Chinese New Year, also known as the “Spring Festival” (春節 in traditional Chinese, Chūn Jié in Pinyin, and Wan Trut Chin — วันตรุษจีน — in Thai, although Pi Mai Chin is more widely used now) is an important Chinese festival celebrated at the turn of the traditional lunisolar Chinese calendar. Celebrations traditionally run from the evening preceding the first day, to the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first calendar month. The first day of the New Year falls on the new moon between January 21 and February 20. In 2017, the first day of the Chinese New Year is on Saturday, January 28, initiating the year of the Rooster. Widely observed here in Thailand by Thai Chinese and large portions of the private sector, Chinese New Year is observed as a public holiday in Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and Satun provinces. Thailand is home to the largest overseas Chinese community in the world with a population of approximately nine million people, accounting for 14 percent of the Thai population as of 2012.
The New Year festival is centuries old and gains significance because of several myths and traditions. Traditionally, the festival was a time to honor deities as well as ancestors. Chinese New Year is celebrated in countries and territories with significant Chinese populations, including Mainland China, Hong Kong (officially as Lunar New Year), Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mauritius and Australia, and the Philippines. Chinese New Year is considered a major holiday for the Chinese and has had influence on the lunar new year celebrations of its geographic neighbors.
Within China, regional customs and traditions concerning the celebration of the Chinese New Year vary widely. Often, the evening preceding Chinese New Year’s Day is an occasion for Chinese families to gather for the annual reunion dinner. It is also traditional for every family to thoroughly cleanse the house, in order to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for good incoming luck. Windows and doors will be decorated with red color paper-cuts and couplets with popular themes of “good fortune” or “happiness”, “wealth”, and “longevity”. Other activities include lighting firecrackers and giving money in red paper envelopes. Among about one third of the Mainland population, or 500 million Northerners, dumplings (especially those of vegetarian fillings) feature prominently in the meals celebrating the festival.
The lunisolar Chinese calendar determines the date of Chinese New Year. The calendar is also used in countries that have been influenced by, or have relations with, China — such as Korea, Japan and Vietnam, though occasionally the date celebrated may differ by one day or even one moon cycle due to using a meridian based on a different capital city in a different time zone or different placements of intercalary months.
In the Gregorian calendar, Chinese Lunar New Year begins at the new moon that falls between January 21 and February 20. The median date of Chinese New Year’s Day is lichun (立春, literally “start of spring”) on February 4 or 5, the solar term next to Dahan (大寒, literally “major cold”). In the Chinese calendar, winter solstice must occur in the 11th month, which means that Chinese New Year usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice (rarely the third if an intercalary month intervenes). To determine whether a year has an intercalary month, one only needs to check whether Chinese New Year is within the month of January.
The traditional Chinese calendar follows a Metonic cycle. The names of the Earthly Branches have no English counterparts and are not the Chinese translations of the animals. Alongside the 12-year cycle of the animal zodiac there is a 10-year cycle of heavenly stems. Each of the ten heavenly stems is associated with one of the five elements of Chinese astrology, namely: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. The elements are rotated every two years while a yin and yang association alternates every year. The elements are thus distinguished: Yang Wood, Yin Wood, Yang Fire, Yin Fire, etc. These produce a combined cycle that repeats every 60 years. For example, the year of the Yang Fire Rat occurred in 1936 and in 1996, 60 years apart.
Many people inaccurately calculate their Chinese birth-year by converting it from their Gregorian birth-year. As the Chinese New Year starts in late January to mid-February, the previous Chinese year dates through January 1 until that day in the new Gregorian year, remaining unchanged from the previous Gregorian year. For example, the 1989 year of the Snake began on February 6, 1989. The year 1989 is generally aligned with the year of the Snake. However, the 1988 year of the Dragon officially ended on February 5, 1989. This means that anyone born from January 1 to February 5, 1989, was actually born in the year of the Dragon rather than the year of the Snake. Many online Chinese Sign calculators do not account for the non-alignment of the two calendars, using Gregorian-calendar years rather than official Chinese New Year dates.
