WildChina > Editor's Pick > Chinese New Year and Why it Rat-ters

Featured image by Carl Ibale 

Written by Collin Fifer

China’s biggest holiday has arrived, and with it, the biggest annual human migration. As the new moon waxes and we enter the Year of the Rat, the whole country stops and travels to spend quality time with their family and friends. From firecrackers to red envelopes, here’s a brief introduction to one of the largest festivals on Earth.

When is Chinese New Year?

Chinese New Year is all about the cycles of the moon (hence why it’s also known as Lunar New Year). Unlike the fixed date of January 1 on the Gregorian calendar, the New Year in China begins on the first day of the first lunar month. (This year, that’s January 25.)

And it’s not just a one-night affair. Celebrated for fifteen days, Chinese New Year begins on the first day of the new moon ­– which can occur anytime between January 21 and February 20 – and continues until the full moon, two weeks later.

Along with heralding in the first moon of the year, the festival also pays tribute to the coming of spring. Chinese New Year marks an end to the coldest days of winter, and so is known in China as chun jie (春节), or Spring Festival.

What does it represent?

As the beginning of a new year, and the marker to the start of the Northern Hemisphere’s spring, Chinese New Year represents a time of fresh starts, sharing abundance, and bestowing blessings. It’s all about sweeping out (literally) any ill fortune of the past year and ushering in good fortune and blessings for the year to come.

Spring Festival is a time for Chinese people, in China and around the world, to celebrate with their family. And, with over one billion people living in the Middle Kingdom alone, it’s easy to understand why the travel rush during this period is known as the largest annual human migration.

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Celebrating Chinese New Year in Paris. Image by Pascal Bernardon 

The Traditions: Beasts, Firecrackers, and Red Galore

The Tradition of Lighting Firecrackers and Wearing Red

One of the most well-known legends behind Chinese New Year is the story of how firecrackers and the color red came to characterize this festival. Legend has it that in ancient China, there lived a monster called Nian (年, ‘year’). Every year, on the eve of Chinese New Year, Nian would emerge from the sea and wreak havoc throughout communities. Destroying homes, ruining livestock, and killing innocent people were the trademarks of Nian’s terror.

One year, an old man arrived in a small village shortly before Chinese New Year. The people in this village were so afraid of Nian that they would flee their village every year during the new moon to hide in the mountains nearby.

The old man refused to hide with them. Instead, dressed all in red, he pasted red posters on the doors of all homes in the village, and lit bamboo on fire to make loud crackling sounds. This noisy and vibrantly red display was enough to scare away Nian. Since then, people all over China have been following this tradition in order to scare away the unwanted beast, Nian. Good riddance.

The Tradition of Gifting: Hong Bao

Another well-known tradition during Chinese New Year is for older members of a family to gift younger children money in a red envelope (hóng bāo, 紅包). Legend goes that this tradition was also started to keep monsters at bay.

In ancient China, a demon named Sui also chose Chinese New Year’s Eve to be his night of terror. It was believed that the demon would prey on children while they were sleeping. Sui would touch the heads of the children, who, too scared to cry out, would immediately suffer from a fever and be driven mad.

A government official decided to try a new tactic to protect his son one year. The official and his wife gave their son eight gold coins to play with. The boy sat on the floor all night, using red paper to wrap, open, and rewrap the coins.

This activity proved so entertaining to the boy that he did not sleep a wink that night, thus preventing Sui’s visit. Ever since then, money has been given to children in red envelopes to keep them safe from beasts and provide good luck.

The Tradition of the Chinese Zodiac

Depending on which country you come from (or who you ask), the story of how the zodiac animals were chosen varies. Most versions tell of the wise Jade Emperor – the ruler of heaven ­– wanting to give people on earth an easy way of measuring time. He decided that each year of the zodiac calendar would be named for an animal. But how to decide? A race!

This is where storytellers have the most fun, and the cunning exploits of the different animals are described until each animal finishes the race – ending up on the calendar in the order in which they place. The tactics and characteristics of how these animals dealt with the race are now associated with each zodiac animal.

In addition to the twelve-year cycle of animals, the Chinese zodiac also incorporates five elements, or what is also known as the celestial stems: metal, water, wood, fire, and earth. The combination of these two categories (the zodiac animals and the celestial stems) creates sixty different animal-element combinations. With each element attributing different traits to each animal, this results in a sixty-year cycle of different zodiac animals.

In 2020, we’re heading into the Year of the Metal Rat.

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Image by Frank Zhang

Cultural Traditions

Steeped in all of these legends and history, Chinese New Year is an auspicious time for a historically superstitious country. Traditions around Chinese New Year are many, and while not all of them may be adhered to in a modern Chinese household, their legend remains.

In order to allow for good fortune, and to get rid of any ill fortune, one tradition is to clean your entire house, from top to bottom. However, this has to be done before the new moon, as any dusting afterward may sweep away good fortune. Other things to be avoided are sharp objects. Put away your needles, kitchen knives, scissors. These sharp edges are said to bring bad luck, as they could cut out any good luck.

Possibly the best part of Chinese New Year traditions though is the food. Like any holiday period that involves time with friends and family, one goal is to eat as much as you possibly can. For Chinese New Year, eating sweets is all about making your coming year sweeter, so feel free to fill up on glutinous rice balls, candied fruits, and fortune candies. Another mainstay of New Year festivities: dumplings (jiǎo zi, 饺子). Not just a lucky food, it’s also a means of bringing people together as they craft the little parcels of joy. Representing wealth, the tradition is to eat up, as the more dumplings you eat, the more money you’ll make in the coming year.

However you celebrate Chinese New Year, we wish you and yours a very happy, healthy, and prosperous new year.

新年快乐 (xīn nián kuài lè)!

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