Chinese New Year celebrations kick off next Monday, February 8.
For China, and other Asian countries, including South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, it’s one of the most important events in the calendar, bringing people together for a huge celebration which normally lasts for 15 days.
The festivities have also made their mark around the world with many cities including Sydney, London and San Francisco, joining in the annual celebrations.
Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, varies every year depending on the Lunar Calendar, with each new year corresponding to one of the 12 different animals from the Chinese Zodiac.
This year is the Year of the Monkey and those born in 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004 are also under the monkey zodiac (being born in 2016 will make you a red fire monkey – the colour red is auspicious and considered very lucky, while fire is one of the five Taoist elements, alongside water, earth, wood and metal and add complexity to your zodiac).
A traditional Chinese New Year celebration is filled with important customs and rituals to observe.
Here’s what you need to know about celebrating Chinese New Year.
There will always be a huge reunion or family dinner.
If there’s one family dinner you can’t miss, it’s definitely this one.
The entire CNY period is characterised by spending more time with family and it’s customary to have one big family dinner with extended relatives joining in for possibly the biggest dinner of the year.
This dinner (“nian ye fan”) traditionally takes place on Chinese New Year’s Eve which is for some, seen as more important than Chinese New Year Day. The time of feasting is also taken as an opportunity to honour ancestors and deities such as the god of wealth usually with the offering of food and burning incense.
The number of dishes is also important with many restaurants and families serving an even number of courses such as six, eight or ten.
To put it in perspective, the 40-day New Year period is described as the greatest annual human migration on earth and authorities expect nearly 3 billion trips will be made in China over that time as travellers reunite with families.
Which brings us to the food.
Many of the foods eaten during Chinese New Year are auspicious and draw their roots from Chinese history and culture.
Fish (“yú”) is a staple in any CNY dinner celebration because the Chinese pronunciation sounds similar to “surplus” or “abundance”. The Chinese believe that eating fish — served whole — will bring prosperity in the new year.
It is also customary to eat sticky rice cake (“nián’gāo”), which can be eaten steamed, fried or even eaten cold. Most families will take the time to make dumplings together on the eve of Chinese New Year as they are symbolic of luck and good fortune. They can be either boiled or fried with various fillings including celery, pork, fish and mushrooms and can be formed in the shape of an ingot which was an ancient form of currency using blocks of gold or silver.
- Noodles (symbolic of long life)
- Duck (happiness)
- Chicken (family unity)
- Cabbage (prosperity)
- Abalone (good fortune)
You will most likely give or receive a red envelope with money.
Red envelopes otherwise known as red packets (“hongbao”) are traditionally given to children by their elders including parents, siblings, grandparents and family friends. You should be starting to give money when you are earning money or are married. These are monetary gifts and are usually adorned with gold Chinese characters such as wisdom, health and prosperity.
While it varies between how much you put in depending on your relationship and circumstance, here’s what China Highlights recommends:
- Your parents and grandparents if you are already earning money (always 400–2,000 CNY $86-$532 AUD)
- Your employees (100–1,000 CNY or $21-$216 AUD)
- Your children (at least 100 CNY or $21 AUD)
You should avoid giving an amount in fours such as 4, 40, 44 or 400 because the number “4” has a similar pronunciation to death in Chinese. It is also worth noting that it is polite to put in crisp notes and not to open your envelope in front of others to check how much has been given.
Join in the lion dance.
Lion dances are hugely popular during the Chinese New Year period as the lion is representative of courage and stability. The dance is performed by two people, one at the head and one at the tail, who mimic the gestures of a real lion and is usually accompanied by a troupe playing the cymbals, drums and gongs as they parade through the streets.
You will often find the lions making their way into Chinese restaurants where diners are given the chance to put a red packet in the mouth of the lion. It is also common for businesses to hang vegetable leaves such as lettuce on the door along with a red packet, known as “Picking the Green”, which the lion will “eat” meaning that it has given its blessings.
According to Cultural China, there are two types of dances: southern and northern.
They describe the northern lion as being the smaller one with many different movements such as acting “surprised, scared, happy, climbing, squatting, retreating, rolling” as well as “attacking, falling, turning, rolling, jumping” to make it more life-like.
On the other hand, the southern lion also known as the waking lion appears more “exaggerated and colorful”. It is also viewed as being “auspicious, joyous and heightening traditional Chinese sports, which combines ornamental, artistic and athletic functions together.”
Decorate your home with peonies, kumquat trees and paper cutouts.
In the time leading up to Chinese New Year, it is customary for people to begin buying and preparing decorations for their home to bring in luck and prosperity for the new year.
It is traditional to hang paper cuttings which are intricately cut out designs usually of Chinese characters on windows or doors. However, they can also be inspired by auspicious animals and plants with the peach symbolising “longevity; the pomegranate, fertility; the mandarin duck, love; the pine tree, eternal youth; the peony, honor and wealth; while a magpie perched on the branch of a plum tree presages a lucky event that will soon happen.”
Door couplets, complementing greetings and messages of well wishes, are also commonly hung on doors with two lines of equal length. One example is “Safe and Smooth Journey for the New Year” (“chu ru ping an, yi fan feng shun”). Another is “The New Year enjoys surplus celebrations; happy holiday sounds invoke lasting spring blessings” (xīnnián nà yú qìng; jiā jié hào cháng chūn).
Other lucky plants and flowers include the kumquat tree which is symbolic of wealth because its Chinese pronunciation sounds like “gold” while the peony is considered the flower of wealth and honour.
Greet others with a Chinese New Year message.
Before you celebrate Chinese New Year, it’s best to familiarise yourself with the phrase Happy New Year (“xīnnián kuàilè”). This is the most popular greeting which is usually followed by other messages wishing good health, fortune, and prosperity in business, as well as happiness and felicity for the family.
According to China Highlights, the two most popular message greetings for the Year of the Monkey in 2016 will be:
- Good luck for this Monkey year (“hóunián jíxiáng”)
- Lots of luck for this Monkey year (“hóunián dàjí”)
Here are a few to keep up your sleeve when greeting friends and family during Chinese New Year.
- Happiness and prosperity (“gōngxǐ fācái”)
- May all your wishes come true (“xīnxiǎng shì chéng”)
- May your work go smoothly (gōngzuò shùnlì”)
- Win promotion and get rich (“shēngguān fācái”)
- Enjoy good health (“shēntǐ jiànkāng”)
- Success in the examination (“jīnbǎng tímíng”)
Don’t forgot to clean your house.
This is similar to spring cleaning but for the Chinese, clearing out the clutter in their home is symbolic of more than a clean house.
It’s viewed as a “cleansing” and a “ritualistic sweeping away of all the evil spirits feared to be lurking in dark corners behind heavy and rarely moved pieces of furniture”.
This is usually done in the lead-up to Chinese New Year because it is believed that all the good luck, fortune and blessings will be swept away if the house is cleaned after the start of the new year.
The Lantern Festival marks the end of Chinese New Year.
The Lantern Festival (“shàngyuánjié” or “yuánxiāojié”) is traditionally celebrated on the 15th day of the Chinese lunar month and marks the end of Chinese New Year.
This year, the festival will be celebrated on February 22, when businesses reopen, people start returning to work and children to school following the holiday season. Common activities include watching the full moon, lighting up lanterns – symbolic of vitality – and watching fireworks with the family.
During this time, it is common to eat “tangyuan”, glutinous rice balls usually filled with red bean or sesame, in a clear broth or fermented rice soup. You can find a great recipe here.
Gong Xi Fa Cai!