Chinese New Year Traditions and Customs

Chinese New Year traditions and customs vary in different parts of China. Here just introduce some common practices adopted by majority groups of Chinese people.

Lunar December 8:

Traditionally this is the day when Chinese New Year festival begins to warm up. People cook nuts-rich rice congee (labazhou 腊八粥, la 腊 for lunar December, ba 八 is number 8, zhou 粥 means congee) and serve when it’s hot on the freezing morning of the deep winter. The congee may use sticky or non-sticky rice, and can be either sweet (with nuts, beans and dry fruits) or salt (with beans, tarots, pork meat and veggies).

Labazhou Festival was initially set to commemorate Sakyamuni Buddha’s regaining of physical strength on the day some 2,500 years ago after being nourished with a bowl of milk porridge given by a sheep herder girl, which enabled him to resume meditation until final enlightenment. Later, on each lunar December 8, Chinese Buddhist temples would make large pots of Labazhou (always in sweet flavour) offering to whoever wishing to be blessed by the spirit of charity.

There is no records documenting since when this custom began in China, but most historians believe it started since the Tang Dynasty (618–907), an era that not only made Taoism the state-sponsored ideology, but systematically introduced Buddhism into China and further spread the teaching to Japan.

Regardless since when it began, in more than 1,000 years, this practice has developed into a warm up event of a month-long Chinese New Year festival.

Lunar December 23:

Lunar December 23

About half a month after the warm-up event, preparations for Chinese New Year festival begins to pick up momentum.

In old days on lunar December 23, people would make special teacakes to farewell Kitchen God  (灶王爷), whose portrait used to be on the wall of every kitchen in China, and Chinese commonly believed that behind its paper-thin image is a deep connection to heavenly authority.

Each year between lunar December 23 and January 4, Kitchen God is said to return to celestial court to report his observation of how family members behave in the past year, which allows the Lord of Heaven to calculate how much rewards and punishments each individual shall receive.

The teacakes were normally ultra sweet, allegedly they were designed to help the Kitchen God to speak sweet words about the family. As the paper image does not actually consume anything, it was always the kids eating all the cakes on the Kitchen God’s behalf. For this, the day was dearly loved, especially by children, and it is thus called the Minor New Year’s Day.

Lunar Dec 28:

Lunar December 28

It’s the day to make sticky rice cake and replace an old set of New Year’s Painting, couplet and Door God pictures with the new ones.

The couplet (对联) is a pair of lines of poetry written on red paper in vertical order, usually sticking on the sides of front door.

There are strict rules governing how couplets should be created: each corresponding character in the first and the second lines must contain same grammatical properties (like both being noun or verb) and reflect an opposite, echoing or complementary meaning, with the last characters have the same rhythm.

According to the viewpoint of Daoism, that is the philosophical foundation of Chinese culture, the universe is not a wild jungle but a highly regulated and hierarchical world with human domain residing in the middle on a crossroad to upper realms or lower territories, and being administrated by forces from superior spatial domains that often overlap with ours but too subtle for an ordinary human eye to discern. As humans are comprised with yin and yang qis (info energies) in near equal proportion, our position is unstable and our existence is vulnerable, and we are both the prime target of yin force and the subject for close protection by the yang power, thus each human dwelling has been assigned a pair of “door gods” to ward off undesirable qis.

Ever since the time of Zhou Dynasty (1100 BC – 711 BC) when I Ching (the theoretical foundation of Daoism) was first formulated by King Zhou, Chinese began to place a pair of peachwood panels carved with the images of two door gods at the sides of front door. Peachwood is a material considered to have a power to dispel evil qi. After paper was invented, peachwood panel was commonly replaced by red coloured paper (red is a colour containing maximum yang qi), while the images were substituted by words.

But it was during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) when the door couplet has been formally called spring couplet for its association to Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and displaying the couplet at the front of house became a fashion under the earnest promotions of the Ming emperors.

In Chinese literature training, learning how to compose couplets is often used as a warm up exercise to study other more sophisticated literature forms, such as classic Chinese poem (律诗) and rhythmic essay (骈文).

Lunar Dec 29:

Lunar December 29

It’s the day to pay new year’s respect to ancestors with incense and food.

The positive messages, sent through the smoke from incense and smell of food, could help wake up the feelings and recollect the scattered memories normally hidden deep in the subconscious of those who left this world long ago, as in Daoist concept, smoke is an agent that can transcend the worlds while smell can penetrate into the innermost layers of memory.

Regardless in which domain or form of existence the core consciousness of the past family members inhabit, Chinese traditionally believe that the feelings and the opinions of the people in this world would have an impact on the current situations of the deceased now living in other worlds or other forms, as all their past lives would do.

In response, those who have received kind greetings from a community or a clan they once belonged to might intuitively return a fond regard which will materialise as a blessing in this world.

Thus a reunion of past and current family members in spiritual sense has been accomplished.

