A Guide To Chinese New Year
In 2016, Chinese New Year falls on February 8. It’s one of the biggest annual celebrations on the planet – an ancient festival involving a third of the world’s population. It’s a time of lion dances, cash-stuffed envelopes and firecrackers, of paper lanterns, age-old traditions and mountains of pork dumplings. But how much do you really know about Chinese New Year? Read on for an overview of what makes it such a unique occasion.
Ben Lerwill is a freelance travel writer based in Oxfordshire. His work has appeared in more than 50 publications, including National Geographic Traveller, The Times, The Independent, Wanderlust, BBC Countryfile and Time Out.
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A Global Affair
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The event brings Earth’s most populous country to a halt, but the unbridled festivities are by no means restricted to China. Anywhere a significant Chinese population is found, so too is an appetite for serious celebration. From Asian nations such as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia to major world cities like Paris, New York and Toronto, you can expect feasts, decorations and parades on an intoxicatingly large scale.
In Europe, London is a particular focal point – up to half a million people descend on the streets and squares of the city centre. Naturally, Chinatown witnesses the dragon’s share of the noise, music and colour, but Trafalgar Square and Shaftesbury Avenue are both dominated by the event too. Food stalls are everywhere, although if you’re hoping to find a quality Chinese restaurant to settle into, you’ll need to book well, well ahead. In the US, meanwhile, San Francisco marks Chinese New Year with what is claimed to be the largest celebration of Asian culture outside Asia.
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Chinese New Year takes place in 2016 on Monday February 8, heralding the arrival of the Year of the Monkey (the perfect excuse to go nuts, you might say). Being dependent on the pattern of lunar phases, however, New Year falls on a different day between 21 January and 20 February each year. Showing how readily the date diverges, Chinese New Year in 2017 and 2018 will be celebrated on 28 January and 16 February respectively.
In China itself the occasion goes by the name Chun Jie, which despite its winter timeframe translates literally as ‘Spring Festival’. And unlike the dawning of a new year in many parts of the world, this is no one-night party. It usually forms part of a week-long national holiday (partly to allow Chinese workers enough time to make the often excessively long journeys to their hometowns), with revelries in some quarters lasting a full 15 days. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day see the most animated celebrations.
Part Of History
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China has a long past. Most of what remains today of its iconic Great Wall dates back to the period between the 14th and 16th centuries. Even the wall is a proverbial spring chicken, however, when compared to the country’s New Year celebrations, which are generally believed to have been woven into national culture more than 1,000 years earlier, during the Han Dynasty. Emperor Wu, a Han ruler who came to power in 140 BC, is also credited with adapting the Chinese “lunisolar” calendar to its current form.
But the longstanding status of the occasion was seemingly of little importance to Chairman Mao. The nation’s one-time leader effectively scrapped the Chinese New Year holiday during the notorious Cultural Revolution, ordering instead that citizens should devote themselves to the merits of industrial production. Since his death in 1976, however, New Year festivities have gone on to become more pronounced than ever.
Billions On The Move
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Such is the importance of spending the Chinese New Year period with family that the occasion has been described as “the world’s largest human migration”. This is a country similar in size to Europe, and with so many people returning to their homes, long-distance trains and buses are routinely booked out weeks and months in advance. Tales of crashed ticketing websites and passengers having to make 20-hour journeys without seats are commonplace.
Some figures suggest that as many as 3.6 billion journeys are made by Chinese migrants over each New Year period. In these terms, the celebration’s nearest equivalent in Western culture is Christmas. But if you thought getting home for turkey and the Queen’s Speech could be tough, pity those Chinese workers in Lhasa making the return rail voyage to Guangzhou – it takes a soul-sapping 54 hours in either direction.
A Time For Tradition
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The New Year period has always been entwined with different customs and traditions. These range from the dutiful (the family home is often given a comprehensive clean before New Year’s Day, as a means of ushering in fresh fortunes) to the deafening (firecrackers and fireworks are lit in vast quantities, with the aim of scaring off evil spirits). Where décor is concerned, red lanterns and red paper-cuts are now widespread, the colour being an auspicious one for the Chinese – some go so far as wearing red underwear.
Continuing the theme, red envelopes containing money are customarily handed out to children and other family members. And cash also forms a central part of the most eye-catching New Year tradition in Hong Kong, where the holiday period witnesses the destination’s biggest annual horse race. Crowds of more than 100,000 and an on-course betting turnover in excess of £135 million are the norm.
Family And Food
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The pictures we see in the media might focus on street parades, firework displays and dragon dancing, but for the majority of people the New Year period is dominated by time spent at home with family. A reunion dinner known as nian ye fan takes place in homes across China on New Year’s Eve, and many see this occasion as the true start to the yearly celebrations. Traditional foods vary according to different regions of the country, but common dishes include jiao zi (dumplings), tang yuan (rice balls) and huo guo (hotpot).
Some foods and fruits are chosen for their perceived lucky qualities. Oranges and mandarins are popular, partly thanks to their similarity to the sun, and Chinese plums are associated with endurance, due to the fact their trees tend to flower in winter, heralding the arrival of spring. And New Year also grants a rare moment in the spotlight for the little-vaunted kumquat. Why? Simply because its name in Cantonese, gum gut, sounds like the words for gold (gum) and good fortune (gai gut).