Nobody Loves the New Year More Than the Chinese
One of the main features of the Chinese New Year is that this holiday is fundamentally different from the New Year celebrated in Western countries. In China, it is associated with the dates of the lunar calendar. Celebration of the Chinese New Year is timed to the the second new moon after the Winter Solstice. This date falls between January 21 and February 21. Many interesting myths and beliefs are associated with it.
founder of B2B Perevod translation agency, translator and sinologist, specialist in intercultural communication, Dean of the Chinese College of MKIK
Maria Suvorova is a permanent expert of the Peace 50 community. She can talk about China seemingly endlessly and each of her stories is incredibly fascinating and informative. Ms. Suvorova believes that the study of cultures different from one another brings people all over the planet closer together.
On the eve of the Chinese New Year, we talked with Maria Suvorova about this interesting holiday. She told us about the traditions and beliefs that are most unusual for the European understanding. That discussion once again showed us that China is a country with an amazing history. We want to learn more and more about it each time.
– The Chinese New Year is celebrated in winter but its name can be literally translated as the Spring Festival. What is the reason for that?
– There is certain confusion for foreigners in both versions of the name of the holiday. Just as the Chinese New Year is not associated with the beginning of the calendar year, the Spring Festival is not associated with the dates in the calendar. Of course, in China, flowers do not bloom and buds do not begin to open in January and February.
The Spring Festival symbolizes the beginning of life, the awakening of spirits and springs hidden in the depths of the earth, rivers, and water bodies. It is also the time when the new annual cycle begins.
It can be partially compared to how people celebrated the New Year in ancient Russia in March. At that time, people celebrated the beginning of a new agricultural cycle, the awakening of nature after ‘winter sleep’.
– The symbols of the Eastern calendar are popular in Russia and many other countries. For example, 2021 is the year of the Metal Bull. That’s why, on New Year’s Eve, people try not to wear red clothes and not to eat beef so as not to ‘enrage’ it. What other combinations of symbols exist? Do the Chinese have the same reverent attitude towards them?
– I always smile when I hear advice on what to wear when celebrating the Years of the Metal Bull, Fire Dog, or Water Tiger. The fact is that the Eastern zodiac cycle never changes during the night of December 31 – January 1. Even if a person unquestioningly believes in omens associated with certain symbols, he or she can calmly celebrate the New Year in Russia and in another Western country in any outfit and with any dishes on the table.
The Chinese horoscope assigns the symbols of 12 animals and 5 basic elements including water, metal, wood, fire, and earth to the years. Each element has a colour that embodies that element. All these symbols are combined in a certain order, thus creating a calendar of 60 unique years. According to experts following this theory, each set of such elements affects the lives of people depending on their date of birth and other characteristics differently.
Interestingly, the familiar system of symbols of 12 animals and 5 natural elements actually has a much deeper and more complex meaning. According to the Wuxing philosophy, when casting a horoscope, it is important to focus on the ‘Heavenly Stems’ and ‘Earthly Branches’ formed by a combination of symbols. They give a broader idea of what things will fill a particular period of time. Special calendars with such calculations are popular in China. They pay attention to the influence of the elements on business, trade, agriculture, health, and mood of people as well as that on the existence of all life on the planet.
– What Chinese New Year’s beliefs and omens do you find most interesting?
– The Chinese New Year is very mythologized. That is where many traditions come from. The word ‘year’ in Chinese, nian (年), comes from the name of a mythical animal. It is believed to appear on the second new moon after the Winter Solstice, destroy all agricultural supplies, and sometimes even take small children with it. Each New Year is the arrival of a new beast. That is why there is a tradition to please the beast in every possible way on New Year’s Eve: to set tables with many dishes and display treats on the doorstep.
At the same time, many traditions presuppose scaring off the terrible beast. For example, the Chinese launch fireworks in the streets as other people in many countries around the world do. However, they prefer not so much bright performance but noise and rumble. Interestingly, small crackers and firecrackers are used first. Then they are followed by the traditional three grandiose strokes of fireworks aimed at scarring off the beast.
Another way to scare off the beast is to celebrate the New Year and decorate homes in bright red. A similar tradition exists in other countries. For example, Santa Claus wears a red coat and the most popular colours for Christmas tree decorations and holiday elements in Europe and the West are red and gold. However, this tradition has such a meaningful and symbolic nature only in China. The red colour during the celebration of the New Year in this country is associated with fire terrifying the beast.
It is believed that the Chinese provide themselves with prosperity and security by scaring off the beast.
On New Year’s Eve, the Chinese, just like us, clean their houses diligently, thus sweeping away all bad luck and making room for the coming happiness.
– What traditional dishes do people have in China on New Year's Eve?
– The Chinese New Year table is also very traditional. As a rule, most of the dishes necessarily symbolize something. Fish is a traditional element on the table. Its name is consonant with ‘prosperity’ and ‘abundance’. Small Chinese dumplings, which the whole family makes on the eve of the holiday, symbolize money. The Chinese New Year table often includes such dishes as duck and a variety of sweet and not sweet rice treats.
The Chinese New Year’s table is set for 15 consecutive days up to the Lantern Festival.
– Do the Chinese most often celebrate the New Year with family or friends?
– For the Chinese, the New Year is definitely a family holiday where all generations of the family and all relatives, even the most distant ones, get together.
There is a very high level of social mobility in China. It is absolutely normal for Chinese people to live in the north, study in the south, and then go to work in the east. In addition, many Chinese people go to work to other countries, often in Africa. However, on the New Year’s Eve, they certainly gather at home with a large family. Company leaders worldwide who work with Chinese partners or employees make sure to take this fact into account.
There is hardly any greater insult to a Chinese employee than to forbid him or her to go home to his or her family for the New Year holidays.
The Spring Festival is a time of reunion for all generations of the family. It is believed that, on this night, the spirits and deities who live in the houses leave their altars and go to their ancestors to inform them about how the year has gone. Then they return to protect the families and ensure their well-being until the next Spring Festival. No one should go to bed that night in order not to miss the happiness the deities bring.
When we were students, we enjoyed celebrating the Chinese New Year by following its main cultural traditions. On the eve of the holiday, we stocked up on new clothes, red socks with good wishes, and all sorts of treats. It was very interesting and funny. Perhaps, nobody loves New Year more than Chinese people do.
– What would you wish our readers on Chinese New Year’s Eve?
– To spend more time with their loved ones. Family is what keeps people on earth, gives them support and motivation to move forward, to develop themselves and their businesses. It is the thread that links us to our family, ancestors, and eternal human values.
I wish you to take more care of your family and always remember that our family is not only our relatives but also our colleagues, friends, and every person who lives with us in one house, city, country, or on one planet. We are all different but we have so much in common. That is why we must live and act for the good of one another.
Viktoria Yezhova, Global Women Media news agency
Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov