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As Chinese New Year Approaches Learn Some Lunar Calendar History

Traditional Chinese astronomy can be traced back to the time of the legendary emperor Fu-hsi, almost five thousand years ago. (Image: Gabriel Lascu via Flickr cc
Traditional Chinese astronomy can be traced back to the time of the legendary emperor Fu-hsi, almost five thousand years ago. (Image: Gabriel Lascu via Flickr cc

The moon has been the source of legends and stories for thousands of years. It is the largest visible body in our night sky, but among all of its aesthetically pleasing qualities, the moon — together with the sun — have served as an important tool for timekeeping in Chinese history. And they still do today.

Traditional Chinese astronomy can be traced back to the time of the legendary emperor Fu-hsi, almost five thousand years ago.

“The lunar calendar was the basis for the calendars of the ancient Babylonians, Jews, Greeks, and the Chinese.” The Chinese are one, among only a few civilizations, to have developed and still use two parallel calendar systems, even in today’s modern age.

Without a calendar, it would have been difficult for farmers to determine when is the best time to plant or harvest. “The farmers needed a calendar that would tell them the best times for planting and harvests, activities that followed the seasons of the natural year. In short, they needed a solar calendar.”

However, following a calendar was one thing, understanding how it actually worked was another.

Because the workings of the calendar and the establishing of the seasons and holidays, such as New Year, was too complicated for a layman to understand, a number of stories and folk tales were developed to simplify the explanation of how the calendar worked.

The Chinese calendar system also has a zodiac, which is a twelve year cycle symbolized by twelve different animals, each one marking a new year. So depending on the year one is born in, one’s character is traditionally said to closely correlate with the qualities related to that animal symbol in the zodiac circle.

Let’s celebrate

Although the Gregorian calendar has been introduced to China, the Chinese calendar is still used to determine the days of traditional festivals.

There are four main festivals placed around the Chinese calendar:

  1. Chinese New Year, in February.
  2. Qing ming Festival (Tomb-seeping Day), in April.
  3. Mid-Autumn Festival, between September and October.
  4. Dong Zhi (winter solstice festival), in December.

The internationally and probably most popular Chinese festival is Chinese New Year. This year Chinese New Year falls on Monday, February 8, 2016. According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2016 is the year of the monkey.

The monster who feared bright and loud fireworks

The Chinese word for “year” is “nian.” According to Chinese Legend, the Chinese word for nian was once the name of a monster in ancient China. According to the lore among farmers, the monster would sleep most of the time, but would awake on the “thirtieth day of the twelfth or the final month in the traditional Chinese calendar.” On this day he would roam around praying on humans and livestock.

However, on one New Year’s eve, Nian had several horrific experiences which made him flee with fear. In one village the loud exploding sound of herding whips frightened Nian. In another village, he spotted bright colored clothes hanging out to dry. Their bright color scared him so much that he fled again to the next village, where a very bright light made him feel so dizzy that he became terrified and fled again.

“People thus came to realize that Nian’s fatal weakness was its fear of light, […] color, and explosive sound. So to scare away Nian, they started setting off fireworks and firecrackers […] as a way to celebrate the New Year,” according to legends of Chinese new year.

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