Customs to celebrate Chinese New Year

By CHEN CHONGBAO / 02-02-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Folk artists performing traditional dances in Xuancheng, Anhui Province, during the 2023 Spring Festival  Photo: CFP

The Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, is the most important festival in China. Having undergone continuous evolution, the “genes” of the festival remain unchanged and will be passed on to future generations.

The lunar calendar 

During the Shang period (c. 1600–1046 BCE), people often made offerings to the deities and ancestors of their tradition after harvest. This practice was known as “la ji,” meaning the offering of sacrifices along with prayer. The month of sacrificial practice is called “la yue.” Ritual activities of “la ji” grew more complicated in the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE), accompanied by noticeable rise in the festive atmosphere. A poem from Shijing, or Book of Songs dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BCE, depicts “la ji” activities at that time: “The two bottles of spirits are enjoyed,/ And they say, ‘Let us kill our lambs and sheep,/ And go to the hall of our prince,/ There raise the cup of rhinoceros horn,/ And wish him long life—that he may live forever’” (trans. James Legge). At that time, however, the time of “la ji” and the Chinese New Year had not yet been fixed. 

It was not until Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141–87 BCE) ordered the adoption of the “Taichu Calendar” [which established a framework for traditional Chinese calendars] that the twelfth lunar month was officially defined as the end of a lunar year, and “la ji” was held in this month. Therefore, the twelfth lunar month was called “la yue,” while the first lunar month, known as “zheng yue,” marks the beginning of a year. 

Yuan Dan, the New Year’s Day, refers to the first sunrise of a year. In 104 BCE during the rule of Emperor Wu of Han, “zheng yue,” or the first lunar month, was defined as the beginning of a year. The first day of the first lunar month was called Yuan Dan, which has been used ever since. 

The Yuan Dan, Spring Festival, and New Year’ Day used to fall on the same day in ancient China. It was not until modern times that they became independent festivals. After the 1911 Revolution and the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Sun Yat-sen proposed the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar, with January 1 as the day of Yuan Dan and New Year’s Day, and the first day of the first lunar month as the Spring Festival. However, this decision was never actually implemented due to the chaotic political environment at the time. The Spring Festival wasn’t made independent from Yuan Dan and New Year’s Day until 1949, when the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference passed the decision to adopt the Gregorian Calendar.

Festive traditions

Strictly speaking, the Spring Festival starts on the first day of the first lunar month. However, people usually begin celebrations on the 23rd day of the twelfth lunar month. Celebrations peak around the first day of the first lunar month and come to an end on the Lantern Festival, the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. Beginning with the practice of “making offerings to Zao Shen, or Kitchen God,” people joyfully devote themselves to various activities of the Spring Festival.

The Kitchen God is believed to report to the celestial gods on family conduct on the 23rd day of the twelfth lunar month every year, and the ruler of heaven bestows either poverty or riches on individual families based on the Kitchen God’s yearly report. Therefore, sacrificial rites are widely practiced in the evening, prior to the Kitchen God’s departure. Sweet foods and glutinous rice cake are essential offerings, which are believed to smear the lips of the Kitchen God so that only pleasant words may issue from his mouth. It is in this way that eating sweets and rice cake also became a festive tradition. After the rituals of worshipping the Kitchen God, people begin to prepare for the Spring Festival. Hence, the day to honor the Kitchen God is also known as the “Xiao Nian” [lit. Little New Year].

Chunlian, or Spring Festival couplet banners [banners inscribed with symmetric lines of verse in the same meter joined by rhyme], evolved from peachwood charms, and are believed to prevent evil from entering houses according to Chinese folklore. It is said that during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907–979), Meng Chang (919–965), the ruler of the Later Shu, wrote a couplet in celebratory expression of the new year and wishes for an eternal spring. This inscription is the first recorded instance of a spring couplet.

