Today is the first day of the Lunar New Year of the Dog, known popularly as Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival (simplified Chinese: 春节; traditional Chinese: 春節; pinyin: Chūn Jié). Here in Thailand, last night — New Year’s Eve — was a big celebration with plenty of music, dance troupes, and fireworks and other noise-making (accompanied by the sound of howling dogs in my neighborhood) throughout the night, the second of three annual New Year festivals held each year (mid-April’s Songkran, or Thai New Year, is still to come). As most Southeast Asian nations do, Thailand has a very large population holding Chinese ancestry and Chinese celebrations make up a large part of the annual calendar. This year, the colors of red seem much brighter — especially when combined with the just-passed Valentine’s Day — as last year this country was still in the throes of mourning for the late King Bhumibol Adjulyadej and black was the predominant color worn.
Chinese New Year is one of the world’s most prominent and celebrated festivals, with the largest annual mass human migration in the world. It is a major holiday in China and has had strong influence on the lunar new year celebrations of its geographic neighbors, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mauritius, Australia, and the Philippines. Celebrations traditionally run from the evening preceding the first day, to the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first calendar month (March 2 in 2018). The first day of the New Year falls on the new moon between 21 Jan and 20 Feb. In 2018, the first day of the Lunar New Year is on Friday, February 16, initiating the Year of the Dog.
The New Year festival is centuries old and associated with several myths and customs. Traditionally, the festival was a time to honor deities as well as ancestors. Within China, regional customs and traditions concerning the celebration of the Lunar New Year vary widely. Often, the evening preceding Lunar 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 clean the house, in order to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for incoming good luck. Windows and doors are 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. In 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 Lunar 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, the 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 Lìchūn (立春, “start of spring”) on February 4 or 5, the solar term next to Dahan (大寒, “major cold”). Chinese calendar defines the lunar month with winter solstice as 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).
The traditional Chinese calendar follows a Metonic cycle (like the modern Jewish Calendar), and returns to the same date in the Gregorian calendar roughly. 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.
One scheme of continuously numbered Chinese-calendar years assigns 4709 to the year beginning, 2011, but this is not universally accepted; the calendar is traditionally cyclical, not continuously numbered. Although the Chinese calendar traditionally does not use continuously numbered years, outside China its years are sometimes numbered from the purported reign of the mythical Yellow Emperor in the 3rd millennium BCE. At least three different years numbered 1 are now used by various scholars, making the year beginning CE 2015 the “Chinese year” 4712, 4713, or 4652.
According to tales and legends, the beginning of the Chinese New Year started with a mythical beast called the Nian (simplified Chinese: 年兽; traditional Chinese: 年獸; pinyin: nián shòu) that lives under the sea or in the mountains. The character Nian more usually means “year” or “new year”. 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 was 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, beast never came to the village again. The Nian was eventually captured by Hongjun Laozu, an ancient Taoist monk, becoming his mount.
Chinese New Year is observed as a public holiday in a number of countries and territories where there is a sizable Chinese population. Since Chinese New Year falls on different dates on the Gregorian calendar every year on different days of the week, some of these governments opt to shift working days in order to accommodate a longer public holiday. In some countries, a statutory holiday is added on the following work day when the New Year falls on a weekend, as in the case of 2013, where the New Year’s Eve (February 9) falls on Saturday and the New Year’s Day (February 10) on Sunday. Depending on the country, the holiday may be termed differently; common names are Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year, New Year Festival, and Spring Festival.
The biggest event of any Chinese New Year’s Eve is the annual reunion dinner. Dishes consisting of special meats are served at the tables, 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 — 餃子 in traditional Chinese or 饺子 in simplified characters) after dinner to eat around midnight. Dumplings symbolize wealth because their shape resembles a Chinese sycee (a type of silver or gold ingot currency). In contrast, in the South, it is customary to make a glutinous new year cake (niangao — 年糕) and send pieces of it as gifts to relatives and friends in the coming days. 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 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” (simplified Chinese: 开财门; traditional Chinese: 開財門; pinyin: kāicáimén).
Beginning in 1982, the CCTV New Year’s Gala is broadcast in China four hours before the start of the New Year and lasts until the succeeding early morning. A tradition to go to bed late on New Year’s Eve, or even keeping awake the whole night and morning, known as shousui (守岁), is still practiced as it is thought to add on to one’s parents’ longevity.
