far the most comfortable way of traveling at that period but prices can easily double.
3. Chinese Zodiac
At the center of the popular culture surrounding the traditional Chinese calendar is the Chinese zodiac. Chinese Zodiac is a system of 2 interlocked cycles. Most Westerners know the 12 years animal cycle. The animals in order of the cycle are Rat (shu2 / 鼠), Ox (niu2 / 牛), Tiger (hu3 / 虎), Rabbit (tu4 / 兔), Dragon (long2 / 龙), Snake (she2 / 蛇), Horse (ma3 / 马), Goat (yang2 / 羊), Monkey (hou2 / 猴), Rooster (ji1 / 鸡), Dog (gou3 / 狗) and boar (zhu1 / 猪). The other cycle is the 5 elements cycle, which are in order Wood (mu4 / 木), Fire (huo3 / 火), Earth (tu3 / 土,), Metal (jin1 / 金) and Water (shui3 / 水). The two cycles work together to form a 60 year cycle that always starts with wood rat and always finishes with water boar. The current cycle started in 1984 and will finish in 2043. Some signs have special significance in popular culture and Feng Shui. Thus some years are deemed better to have sons or start a business while others a deemed bad to have a baby girl (fire tiger years are supposed to produce girls that are hard to marry).
4. The Myth and its symbols
a. The story
In ancient time there was a beast called “Nian / 年”. The character for Nian also mean “year”. Nian was ferocious and cruel. It lived in the forest all year long, until the last day of the year when it came out to eat all kinds of poultries and even humans on occasion. People became very scared of it and tried to skip the last day of each year. They called that day “Nian2 guan1 /年关”, the closing of the year. Just trying to skip the last day of the year was not very successful.
Year after year, people found out that there were ways to keep the beast away from them. The beast was afraid of the color red, bright lights and detonations. So on the last day of each year, people stick red banners to their doors, play with fireworks and turn on all the lights in their house for the whole night to scare the beast away. Because of the danger, the last meal of the year must be very hearty just in case it’s your last meal. This is why every family gets together eating, chatting and enjoying themselves until the morning. The next day, people will go around blessing each other and keep celebrating. This is why it is called “guo3 nian2 / 过年”, or “pass the year”.
b. The symbols
There are many versions of this myth. The version above focused on the typical themes and the elements of the story that are common to most versions. There are many thinly veiled symbols in the myth. The most obvious symbol in the myth is the name of the beast, “Nian / 年”. We already pointed out that the character “年” also means “year”. Clearly the “beast” represents the fear of the people for the unknown that is the year to come. The tale is a simple exhortation to embrace the challenges of the New Year, and not fall into nostalgic feelings that could trap you in the past.
Another evident symbol is the fire. Fire is symbolized by two elements in the myth, the light and the color red. Fire is traditionally associated with several levels of meaning in Chinese culture. The light left on in Chinese homes, were, until recently candles. Candles are nothing more than a controlled fire. They symbolize the safety and warmth of the home, and by extension the warmth and protection of the family. In Chinese, the same character, jia1 / 家, means both home and family. The fire in the home is also a reference to the stove. So it is also a reference to cooking and by extension to eating, health and wealth. This symbolism of well-being is reinforced by the celebrations and the generous meals that are part of it.
Fire is also one of the five elements of Feng2 Shui3 / 风水. Fire in Feng Shui system is part of the natural balance of nature and has to be used in harmony with the rest of the natural system. The fire in the myth is used to scare away the beast, not destroy it. The fire is used in a moderate way that creates a safe space for humans to live, but without destroying the surrounding environment. So in a subtle way the myth reminds the audience of the need to keep human life in harmony with the cycles of the universe. In short, human activity has to keep in balance with the environment.
Red is everywhere in the Spring Festival celebrations. Red reinforces the fire symbolism that we have explored previously. Red in Chinese culture is also the color of celebration, luck and passion. Thus the red banners add meanings of joy, luck and passion. The banners are hanged on each side of the door, the symbolic gateway into the house. The two banners have 4 characters written on it each, so that the two banners together make a sentence of 8 characters. 8 being a lucky number, it reinforces the good luck message written on the banners. The message on the banners is usually intended to keep the bad spirits away and bring luck into the house.
The sound of the fireworks is also aimed at frightening the bad spirits. It is a traditional symbol of celebration and fun. It reminds us of kids playing. It is also a way to scare oneself, or at least be surprised, but without losing control. So the fireworks are a symbol of joy and reinforce the exhortation to embrace the new and face our fears. Fireworks are also a traditional part of most Chinese celebration, including the opening of a new business. They are a way to get peoples attention, attract good luck and scare the bad spirits that could bring us bad luck. Lastly fireworks are a way to show our sincerity to the gods, the louder you are the more sincere you are.
