A Dual Perspective: Chinese New Year

Xīn nián kuàilè! 新年快Happy New Year!   So by now Chinese New Year has come and gone.

I’m going to write about my personal experience from this past Spring Festival (another name for Chinese New Year) and that of my colleague’s experiences, and about the traditional practices that occur during what is the most revered holiday in China and the Chinese diaspora. I’m an American, while my colleague is from Northern China, which varies significantly from Southern China. As she explained to me Chinese New Year (CNY) isn’t like the Gregorian calendar’s new year that celebrates one day, it is a festival or series of traditions that occur over the course of 15 or 16 days; some people even celebrate for a month.

Chinese Perspective

She of course experienced a much more traditional Spring Festival than me. To begin her CNY, she had to find tickets to her hometown, which is extremely difficult with so many people leaving the city at once, prices skyrocket (as I mentioned in a previous post). Chinese New Year day was January 31st this year, but you should be home by New Year’s Eve (which was Jan. 30). On CNY Eve you have a big family dinner in your hometown and set off firecrackers and fireworks at midnight! Another big thing on NYE is watching the performances on the nationally televised gala. The gala runs for hours on Chinese New Year’s eve, and has singing, dancing, skits, martial arts, and representations from different minority groups and regions of China.

People set off the firecrackers to scare away the nian (nián shòu 年兽), which is believed to attack humans, especially children. The firecrackers and red colors are meant to intimidate the beast, which can look like a dragon/unicorn/ox/horse/tiger creature.

Beginning on the first day of the new year (this year was Jan. 31), there are traditional activities and things that you should do. Each subsequent day is different and each day matters!

It’s really the first five days that matter most, and then the 15th or 16th day. During the first five days you will visit friends and family. There are a couple of constant rules to these visits, such as that you will go to the oldest living family member’s house, eat lots of food, and the old people will typically give the young red envelopes (hóng bāo 红包) filled with money. Some young adults receive hóng bāo until they have their first job or they are married. Oh and you will give and get red envelopes at any given time on any given day during Spring Festival, so for simplicity sake I’m not putting that in each of the first five days.

  • Day 1 traditionally you see your father’s family
  • Day 2 you should celebrate with your mother’s side
  • Day 3 you should visit other relative’s or go visit the cemetery to pay your respects (you actually may go to the cemetery on Day 1 or 2 as well)
  • Day 4 more family visits or friend visits, particularly in the afternoon
  • Day 5 fireworks at night!! To help bring more fortune and money to you in the new year. In hopes that the God of Wealth (yíng cái shén 迎财神) will bless you.

During the first five days you are not allowed to throw away your garbage or cut your hair. This can lead to the streets being pretty filthy with piles of firecracker remnants and other trash. So in preparation to CNY people will often get their hair cut (additionally helps to look nice for family) and will do a massive house cleaning. You will eat the traditional food of dumplings in soup (tāng yuán jiǎo zi汤圆饺子).

American Perspective

I’ll get into what I did; I had a big family dinner and watched part of the gala on CNY Eve. Afterwards, went to a friend’s house for a party since it was a national holiday. We had a great time, got to meet some new people, and light fireworks! Splendid.

After the first day of the new year, when I went to a small mountain-city called Wuyishan (Wuyi Mountain – 武夷山 wǔyíshān) in Fujian Province. It’s south of Shanghai, so it’s a bit warmer; which was nice! It’s a really cool area, which has virtually zero pollution, as it’s a UNESCO world & cultural heritage site with its famous 9-bend river and picturesque mountain ranges. There is a strong tea culture there, with very fine and expensive teas being produced in the mountains. Wuyishan also has quite a lot of history with Confucianism and Taoism. Altogether a great trip!

A personal picture from atop one of Wuyishan’s numerous mountains.

What I found to be a common theme throughout the expats in Shanghai was travel. Pretty much everyone working in China from overseas using this as a time to go get some much deserved “R&R”. One thing that some people did as was actually work through the holiday to use the days off after the official holiday. That way the prices to pretty much anywhere in Asia will be much better and not raised due to the lunar new year. I have friends that are travelling to Phuket, Thailand and Malaysia/Singapore soon. It’s a great time to see Asia.

The other thing you should know is that on the 15th or 16th day is the Lantern Festival or Yuan Xiao Jie (yuán xiāo jié 元宵节). People lit lanterns and set off more fireworks all over the city for the Lantern Festival this past Valentine’s Day weekend. My Northerner colleague told me that these activities are more important to Southern people than Northerners.

You could tell that CNY finally wrapped up last week because people started to return to Shanghai, and some restaurants were still closed because the workers were continuing to celebrate in their hometowns. This is the first week that everything seems back to normal.

Chinese people have a lot of unique customs regarding Chinese New Year; the foundation however is based on family. They have to go to their hometown for anywhere from a week to a month of rekindling and revisiting relationships with family and then friends. They light a lot of fireworks to scare mythical nian away and to bring in good fortune. Old people give out the red envelopes filled with money to younger family members. And just as with anything important in China, there is a great deal of feasting, good food, and imbibing copious amounts of alcohol; preferably baijiu (bái jiǔ 白酒).

On the other hand, most expats use their holidays to travel around Asia. Some may work to save the days for a future date to get a greater value. Others may just enjoy the peace and quiet of the big city during Spring Festival, as the streets seem empty and unnervingly quiet at times.