The first day of the Lunar 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 of which the term Guo Nian was derived. Many Buddhists abstain from meat consumption on the first day because it is believed to 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, as good fortune is not to be “swept away” symbolically.
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 which most commonly encountered here in Thailand), 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” (simplified Chinese: 开年; traditional Chinese: 開年; pinyin: kāinián), 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 worshipped in Hong Kong, worshippers 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” (Chinese: 赤口; pinyin: Chìkǒu). Chikou is also called “Chigou’s Day” (Chinese: 赤狗日; pinyin: Chìgǒurì). Chigou, literally “red dog”, is an epithet of “the God of Blazing Wrath” (Chinese: 熛怒之神; pinyin: Biāo nù zhī shén). 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 that were previously sent on this day.
The fifth day is the god of Wealth’s birthday. In northern China, people eat jiaozi, or dumplings, on the morning of powu (Chinese: 破五; pinyin: pòwǔ). 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.
Another family dinner is held the evening of the eighth day to mark the eve of the birth of the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven. People normally return to work by the eighth day, therefore the store owners will host a lunch/dinner with their employees, thanking their employees for the work they have done for the whole year. Approaching midnight on this day, Hokkien people prepare for the “Jade Emperor ritual” (Hokkien: 拜天公 or Pài Thiⁿ-kong) 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 (Hokkien: 天公诞 — Thiⁿ-kong Tan), Ti Kong Si (Hokkien: 天公生 Thiⁿ-kong Siⁿ) or Pai Ti Kong (Hokkien: 拜天公 Pài Thiⁿ-kong), 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” (Hokkien: 甘蔗 kam-chià) is a near homonym to “thank you” (Hokkien: 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.
The fifteenth day of the new year is celebrated as “Yuanxiao Festival” (simplified Chinese: 元宵节; traditional Chinese: 元宵節; pinyin: Yuán xiāo jié), also known as “Shangyuan Festival” (simplified Chinese: 上元节; traditional Chinese: 上元節; pinyin: Shàng yuán jié) or the Lantern Festival (otherwise known as Chap Goh Mei Chinese: 十五暝; pinyin: Shíwǔmíng; literally: “the fifteen night” in Fujian dialect). Rice dumplings tangyuan (simplified Chinese: 汤圆; traditional Chinese: 湯圓; pinyin: tang yuán), 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.
Markets or village fairs are set up as the New Year is approaching. These usually open-air markets feature new year related products such as flowers, toys, clothing, and even fireworks and firecrackers. It is convenient for people to buy gifts for their new year visits as well as their home decorations. In some places, the practice of shopping for the perfect plum tree is not dissimilar to the Western tradition of buying a Christmas tree.
Hong Kong filmmakers also release “New Year celebration films” (賀歲片), mostly comedies, at this time of year.
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 as well as good luck. 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.
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” (simplified Chinese: 红; traditional Chinese: 紅; pinyin: hóng) is in Mandarin homophonous with the word for “prosperous”. Therefore, red is an auspicious color and has an auspicious sound.
Traditionally, red envelopes or red packets (Cantonese: lai sze or lai see; 利是, 利市 or 利事; Pinyin: lìshì; Mandarin: hóngbāo 红包; Hokkien: ang pow; Hakka: fung bao) are passed out during the Chinese New Year’s celebrations, from married couples or the elderly to unmarried juniors. It is also common for adults or young couples to give red packets to children. During this period, red packets are also known as 壓歲錢/压岁钱 (yàsuìqián, which was evolved from 壓祟錢/压祟钱, literally, “the money used to suppress or put down the evil spirit”).
Red packets almost always contain money, usually varying from a couple of dollars to several hundred. Per custom, the amount of money in the red packets should be of even numbers, as odd numbers are associated with cash given during funerals (帛金: báijīn). The number 8 is considered lucky (for its homophone for “wealth”), and $8 is commonly found in the red envelopes in the United States. The number six (六, liù) is also very lucky as it sounds like “smooth” (流, liú), in the sense of having a smooth year. The number four (四) is the worst because its homophone is “death” (死). Sometimes chocolate coins are found in the red packets.
Odd and even numbers are determined by the first digit, rather than the last. Thirty and fifty, for example, are odd numbers, and are thus appropriate as funeral cash gifts. However, it is common and quite acceptable to have cash gifts in a red packet using a single bank note — with ten or fifty yuan bills used frequently. It is customary for the bills to be brand new printed money. Everything regarding the New Year has to be new in order to have good luck and fortune.
