History of Chinese New Year

All good stories change bit over time, as each teller adds a little or changes something. A story that is over 3,500 years old has been told many times and it has taken on a life of its own.

The story of how the most important holiday in Chinese culture began is no different but many of the best bits have remained unchanged. The centuries-old legend of the origins of the Chinese New Year celebration always 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 often 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.So 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.

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.

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.

Food is an important component of the 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.

Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival, is the most important among the traditional Chinese festivals. The origin of the Chinese New Year festival can be traced back to about 3,500 years ago.

Chinese New Year has evolved over a long period of time and its customs have undergone a long development process.

Chinese Year Year - Over 3500 Years in the Making

Chinese New Year's Origin: In the Shang Dynasty

Chinese New Year has enjoyed a history of about 3,500 years. Its exact beginning is not recorded. Some people believe that Chinese New Year originated in the Shang Dynasty(1600–1046 BC), when people held sacrificial ceremonies in honor of gods and ancestors at the beginning or the end of each year.

Chinese Calendar "Year" Established: In the Zhou Dynasty

The term Nian ('year') first appeared in the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC). It had become a custom to offer sacrifices to ancestors or gods, and to worship nature in order to bless harvests at the turn of the year.

Chinese New Year Date Was Fixed: In the Han Dynasty

The date of the festival, the first day of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar, was fixed in the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). Certain celebration activities became popular, such as burning bamboo to make a loud cracking sound.

In the Wei and Jin Dynasties

In the Wei and Jin dynasties (220–420), apart from worshiping gods and ancestors, people began to entertain themselves. The customs of a family getting together to clean their house, having a dinner, and staying up late on New Year’s Eve originated among common people.

More Chinese New Year Activities: From the Tang to Qing Dynasties

The prosperity of economies and cultures during the Tang, Song, and Qing dynasties accelerated the development of the Spring Festival. The customs during the festival became similar to those of modern times.

Setting off firecrackers, visiting relatives and friends, and eating dumplings became important parts of the celebration.

More entertaining activities arose, such as watching dragon and lion dances during the Temple Fair and enjoying lantern shows.

The function of the Spring Festival changed from a religious one to entertaining and social ones, more like that of today.

In Modern Times

In 1912, the government decided to abolish Chinese New Year and the lunar calendar, but adopted the Gregorian calendar instead and made January 1 the official start of the new year.

After 1949, Chinese New Year was renamed to the Spring Festival. It was listed as a nationwide public holiday.