More than two billion people around the world celebrate Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival, which begins today, 22 January 2023. It is also called the Lunar New Year and is celebrated in countries such as China, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and the diaspora around the world.
In China, the festival can last up to 40-days, including the activities leading up to the New Year and the 15 days afterwards. It is the biggest human migration on earth as millions of people in mainland China travel back to their family or ancestral homes to celebrate with relatives. Africa is home to up to two million Chinese people, many of whom will travel back to the mainland following the lifting of COVID travel restrictions after three years.
As we reported in ONGOLO’s most read blog post, 8 similarities between African and Chinese cultures, family is at the heart of Asian cultures. This article summarises everything you need to know about this important cultural event.
Origins of Chinese New Year celebrations
Legend had it that a half-dragon, half-lion monster called Nian (which means year) would emerge from the sea at the start of the new moon and head to the villages to feast on human flesh. A wise man helped to drive out Nian using three things the monster was afraid of: the colour red, loud noises and bright lights.
Thus, the tradition was born to scare the beast and any associated bad luck at the start of the new year by wearing red, setting off fireworks and firecrackers, and lighting lanterns.
Chinese New Year Greetings
The traditional Chinese greeting is Gong Xi Fa Cai, which translates as wishing you enlarge your wealth. Money and wealth are ingrained in Chinese culture and draw from Buddhist beliefs that being born into a rich family meant that you were a good person in a past life. Poverty is seen as punishment.
Other traditional greetings include: Xīn nián kuài lè, which means New Year happiness; and, Xīnnián hão, which means New Year Goodness.
For 2023, the relevant greetings are Tù nián kuàilè (Happy Year of the Rabbit) and Tù nián xīngwàng (Wishing you prosperity in the year of the Rabbit).
Chinese New Year traditions
Preparations for Chinese New Year begin ten days earlier with the ‘sweeping of the grounds’ tradition where houses are cleaned thoroughly to get rid of any lingering bad luck. Spring cleaning is an important tradition in many cultures around the world though the Chinese are probably best at decluttering, believing that energy is trapped in unused things. People also strive to look their very best for this important festival. Services such as house cleaning, personal grooming, dentists, cosmetic surgery, tailors are booked solid in the weeks before the new year.
The most important activity during Chinese New Year is spending quality time with family. Families usually spend Chinese New Year’s Eve and Day together, making traditional foods such as dumplings and exchanging gifts. It is generally believed that spending more than two days with family could lead to disagreements so visiting friends and acquaintances is also a practice. The third day is considered to be the best day to visit Buddhist and Taoist temples to burn incense and leave offerings for the deities in the hope that one can have good luck in the year ahead.
Money is the traditional gift given in red packets called Hong Bao or white envelopes in South Korea. This is usually given to children and unmarried adults as well as employees. The amounts typically range from $8 given to children to afew hundreds dollars. It is ideal to give an amount that has the number eight or is divisible by the number eight, which is a considered lucky. Avoid the number four, which sounds like death in Chinese and Japanese.
Chinese New Year superstitions
There are a number of things that one must not do on Chinese New Year Day. Houses are cleaned in advance because cleaning the house or doing laundry on the first two days is seen as sweeping or washing away one’s fortune.
It is also advisable to avoid using sharp objects such as knives or scissors because these objects will cut one’s fortune. The Chinese use chopsticks rather than Western knives and forks because Confucius believed that knives were objects of aggression and do not bring harmony into one’s life.
Your words become your deeds, especially on Chinese New Year. Avoid using unlucky or negative words as they may define your experiences in the year ahead.
Do not eat porridge for breakfast! Only poor people are believed to eat porridge every day which is why the breakfast spreads at hotels in Asia is the best in the world. But one should not eat meat for the new year breakfast out of respect for the Buddhist gods who abhorred killing animals.
Do not visit hospitals or take medicines – you will be sick in the year ahead.
Do not lend or borrow money – you will be in debt.
And please do not cry – it will bring you bad luck.
What to eat on Chinese New Year
There are several traditional foods eaten on the day. Dumplings (Jião Zi), which most families spend time making from scratch, resemble traditional money pouches and are a sign of wealth. They are usually filled with pork and cabbage and either boiled, steamed or fried.
Fish (Yu) is a popular main dish as it symbolises surplus. There are some strict rules about how the fish is eaten: the head should point towards the elders in the family; the fish must not be turned when one side is eaten; and, it is common for people to finish eating the fish on the second day.
Extra-long noodles (Chángshòu miàn) are served to symbolise long life. The pressure on the cook is immense: accidentally breaking the noodles brings bad luck.
Spring rolls (Chun Juan) look like traditional gold bars and are another symbol for prosperity.
Sticky rice balls (Tang Yuan) are the traditional dessert served and are made from glutinous rice flour and a sweet, semi-runny filling. They symbolise family unity.
Oranges and tangerines are seen as symbols for success and wealth. It is not uncommon for homes and offices to display orange trees and orange fruit is typically included in gift baskets.
Zodiac: What is the Year of the Rabbit?
According the Chinese zodiac, 2023 will be the Year of the Water Rabbit. The rabbit is one of the twelve animals that make up the Chinese zodiac. Legend has it that the Jade Emperor, ruler of the heavens, invited all the animals in the kingdom to participate in a race. The first twelve animals to cross won the race and the rabbit came in fourth place. The year of the rabbit is considered the luckiest year to be born so expect a baby boom in 2023.
The Vietnamese are celebrating the Year of the Cat instead of the Rabbit. There have been various reasons for the deviation from the original animal. Some say that it is because cats are fierceness, unlike the soft rabbit, and known to bring luck to the owners by chasing away bad spirits.
Water is one of the five yin-yang elements, the others being wood, fire, earth and metal. The Year of the Water Rabbit is expected to a positive one where problems will be resolved and harmony restored, which is fitting after the challenges brought on by the pandemic in the last three years.
Gong Xi Fa Cai to you all!