Such a tradition is believed by many to be one of the important factors that have contributed to the exceptional longevity of the Chinese civilization and its extraordinary ability to undergo self-renewal and regeneration, as the link in the time dimension is vigorously reinforced annually.

Lunar Dec 30, Chinese New Year’s Eve:

Lunar December 30

The highlight of Chinese New Year Festival is Chinese New Year’s Eve, and the focus of the Eve is New Year’s Eve Dinner (年夜饭).

In China there are always fanatic activities around kitchens when the days of preparation for New Year’s Eve Dinner is to finally conclude. Why it takes so long to prepare? Because the dishes should not just be enough for the New Year’s Eve but the New Year’s Day and even the days following, symbolizing the family has stocked abundant food for the coming year.

Being able to enjoy a lavish reunion dinner then sitting around chatting or playing games while waiting for the new year to arrive is a sign of a strong family bond, suggesting that all family members will stick together happily from beginning to the end of the year.

When the clock strikes midnight, everyone becomes one year older, regardless on which day one was born. By then, firecrackers are lit up, dispersing stagnated qi from surrounding environment and attracting fresh forces to the household, which is very much like doing acupuncture at a key point in the body to invigorate the energy flow.

A new year thus descends in the sound of explosion.

Lunar January 1, Chinese New Year’s Day:

Lunar January 1

If one says that Chinese New Year kicks off with a bang, it is both right and wrong. On the first morning of the Chinese year, everyone wakes up to the blatant sound of firecrackers that could last long for hours, marking it the most special morning in the year.

It is the day when everybody is supposed to sleep in (except firecracker fanatics, which are many, especially among young men), no one is expected to work (including housewives as cooking and house cleaning should be done on the new year’s eve), but all are required by custom to utter new year’s greeting to whoever one meets, even to those he hates their guts and haven’t spoken with for a year. It is the time to let go the old and usher in the new.

One thing that may deserve a particular mention is that unless you are in Guangdong (Canton) or Hong Kong or within old Chinese communities overseas that are mainly consisted of earlier migrants from Guangdong, you don’t say “Kung Hei Fat Choi” (meaning “wish you make lots of money”) when you deliver a new year’s greeting. More common greetings include “bainian 拜年” or “xinnianhao 新年好”, which simply mean “happy new year”.

The very first thing on the day is to pay new year’s respect to one’s seniors (parents, grandparents, etc.), to receive money gift (压岁钱) if you are a child, or offer money gift to kids in your family if you are a working adult. Then just drink and eat and have fun for the rest of the day.

However, people will need to take extra care when they think, speak and act on this special day. It is important because Chinese calendar is formulated according to the circulation of qi surrounding the earth, while the qi circulation is driven by earth’s position in the universe. In this regard, the Chinese New Year’s Day not just symbolises but actually is the start of a new circle – as the Taoist belief system considers – therefore any occurrence happening in the first few days will have a profound impact on the following seasons. Simply put, what you do, say and even think in the beginning of the year will set up a theme and momentum for your life in the rest of the year.

Lunar January 2:

Lunar January 2

Traditionally, Chinese stay at home relaxing on the New Year’s Day, but on the second day of the Chinese year, roads are crowded by people visiting relatives.

As the first three days in the Chinese calendar are all categorised as being extremely auspicious, it is also a popular day for wedding to take place.

Lunar January 3:

Lunar January 1

If the second day in the year is a time to marry one’s daughter off, the third day is the occasion for the daughter to return home with her husband.

Whether the couple is newly wed or married for decades, this special day are always reserved for the in-laws.

Lunar January 4:

Lunar January 4

Remember the Kitchen God?

It left household for heaven on lunar December 23. On the fourth day of the year, it comes back to the kitchen to resume its duty as the representative of the celestial authority. Many devoted families will arrange a homecoming banquet with incense and food to welcome Its Honorable .

 Lunar January 5:

Lunar January 5

It’s the day when Money God is believed to tour the human domain.

Once again, firecrackers explode everywhere in China like thunderstorms, as everyone is competing for Money God’s gracious attention.

Lunar January 6:

Junar January 6

Now business people in China have all burned incense to and lit up firecrackers for Money God, and they trust they are in the grace of the treasurer of the universe, so with great confidence, on the sixth day, they reopen their stores and resume their business.

Lunar January 8:

Junar January 8

In Daoist concept, humans are not the only ones affected by the renewal of the annual qi circle; all earth-bound sentient beings are under the same influence.

As Chinese do all they can to make the effect positive, many consider fish in their containers and birds in their cages deserve a fresh new start too, thus one month after consumed a bowl of congee with spirit of charity, life release (放生) activities take place on the eighth day of the year.

The earliest record on life-release practice during the Chinese New Year period could be traced back to the Confucius’s time 2,500 years ago in the Spring and Autumn era, when a man named Zhao Jianzi had a habit of opening his cages to set the birds free on the New Year’s Day as a gesture to share the happy moment with all things on earth. Now life release in China has become a standard Buddhist practice as a way to cultivate one’s compassion not just for fellow humans but all creatures.

