The History of Chinese New Year

Folklore, Customs, and Evolution of the Celebration

China Town Lights Up For Chinese New Year
Suhaimi Abdullah/Stringer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The most important holiday in Chinese culture around the world is undoubtedly Chinese New Year, and it all started out of fear.

The centuries-old legend of the origins of the Chinese New Year celebration varies from teller to teller, but every telling includes a story of a terrible mythical monster preying on villagers. The lion-like monster’s name was Nian (年), which is also the Chinese word for “year."

The stories include a wise old man who counsels the villagers to ward off the evil Nian by making loud noises with drums and firecrackers and by hanging red paper cutouts and scrolls on their doors, because Nian is scared of the color red.

The villagers took the old man’s advice and Nian was conquered. On the anniversary of the date, the Chinese recognize the “passing of the Nian,” known in Chinese as guo nian (过年), which is synonymous with celebrating the new year.

Lunar Calendar

The date of Chinese New Year changes each year because it's based on the lunar calendar. While the western Gregorian calendar is based on the Earth’s orbit around the sun, the date of Chinese New Year is determined according to the moon’s orbit around the Earth. Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. Other Asian countries such as Korea, Japan, and Vietnam also celebrate the new year using the lunar calendar.

While Buddhism and Daoism have unique customs during the New Year, Chinese New Year is far older than both religions. As with many agrarian societies, Chinese New Year is rooted in a celebration of spring, like Easter or Passover.

Depending on where it's grown, the rice season in China lasts roughly from May to September (north China), April to October (Yangtze River Valley), or March to November (Southeast China). The New Year was likely the start of preparations for a new growing season.

Spring cleaning is a common theme during this time. Many Chinese families clean out their homes during the holiday. The New Year celebration could also have been a way to break up the boredom of the long winter months.

Traditional Customs

On Chinese New Year, families travel long distances to meet and make merry. Known as the "Spring movement" or Chunyun (春运), a great migration takes place in China during this period as many travelers brave crowds to get to their hometowns.

Though the holiday is actually just a week long, traditionally it's celebrated as a 15-day holiday when firecrackers are lit, drums are heard on the streets, red lanterns glow at night, and red paper cutouts and calligraphy hang on doors. Children are also given red envelopes containing money. Many cities around the world hold New Year parades complete with dragon and lion dances. Celebrations conclude on the 15th day with the Lantern Festival.

Food is an important component of New Year. Traditional foods to eat include nian gao (sweet sticky rice cake) and savory dumplings. 

Chinese New Year vs. Spring Festival

In China, New Year celebrations are synonymous with Spring Festival (春节 or chūn jié), which is typically a week-long celebration. The origins of this renaming from "Chinese New Year" to “Spring Festival” are fascinating and not widely known.

In 1912 the newly formed Chinese Republic, governed by the Nationalist Party, renamed the traditional holiday "Spring Festival" to get the Chinese people to transition into celebrating the Western New Year. During this period, many Chinese intellectuals felt that modernization meant doing all things as the West did.

When the Communists took over power in 1949, the celebration of New Year was viewed as feudalistic and steeped in religion, not proper for an atheist China. Under the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese New Year wasn't celebrated some years.

By the late 1980s, however, as China began liberalizing its economy, Spring Festival celebrations became big business. Since 1982, China Central Television has held an annual New Year’s Gala which is televised across the country and via satellite to the world.

Over the years, the government has made several changes to its holiday system. The May Day holiday was increased and then shortened to one day, and the National Day holiday was made three days instead of two. More traditional holidays, such as the Mid-Autumn Festival and Tomb-Sweeping Day, are emphasized. The only week-long holiday that was maintained is Spring Festival.