Cultural and psychological significance of Spring Festival

By WEI QINGWANG and CUI FENGXIAO / 03-08-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Xi’an City Wall hosts its annual light show as part of its Spring Festival celebrations. One of the most stunning installations is an 18-meter-tall dragon lantern, captivating spectators with its majestic presence. Photo: Wei Junxia/PROVIDED TO CSST

The Spring Festival, also known as “Chinese New Year,” is the oldest, grandest, richest, and most joyful traditional festival of the Chinese nation. Originating from ancient agrarian prayer rituals for bountiful harvests at the beginning of the year, today’s Spring Festival integrates various cultural customs and activities imbued with sacredness, ritualization, and entertainment, including deity and ancestor worship, bidding farewell to the old and welcoming the new, family reunions, national celebrations, and leisurely indulgence. It is undoubtedly the grandest festival of the year for the Chinese people, ingrained as a cultural gene inherent in every Chinese individual, embodying enduring, steadfast, and distinctive cultural and psychological significance. It serves as an important carrier for the preservation and evolution of venerable Chinese traditional culture in the new era.

Sense of belonging 

The scope of culture includes material culture, social culture, and subjective culture, all of which are reflected in the Spring Festival. Material culture is developed by a group’s adaptive response to the natural environment, economy, and technology, and manifests in food production strategies, economic systems, and technologies. The Spring Festival, held on the first day of the lunar calendar, reflects China’s agrarian heritage. Traditional foods and handicrafts represented by various “intangible cultural heritage” during the Spring Festival period reflect traditional production methods in China. The use of high-speed trains during the Spring Festival travel rush, sending electronic red envelopes for New Year greetings, and watching drone performances during tourism reflect the development of modern technology. Social culture refers to the common norms governing social behavior and formal and informal social systems, such as family, marriage, and gender roles. Ancestor worship and New Year greetings are important social and cultural activities during the Spring Festival and are governed by various behavioral protocols. These include explicit guidelines and expectations concerning hierarchy and kinship relationships, specifying appropriate interaction etiquette for each individual. Subjective culture refers to a set of beliefs or knowledge shared by a group, including shared beliefs and cultural values. Central to this subjective culture is the imperative of the family reunion, which extends to respect for ancestors and nostalgia for the past to blessing and aspirations for the future, and expanding from individual to family happiness, national prosperity, and world peace.

The festival not only embodies the integration of Chinese culture in material, social, and subjective aspects but also gathers numerous cultural symbols engraved in the minds of every individual, and is fused into the collective memory of the Chinese nation generation after generation. Cultural symbols refer to people or things that are considered representative symbols of a culture. For example, this year is the Year of the loong (Chinese dragon) in the Chinese zodiac, and the loong is a cultural symbol of Chinese culture. General Secretary Xi Jinping pointed out in his speech at the 2024 Spring Festival gathering that the loong is the totem of the Chinese nation, embodying the spirit of indomitable progress, daring and fearless demeanor, benevolent aspirations, and immense strength over the past five thousand years. It symbolizes not only the continuous self-improvement and enterprising spirit of the Chinese nation over the past five thousand years but also the firm will and good wishes of hundreds of millions of Chinese sons and daughters in the new era to promote the construction of a strong country and the great rejuvenation of the nation. 

The loong, as a cultural symbol, not only evokes vivid imagery within individual and collective memory but also encapsulates a plethora of significant cultural phenomena. The Spring Festival is one of the most concentrated scenes for the exhibition of Chinese cultural symbols, where alongside the zodiac representation embodied by the loong, other quintessential symbols such as calligraphy, couplets, dumplings, firecrackers, New Year paintings, and the Spring Festival Gala and its iconic productions all contribute.

The Spring Festival is a comprehensive embodiment of Chinese culture across different cultural categories and integrates numerous Chinese cultural symbols, thus it gives Chinese people a particularly strong sense of belonging, security, and significance. A sense of belonging comes from the perceived attachment and identification with others and the group, and participation in culture is an important way to satisfy this sense of belonging. In the atmosphere of celebrating the Spring Festival, every Chinese person is tightly enveloped in affection, friendship, hometown sentiment, and compatriotism, experiencing the warm embrace of “family” and the “motherland” at the peak moment of the year. Security refers to the feeling that culture provides definite answers to the problems encountered in life. In an era of urbanization, social change, and global uncertainty, the Spring Festival, with its solid family affection, deep national feelings, and millennia-old cultural heritage, enables Chinese people to find stability and solutions beyond individual short-term difficulties and the limitations of the times. A sense of significance involves the effective psychological defense and construction process undertaken when facing death. Culture provides inheritable values for the population, offering an important means of obtaining a sense of significance. 

According to terror management theory in psychology, individuals instinctively evoke existential anxiety when contemplating mortality, prompting a reaffirmation of their cultural values. The Spring Festival is a ritualized activity of bidding farewell to the old and welcoming the new. Activities such as staying up late on New Year’s Eve, offering sacrifices and prayers, honoring elders and cherishing the young, and reunions and farewells evoke a sense of life while providing solace and an elevation of life’s significance, filling every Chinese person with hope and strength in the new year.

