This Saturday (28 January 2017) sees the start of the Year of the Rooster. But what is Chinese New Year all about? Take a dive into Chinese culture and learn more about the importance of the Chinese New Year for your Chinese colleagues or customers.
Where is Chinese New Year celebrated?
In several South-East Asian countries, Chinese New Year (or “Lunar New Year”) is considered a major, if not the most important festival of the year. It is certainly the main holiday of the year for more than a quarter of the world’s population, and a public holiday in a large number of countries.
The first celebrating country that is likely to spring to mind is Mainland China, but other countries that have significant Chinese communities tend to celebrate Chinese New Year too. Here’s a selection of some of the biggest celebrators:
Chinese New Year is the main holiday of the year for more than a quarter of the world’s population
However, there are South-East Asian populations that maintain their own New Year, such as the Thai, who celebrate Songkran. Also outside of Asia, Chinese New Year is celebrated in several large cities with significant Chinese populations, including London and New York.
How do we determine when Chinese New Year takes place?
Though Lunar New Year will be celebrated on the 28 January this year, it is not celebrated on an annually fixed day like New Year’s Day. The latter is based on the Gregorian calendar, a solar calendar, whose dates are determined by the position of the Earth on its path around the Sun.
Lunar New Year is not celebrated on an annually fixed day like New Year’s Day
Chinese communities, for practical reasons, do use the Gregorian calendar for everyday life. For traditional activities, however, they still refer to the Chinese calendar, which is a lunisolar calendar.
Generally speaking, there are two types of lunisolar calendars. As the name suggests, one way uses the calendar as an indicator of the moon phase (e.g. a full moon). However, the Chinese calendar is of the other type, which actually tracks the tropical year. In doing so, they are able to determine the seasons.
The months of the Chinese calendar start on the first day of the new moon. The first month of the year begins on the new moon between 21 January and 20 February on the Gregorian calendar. This, of course, is what we refer to as Lunar or Chinese New Year!
Excluding preparations, the entire festival is celebrated over sixteen days, finishing with the Lantern Festival
Some countries even refer to it as the “Spring Festival”. Excluding preparations – cleaning the house thoroughly to sweep away any bad luck – the entire festival is celebrated over sixteen days, finishing with the Lantern Festival.
What does the “Year of the Rooster” mean?
In a similar way how the Gregorian calendar can be divided into blocks of twelve, namely months, the Chinese calendar has twelve cycles. However, these cycles last for one year each, as opposed to one month. And while the blocks on the Gregorian calendar have mostly been named after the Roman deities or numbers, the Chinese cycles are characterised by one of the twelve zodiac animals:
Each animal has certain symbolic meanings, assigned by the ancient Chinese. It is also believed that a person takes after the attribute or characteristic of the animal of their year. Particularly in the past, one of the most important uses of the Chinese Zodiac was to determine whether two people in a relationship were compatible or not.
One of the most important uses of the Chinese zodiac was to determine whether two people in a relationship were compatible or not
Perhaps unintuitively, entering the year of your zodiac animal is considered to bring bad luck. However, the best way to avoid any misfortune is to wear something in red that an older relative has given to you. This could be e.g. socks, a necklet, a bracelet, or even underwear.
Entering the year of your zodiac animal is actually considered to bring bad luck
You may have also heard of hongbao, or “red envelopes”. They are traditionally gifted to express blessings or well-wishes and contain cash. If you are given one, remember to accept it with two hands while thanking the giver, and to only open the envelope in private – as etiquette dictates.
If you wish to give any hongbao, remember to only use bills, not coins. On top of that, it is considered good taste to only give new, crisp bills. Finally, avoid giving any amount that starts or ends with a number 4, which is a very unlucky number in Chinese communities.
Avoid giving any amount that starts or ends with a number 4, which is a very unlucky number in Chinese communities
So what is the meaning of all this red? In short, the colour has historically brought good fortune, as this video will explain:
Firecrackers and fireworks
In the same video, you may have noticed that for similar historic reasons as the appearance of red, using firecrackers and fireworks are also important customs of Chinese New Year – not unlike the celebration of New Year’s Day!
For Chinese New Year, the firecrackers and fireworks also have a functional role
However, the reasons for setting them off are quite different. On the 1 January, fireworks appear to be mainly used for aesthetic and atmospheric reasons – as is reflected in the many firework displays across the world.
For Chinese New Year, however, while still playing an important part in the overall atmosphere, the firecrackers and fireworks also have a functional role. The historical beast Nian, as mentioned in the video, is believed to not only be frightened by the colour red, but also by bright lights and loud noises – which is how the custom of setting off firecrackers and fireworks started.
Family and social gatherings
In many countries, social gatherings take place on New Year’s Eve, rather than family gatherings. It is certainly not uncommon – in countries where Christmas is the main celebration – to consider 25 December the time to spend with family, while New Year is more of an occasion for friends.
In many countries, social gatherings take place on New Year’s Eve, rather than family gatherings
For Chinese New Year, on the other hand, the most important celebration in Chinese communities, New Year’s Eve is the moment to have a family gathering, and enjoy an annual Reunion Dinner. This meal can be best compared to the American Thanksgiving dinner, and to some Christmas meals.
What do people eat for New Year?
For the actual Lunar New Year, there are various foods that ought to be eaten, as they symbolise good fortune. Other foods, however, ought to be avoided to avoid bad luck.
One of the most recommended things to eat are long noodles, as they symbolise a long life
One of the most recommended things to eat is long noodles, as they symbolise a long life. In some sense, they are comparable to lentils, which are eaten on New Year’s Day in e.g. Italy or Hungary, as they appear like small coins and therefore symbolise wealth.
What about drinks?
The most common thing to drink in the West when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Day is some form of sparkling wine, most commonly referred to as champagne.
For Chinese New Year, alcohol is also the most common choice of drink, contrary to the popular belief that tea would accompany the food. This is mostly due to the belief that a good tea’s flavour and aroma ought to be enjoyed in all its purity, with a simple selection of food, as opposed to an elaborate meal.
Showing even a little cultural awareness can go a long way, and will help you build a long-lasting relationships
With this overview, you may be more aware of what Chinese New Year is all about, and how you are expected to behave, should you wish to impress your Chinese business partners. In general, showing even a little cultural awareness can go a long way, and will help you build long-lasting relationships – both business and social.