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The Spring Festival that kicks off a new year in China combines ancient myths full of gods and animals with modern conveniences to unite relatives across the vast country. Writer Darren Sketon runs down his favourite traditions from this year’s festivities.
Text: Darren Sketon
Country: China

he Chinese New Year is a spectacular demonstration of Chinese culture.

Also known as the Spring Festival, Chinese New Year celebrations traditionally run from Chinese New Year’s Eve, the last day of the last month of the Chinese calendar, to the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first month, making the festival the longest in the Chinese calendar.

Chinese New Year is often referred to as the “Lunar New Year.”

The Chinese zodiac has 12 animals. This year is the year of the horse. The Chinese zodiac (the term “zodiac” derives from a similar concept in western astrology and literally means “circle of animals”) relates each particular year to an animal and its reputed attributes, according to a 12-year cycle. I was born in 1977, the year of the snake, and my daughter was born in 2009, the year of the rat. It is thought that people born in a particular year take on the characteristics of that animal.

Many myths and fables explain how the animals in the zodiac came to be, but the most common one is the story of “The Great Race,” in which a group of animals had to cross a river to get to a meeting held by the Jade Emperor, one of the most important gods or mythological figures in Chinese culture. In the story, the order in which the animals arrived would determine the order of the years of the calendar.

In the story, the rat comes in first by hitching a ride on the back of an ox, then jumping off ahead and winning the race and thus claiming first place in the calendar. The 12th animal is the pig, which got hungry, stopped for a feast and subsequently fell asleep, finally arriving after a nap.

Interestingly, there was a 13th animal — a cat – but it drowned and did not make it into the zodiac.

Do you know what Chinese zodiac sign you are? Can you name all twelve of them?

See the table at the bottom of the article for a table of the year and the animal.

For me, the traditions make festivals fun and interesting. The highlight for me is setting off fireworks and firecrackers. Fireworks were invented in China with the invention of gunpowder. Chinese believe setting off fireworks scare away evil ghosts and demons.

In recent years, the cost of buying fireworks has risen dramatically, and government policies are placing tighter restrictions on the buying, selling and setting off of fireworks. As a result, there are fewer fireworks and firecrackers than ever. This for me is a huge pity because it has always been the highlight of the festival: trudging outside in the bitter cold to set the fireworks off and sitting indoors, sipping on a cold beer and watching the fireworks build into a crescendo around midnight.

In another tradition, families gather for one huge meal at a table stacked with dishes: all sorts of meats, fish and other seafood. This year, I enjoyed ‘YingTao Rou’ (cherry-flavoured pork); ‘SiXi Wanzi’ (meatballs in a savoury soup); lemon-flavoured boiled fish; sweet and sour king-size prawns; and coca-cola-flavoured spare ribs. Each family has their own favourites and regional specialties of course – there seems to be no set of ‘must havedishes – as long as there are a lot!

Everyone in the family pitches in — it’s a real team effort. At home, in my wife’s family, it works as a kind of shift system, with everyone taking turns to cook their own speciality one by one. There were an astonishing 28 dishes cooked for the table this year. The number of dishes can bring bragging rights to a family, with neighbours comparing how big their spreads were.

With the level of wealth growing in China, more families are opting to eat in a nice restaurant for the New Year dinner – regardless of the cost – to save the time and hassle of preparing the meal itself. Of course, it is an excellent opportunity to show off. It is culturally important to be able to demonstrate that you have wealth and to show your social status.

After the main evening meal, people eat boiled dumplings at around midnight. Dumplings –resembling a Chinese sycee – symbolise wealth.

Making and eating dumplings is a very important custom. My daughter and I absolutely love sitting around eating a bowl of steaming hot dumplings – dipping them in soy sauce and vinegar. I wash them down with a cold beer, she with orange juice. The grandmother of the family places some coins, dates and small hard candy in some of the dumplings, and some lucky diners can get either good luck (the candy), wealth (the coin) or good health (the date) from choosing at random these lucky dumplings (One must be careful not to break one’s teeth!).

“It is a truly precious time for us all. We grew up with this tradition and the warm memories. There is simply nothing more important than getting the whole family sitting down together to eat, drink and converse at this time of year,” a 54-year-old resident told me.