The Chinese people have been setting off fireworks and firecrackers to celebrate the Spring Festival for the past 2,000 years. According to ancient legends, a mountain-dwelling monster named Shan Xiao could be driven away by setting off firecrackers. Therefore, setting off firecrackers became a tradition of the Spring Festival. The use of firecrackers has gone through several stages of evolution. “Ting liao,” a term from the Book of Songs, depicts the practice of lighting torches made from bamboo stems in the courtyard, which produced a crackling sound from time to time. The invention of gunpowder improved upon the primitive firecrackers, and their variety and production scale greatly increased. Setting off firecrackers has since become a grand spectacle during the Spring Festival.

The tradition of staying up late on Chinese New Year’s Eve, known as shou sui, was first practiced during the Jin Dynasty (266–420) and became popular in the Tang Dynasty (618–907). There are many legends about the origins of shou sui, among which the most widely spread is the legend about the monster “Nian” [lit. the year]. It is said that Nian has a horn on its head, a green face, and long fangs. This ferocious beast usually lives under the sea. It goes ashore to dine on humans on the last day of the twelfth lunar month. In order to protect humans, the deity of the Ziwei Star [Polaris], dressed as an old man in red, was sent from Heaven to Earth, instructing people to light candles on the 30th night of the twelfth lunar month, produce loud sounds, and stay up all night with family members. As expected, Nian fled in panic.

Traditionally, red envelopes, also known as “yasui qian” [lit. the money used to suppress or put down the evil], are passed out from elders to children during the Spring Festival celebrations. This practice is called “yasui.” According to legends, a demon named Sui often hurts children on Chinese New Year’s Eve, and only the flash of coins can scare it away. The tradition of yasui qian began in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE). Special coins were used for this purpose, cast with inscriptions such as “Tianxia Taiping” [“The World at Peace”], “Qianqiu Wansui” [“Long Live the Future Generations”], and patterns such as dragon, phoenix, and stars. It was not until the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing dynasties that people started to use ordinary coins as yasui qian. Although coins have been replaced by paper money today, the tradition of yasui qian continues.

After staying up late on New Year’s Eve and keeping the family away from the legendary beast, people visited and greeted each other in the morning. These practices gradually developed into the tradition of bai nian, which is to greet and wish each other good luck. Studies show that this tradition originated in Han. According the Book of Han, a history of China finished in 111 CE, on the day of Yuan Dan, the emperor would accept greetings from civil and military officials, and hold a grand banquet for his officials. Having developed through generations, the custom of bai nian became increasingly popular, and was practiced in a more ceremonious way during Ming and Qing. 

Various activities

There are many recreational activities during the Spring Festival, such as watching operas and going to temple fairs, among which various “she huo” [a spontaneous traditional festive occasion for songs and dances] activities are most bustling and attractive. “She huo” is usually called “hua hui” [lit. flower fairs] in north China. It includes performances such as stilt walking, lion dances, bamboo-horse dances [a dance that resembles the act of riding a horse, with horses made of bamboo tied to dancers’ waists], land-boat dances [a dance that represents various boating movements on land], and Yangko. Such activities are still prevalent in some of China’s rural areas.

The fifth day of the Chinese New Year is called po wu [a breakthrough on the fifth day, literally]. Business and government don’t return to their normal routines until that day. On that day, all the festive taboos are broken. As is recorded in the Yanjing Suishi Ji, or the Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking, from the first day to the fifth day of Chinese New Year, new meals were usually not prepared and women did not go out. These taboos could not be broken until the sixth day, when court ladies and wives of officials in formal dresses visited each other and extended New Year greetings. Newly married daughters also went back to their paternal homes for a visit. Ladies’ delicate carriages decorated with embroidered curtains crammed the streets and alleys. Po wu indicates that the celebrations of the Spring Festival are drawing to an end, and the festival ends on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month with the Lantern Festival.

Chen Chongbao is the former deputy editor-in-chief of the China Food Newspaper.