The Spring Festival or Chinese New Year (Chun Jie) is the most important traditional festival of China observed on and from the first day of the first Chinese lunar month. It ushers in the lunar New Year in accordance with the Chinese calendar. It is a time when the whole Chinese nation joins the bandwagon of celebrations, festivities and consumption. The celebration traditionally begins from the evening preceding the first day of the lunar year and concludes with the Lantern Festival on the fifteenth day of the year. The dawning of New Year coincides with the day the new moon appears between January 21 and February 20 of the Gregorian calendar. The lunisolar Chinese calendar is also used by East and Southeast Asian countries like Korea, Vietnam and Japan that have been historically influenced by Chinese culture. This year, the Chinese New Year falls on the 5th February and the year will be known as the 'Year of the Pig' in accordance with the 12-year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac. Although Western horoscopes have 12 zodiacal signs for a year (one for each month), in case of Chinese zodiacal signs, each of the animal is meant for the entire year.
The Spring Festival was originally a ceremonial day for praying to gods for an auspicious planting cum harvest season. As an agrarian society, the harvest was everything in ancient China. Although the festival is around 4.0 thousand years old, it is not fully certain exactly when or how the festival had originated. But according to legends, there was once a monster called 'Nian' who attacked Chinese villages every spring and ate everything that came its way - people, animals, plants and even the odd buildings. One spring, as advised by an old man, the villagers hung red papers on their doors and set off firecrackers by setting fire to bamboos when the Nian arrived. The monster was so startled by the bright colours and loud cracking noise of the burning bamboos that it retreated and fled. The villagers then understood that the intruder was fearful of the red colour and loud noise. So they began wearing red clothes, hung red-coloured lanterns and red spring scrolls on their windows and doors when the New Year was about to come. They also exploded firecrackers to frighten away the Nian. From then on, the beast never returned to the village again. Today, the word 'Nian' is the Chinese expression for year.
The Chinese people hang red paper signs and red lanterns outside their homes and enjoy making loud noises on New Year's Eve since that time. Bamboo was replaced by firecrackers after the invention of gun-powder, and today the main idea is to make the event louder and bigger. The Chinese families and households give their homes a thorough cleaning on the day prior to the New Year celebration. It is believed that the cleaning sweeps away the bad luck of the previous year and makes the home ready for good fortune in the New Year. On the other hand, it is feared that cleaning on the New Year's Day itself may sweep away the year's good fortune. Using sharp tools or objects and breaking dishes are also viewed as inauspicious.
The biggest event of the Chinese New Year's Eve is the annual reunion dinner in Chinese households. Food becomes a central consideration in family gatherings. Large numbers of delicacies are prepared and served. Fish is often eaten, as the Chinese word for fish (Yu) is a homophone for surplus. People express their desire for affluent lives through the homophony of these two words. The children particularly enjoy the custom of receiving red envelopes, as they contain gifts of money and are distributed among young unmarried relatives by family elders. The New Year pictures are also an indispensable part of the celebration for all households in China. Most of these pictures feature designs symbolising good fortune. Their styles vary from the north to the south of China. The northern pictures are best represented by those produced in Yangliuqing of Tianjin Municipality, while those from Taohuawu in Suzhou City of Jiangsu province are representative of the southern tradition.
The Chinese New Year is one of the most popular and celebrated festivals across the globe and involves the largest annual human movement cum migration. It also wields powerful influence on the New Year celebrations of neighbouring countries, such as 'Seol' of Korea and the 'Tet' of Vietnam. The seven-day New Year's holiday is a time for family celebration. Nearly all university students or migrant workers head home for spending their time with their families. It would appear to an onlooker that the whole Chinese population was on the move and going somewhere, either on their way home or travelling to various tourism sites by taking advantage of the long holiday.
It is customary to cook dumplings (jiaozi) after dinner in northern China to eat around midnight. It should be noted that dumplings symbolise wealth. In contrast, it is customary to prepare glutinous New Year cake (nian gao) in southern China and send its pieces as gifts to relatives and friends later on. After consuming dinner, some families pray for a prosperous new year in local temples by lighting the first incense of the year. However, many families arrange parties in contemporary times and even stage countdowns for the New Year. There is a tradition of going to bed late on the New Year's Eve or even remaining awake throughout the night. Known as 'Shousi', it is still practised as it is deemed to boost the longevity of parents. A popular custom is the decoration of doors and windows with red paper-cuttings and couplets embodying popular themes like good fortune, happiness, wealth and longevity.
The first day of the New Year is observed for welcoming the deities of heaven and earth, which commences officially at midnight. After two weeks, the first full moon of the new lunar year (15th day) is observed as the 'Yuanxiao', or 'Shangyuan' or the Lantern Festival (D?ng Jié). Although family is still important, this festival is now observed as a night of partying and freedom. Rice dumplings brewed in a soup are eaten on this day. Candles are lit outside homes for guiding back the wayward spirits and the families walk the streets by carrying lighted lanterns. Girls were not allowed to venture outside by themselves on the occasion during the bygone era. But they were allowed to walk around, gaze at the moon and look at the beautiful lanterns on the night. Because of this tradition, the day is also known now as the Valentine's Day of China.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly, an 'Understanding China' Fellow of the Beijing-based Confucius Institute Headquarters for 2016-17, and retired Additional Secretary of the Ministry of the Public Administration. Email: [email protected]