Following the traditional lunar calendar of East Asia, the Chinese New Year falls on Feb. 5 this year. Its zodiac animal is the Pig and the year’s position in the 60-year cycle is jihai (己亥). The lunar new year is celebrated not just in China, but also in neighboring Asian countries, as well as among millions of ethnic Chinese living overseas.
The celebration is most visible in mainland China, where it is responsible for the world’s largest annual migration. Over a 40-day period, hundreds of millions of people working or studying away from their hometowns crowd the nation’s vast rail network, reaching around 2.9 billion passenger-journeys. By contrast, Thanksgiving in the United States musters just 50 million trips each year.
Giving thanks and honoring the gods
According to the Han Dynasty dictionary Shuowen Jiezi, the Chinese word for “year” (年), pronounced nian, refers to the preparation of the five major grains cultivated by farmers as an offering to the gods. The nian rituals expressed gratitude for the previous harvest, as well as prayer for good fortunes in the coming year.
Though New Year’s itself is only one day, there are so many festivities and rituals that they extend all the way to the 15th of the first lunar month, the day of the Lantern Festival, which falls on Feb. 22.
Traditionally, the Chinese New Year events began on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month (Jan. 13 this year). In Chinese Buddhism, this is the day on which Shakyamuni became enlightened as the Tathagata Buddha.
Festivities continued for another 15 days, during which the Chinese and other East Asian cultures prayed to and respected various deities — including the goddess Nü Wa, who created humanity. She has her own festival, aptly-named renri or “day of man.”
On the 23rd day of the 12 lunar months, families would burn effigies of the Stove King, known in Chinese as the zaowangye (灶王爺). Placed in the kitchen where everyone ate their meals, the Stove King was a heavenly emissary, watching over the deeds of the family. Burning his image sent him back to the heavenly court, where he would report to the Jade Emperor the merits and demerits of each individual.
Belief in the Stove King is part of the traditional Chinese view that Heaven and man are one, and that “there are deities three feet above one’s head” (三尺頭上有神靈), reminding people to guard their moral conduct, even when not seen by mortals.
Chu Xi (除夕), or the 30th of the 12th lunar month, is the major day of the lunar new year celebrations. It is a time to worship the gods and pay respects to one’s ancestors. A “heaven and earth table” is prepared and offerings to the gods are placed upon it. People post images of menshen, or door gods, on the entrances to their homes to protect against evil. Common “door gods” include fierce warriors — martial gods — or proud and honest officials, civil gods.
Seven days after returning to Heaven, the Stove King resumes his station in mortal kitchens, and new effigies are set up for the coming year.
Ancestral worship, another central aspect of the New Year, is one of the main rites taught by the philosopher Confucius. Living members of the family, from old to young, approached the altar to pay respects to the ancestral tablets and burn incense.
Attending to ancestral funerary rites, Confucius said, strengthened the morality of the entire people by passing on the virtues and memory of the ancient generations.
Though greatly overused today, the color red is associated with the New Year celebrations due to its ability to defeat evil. By legend, in ancient times, the people and their children were plagued by a ferocious beast, the nian. They were able to ward off and eventually capture the man-eating fiend by hanging up red lanterns, wearing red clothing, and lighting firecrackers. The character used for nian is the same as that used to mean “year”, and resembles the character 牛, meaning cow or ox. In Chinese, one way to say “celebrating the new year” literally means “passing the year,” which hints at the legendary calamity.
Auspiciously themed poetic couplets, called duilian (對聯), are written on strips of bright red paper and pasted to the sides and top of doors. This tradition was started during the time of the Five Dynasties (907-960), when the lord of Later Shu, Meng Chang (孟昶), adorned his entrance with the following lines:
The new year brings celebration in mass
A splendid festival to issue a lengthy spring
Though the Chinese New Year is associated with a rich history and spiritual heritage, much of it was actively suppressed in mainland China beginning with the rise of the communist regime in 1949.
The ideology of the Chinese Communist Party held that traditional Chinese culture was the culture of an oppressive feudalistic society, and so it moved to purge the national heritage of anything related to religious worship and other “superstitious” activity.
The CCP renamed Chinese New Year, calling it the “spring festival” to remove its association with the gods and leave only the agricultural aspect. Even the name of the lunar calendar was changed, from the “calendar of the Yellow Emperor” that paid homage to the legendary ancestor of Chinese civilization, to the “agrarian calendar.”
In the early decades of communist rule, instead of worshipping the gods, Chinese were instructed to “recall the bitter days [of Old China] and think about the sweet days [of communist rule.]” Communist campaigns replaced traditional rites. In order to “recall bitter” and maintain their “revolutionary spirit,” people would prepare a hardly edible meal made from wild roots, rice bran, and other scraps.
By today, while Chinese are more busy making money and trying to improve their lot in life than fighting for the CCP’s revolutionary schemes, most of the deep spiritual and religious meanings of the Chinese New Year have been consigned to history. Association with the gods, Buddha, and traditional morality is discouraged by the Communist Party, which has only expanded its persecution of religions in recent years.