5. The customs of Spring Festival
Spring festival celebrations have not changed a lot in recent centuries. During the Qing Dynasty (Qing1 Chao2 / 清朝) ordinary people and the elites have celebrated the New Year in very similar ways. People would get up very early, before sunset, go light some fireworks and burn some incense. They would also eat some dumplings. Luck would come to the person who found a coin in their dumpling. They would eat as much as they could and go to the temple. The elite would enjoy some entertainment, typically dancing and singing, and display their cultural prowess by reading their own poetry or writing to their guests. People would clean their house and prepare a lot of food before the start of the Spring Festival. They would stick red banners on the side and top of the door, and some would also stick directly on their door the image of the “door god” (men2 shen2 / 门神), to make sure that bad spirits could not get into the house.
Today Spring Festival is celebrated in pretty much the same way as during the Qing dynasty. Although some places are more traditional than others. Hong Kong (xiang1 gang3 / 香港) people are traditionalist and pride themselves on carrying Chinese customs in the most classical ways. Before during Spring Festival almost everyone would clean their house very carefully to get rid of the old and make way for the new. Everyone goes shopping for the coming Spring Festival, not only for food but also for clothes and decorations. Shopping in Hong Kong before Spring Festival can become an athletic challenge. The malls are over-crowed, there are extra stands everywhere to sell Spring Festival decorations and each major mall organizes its own special event (such as a ice castle or some traditional music). During Spring Festival people will go to a major temple, such as “Huang2 da4 xian1 / 黄大仙” （Wong Tai Sin in Cantonese), burn incense candles and write wishes on little paper banners. All these actions are meant to communicate with the gods and bring good fortune and prosperity to their family. Almost all major businesses will have a lion and dragon dance organized during the Spring Festival period. Kids are going around the office of their parents collecting red envelops “hong2 bao1 / 红包”. This can be quite lucrative for kids, who also collect red envelops at home from all their relatives. It is also customary to give red envelops to anyone being in your personal service, such as nannies and building guards, although most Hong Kong people usually only put 20HKD in the envelop. The visit to the flower market before Spring Festival is also a major tradition in Hong Kong. The biggest flower market is in Victoria Park but is more of a cross between a carnival and a flower market, where you can find a lot of flowers but also all sort of snacks and stuffed fluffy things in the shape of the zodiac sign of the year. Of course Hong Kong people will also eat a big meal on Spring Festival Eve and pay a visit to older relatives during Spring Festival.
In Macao (ao4 men2 / 澳门) people are also very traditional and celebrate Spring Festival in pretty much the same way as in Hong Kong. In Taiwan people start the celebration on the 16th of December of the old Chinese calendar. The celebration starts by a meal that marks the end of the year “wei2 ya2 fan4 / 尾牙饭” meaning the meal of the tail of the year. The rest of the customs are fairly traditional and similar to the ones of the south of the Fujian / 福建 Province (just on the opposite side of the strait). On the mainland itself Spring Festivals traditional customs are followed to different degrees in different regions. One of the most followed traditions across the country during Spring Festival Eve are the fireworks. It is an impressive spectacle that lasts for most of the night but peaks incredibly around midnight when the sky can literally be lit up. Additionally there are an infinite number of little customs that are specific to different provinces, county or even villages.
Many of the customs and taboo surrounding Spring Festival have something to do with words. Traditionally in many Asian cultures writing words on a banner or a flying piece of paper is a way to communicate with the spirits, summons the gods or cast a spell (even if the concept of casting a spell is quite different from the Western one). Today, in China this connection between words and the spiritual world is all but lost, save for the oldest people. Indeed the oldest Chinese generation grew up with their parents still deeply believing in such connection but in the backdrop of the communist party strong push to root out what they saw as reactionary superstitions. Nonetheless the younger generations are still practicing, or reviving, some of the traditional folklores, even if some of its symbolic meaning has been lost. Today the two moments where the mystical power of words is the most evident in Chinese society is during Spring Festival and at funerals.
a. Greetings for Chinese new year
During Spring Festival you are suppose to say nice things and avoid saying bad things. People will pay each other a visit with some gifts and good wishes. Below is a list of the most common wishes people exchange during Spring Festival.
* Neighbors say to each other “guo nian hao / 过年好” which means have a nice Spring Festival.
* When younger generations pay a visit to older generations, they would say, “jian kang chang shou / 健康长寿” which is a wish of good health and longevity. They would just thank you for it, “xie xie / 谢谢”
* In presence of someone of higher standing you should say “bu bu gao sheng / 步步高升” which means that you wish them success. They would just thank you for it, “xie xie / 谢谢”
* When paying a visit to a businessman, it is customary to wish him great fortune “sheng yi xing long / 生意兴隆”. An alternative wish, which can also be their answer to you, is “ gong xi fa cai / 恭喜发财” which is a more general good fortune wish.
