When is the Chinese New Year
It may sound wierd, but it is true. Except for a very few number of people who can keep track of when the Chinese New Year should be, the majority of the Chinese today have to rely on a typical Chinese calendar to tell it. Therefore, you cannot talk of the Chinese New Year without mentioning the Chinese calendar at first.
A Chinese calendar consists of both the Gregorian and a lunar-solar calendrical systems, with the latter dividing a year into twelve month each of which is in turn equally divided into thirty-nine and a half days. The well-coordinated dual system calendar reflects the Chinese ingenuity.
Besides the two calendrical systems, a Chinese calendar will not be complete without a twenty-four solar terms closely related to the changes of Nature -- a very useful tool for farmers, providing information on the proper time for planting and harvesting.
The Twenty-Four Terms
The first fifteen days of the Chinese lunar month makes the first term, namely:
- Beginning of Spring
- usually starting from the fourth or fifth of Febrary. And the first day is the Chinese New Year's Day or the onset of the Spring Festival. Incidentally, the New Year's Day of 1995 is January 31st.
The second fifteen days are named:
- Rain Water
- from the nineteeth or twentieth of Febrary, a time when rainy seasons are setting in.
In order come the following terms:
- Waking of Insects
- from the fifth or sixth of March, as the earth awakes from hibernation;
- Spring Equinox
- from the twentieth or twenty-first of March;
- Pure Brightness
- from the fourth or fifth of April;
- Grain Rain
- from the twentieth or twenty-first of April;
- Beginning of Summer
- from the fifth or sixth of May;
- Grain Full
- from the twentieth or twenty-first of May;
- Grain in Ear
- from the fifth or sixth of June;
- Summer Solstice
- from the twenty-first or second of June;
- Slight Heat
- from the sixth or seventh of July;
- Great Heat
- from the twenty-second or third of July;
- Beginning of Autumn
- from the seventh or eighth of August;
- Limit of Heat
- from the twenty-third or fourth of August;
- White Dew
- from the seventh or eighth of September;
- Autumnal Equinox
- from the twenty-third or fourth of September;
- Cold Dew
- from the eighth or nineth of October;
- Frost's Descent
- from the twentieth-three or fourth of October;
- Beginning of Winter
- from the seventh or eighth of November;
- Slight Snow
- from the twenty-second or third of November;
- Great Snow
- from the seventh or eighth of December;
- Winter Solstice
- from the twenty-second or third of December;
- Slight Cold
- from the fifth or sixth of January; and lastly
- Great Cold
- from the twentieth or twenty-first of January which brings the 24-term cycle to an end.
On the Chinese Calendar, you will also find terminology like Tian Gan and Di Zhi (Heavenly Stem and Earthly Branch), a peculiar Chinese way of marking the years in a sixty-year cycle. There is also a system that marks the years in a twelve-year cycle, naming each of them after an animal such as Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Boar. BTW, I was born in the year of Sheep.
The Origin of Chinese New Year
The Chinese New Year is now popularly known as the Spring Festival because it starts from the Begining of Spring (the first of the twenty-four terms in coodination with the changes of Nature). Its origin is too old to be traced. Several explanations are hanging around. All agree, however, that the word Nian, which in modern Chinese solely means "year", was originally the name of a monster beast that started to prey on people the night before the beginning of a new year (Do not lose track here: we are talking about the new year in terms of the Chinese calendar).
One legend goes that the beast Nian had a very big mouth that would swallow a great many people with one bite. People were very scared. One day, an old man came to their rescue, offering to subdue Nian. To Nian he said, "I hear say that you are very capable, but can you swallow the other beasts of prey on earth instead of people who are by no means of your worthy opponents?" So, swollow it did many of the beasts of prey on earth that also harrassed people and their domestic animals from time to time.
After that, the old man disappeared riding the beast Nian. He turned out to be an immortal god. Now that Nian is gone and other beasts of prey are also scared into forests, people begin to enjoy their peaceful life. Before the old man left, he had told people to put up red paper decorations on their windows and doors at each year's end to scare away Nian in case it sneaked back again, because red is the color the beast feared the most.
From then on, the tradition of observing the conquest of Nian is carried on from generation to generation. The term "Guo Nian", which may mean "Survive the Nian" becomes today "Celebrate the (New) Year" as the word "guo" in Chinese having both the meaning of "pass-over" and "observe". The custom of putting up red paper and firing fire-crackers to scare away Nian should it have a chance to run loose is still around. However, people today have long forgotten why they are doing all this, except that they feel the color and the sound add to the excitement of the celebration.
Traditions of Chinese New Year
Even though the climax of the Chinese New Year, Nian, lasts only two or three days including the New Year's Eve, the New Year season extends from the mid-twelfth month of the previous year to the middle of the first month of the new year. A month from the New Year, it is a good time for business. People will pour out their money to buy presents, decoration material, food and clothing. Transportation department, railroad in particular, is nervously waiting for the onslaught of swarms of travellers who take their days off around the New Year to rush back home for a family renunion from all parts of the country.
Days before the New Year, every family is busy giving its house a thorough cleaning, hoping to sweep away all the ill-fortune there may have been in the family to make way for the wishful in-coming good luck. People also give their doors and window-panes a new paint, usually in red color. They decorate the doors and windows with paper-cuts and couplets with the very popular theme of "happiness", "wealth", "logevity" and "satisfactory marriage with more children". Paintings of the same theme are put up in the house on top of the newly mounted wall paper. In the old days, various kinds of food are tributed at the alta of ancestors.
The Eve of the New Year is very carefully observed. Supper is a feast, with all members coming together. One of the most popular course is jiaozi, dumplings boiled in water. "Jiaozi" in Chinese literally mean "sleep together and have sons", a long-lost good wish for a family. After dinner, it is time for the whole family to sit up for the night while having fun playing cards or board games or watching TV programs dedicated to the ocassion. Every light is supposed to be kept on the whole night. At midnight, the whole sky will be lit up by fireworks and firecrackers make everywhere seem like a war zone. People's excitement reach its zenith.
Very early the next morning, children greet their parents and receive their presents in terms of cash wrapped up in red paper packages from them. Then, the family start out to say greetings from door to door, first their relatives and then their neighbors. It is a great time for reconciliation. Old grudges are very easily cast away during the greetings. The air is permeated with warmth and friendliness. During and several days following the New Year's day, people are visiting each other, with a great deal of exchange of gifs. The New Year atmosphere is brought to an anti-climax fifteen days away where the Festival of Lanterns sets in. It is an occasion of lantern shows and folk dances everywhere. One typical food is the Tang Yuan, another kind of dumplings made of sweet rice rolled into balls and stuffed with either sweet or spicy fillings.
The Lantern Festival marks the end of the New Year season and afterwards life becomes daily routines once again. This description is based upon the recollection of my own experience. Customs of observing the New Year vary from place to place, considering that China is a big country not only geographically, but also demographically and ethnically. Yet, the spirit underlying the diverse celebrations of the Chinese New Year is the same: a sincere wish of peace and happiness for the family members and friends.