Chinese new year festivities last a longer than one day. The new year is celebrated for two weeks from new year’s eve until Lantern Festival (or 15th night), on the first full moon of the new year (today!). Chunjie is one of several names for the celebration; it means Spring Festival and came into use when China started following the Gregorian calender and a January 1st new year. (I wrote about the Chinese calendar here). February 2013 brought my 8th new year celebration in China. I had a quiet year this year (that is to say I didn’t do much; it was definitely noisy!) but I’ve enjoyed looking back on previous years. There are a LOT of new year traditions in China, many of which I’ve participated in one year or another.
It is traditional to spend the New Year with family, so many people will travel to their hometown during this period. A Chinese friend of mine complained that Beijing is boring this week, as so many of his friends have left town for the holiday. For many people, it is the one and only time during the year they return home to visit family. So many people travel at this time, in fact, that it is often referred to as the largest annual human migration in the world.
Some numbers from this article (which also has great photos): During the 40 days of the new year travel period (a week before the new year, plus the first month of the new year) 3.4 billion trips will be made. 3.1 billion will be by road, 220 million by train, 43 million by boat, and 35.5 million by air. On the peak travel days of February 6 and 7, about 7 million people took trains. On January 15th, tickets for those days were released. On that day, 300,000 tickets were sold EVERY HOUR and tickets to some major cities sold out in 20 seconds.
Homes are prepared for the new year a few days in advance with cleaning (to sweep away bad luck); there is no sweeping on the new year itself so that good luck is not swept away. Diamond shaped papers with 福 fú – the character for good fortune/blessing – in the centre (usually in gold) go up everywhere. These are often placed upside down, because the word for “upside down” sounds the same as the word “arrive” (倒/到 dào) – so to say “the fú is upside down” sounds like “fortune has arrived”. That said, Chinese Christian friends have told me they don’t put their fú upside down because they think it is silly superstition – blessing comes from God, not from paper.
Red paper cuts go on windows, and strips of paper bearing poetic couplets go around entry ways. The poems are all about bringing good things to the household – prosperity, health, happiness, etc. – and are often black and gold written on red paper. In Beijing it’s common to see a pair of these couplets to the left and right of front doors of both homes and businesses, with a shorter one running horizontally above the door. (I’ve even seen some on the bonnet/hood or back window of business vans). They’ll often stay up all year, eventually replaced with a new one at the start of the next year. (See my post about Chinese new year decorations for more photos and translations of dui lian poetic couplets.)
Hóng bāo 红包 – red envelopes filled with money – are given to children (and unmarried young adults) by married men/couples, especially within families. Gifts are often given to friends and business associates, especially fruit and sweets. It is traditional to buy (and wear) all new outfits at this time of year, and if the zodiac animal of the new year is the one you were born in, you wear red underwear.
On New Year’s Eve (除夕 chú xì), families gather to spend the evening together. The 4 hour long New Year’s Gala is usually on the TV, as much background noise to the celebration as something to actually watch (kind of like cricket on the TV in summer in Australia!) The show has singing and dancing, lots of glitter, and a riot of colour. This year Celion Dion performed a Chinese song with a Chinese singer as well as “my heart will go on” – still a very popular song in China. Many people send text messages (especially near midnight) wishing their friends health, wealth and happiness in the new year. Some people burn offerings (I think the idea is for the Kitchen God to give a good report to your ancestors); in Beijing it’s common to see people burning things in small fires they have built on street corners. This actually happens several times a year for different traditional festivals.
Families have a “reunion dinner” and often stay up all night. There’s normally fish because it sounds the same as surplus/profit (魚/餘 yú). Noodles are common, as they represent long life, but that isn’t just a new year’s thing. In northern China (including Beijing) it’s tradition to make dumplings and eat them around midnight. Dumplings are made in a similar shape to an old currency, so they symbolise wealth. Making the dumplings together is part of the tradition – the act of packing the filling in is like packing wealth/luck into the new year. I’ve done this several times, although one year I don’t think we started eating dumplings til 2am, partly because we were full from a big hotpot dinner and partly because we just hadn’t got it done in time!
Another thing to do at midnight is, of course, to set off fireworks! An old folk tale gives an explanation for the use of fireworks. A monster called “nián” (年 – the word for year) would come out on the 1st day of every new year, and eat what it found – crops, livestock, even people. It was discovered that noise, fire and the colour red could scare the Nian away, so it became a tradition to use all three to keep the family safe, especially in the form of fireworks. A lot of popular fireworks here are very loud explosions without much to look at – the noise scares away the Nian and other evil spirits. This is very “fun” in a city full of tall buildings that echo the noises back and forth…
The fireworks in Beijing really have to be seen to be believed. It’s not just the noise, the taste of sulphur in the air, the spent gunpowder and red paper strewed everywhere, debris burning holes in your coat – it’s the sense of being totally surrounded by fireworks. They are going off in every direction, layer upon layer upon layer. I love this video – taken by a camera in a helicopter above the city. One minute in the helicopter flies over the Olympic venue at 9pm – complete with Birds’ Nest arena and psychadelic Water Cube. The next scene shows the city at 11pm, and then as the clock hits midnight it’s like the entire city turns into a disco! The flash-bang fireworks that are at least as common as the prettier li hua (flower style) look like strobe lights from the air.
This year’s fireworks were fairly tame. The government was cracking down on some of the bigger (more dangerous) fireworks, so they couldn’t be bought, and there were far fewer stores selling fireworks to begin with. Normally there’s a canvas tent full of big boxes of fireworks on every second street corner. This year I’ve only seen a few. There was also talk about how the pollution has been bad and fireworks contribute to that, and asking people to cut down. There certainly wasn’t as much insanity as I am accustomed to – only 20 minutes of the nonstop around midnight, and even that was more tame than in previous years. By 1:30 there were only occasional explosions, which was quite nice. The last two years I came home around then and there were still fireworks going off on every corner (I wrote about the danger of riding home through fireworks last year).
During the new year holiday, most temples open up to the public and host festivities. These temple fairs are very busy and lively and remind me of a country fair, like the annual Singleton Show in my Mum’s hometown, which we often visited as young children. There are toys, food, concerts, games and competitions with silly prizes. One year I went to the temple fair at Di Tan 地坛 (Earth Temple) in downtown Beijing with a bunch of friends (and my sister, who was visiting) and we all got hats, bought street food (including fairy floss/cotton candy) and played games.
Traditionally, Chu Yi 初一 (Yuan Dan 元旦), the first day of the New Year, is a time for visiting, and paying respect to one’s eldest relatives. Kai Nian 开年, the second day, is for married women to visit their family (new year’s eve and day would be spent with their in-laws). Chi Kou (赤口), the third day, is not a good day for visiting, and some people will burn offerings. It is a good day to go to the God of Wealth’s temple to have your fortune told. Chu Wu 初五, Fifth Night, is the second of three big fireworks nights in Beijing. It is the God of Wealth’s birthday, so dumplings are often eaten, and big fireworks are lit to get Guan Yu’s attention and, of course, gain good fortune and prosperity for the coming year. I wrote a silly little song about chu wu this year, mimicking the Sound of Music:
Beijing is alive with the sound of chu wu
With gunpowder popped for a thousand years
Big booms fill my house with the sound of chu wu
My ears want to ring every bang they hear
The seventh day is Ren Ri人日, sort of a collective birthday. Individual birthdays are not traditionally celebrated in China, although it’s become more common now. Ren ri is a birthday for everyone – the day when everyone gets a year older. This leads to complications in understanding ages, as in China a person changes their age on ren ri, not on their actual day of birth. The eighth day is another day for dinners, with family or with employees, and by this time most people are back at work.
Today, the fifteenth day of the new year, is Lantern Festival – yuán xiāo jié (元宵节), on the first full moon of the year. Tāng yuán 汤圆, sweet round dumplings brewed in soup, are eaten on this day. I’ve been given free tāng yuán when eating in restaurants on yuán xiāo jié. If I eat them at home I just buy frozen ones to cook on the stove. Candles and lanterns are lit outside houses, and there are lots of fireworks. When I lived in Langfang I saw red paper lanterns lit with candles and left to rise high into the air, but this isn’t common (you may have seen photos of this happening in Thailand). Lantern Festival is the last of the three big fireworks nights, and the last night in which fireworks are permitted within Beijing – one last chance to blow up whatever you have left!