According to tales and legends, the beginning of the Chinese New Year started with a mythical beast called the Nian. Nian would eat villagers, especially children. One year, all the villagers decided to go hide from the beast. An old man appeared before the villagers went into hiding and said that he’s going to stay the night, and decided to get revenge on the Nian. All the villagers thought he was insane. The old man put red papers up and set off firecrackers. The day after, the villagers came back to their town to see that nothing was destroyed. They assumed that the old man was a deity who came to save them. The villagers then understood that the Nian was afraid of the color red and loud noises. When the New Year was about to come, the villagers would wear red clothes, hang red lanterns, and red spring scrolls on windows and doors. People also used firecrackers to frighten away the Nian. From then on, Nian never came to the village again. The Nian was eventually captured by Hongjun Laozu, an ancient Taoist monk. The Nian became Hongjun Laozu’s mount.
On the days immediately before the New Year celebration, Chinese families give their homes a thorough cleaning. There is a Cantonese saying “Wash away the dirt on nin ya baat” (年廿八，洗邋遢), but the practice is not restricted to nin ya baat (the 28th day of month 12). It is believed the cleaning sweeps away the bad luck of the preceding year and makes their homes ready for good luck. Brooms and dust pans are put away on the first day so that the newly arrived good luck cannot be swept away. Some people give their homes, doors and window-frames a new coat of red paint; decorators and paper-hangers do a year-end rush of business prior to Chinese New Year. Homes are often decorated with paper cutouts of Chinese auspicious phrases and couplets. Purchasing new clothing and shoes also symbolize a new start. Any hair cuts need to be completed before the New Year, as cutting hair on New Year is considered bad luck due to the homonymic nature of the word “hair” (fa) and the word for “prosperity”. Businesses are expected to pay off all the debts outstanding for the year before the new year eve, extending to debts of gratitude. Thus, it is a common practice to send gifts and rice to close business associates, and extended family members.
In many households where Buddhism or Taoism is prevalent, home altars and statues are cleaned thoroughly, and decorations used to adorn altars over the past year are taken down and burned a week before the new year starts, to be replaced with new decorations. Taoists (and Buddhists to a lesser extent) will also “send gods back to heaven” (送神), an example would be burning a paper effigy of Zao Jun the Kitchen God, the recorder of family functions. This is done so that the Kitchen God can report to the Jade Emperor of the family household’s transgressions and good deeds. Families often offer sweet foods (such as candy) in order to “bribe” the deities into reporting good things about the family.
Prior to the Reunion Dinner, a prayer of thanksgiving is held to mark the safe passage of the previous year. Confucianists take the opportunity to remember their ancestors, and those who had lived before them are revered. Some people do not give a Buddhist prayer due to the influence of Christianity, with a Christian prayer offered instead.
The biggest event of any Chinese New Year’s Eve is the Reunion Dinner, named as “Nian Ye Fan“. A dish consisting of special meats is served at the tables of Chinese families, as a main course for the dinner and offering for the New Year. This meal is comparable to Thanksgiving dinner in the U.S. and remotely similar to Christmas dinner in other countries with a high percentage of Christians. In northern China, it is customary to make dumplings (jiaozi) after dinner to eat around midnight. Dumplings symbolize wealth because their shape resembles a Chinese sycee. By contrast, in the South, it is customary to make a glutinous new year cake (niangao) and send pieces of it as gifts to relatives and friends in the coming days of the new year. Niángāo literally means “new year cake” with a homophonous meaning of “increasingly prosperous year in year out”. After dinner, some families go to local temples hours before the new year begins to pray for a prosperous new year by lighting the first incense of the year; however in modern practice, many households hold parties and even hold a countdown to the new year. Traditionally, firecrackers were once lit to scare away evil spirits with the household doors sealed, not to be reopened until the new morning in a ritual called “opening the door of fortune” ( 开财门). Beginning in 1982, the CCTV New Year’s Gala was broadcast four hours before the start of the New Year.
The first day of Chinese New Year is for the welcoming of the deities of the heavens and earth, officially beginning at midnight. It is a traditional practice to light fireworks, burn bamboo sticks and firecrackers and to make as much of a din as possible to chase off the evil spirits as encapsulated by nian (年) of which the term guo nian (过年) was derived. Many people, especially Buddhists, abstain from meat consumption on the first day because it is believed that this will ensure longevity for them. Some consider lighting fires and using knives to be bad luck on New Year’s Day, so all food to be consumed is cooked the days before. On this day, it is considered bad luck to use the broom.