Another tradition is giving and receiving red envelopes containing cash gifts. In China, elders give money to the youngsters. For example, a niece or nephew will definitely expect a red envelope containing wads of cash from their uncles and aunts. But today, those envelopes are getting fatter – 200 Yuan gifts are now becoming 2,000 Yuan gifts. My daughter is managing to squirrel away a tidy sum of money from these red envelopes year after year. My wife and I are duly obliged to hand over cash gifts to other young relatives over the two-week period. What goes around comes around.

For decoration, people use red paper cuttings, also known as Chinese paper cutting, or Jianzhi (剪纸). These are traditionally used to decorate doors and windows with themes of happiness, good-fortune and longevity. These are becoming more elaborate as years go by, yet remain the same in their basic appearance.

Playing traditional games as cards or Mahjong reinforces the importance of family. This is the one true aspect of the festival people can relate to worldwide. Just as at Christmas, it is imperative to get the family together (even if Uncle Bob can be a bit annoying) for the meal and then play board games.

No tradition would be complete without post-meal television. England has the Queen’s speech and classic Christmas movies, and China has great Spring Festival Gala TV show. The show features an act for everyone in the family: I enjoy watching the obligatory kung-fu display; my daughter loves the magician; my wife loves the cool Korean guest singers; and my mother-in-law loves the Peking Opera. The uncle is fast asleep.

Bringing Chinese families together sparks the greatest human migration in history as Chinese return to their hometowns for the New Year.

In China, it is estimated that for this year’s Spring Festival, there were more than 3.6 billion “journeys” by Chinese people travelling home by plane, train, bus, or anything in between. For comparison, in America a mere 93.3 million people travelled domestically during the 2012 holiday season.

Since the 1970s, many people have moved to larger cities for work, and more students than ever are leaving home for university. Tourists add to the migration – more people than ever can afford vacations. The Spring Festival period is the longest of the Chinese public holidays – often a week to ten days – so more affluent people see the festival as an opportunity to travel. This adds yet more pressure to the travel network.

However, with more planes, airports, trains and buses, it is now marginally easier to complete the required travel home. Online booking has also made travel easier. But for the migrant workers and factory workers with less disposable income, it is still extremely difficult to find a good, safe and comfortable ride home.

“We look forward to this for the entire year! My hometown is a few hours away by train from the city where I work, so buying tickets is troublesome – but it has to be done,” my work colleague said.

Perhaps one day in the future, you will also seize the opportunity to travel to China during the Chinese New Year festival and enjoy it as much I do.

Table of the year and the animal:

Animal New Year dates
鼠 Shǔ Rat February 19, 1996 – February 7, 2008 – January 25, 2020
牛 Niú Ox February 7, 1997 – January 26, 2009 – February 12, 2021
虎 Hǔ Tiger January 28, 1998 – February 14, 2010 – February 1, 2022
兔 Tù Rabbit February 16, 1999 – February 3, 2011 – January 22, 2023
龍 Lóng Dragon February 5, 2000 – January 23, 2012 – February 10, 2024
蛇 Shé Snake January 24, 2001 – February 10, 2013 – January 29, 2025
馬 Mǎ Horse February 12, 2002 – January 31, 2014 – February 17, 2026
羊 Yáng Goat February 1, 2003 – February 19, 2015 – February 6, 2027
猴 Hóu Monkey January 22, 2004 – February 8, 2016 – January 26, 2028
雞 Jī Rooster February 9, 2005 – January 28, 2017 – February 13, 2029
狗 Gǒu Dog January 29, 2006 – February 16, 2018 – February 3, 2030
豬 Zhū Pig February 18, 2007 – February 5, 2019 – January 23, 2031


Fireworks, food and family: Chinese New Year .

The Chinese New Year is a spectacular demonstration of Chinese culture. It is also known as the Spring Festival and the celebrations usually start on Chinese New Year’s Eve, the last day of the last month of the Chinese calendar, and end with the Lantern Festival This is the longest festival in the Chinese calendar. Chinese New Year is often referred to as the ‘Lunar New Year.’

There are many traditions surrounding the celebrations of the Chinese New Year. One of the highlights is to set off fireworks. Fireworks were invented in China and the Chinese believe they scare away evil ghosts and demons. Another important part of the celebration is getting together with the family for one huge meal. This feast includes dishes with all sorts of meats, fish and seafood. After the evening meal people eat boiled dumplings at around midnight. Dumplings that resemble a Chinese sycee symbolise wealth.

Another tradition is for the older people to give red envelopes full of money to their younger relatives. And finally, many people play traditional games such as cards or Mahjong. In modern times there is also a new tradition: watching the Spring Festival Gala TV show.



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Chinese New Year



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