* Acquaintances often say to each other “xin xiang shi cheng / 心想事成” which means wish all your dreams come true.
* Friends will say to each other “shi ye cheng gong, jia ting mei man / 事业成功，家庭美满” which means wish you a good career and happiness to your family.
* To Anyone you can wish “ gong xi fa cai / 恭喜发财” which is a general good fortune wish.
2. What you can never say during Spring
Spring Festival is a period during which you have to bless people with good words. You also have to watch your mouth carefully, some words brings bad luck and must never be said. It is so important that people have developed alternative ways of saying those everyday sentences that are banned during the Spring Festival period. Below is a list of the most common expressions and situations where you have to use alternative ways of speaking during Spring Festival.
* If you broke a bowl or a plate, you can’t say it’s broken because it means break down and lose money. You have to say it another way, choosing words that sound identical but carry a good meaning such like “sui sui ping an / 岁岁平安”, which means peace all year around.
* When you eat dumplings, if you see one which is not in one piece, you have to say “xing le / 行了, ke yi le / 可以了”, which means good enough.
* After you finished the dumplings, you can’t say it’s finished because it means bad end and poor, just say “hao le / 好了” which means it was good.
* Some words can never be spoken during Spring Festival because they have a bad meaning. The most common forbidden words are “huai / 坏”, “mei / 没”, “si / 死”, “guang / 光”, “gui / 鬼”, “sha / 杀”, “shu / 输”, “qiong / 穷”. They respectively mean: went bad, gone, died, none left, ghost, kill, lose and poor which are all bad words.
* Other words are forbidden because they are homophonic with bad luck words. Some common bad luck homophonic words are: “si / 四” which sounds like “died”, “li / 梨” which sounds like separated, “san / 伞” which sounds like to fall apart, “shu / 书” which sounds like to lose. This year, because of the crisis “cai / 财” was not a good word to use, because it sounds like cut down, reduce and lay off. During an economic crisis, people are very afraid to hear this word because it sounds like “fired”.
3. Things you should do for or during Spring Festival
Surprise visits are not good manners during Spring Festival. You should always call in advance. When visiting someone you have to dress smart in freshly cleaned clothes, but don’t choose white or black colors, as they are associated with funerals. It is customary to bring some nice gifts. Fruit is good to give to friends, while you should give bigger gifts to your family. Some gifts are forbidden because of the meanings associated with them. A “pear” is not a good gift as it means, “to fall apart”. Never give medicine to healthy people. Clocks are also a bad gift as it means “last moments and funeral”. Always try to say some blessing words and make an easy atmosphere. Be polite and always smile to people, never swear in front of anyone. When there is a child, you are suppose to give a “hong2 bao1 / 红包”, it’s called “red pockets” (cash wrapped up in red paper, it symbolizes fortune and wealth in the coming year). The host has to make the house very clean before guest arrive. Let the guests give his/her hands first and then shake it with good strength. The host has to offer good tea and good food.
A very common custom is to stick on your door the character “fu2 / 福” upside down. 福 means fortune but putting it upside down is another homophonic play on words. In Chinese this will be read “fu2 dao4 le / 福到了”, literally “fu2” upside down (dao le), but it also means “fortune arrives” as “到了” also means arrive.
Another custom is to offer or hang paintings conveying some kind of blessing meaning or good fortune symbols. These customs are followed more in certain regions and amongst older people, but still are an important part of the Spring Festival folklore. The paintings or drawings are almost always homophonic play on words or a representation of gods of everyday life activities. The word for the object being painted can be said in a way that suggests a blessing of some sorts. Furthermore, the subject being painted carries some symbolical connection to the blessing. A very common example of that is a painting of a kid surrounded by lotus seeds and carps. The characters for lotus seeds are homophonic with “continuous son(s)”, thus implying a wish for many sons, while the carp is a traditional symbol of masculinity, thus reinforcing the wish for sons, rather than girls.
4. Things not to do for or during Spring Festival
On the first day of Spring Festival, you are not suppose to clean the house and throw the garbage away because you might throw your luck away. You have to hide away knifes and don’t cook fresh food because it means you have enough food and always have some left over. On Spring Festival Eve people usually will cook lots of food and will not finish them; the more left overs you have, the more fortune you will get in the coming year.
Don’t break bowls and don’t wash clothes.
Don’t wake people up and don’t take a nap during the day.
Don’t ask for your money back from whoever owes you money and don’t borrow money.
Don’t shout, swear and fight.
5. Culinary customs for Spring Festival
The first kind of food to be made before Spring Festival are sausages and cured meats. In the past, people used to put the meat into the large intestine and then smoked it to make it last longer. Another way was to salt the meat and then let it air-dry. Meat treated that way could be kept for almost half a year. This ancient and natural way to conserve food for long period has become a very traditional way to prepare and give food great flavors before Spring Festival.