Most importantly, the first day of Chinese New Year is a time to honor one’s elders and families visit the oldest and most senior members of their extended families, usually their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. For Buddhists, the first day is also the birthday of Maitreya Bodhisattva (better known as the more familiar Budai Luohan), the Buddha-to-be. People also abstain from killing animals.
Some families may invite a lion dance troupe as a symbolic ritual to usher in the Chinese New Year as well as to evict bad spirits from the premises. Members of the family who are married also give red envelopes containing cash known as lai see (Cantonese dialect) or angpow (Hokkien dialect/Fujian), or hongbao (Mandarin), a form of blessings and to suppress the aging and challenges associated with the coming year, to junior members of the family, mostly children and teenagers. Business managers also give bonuses through red packets to employees for good luck, smooth-sailing, good health and wealth.
While fireworks and firecrackers are traditionally very popular, some regions have banned them due to concerns over fire hazards. For this reason, various city governments (e.g., Kowloon, Beijing, Shanghai for a number of years) issued bans over fireworks and firecrackers in certain precincts of the city. As a substitute, large-scale fireworks display have been launched by governments in such city states as Hong Kong and Singapore. However, it is a tradition that the indigenous peoples of the walled villages of New Territories, Hong Kong are permitted to light firecrackers and launch fireworks in a limited scale.
The second day of the Chinese New Year, known as “beginning of the year” (开年) was when married daughters visited their birth parents, relatives and close friends. Traditionally, married daughters didn’t have the opportunity to visit their birth families frequently. During the days of imperial China, “beggars and other unemployed people circulate[d] from family to family, carrying a picture [of the God of Wealth] shouting, “Cai Shen dao!” [The God of Wealth has come!].” Householders would respond with “lucky money” to reward the messengers. Business people of the Cantonese dialect group will hold a ‘Hoi Nin‘ prayer to start their business on the second day of Chinese New Year so they will be blessed with good luck and prosperity in their business for the year.
As this day is believed to be the birthday of Che Kung, a deity worshiped in Hong Kong, worshipers go to Che Kung Temples to pray for his blessing. A representative from the government asks Che Kung about the city’s fortune through kau cim. Some believe that the second day is also the birthday of all dogs and remember them with special treats.
The third day is known as “red mouth” (赤狗). Chikou is also called “Chigou’s Day” (赤狗日). Chigou, literally “red dog”, is an epithet of “the God of Blazing Wrath” (熛怒之神). Rural villagers continue the tradition of burning paper offerings over trash fires. It is considered an unlucky day to have guests or go visiting. Hakka villagers in rural Hong Kong in the 1960s called it the Day of the Poor Devil and believed everyone should stay at home. This is also considered a propitious day to visit the temple of the God of Wealth and have one’s future told.
In those communities that celebrate Chinese New Year for 15 days, the fourth day is when corporate “spring dinners” kick off and business returns to normal. Other areas that have a longer Chinese New Year holiday will celebrate and welcome the gods in this day.
The fifth day of Chinese New Year is the god of Wealth’s birthday. In northern China, people eat jiaozi, or dumplings, on the morning of powu (破五). In Taiwan, businesses traditionally re-open on the next day (the sixth day), accompanied by firecrackers. It is also common in China that on the fifth day people will shoot off firecrackers to get Guan Yu’s attention, thus ensuring his favor and good fortune for the new year.
The seventh day, traditionally known as Renri (the common person’s birthday), is the day when everyone grows one year older. In some overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia and Singapore, it is also the day when tossed raw fish salad, yusheng, is eaten for continued wealth and prosperity. For many Chinese Buddhists, this is another day to avoid meat, the seventh day commemorating the birth of Sakra, lord of the devas in Buddhist cosmology who is analogous to the Jade Emperor.
