In Chinese culture, the Spring Festival (chunjie, 春节), also known as Chinese New Year, is the most important holiday in China, and it marks the first day of the first month of the traditional lunar calendar (nongli, 农历), thus the beginning of the lunar new year. Unlike the internationally used Gregorian calendar, which always starts on 1 January, the date of the Chinese New Year differs each year according to the moon’s phases, but it is always between 21 January and 20 February (Tikkanen, 2020). For the Chinese, it is of equal importance to Christmas for the Judeo-Christian communities, inasmuch as it is a day of family reunion in which all members of the family and relatives get together and have big family meals. It is a festivity marked by legends and traditions, of which the following are among the most prevalent.
The Legend of Xi, the Year Beast
Before venturing into the customs and traditions concerning the celebration of the Chinese New Year, it is interesting to have a glance at its origins. Whereas Christmas is rooted in religion and celebrates a merry event, the birth of Christ, the origins of the Spring Festival are steeped in legends. The most well-known is a mysterious folk story about a scary creature.
As the legend goes, once there was a monster named Xi (夕, dusk), who would sleep in a cave on a mountain all year round, apart from one day (Ma, 2014). Every year, on the night before the Spring Festival, chuxi night (chuxiye, 除夕夜, New Year’s Eve), the monster would wake up and hunt for food in the villages at the foot of the mountain, eating everything it came across, from livestock to people, and robbing the villagers’ houses. Therefore, the day before the New Year’s Eve, the villagers would pack all their belongings and hurry to flee the villages. Until one day, one chuxi night, an old beggar came to the village. He walked to the door of an old lady and begged her for food. The old lady brought him food, at the same time warning him about the upcoming danger from the mountain. To the woman’s surprise, the old man replied he was not afraid of the monster, and if the old lady allowed him to spend the night at her home, he would get rid of it forever. The old lady accepted, then she ran away with the other villagers, leaving the beggar alone in her home. As the night was falling, the old beggar stuck a few red sheets on the doorway of the house and collected many bamboo sticks and firewood. At night, the monster finally awoke and reached the village. Seeing the old lady’s house brightly lit, it headed in that direction, until it saw the red paper and the bright light of the fire. The monster rolled on the ground, screaming in pain, and the old beggar suddenly came out wearing a red dress and holding a torch. The man started to set off the firecrackers he put inside the bamboo sticks, which gave the monster the final blow. Xi, the abominable creature of the mountain, was defeated once and for all. The next day, when the villagers came back, they were surprised to find the village the same as how they left it. From that day on, the day before New Year started to be called chuxi (除夕), which literally means “to get rid of Xi”.
Traditions and Customs of Chinese New Year
Ever since then, sticking red paper cuttings and verses vertically down the sides of doorways, setting off firecrackers, hanging red lanterns, and dressing with red clothes became traditional Chinese customs to celebrate the New Year. Today, the Spring Festival is a day of family reunion, during which students and workers go back to their hometowns to celebrate with their families. Traditionally, on the night of the New Year’s Eve, the Chinese have a lively family dinner (nianyefan, 年夜饭). Traditional dishes for the New Year include New Year cakes (niangao, 年糕), rice crisps (malao,蔴粩), steamed sponge cakes (fagao, 发糕), chicken, fish, all year-round vegetables, dumplings and meatballs. All these foods have a special meaning, as their Chinese names recall positive phrases related to health, wealth, and longevity (Lin, 2017). For example, you should not finish all the fish, as the word for “fish” in Chinese sounds like “surplus”. Therefore, leaving some fish means abundance of everything for the upcoming year. After dinner, children and young adults are gifted red envelopes containing money (hongbao, 红包). The second day the New Year begins. On this day, people normally pay a visit to relatives and friends, greeting each other with auspicious words, such as “Happy New Year” (xinnian kuaile, 新年快乐), or “Best Wishes”(wanshi ruyi, 万事如意).
The Chinese Zodiac
The Chinese Zodiac, also called shengxiao (生肖) in Chinese, is based on a twelve-year cycle (China Highlights, 2021). Each year is represented by an animal and its reputed attributes. According to an ancient folk story, called the “Great Race”, the Jade Emperor hosted a race to select 12 animals as his guards (China Highlights, 2021). The 12 animals that reached the Heavenly Gate are: the Rat (quick-witted and resourceful), the Ox (hardworking and determined), the Tiger (brave and competitive), the Rabbit (gentle and quiet), the Dragon (enthusiastic and confident), the Snake (enigmatic and wise), the Horse (active and energetic), the Goat (gentle and sympathetic), the Monkey (witty and mischievous), the Rooster (observant and talented), the Dog (loyal and honest), and the Boar (diligent and generous). 2021 will be the year of the Ox.
Ambra Minoli was born in Vimercate (Italy) on January 19, 1994. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures from the University of Bergamo in 2017, and her master’s degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Edinburgh. Passionate about world literature, her research is centred on comparative literatures on Republican Shanghai, particularly Chinese, Japanese, and French literature. She is open to freelance collaboration in writing and producing online content for editorial agencies, e-journals, and organisations focused on China. Find her on Instagram as @ambraminoli or check out her profile on LinkedIn.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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China Highlights (2021). Chinese Zodiac. Available at: https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/chinese-zodiac/ (Accessed: 28 January 2021).
Lin, Chengju 林承舉. (2017) ‘Pin tuanyuan – chuancheng Zhongguo tuanyuan Nianyecai’ 拼团圆 – 传承中国团圆年夜菜 [Fighting for gathering – the legacy of Chinese New Year Eve’s dinner]. Taichung: Chaoyang University of Technology. Available at: http://ir.lib.cyut.edu.tw:8080/bitstream/310901800/35028/1/10313106.pdf (Accessed: 28 January 2021).
Ma, Yuxia 馬瑜霞. (2014) ZhongShi Xinwen Wang 中時新聞網. Available at: https://www.chinatimes.com/realtimenews/20140129002734-260405?chdtv (Accessed: 27 January 2021).
Tikkanen, A. (2020) Chinese New Year. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Chinese-New-Year (Accessed: 28 January 2021).