Red diamond-shaped fu characters (Chinese: 福; pinyin: fú; literally: “blessings, happiness”) are displayed on the entrances of Chinese homes. This sign is usually seen hanging upside down, since the Chinese word dao (Chinese: 倒; pinyin: dào; literally: “upside down”), is homophonous or nearly homophonous with (Chinese: 到; pinyin: dào; literally: “arrive”) in all varieties of Chinese. Therefore, it symbolizes the arrival of luck, happiness, and prosperity. For the Cantonese-speaking people, if the fuk 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 fuk character is not usually hung upside-down in Cantonese communities.
Traditionally, families gather together during the Chinese New Year. In modern China, migrant workers in China travel home to have reunion dinners with their families on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Owing to the large number of interprovincial travelers, special arrangements were made by railways, buses and airlines starting from 15 days before the New Year’s Day. This 40-day period is called chunyun (traditional Chinese: 春運; simplified Chinese: 春运; pinyin: Chūnyùn). It has been called the largest annual human migration in the world. More interurban trips are taken in mainland China in this period than the total population of China. Rail transport experiences the biggest challenge during the period, and myriad social problems have emerged. This phenomenon is also seen in parts of East Asia such as Taiwan and South Korea.
In Taiwan, spring travel is a major event. The majority of transportation in western Taiwan is in a north-south direction: long distance travel between urbanized north and hometowns in rural south. Transportation in eastern Taiwan and that between Taiwan and its islands is less convenient. Cross-strait flights between Taiwan and mainland China began in 2003 as part of Three Links, mostly for “Taiwanese businessmen” to return to Taiwan for the new year.
The greeting Gung hee fatt choi (simplified Chinese: 恭喜发财; traditional Chinese: 恭喜發財; pinyin: Gōngxǐfācái; Hokkien: Kiong hee huat chai), which loosely translates to “Congratulations and be prosperous” is often mistakenly assumed to be synonymous with “Happy New Year”. Its usage dates back several centuries. While the first two words of this phrase had a much longer historical significance (legend has it that the congratulatory messages were traded for surviving the ravaging beast of Nian, in practical terms it may also have meant surviving the harsh winter conditions), the last two words were added later as ideas of capitalism and consumerism became more significant in Chinese societies around the world. The saying is now commonly heard in English speaking communities for greetings during Chinese New Year in parts of the world where there is a sizable Chinese-speaking community, including overseas Chinese communities that have been resident for several generations, relatively recent immigrants from Greater China, and those who are transit migrants (particularly students).
The Taishanese Slin Nen Fai Lok (simplified Chinese: 新年快乐; traditional Chinese: 新年快樂; pinyin: Xīnniánkuàilè; Hakka: Sin Ngen Kai Lok) is a more contemporary greeting reflective of Western influences, literally translates from the greeting “Happy New Year” more common in the west. In northern parts of China, traditionally people say Guònián Hǎo instead of Xīnniánkuàile to differentiate it from the international New Year. Guònián Hǎo can be used from the first day to the fifth day of Chinese New Year. However, 過年好 (Guònián Hǎo) is considered very short and therefore somewhat discourteous.
For a number of years, Thailand Post annually issued both a Chinese Zodiac stamp on January 1 and a Chinese New Year stamp or stamps a few weeks later. However, there was no Chinese New Year issue in 2017 nor is there one this year. The 2014 release was a single stamp, issued on January 24, 2014, and given the Thailand Post issue number of TH-1033. The 5-baht stamp portrays Budai (Chinese 布袋; pinyin: Bùdài; rōmaji) whose name means “Cloth Sack” from the bag that he is conventionally depicted as carrying. He is usually identified with or seen as an incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha, so much so that the Budai image is one of the main forms in which Maitreya is depicted in China. He is almost always shown smiling or laughing, hence his nickname in Chinese, the Laughing Buddha (Chinese: 笑佛; pinyin: Xiào Fó). In Thailand, Maitreya is called Phra Sang Kat Jai and is recognized as a diving being who blesses humans with good luck. The stamp was designed by Mrs. Veena Chantanatat and printed by Thai British Security Printing Public Company Limited in sheets of ten stamps (two across by five down) as well as special mini-sheets of four in limited quantities.