On the eighth day, another family dinner is held to celebrate the eve of the birth of the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven. People normally return to work by this day, therefore store owners will host a lunch/dinner with their employees, thanking their employees for the work they have done for the whole year. Approaching 12 midnight on this day, Hokkien people prepare for the “Jade Emperor ritual” ( 拜天公) during which incense is burnt and food offerings made to the Jade Emperor and also to Zao Jun, the Kitchen god who reports on each family to the Jade Emperor. Some people will hold a ritual prayer after midnight on the eighth day. In Malaysia, especially, people light fireworks, often more than on the first day. This practice of Bai Ti Gong can also be seen in Singapore.
The ninth day of the New Year is a day for Chinese to offer prayers to the Jade Emperor of Heaven in the Daoist Pantheon. The ninth day is traditionally the birthday of the Jade Emperor. This day, called Ti Kong Dan (天公诞), Ti Kong Si (天公生) or Pai Ti Kong ( 拜天公), is especially important to Hokkiens, even more important than the first day of the Chinese New Year. Come midnight of the eighth day of the new year, Hokkiens will offer thanks to the Emperor of Heaven. A prominent requisite offering is sugarcane. Legend holds that the Hokkien were spared from a massacre by Japanese pirates by hiding in a sugarcane plantation during the eighth and ninth days of the Chinese New Year, coinciding with the Jade Emperor’s birthday. Since “sugarcane” (甘蔗, kam-chià) is a near homonym to “thank you” (感谢, kám-siā) in the Hokkien dialect, Hokkiens offer sugarcane on the eve of his birthday, symbolic of their gratitude.
The Jade Emperor’s party is celebrated on the tenth day of the Chinese New Year.
On the thirteenth day, people will eat pure vegetarian food in the belief that it will clean out their stomachs due to their consuming too much food over the preceding two weeks. This day is dedicated to the General Guan Yu, also known as the Chinese God of War. Guan Yu was born in the Han dynasty and is considered the greatest general in Chinese history. He represents loyalty, strength, truth, and justice. According to history, he was tricked by the enemy and was beheaded. Almost every organization and business in China will pray to Guan Yu on this day. Before his life ended, Guan Yu had won over one hundred battles and that is a goal that all businesses in China want to accomplish. In a way, people look at him as the God of Wealth or the God of Success.
The fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year is celebrated as the “Yuanxiao Festival” (元宵节), also known as “Shangyuan Festival” (上元节) or the Lantern Festival (otherwise known as Chap Goh Mei — 十五暝, literally “the fifteen night” in Fujian dialect). Rice dumplings tangyuan (汤圆), a sweet glutinous rice ball brewed in a soup, are eaten this day. Candles are lit outside houses as a way to guide wayward spirits home. This day is celebrated as the Lantern Festival, and families walk the street carrying lighted lanterns. In China, Malaysia and Singapore, this day is celebrated by individuals seeking for a romantic partner, akin to Valentine’s Day. Normally, single women would write their contact number on mandarin oranges and throw it in a river or a lake while single men would collect them and eat the oranges. The taste is an indication of their possible love: sweet represents a good fate while sour represents a bad fate. This day often marks the end of the Chinese New Year festivities.
In 1928, the ruling Kuomintang party in China decreed that Chinese New Year will fall on January 1 of the Gregorian Calendar, but this was abandoned due to overwhelming opposition from the populace. In 1967 during the Cultural Revolution, official Chinese New Year celebrations were banned in China. The State Council of the People’s Republic of China announced that the public should “Change Customs”, have a “revolutionized and fighting Spring Festival”, and since people needed to work on Chinese New Year Eve, they didn’t have holidays during Spring Festival day. The public celebrations were reinstated by the time of the Chinese economic reform.
In addition to red envelopes, which are usually given from older people to younger people, small gifts (usually food or sweets) are also exchanged between friends or relatives (of different households) during Chinese New Year. Gifts are usually brought when visiting friends or relatives at their homes. Common gifts include fruits (typically oranges, and never pears), cakes, biscuits, chocolates, and candies.
Bamboo stems filled with gunpowder that were burnt to create small explosions were once used in ancient China to drive away evil spirits. In modern times, this method has eventually evolved into the use of firecrackers during the festive season. Firecrackers are usually strung on a long fused string so it can be hung down. Each firecracker is rolled up in red papers, as red is auspicious, with gunpowder in its core. Once ignited, the firecracker lets out a loud popping noise and, as they are usually strung together by the hundreds, the firecrackers are known for their deafening explosions that are thought to scare away evil spirits. The burning of firecrackers also signifies a joyful time of year and has become an integral aspect of Chinese New Year celebrations.
