If you’re traveling in China early in the year, you’ll probably notice a buzz that seems to creep up out of nowhere. Typically composed and reserved as a people, you may even find a sense of anticipation and excitement permeating the air everywhere you visit in China.
Well, it’s no surprise. With Chinese New Year celebrations literally just around the corner – in 2020, it starts on 25 January – it’s all action stations as people make ready for this auspicious celebration.
Unlike New Year in Western culture, Chinese New Year is celebrated in an altogether different way. Rather than flutes of champagne, party poppers and countdowns till midnight, Chinese New Year is a tradition that sets it apart from other celebrations.
Want to know how to celebrate Chinese New Year? Let’s show you how it’s done.
Chinese New Year is all about tradition
If you’re going to celebrate Chinese New Year, you’d better prepare yourself for a tradition that some say goes back millennia.
It’s not entirely clear just when Chinese New Year first kicked off, however it’s believed to have come about during the Shang Dynasty, which ran from 1766 BC to 1122 BC. Like many Chinese traditions, this means it originated a long, long time ago.
There are others who believe Chinese New Year emerged even earlier, attributing the tradition to the time of Emperors Yao and Shun, around 2300 BC.
While historians may debate the origins, there’s little argument the Chinese New Year tradition, we have Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (206BC to 220BC) to thank for creating a set way to measure the lunar year, including establishing the first month of the traditional Chinese calendar as the start of the year.
If all this talk of dynasties and emperors is confusing you, don’t let it. If you want to celebrate Chinese New Year, just remember it occurs around a month after the Gregorian calendar’s New Year on the first day of the year. Think of it as a bonus celebration and opt in to the ways the Chinese commemorate this important annual event.
What happens at Chinese New Year?
Chinese New Year is not just any ordinary celebration. In fact, it’s the country’s most significant, which is no small feat considering there are a seriously large number in the Chinese calendar. Chinese people say Guo Nian (过年), which is literally translated as pass over Nian, but actually means to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year is also called Spring Festival. Running over seven days, Chinese New Year is a public holiday throughout the whole country. If you’re traveling during this time, expect to find unusually quiet streets in otherwise busy cities. On the other hand, domestic travel to just about any destination in China can be a challenge.
People take advantage of the opportunity to slow down by visiting family and friends (often in some other part of the country). It’s a time of reunion and reconnection. Everyone tries to return to their hometown to reunite with parents and relatives.
Food is how you celebrate Chinese New Year
Food is such an integral part of Chinese life that it’s impossible to think of Chinese New Year without it.
First, there’s the essential big family dinner or Spring Festival Dinner – Nian Ye Fan (年夜饭) on New Year’s Eve. Considered a sumptuous affair, it’s a meal that finds every family going all out with meats, seafood, and of course, dumplings. Apart from being utterly delicious, having dumplings to celebrate Chinese New Year is significant. Shaped like an ancient Chinese gold ingot, making the dumplings together as a family means wrapping up wealth and prosperity, as well as living in happy union with family members.
But there’s more than dumplings to be enjoyed. China is a vast place and every region has its own food traditions to celebrate Chinese New Year.
While a northern Chinese family will prepare a feast around dumplings, a southern Chinese family will dine on sticky rice balls, or spring rolls as part of their banquet to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Like dumplings, the sticky rice balls are symbolic too. The spherical shape of the tang yuan signifies family reunion and happiness.
Fish (鱼Yu ) is also a staple main dish. Why? Because in Chinese, both the pronunciation of fish and its meaning are potent symbols. Meaning prosperous, fish or Nian Nian You Yu (年年有余) confers good wishes on the recipient, literally meaning Have savings every year. The Chinese are deeply poetic and it’s any wonder that Chinese New Year food is all “good luck” food.