Demonstration of Chinese civilization

General Secretary Xi pointed out that Chinese civilization has the prominent characteristics of continuity, innovation, unity, inclusiveness and peace. The Spring Festival serves as a significant carrier of Chinese culture, embodying continuity in its ancient history, innovation in adapting to new changes, unity in nationwide celebration, inclusivity in cultural fusion, and harmony in joyful togetherness. These prominent features of Chinese civilization, as manifested by the Spring Festival, are not abstract and obscure, but rather concrete and close to the people. For instance, the tradition of families across the nation (as well as overseas Chinese and friends) watching the CCTV Spring Festival Gala together on New Year’s Eve, which has been a “new” custom since 1983, showcases at least three characteristics of Chinese culture: innovation, unity, and inclusivity, as the program integrates different ethnicities, groups, and artistic forms. 

Furthermore, the tradition of setting off fireworks and firecrackers during the Spring Festival not only reflects innovation but also embodies the peaceful nature of Chinese culture. In the beginning, our ancestors did not use gunpowder for making firearms and waging wars, but rather for producing firecrackers, transitioning from expelling ghosts to celebrating festive occasions, demonstrating a strong preference for peace deeply ingrained in every Chinese person. Everyone can participate in this activity, while relatives and neighbors can also watch together, creating a spectacular scene resonating with households.

From the perspective of cultural psychology, Chinese culture is characterized by its non-individualistic orientation, manifested in its orientation towards others, patriotism, and emphasis on harmony. These values are inseparably interconnected, forming a cultural complex. Various customary New Year activities held during the Spring Festival not only interrelate but also resonate with each other, representing a concrete and comprehensive representation of the outstanding characteristics of Chinese culture. Throughout the Spring Festival, individuals partake in a multitude of activities, often joined by numerous participants, collectively building a grand celebration for the Chinese people. Each of these celebratory moment contributes to the historical heritage of Chinese civilization, and are passed down to future generations. In cultural psychology research, researchers often elicit individuals’ cultural affiliations by exposing them to cultural symbols, subsequently assessing the influence of this cultural context on their psychology and behavior. 

The festival not only incorporates numerous Chinese culture symbols but also activates individuals’ cultural cognition and identity through direct participation and firsthand experience, stimulating auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile senses, making it one of the most optimal settings for activating Chinese cultural cognition and identity. Cultural psychology terms this specific, situational, bottom-up cognitive form, triggered by bodily and physiological reactions, as embodied cognition, which is more powerful than abstract cognition based on conceptual knowledge.


This year marks the 70th anniversary of China’s Spring Festival travel rush. According to historical data and statistics, the number of travelers during the Spring Festival travel rush has grown from a modest 23 million at its inception to a staggering 9 billion this year. Amid urbanization and globalization, no other short-term population movement can rival the sheer magnitude of China’s Spring Festival travel rush. 

However, unlike conventional mobility, the movement observed during the Spring Festival primarily involves returning home and reuniting with family. Amidst this annual homecoming, departures and separations assume a temporary and purposeful nature. Despite decades of reform and opening up, urbanization, and modernization, the continuity of the Spring Festival has not fundamentally changed, though new dimensions have evolved. People employ modern technologies and concepts to enrich and enhance the traditional customs of the Spring Festival. For example, the innovative New Year’s customs show “Distinctive Taste” presented in this year’s CCTV Spring Festival Gala integrates characteristic New Year foods from different regions, presented alongside creative performances of song and dance, regional features, dialects, and electronic screens, showcasing the “Great China” within New Year delicacies. Social psychologists in China place particular emphasis on researching societal mindset and cultural evolution. They delineate “social mentality” as collective mental states that permeate at a certain scale over time, while “national psychology” pertains to the enduring, deeply ingrained psychological traits of a nation. It can be said that the Chinese people’s celebration of the Spring Festival superficially resembles the evolution of social mentality, undergoing various changes with the ebb and flow of different times and trends. However, the values and spiritual core of the Spring Festival are associated with the national psychology of the Chinese nation, remaining relatively stable despite significant changes.

In terms of the mechanism of cultural psychological change, China’s cultural change is not simply evolving towards Western individualism but rather absorbing and adding reasonable modern values and concepts on the basis of inheriting excellent traditional Chinese culture. 

Today’s Chinese Spring Festival embodies the integration of traditional and modern culture. For example, family reunions and filial piety are widely acknowledged traditional cultural aspects of the Spring Festival, the tradition of spending New Year’s at the husband’s parents’ home is gradually being abandoned, replaced by alternating visits to the homes of parent-in-laws, or celebrating the New Year with parents (or parents-in-law) while traveling. Such fusion and “adaptation” stem from the spontaneous adaptability and wisdom of the masses. The transmission and evolution of culture do not stem from individual actions or top-down processes; rather, they emerge from bottom-up processes shaped by long-term interactions among collective behaviors. Cultural psychology regards culture as the knowledge and concepts shared by the majority of people subjectively, which is termed “shared reality.” 

Hence, the evolution of the Spring Festival is a complex process that occurs in the collective psychology of the Chinese people, with each individual Chinese person participating in it. To promote the creative transformation and innovative development of traditional Chinese culture, we should fully explore and expand the cultural subjectivity of the people within the practice of Spring Festival evolution.

Wei Qingwang is an associate professor from the Department of Psychology at Renmin University of China. Cui Fengxiao is deputy director of the Office of Ecological Civilization Research Institute at Renmin University of China.

Edited by WENG RONG