Clothing mainly featuring the color red or bright colors is commonly worn throughout the Chinese New Year because it was once believed that red could scare away evil spirits and bad fortune. In addition, people typically wear new clothes from head to toe to symbolize a new beginning in the new year. Wearing new clothes also symbolizes having more than enough things to use and wear in the new year. Red is a color of good luck.
As with all cultures, Chinese New Year traditions incorporate elements that are symbolic of deeper meaning. One common example of Chinese New Year symbolism is the red diamond-shaped fu characters (福, literally “blessings, happiness”), which are displayed on the entrances of Chinese homes. This sign is usually seen hanging upside down, since the Chinese word dao (倒, literally “upside down”), is homophonous or nearly homophonous with ( 到, “arrive”) in all varieties of Chinese. Therefore, it symbolizes the arrival of luck, happiness, and prosperity.
For the Cantonese-speaking people, if the fu sign is hung upside down, the implied dao (upside down) sounds like the Cantonese word for “pour”, producing “pour the luck [away]”, which would usually symbolize bad luck; this is why the fu character is not usually hung upside-down in Cantonese communities.
Red is the predominant color used in New Year celebrations. Red is the emblem of joy, and this color also symbolizes virtue, truth and sincerity. On the Chinese opera stage, a painted red face usually denotes a sacred or loyal personage and sometimes a great emperor. Candies, cakes, decorations and many things associated with the New Year and its ceremonies are colored red. The sound of the Chinese word for “red” (红) is in Mandarin homophonous with the word for “prosperous”. Therefore, red is an auspicious color and has an auspicious sound.
Thai Chinese consist of people of full or partial Chinese ancestry — particularly Han Chinese — in Thailand. It is the oldest, most prominent, and best integrated overseas Chinese community. Slightly more than half of the ethnic Chinese population in Thailand trace their ancestry to eastern Guangdong Province. This is evidenced by the prevalence of the Minnan Chaozhou dialect among the Chinese in Thailand. A minority trace their ancestry to Hakka and Hainanese immigrants.
The Thai Chinese have been deeply ingrained into all elements of Thai society over the past 200 years. The present Thai royal family, the Chakri Dynasty, was founded by King Rama I who himself was partly Chinese. His predecessor, King Taksin of the Thonburi Dynasty, was the son of a Chinese immigrant from Guangdong Province and a Thai mother. With the highly successful integration of historic Chinese immigrant communities throughout Thailand, a significant number of Thai Chinese are the descendants of intermarriages between Chinese immigrants and native Thais. Many Thai Chinese have assimilated into Thai society and self-identify solely as Thai.
Han Chinese traders, mostly from Fujian and Guangdong, began arriving in Ayutthaya by at least the thirteenth century. According to the Chronicles of Ayutthaya, King Ekathotsarot (reigned 1605–1610) had been “concerned solely with ways of enriching his treasury,” and was “greatly inclined toward strangers and foreign nations,” especially Portugal, Spain, the Philippines, China, and Japan.
Ayutthaya was under almost constant Burmese threat from the sixteenth century onward, and the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty was alarmed by Burmese military might. From 1766-1769, the Qianlong Emperor sent his armies four times to subdue the Burmese, but the Sino-Burmese Wars ended in complete failure, and Ayutthaya fell in the Burmese–Siamese War (1765–1767). However, the Chinese efforts did divert the attention of Burma’s Siam army. General Taksin, himself the son of a Chinese immigrant, took advantage of this to organize his force and attack the Burmese invaders. When he became king, Taksin actively encouraged Chinese immigration and trade. Settlers mainly from Chaozhou prefecture came to Siam in large numbers. Immigration continued over the following years, and the Chinese population in Thailand jumped from 230,000 in 1825 to 792,000 by 1910.
By 1932, approximately 12.2 percent of the population of Thailand was Chinese. However, the early Chinese immigration consisted almost entirely of men who married Thai women. The children of such marriages were called Sino-Thai or luk-jin (ลูกจีน) in Thai. These Chinese-Thai intermarriages declined in the early 20th century, when large numbers of Chinese women also began immigrating to Thailand in the early twentieth century.
The corruption of the Qing Dynasty and the massive population increase in China, along with very high taxes, caused many men to leave China for Thailand in search of work. If successful, they sent money back to their families in China. Many Chinese immigrants prospered under the “tax farming” system, whereby private individuals were sold the right to collect taxes at a price below the value of the tax revenues.
In the late nineteenth century, when Siam was struggling to defend its independence from the colonial powers, Chinese bandits from Yunnan Province began making raids into the country in the Haw Wars (ปราบกบฏฮ่อ). Thai nationalist attitudes at all levels were thus colored by anti-Chinese sentiment. Members of the Chinese community had long dominated domestic commerce and had served as agents for royal trade monopolies. With the rise of European economic influence, however, many Chinese shifted to opium trafficking and tax collecting, both of which were despised occupations. In addition, Chinese millers and rice traders were blamed for an economic recession that gripped Siam for nearly a decade after 1905. Accusations of bribery of officials, wars between the Chinese secret societies, and use of violent tactics to collect taxes served to foster Thai resentment against the Chinese at a time when the community was expanding rapidly due to immigration. Chinese were also accused of producing poverty for the Thai peasant, charging astronomically high interest rates, when in reality, the Thai banking business was highly competitive.
In 1879, the Chinese controlled all of the steam-powered rice mills, most of which were sold by the British. Though most of the leading businessmen in Thailand were of Chinese extraction and accounted for a significant portion of the Thai upper class, some Thai-Chinese during this period lived in huts with no electricity and toilet facilities.
From 1882 to 1917, nearly 13,000 to 34,000 Chinese entered the country per year from southern China which was vulnerable to floods and drought, mostly settling in Bangkok and along the coast of the Gulf of Siam. They predominated in occupations requiring arduous labor, skills, or entrepreneurship. They worked as blacksmiths, railroad laborers, and rickshaw pullers. While most Thais were engaged in rice production, the Chinese brought new farming ideas and new methods to supply labor on its rubber plantations, both domestically and internationally. However, republican ideas brought by the Chinese were considered seditious by the Thai government. For example, a translation of Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People was banned under the Communism Act of 1933. The government had regulated Chinese schools even before compulsory education was established in the country, starting with the Private Schools Act of 1918. This act required all foreign teachers to pass a Thai language test, and for principals of all schools to implement standards set by the Thai Ministry of Education.
In the years between World War I and World War II, Thailand’s major exports, rice, tin, rubber, and timber were under Chinese control. By 1924, ethnic Chinese controlled three of the nine sawmills in Bangkok. Market gardening, sugar production, and fish exporting was dominated by the Chinese. Despite British dominance in the Thai economy in the 1890s, the Chinese controlled 62 percent of import-export businesses that operated as agents for the British as well as the Chinese.
Legislation by King Rama VI (1910–1925) that required the adoption of Thai surnames was largely directed at the Chinese community as a number of ethnic Chinese families left Burma between 1930 and 1950 and settled in the Ratchaburi and Kanchanaburi Provinces of western Thailand. A few of the ethnic Chinese families in that area had already emigrated from Burma in the nineteenth century.
The Chinese in Thailand also suffered discrimination between the 1930s to 1950s under the military dictatorship of Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram (in spite of having part-Chinese ancestry himself), which allied itself with the Empire of Japan. The Primary Education Act of 1932 made the Thai language the compulsory medium of education, but as a result of protests from Thai Chinese, by 1939, students were allowed two hours per week of Mandarin instruction. State corporations took over commodities such as rice, tobacco, and petroleum, and Chinese businesses found themselves subject to a range of new taxes and controls. By 1970, more than 90 percent of the Chinese born in Thailand had abandoned Chinese citizenship and were granted Thai citizenship instead. In 1975, diplomatic relations were established with China.
Thailand Post has issued annual stamps marking Chinese New Year for several years. Numbered TH-1062 by their internal issuing system, the 2015 offering was a pair issued on February 9 and featuring oranges on one of the 3-baht stamps and angpao envelopes and banknotes on the other. Designed by Udorn Nyamthum, they were issued in sheets of ten stamps featuring five of each.