A week before the Spring Festival, people will start stocking food, including all kinds of meat, seafood, vegetable, fresh and dried fruit, snack, wine, soft drinks, etc… Theses food stocks should be more than enough to last the whole duration of Spring Festival. Only a few years ago it was very difficult to buy food during Spring Festival, as even the merchants were closing shops. So theses food stocks have a practical purpose in addition of their symbolic meaning of profusion and wealth.
On the last evening of “small Spring Festival”, every family will have a big dinner called “nian2 ye4 fan4 / 年夜饭”. The meal starts around 8pm and has to finish after midnight. It is done that way so it is the first meal of Spring Festival. It is the most important meal. Family members sit around the table, on which there are lots of the dishes including a few cold dishes, a few meat dishes (often including fish, chicken, pork, beef and duck), one or two vegetables dishes, one big soup, some fruits and dessert. The selection of dishes on the table depends on regional customs, but some dishes are essential to a successful dinner. The essential dishes are there not only for their flavors but also for their meaning. This is another example of the importance of the word in Chinese culture. So theses dishes are chosen for their homophonic value. A classical example is the New Year cake (made of glutinous rice flour) which sounds like “bu4 bu4 gao2 sheng2 / 步步高升” and means wish you success at every step. Another common dish is the eight-treasures rice pudding (steamed glutinous rice with bean paste, lotus seeds, preserved fruits, etc.) “ba2 bao3 fan4 / 八宝饭” which would convey the idea “tian2 tian2 mi4 mi4 / 甜甜蜜蜜”, the idea of offering something very sweet, thus implying that the host is wishing a very sweet year to the guests. Fish dishes are also common because of their good fortune meaning, for example “nian2 nian2 you3 yu2 / 年年有余”, means you are never going to lack food in the coming year.
People in the north will have dumpling (ci2 jiu4 ying2 xin1 / 辞旧迎新), meaning to bid farewell to the old year and usher in the New Year. Some places have the habit to put one coin into a dumpling. The coin brings good luck to the person finding it. People in the south will have sweet dumpling that looks like “yuan2 bao3 / 元宝”, a shoe-shaped gold or silver ingot used as money in feudal China that symbolizes “zhao1 cai2 jin4 bao2 / 招财进宝”, meaning let riches and treasures come into the house. Other common food for Spring Festival includes spring rolls, apple, orange, dates, peanut, candy, sunflower seeds, etc.
6. Spring Festival Gala and Cultural fighting
The CCTV New Year’s Gala (Zhong1 guo2 zhong1 yang1 dian4 shi4 tai2 chun1 jie2 lian2 huan1 wan3 hui4 / 中国中央电视台春节联欢晚会) used to be the only “spiritual” event for Chinese people. The annual gala for the Spring Festival celebration started in 1983. Since then it has become a national communion with an estimated 700 millions viewers. It is the most popular TV show on earth, save for the Olympics (which hits the 4.7 billion viewers with 94% of the Chinese population watching some of it). Almost every family watches Spring Festival Gala on the Spring Festival Eve. It starts at 8pm and it ends a little bit after midnight and includes singing, dancing, short sketches, crosstalk, traditional opera, and acrobatics. At midnight it shows the big firework performance and everybody in the country will go out for playing and watching fireworks, and making wishes for the coming year.
In recent years, less and less people watch the CCTV New Year’s Gala. Younger generation watch it far less. They spend their time on the internet, chatting with their friends who are back home all over the country, or hang out with their friends. Another reason for the diminishing popularity is the cultural differences between the north and the south is that the show is based on Beijing customs and most of the programs are spoken in mandarin, which is very close to all the dialects in the north. Southern people don’t always appreciate watching a show which is not in their local dialect and which ignores their customs. So people in the south are gradually losing interests and switching to alternative choices when they can, even though the quality of The CCTV New Year’s Gala is getting better and better. Southern people are increasingly voicing their complaints that there is not a lot programs for them to watch and that the gala does not show much respect to them, many heated discussions on internet forums demonstrates the various feelings on the question. A regular source of annoyance for southern people is the exhortation by the host of the show to eat meat dumplings in front of the shows audience, when southern people eat sweet dumplings (which are often called sweet balls) or some other traditional food rather than the meat dumplings of the North. Almost every year there is a short sketch spoken in a northeast dialect, but there is rarely a program spoken in a southern dialect. So people argue in internet forums over why the show only focuses on the north of China and ignore the audience in the south.
China Central Television (CCTV) is broadcasting live its New Year’s Eve gala in four languages, Chinese, English, French and Spanish since 2008.
Watch the CCTV New Year’s Gala (1983-2009) with the link: