We’re now just hours away from celebrating Chinese New Year, the biggest festival of the Chinese calendar by far, as varied in tradition as the number of people who celebrate it (well, almost). Here is the Shanghai Mamas lowdown to what you need to know:
- First and foremost, although we know it here as Chinese New Year, it’s not specific to China! China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and other countries including Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, North and South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore all have several days of public holidays at this time of year.
- Known as Spring Festival, it’s celebrated by more than 2 billion people. It also commands the biggest annual human migration in the world, as millions of workers head back to their home towns to spend time with family, however far away that might be. I’ve read that 4% of the world’s population are on the move at this time!
- As it’s a lunar festival, the dates aren’t fixed, and will change each year depending on the lunar calendar. It usually falls between mid-January and mid-February and this year New Year’s Day falls on Friday 16 February. This year marks the 4,715th Chinese New Year, just in case you’re counting.
- Celebrations finish with the Lantern Festival, which falls fifteen days after New Year’s Day (Friday 2 March 2018). It’s the first full moon of the new year, and a fantastic time to visit Yu Garden, which is already bedecked with lanterns of all shapes and sizes.
Origins of customs and superstitions
- No-one knows exactly where, when and why celebrations began, as each aspect of the New Year celebrations are passed down from one generation to the next via folklore, myths, legends and exotic tales. However, the following stories are very commonplace:
- Once upon a time, just before winter gave way to spring and food was scarce and hard to come by, the terrifying Nian monster would appear to terrorize villagers, destroy crops, and eat anything it could find, including small children. However, the monster, whose name means year in Chinese, could be frightened away by loud noises such as those from firecrackers and fireworks, and by the color red. Sadly recent firework bans have prohibited firework displays in central Shanghai, but there is plenty of red around to frighten away any would-be monsters!
- Each year of the twelve-year cycle relates to an animal of the zodiac, and the order that the creatures appear in was determined by a race. The Emperor invited all the animals to dine with him, and the order in which they appeared would be the determining order of the zodiac cycle. Although the smallest, the rat was the smartest, hitching a ride on the back of the ox and jumping off his back to win the race at the last minute, the snake was able to cross a river by hiding in the hoof of the horse, and the pig was last because he couldn’t resist stopping for a snack en route. So, the definitive order is Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. 2018 is the Year of the Dog. You’ll be associated with the characteristics of the animal whose year it was when you were born, and those born in the year of the dog are considered to be intelligent, honest and loyal. However, when your zodiac animal comes around, it’s not a good thing, and can bring with it a year of bad luck. The secret survival trick? Wear red underwear on the first day of the New Year, new ones emblazoned with your zodiac animal if possible. Yes, honestly!
- Apparently the giving and receiving of hongbaos began when people used to thread one hundred coins on a red string to symbolize living to the age of one hundred, but now only the connection of the color red and money survives.
How to celebrate?
- Decorate everything in red – your house, your person and your surroundings. Red is a color that brings good luck and wards off evil spirits, and you’ll see plenty of it decorating the city. A Chinese New Year without a red lantern would be like Christmas without a tree! Make sure that you clean the house thoroughly before decorating, so that any bad luck is swept away and unable to follow you into the New Year.
- On New Year’s Eve make sure to display and offer sweets – this is so that when the kitchen god considers your behavior for the year, he’ll be sufficiently sweetened before tattling to his boss. Eat fish (as the word for fish sounds like surplus), dumplings (because their shape resembles the Chinese gold ingot) and New Year rice cakes. You’ll probably also want to eat long noodles, to indicate a long life, which means that you can’t cut them, even for children. Eat piles of oranges, which symbolize health and wealth. You’ll want to do all this whilst wearing new clothes and showing off your new hair cut (you can’t cut your hair in the first month of the new year for fear of cutting away your good luck).
- Most people celebrate at home with family, and will travel many hours and sometimes days in order to do so. Very few people go out to eat at a restaurant, as after over-indulging with a New Year’s Eve banquet, most prefer to curl up in front of the Spring Gala television extravaganza. The Spring Gala is the most watched television program in the world, and is a variety show lasting hours, featuring dancing, drama, comedy and stand-up routines, acrobatics, music and more.
- Give and receive red envelopes containing money, hongbaos. It’s a big deal, so look the person you are giving it to in the eye and say happy new year as you hand it over with both hands, don’t just throw it at them. Amounts ending in 8 are considered to be lucky because the number eight sounds like the word for prosperity, but amounts divisible by 4 are considered very unlucky as the word four sounds very similar to the word death in mandarin.
- On New Year’s Day don’t eat meat, as you don’t want to begin the new year by killing another creature, and don’t eat tofu, as this is white, the color of death. Be careful what you do today as it will set the tone for the rest of the year – so, no fighting or arguing, no lending or borrowing money, no using knives in case you sever your good luck for the year, no scolding your children and making them cry. Make sure you’ve stocked up on basic goods, as a lack of rice can signify hunger to come.
How not to celebrate
- Unless you live in Shanghai where they’re banned, you can celebrate with fireworks and firecrackers, which will also frighten off evil spirits and allow only the good ones to see you into the new year.
- If, as a young Chinese citizen, you return to your hometown as a still-single almost-thirty-something, you’ll face an inquisition from family members who will be terrified that you’ll become a leftover unwed man or woman. The easiest way to avoid offers of blind dates or arranged marriages is to hire a fake boyfriend or girlfriend – Taobao can help you out there!