Chinese New Year: Origin, Celebration, and Myth
by Low Kai Li, Sungkyunkwan University
The history of Chinese New Year can be traced back in time to over 3,800 years ago in China. Over the course of history, the celebration has gone by many variations of names such as Yuanchen, Yuanri and Yuandan. It was not until the Han dynasty that a fixed date for the celebration emerged. It was during this reign by Emperor Wudi of Han throughout 141 to 87 BC, that the date for the celebration was fixed, when the emperor commanded usage of the lunar calendar. Therefore, Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year is a festival to celebrate the beginning of a new year on the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar. Alternatively, it is also known as the Spring Festival in China. As the name goes, it is also a holiday that signifies the end of a cold winter and marks the dawning of spring. This brings about the welcoming change of the season of bloom and bountiful harvests. In the olden days of China’s agrarian society, Chinese New Year also served mainly as a celebration to worship and pray to the ancestors for a good planting and harvest season. The reason being that agriculture played a huge part of the daily life in ancient Chinese culture. A celebration that comes so intricately laced within the fabric of history and culture, from its ancient origins in Shang Dynasty to its present roots in modern day; its celebration today is sure to be one to do its creation justice.
Nowadays, it is a major celebration that lasts for sixteen days, starting from Chinese New Year’s Eve up till the day of the Lantern Festival. On the eve of Chinese New Year, families would gather together to have an annual reunion dinner. The New Year's Eve dinner usually includes a bubbling hot pot with plates of uncooked meat and vegetables. It is customisable to one own’s liking and no two same families will have the same exact ingredients in their pot. However, some common ingredients could be quail’s egg, sliced meat, fish balls and some noodles. This one shared pot on the eve of Chinese New Year becomes the symbolism for the coming together of family, which is a significant theme that forms the basis of Chinese society. Next, the first and following days of Chinese New Year are for visiting the houses of relatives, friends, and extended family. Traditionally, red packets would be given from married couples or the elderly to unmarried juniors or children. Then, the fifteenth and last day of Chinese New Year is the day of the Lantern Festival and it marks the first full moon of the New Year. During this Lantern Festival, lion dances can be seen in broad daylight, always commencing an audience with an impressive amount of vigor. At night, it is sometimes a custom for young unmarried girls to throw mandarin oranges into the sea or river in the hopes that they would be united with their soulmate. Therefore, the fifteenth day, also known as ‘Chap Goh Mei’ in Hokkien is also celebrated as the Chinese Valentine’s Day. Something about the magic of moonlit nights illuminated from rows upon rows of lanterns give off the romantic ambience much suited for the occasion.
Finally, a fun myth is also associated with this auspicious celebration. Legend has it that there was once a mythical beast called the Nian. This dragon-like beast was said to have descended upon villages in the middle of the night; devouring the grain, livestock, village folk, and especially the children. This made all the villagers go into hiding in fear of the beast. One day, an old man came to the village and offered to stay the night and protect the villagers from the Nian. He hung a red couplet on the door of the house in which he was staying, and waited patiently for the beast. When the Nian showed up, it curiously observed the red paper hanging on the door, and the old man took this opportunity to unleash a fury of firecrackers that roared and exploded in the night sky. The old man then approached the Nian dressed fully in red, and the beast fled away in terror. The next day, however, the old man seemed to have disappeared without a trace. Therefore, the villagers believed the man to be a celestial being that came to help them out in their time of need. Ever since, the tradition of wearing red clothes, hanging red lanterns, pasting red couplets on doors, as well as letting off firecrackers were all continued on to prevent the return of the fabled beast. Such is the gist of the tale as it goes, but myths do not travel from source to source without each account taking on their own creative flair and twist. As such, the above story is simply only one of the vast accounts of the popular legend of the Nian