Chao He and Zhenyu Cai, both Junior Research Fellows at St John's, explain the history behind the celebration

This coming Sunday (22 January 2022) is Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival or Lunar New Year. Chinese New Year usually involves an array of celebrations like dinners, red packets, Chinese couplets, firecrackers and much more. Most importantly, though, it is the time for family and friends to reunite after a year of hard work, and exchange their good wishes for the new year ahead. 

Chinese New Year is, as its name suggests, the festival that celebrates the beginning of a new year in the traditional Chinese calendar. This year it falls on 22nd January 2023, signalling the start of the year of the Rabbit. The Rabbit is one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac representing a cycle of 12 years. 

ChaoCai.jpg Zhenyu Cai (L) and Chao He (R)

What are the origins of the celebration?

Historically, the Chinese New Year originates from ancient Chinese celebrations at the end of winter and the start of spring, marking a time of revival, renewal and rebirth. There are also several myths associated with the origin of the festival. The most popular version is related to a monster named Nian (meaning ‘Year’). It is said that in ancient times, Nian lay dormant in the sea through most of the year, and only climbed ashore every New Year's Eve to attack people in the villages. People came to realise that Nian was scared of the colour red, bright light and explosions. So, they started to wear red coloured clothes, put on decorations, and set off firecrackers to drive Nian away, which eventually became the celebrations we have today. 

Calligraphy.jpg A piece of calligraphy by Zhenyu Cai of the character 'Fu', meaning good fortune. It is usually pasted upside down since the words for "upside-down" (倒, Pinyin: dào) and "to arrive" (到, Pinyin: dào) are homophonous.

How do Chinese families celebrate New Year?

Chinese New Year is the most important festival in China. It is also celebrated worldwide in many other countries with a large Chinese population. The celebration tends to begin long before the actual day of Chinese New Year, as people start to prepare all the goods and gifts for the new year and clean their house to wash away any bad luck from the past year. 

On Chinese New Year’s Eve, or “Chu Xi”, the whole family will gather to have a reunion dinner called “Nian Ye Fan”. At the dinner, people in northern China will usually have dumplings, but generally, people in different regions will have different foods that rhyme with 'good wishes' in their local dialects. When the Chinese New Year arrives the next day, people visit their relatives and friends, sending out their best wishes for the new year. Children will receive money in red envelopes (“Hong Bao”) for good luck. There are also other traditions like Chinese couplets (calligraphy about good wishes), dragon or lion dances, and fireworks. The celebration can last all the way until the 15th day of the new year, which is the Lantern Festival (Yuan Xiao Festival). 

To all who are celebrating the festival this weekend, happy Chinese New Year! Xin Nian Kuai Le!