Chinese New Year - History & Traditions

A holiday that has been celebrated for nearly 4000 years, the Chinese New Year Festival has origins spanning as far back as China's Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). In those days, China was primarily an agrarian society, and Chinese New Year started as a celebration to mark the conclusion of the cycle of seasons determined by the lunar calendar. This was an especially momentous occasion celebrating the past year’s harvests, and incorporated worshipping and praying for the blessing of a bountiful harvest in the seasons to come.
By the time of the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), the holiday had become a nationwide social practice, and was officially recognized by the government which would hold large scale events in celebration. Traditionally, the Chinese New Year festival continues for 15 days and ends with the Lantern Festival.

A well-known Qing Dynasty painting of the Chinese New Year Festival in a marketplace is reproduced in mural form on this 6 panel floor screen.

However, in China, many within the workforce will take an extended leave of absence for several weeks, often beginning one week before the holiday and returning up to two weeks after the festival conclusion.
This allows workers ample time for travel to reunite with family and it is common for this to be the only vacation time they will take for the entire year. In fact, the travel season in China during the new year is so busy, that the event today is regarded as being the largest scale annual human migration in the world. Each year, there is an estimated three billion passenger journeys made.
The date when Chinese New Year occurs fluctuates every year according to the lunar calendar, falling on the second new moon following the December solstice (the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere). This time is also considered the start of a calendar year for the traditional Chinese calendar, so it is associated with new beginnings.

Satellite GPS tracking of cell phones in China shows the travel paths of individuals during Chinese New Year, the largest annual human migration in the world.

How the Lunar Calendar Works

Unlike the Gregorian calendar, which is used in most of the world and is based on the Earth's orbit around the sun, the lunar calendar is based on the moon's orbit around the Earth. The traditional Chinese calendar is based on a lunar calendar, in which days begin and end at midnight, and months begin on the day of a new moon. The new moon is a phase when the lunar disk is not visible to the human eye. A lunation, also referred to as a synodic month, represents the time passed from one new moon to the next, and there are 12 of these months in a year.
Although the Gregorian calendar was formally adopted in China in 1929, the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar still governs holidays like Chinese New Year and the Lantern Festival, and is also used for selecting dates for auspicious events like weddings.

Chinese New Year Customs

  • Getting a Fresh Start

    As it marks the start of the calendar year, the new year celebration is also associated with a fresh start in Chinese culture. Because of this, it is important to expel negative energy before it starts. In preparation for the new beginning, tasks like cleaning, removing unwanted things, remodeling, and refurnishing are best done before the new year. Dressing oneself in new clothes and new shoes is also customary on new year's day.

  • Spring Couplet

    One of the most common and important customs of Chinese New Year involves the hanging of Spring Couplets on the front door of dwellings. A couplet is a Chinese form of poetry that features 2 written lines which must adhere to certain rules.

    In general, the two lines should be related, but antithetical in meaning. The Spring couplet is always illustrated with gold or black calligraphy on a red scroll, with each line of the couplet occupying a separate scroll pasted or hung on either side of the doorway.

    In the center of the entry, 2 characters are commonly displayed referring to 'spring' or 'prosperity'. Often, these characters may be hung upside down to signify 'arrival', (meaning the arrival of spring or prosperity).

The Chinese Zodiac

Not to be confused with the western zodiac, the Chinese Zodiac is an entirely different system of astrology which assigns an animal and an element to each calendar year within a 60 year cycle. In total, there are 12 different animals and 5 elements, with each animal year occurring 5 times during the 60 year cycle, once for each element.

Each animal and element has its own characteristics, and together, the combination of each is believed to determine the personality and destiny for an individual born under that sign. Hover over the animal and element names below for more information about their unique qualities.