Lunar January  9:

Junar January 9

In Daoist concept, the cosmos operates in a dual-force system, yin and yang, with odd numbers representing yin and even numbers standing for yang.

In an initial position, yin and yang are united into one, such a state has a complete void in mass and an absolute nothingness in form.

But when something happens, the yin-yang balance tips, two forces split apart and try to rebalance each other in motion, hence a series of events unfold.

The cause of any happening is always a movement, either tangible (an action) or intangible (a thought), this initiative and active force is characterised as yang. The yang force starts from 1, reaches its peak at 9, then returns to the origin, the nothingness, which is zero. So in Chinese tradition 9 is considered the biggest number in the universe; one step further will be self-defeating and sent right back to square one. This ultimate yang number is thus associated to emperor on the earth and celestial king in the heaven.

According to Chinese mythology, Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝), the celestial king who governs all the worlds under the heaven, was born on the ninth day of the year (which other days would be more appropriate for such a gigantic event?).

In some parts of China, for instance Fujian province, people observe Chinese New Year’s Eve not on lunar December 30, but January 8. When midnight comes, they celebrate the arrival of the new year by burning incenses and provide offerings to the Jade Emperor, and the pray continues until the midday of lunar January 9.

Lunar January 12:

Junar January 12

It’s the time to prepare for lantern festival by making lanterns with willow branches, thin bamboo canes and semi-transparent rice paper.

Lunar January 13:

Junar January 13

It’s the day to start test run for the lantern show.

P.S. The portrait in the picture is the awesome Kitchen God.

Lunar Jan 15:

Junar January 15

If Chinese New Year’s Eve is the occasion for sound (firecrackers), then first full moon night is the time for light (lanterns).

In a pre-electricity era, such a carnival of light at night is especially exhilarating. Children ran around the streets carrying lanterns made in the shapes of legendary figures and animals, like Moon Goddess Chang’e and rabbit, just to name a few, while adults paraded the floats loaded with themed lanterns under the very first full moon of the year.

The highlight of the show often come from riddle games. Riddles are normally written on the lanterns and anyone who cracks a riddle is expected to be awarded with small gifts.

The first full moon day is also China’s valentine’s day. In the old times, girls were confined at home for most of time, but when the lantern show staged, everybody went out for a fun, even the unmarried young ladies, thus lovers had an opportunity to get together and unattached might have a chance to find other half.

Of course, no Chinese festival will be regarded as complete without its special food, and there is no exception with the Lantern Festival. Sticky rice balls, in a round shape resembling the full moon and stuffed with sweet sesame filling or pork mince, are commonly consumed on the occasion.

As the time approaches the midnight, the crowds have gradually dispersed, the streets slowly become quiet and empty, and lights in windows eventually turn out, Chinese New Year festival officially concludes.

8 comments

  • Daveking71

    Hi Awen

    really interesting article for me. I have traveled most of Asia and love the culture, traditions and the people more than anywhere in the world. China is on my bucket list next, and hopefully February next year…great insight to the culture and traditions…I have been to china town NYE many times in London and had a fab fab time! thank you 🙂

    Dave

    • Awen

      Hi Dave, it’s great you like it. Just one thing, next year’s Chinese New Year will be on January not February, to be precise, Chinese New Year’s Eve 2017 will be on January 27, Friday, and New Year’s Day 2017 will be on January 28, Saturday.

      Wish you enjoy your new year’s trip to China next year ^_^

  • Tammy

    I love your article so much. I of course go to Chinese restaurants and we are very friendly to each other. I will be so happy to now be able to let them know I have an understanding of their culture better and wish them a happy new yr. I love the pictures you included and telling me what foods are consumed during the festivals.
    So if I got it right then when the new year comes everyone considers themselves a year old, even babies?

    • Awen

      That’s correct Tammy. According to Chinese way of age reckoning, babies are one year old by the time they were born. So if a baby was born on Chinese New Year’s Eve, by next day the New Year’s Day, it would be two-year old 😉

      So Chinese have two ages, one is real age based on the date of birth and another is virtual age based on Chinese New Year. But nowadays, only old generations are still using the virtual age.

  • Hannah

    This is such an interesting article.

    I love the illustrations, they really add to your post and helped me to get a picture of these Chinese traditions.

    I never knew there was this much preparation go into the Chinese new year. I’ll be honest – I haven’t given it too much thought before reading this. Now you have really got me interested though and I would like to know more!

    Thanks for an interesting read.
    Hannah.

    • Awen

      Thanks Hannah. This was the traditional way of Chinese New Year, which more or less has lost its appeal in modern China, especially in big cities.

  • power racks

    Fascinating, I’m going to spend more hours learning about Chinese new year.

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