Celebrating Chinese New Year

door Regina Coeli

Every year, more than one quarter of the world’s population will celebrate the Chinese New Year (new is “Xin”; year  is “Nián” in Mandarin pinyin). Chinese New Year -also known as the Spring Festival- is celebrated on the second new moon after the Winter Solstice and can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February. New Year festivities traditionally start on the first day of the month and continue until the fifteenth, when the moon is brightest.  

In old Chinese the word "Nian" means ripe grains.  This word dates back more than three thousand years of  the 14th Century B.C. Shang Dynasty.  Back then, the purpose of creating a calendar and keeping track of time was to facilitate agriculture.  A year was formally called "Nian" and the beginning of the year was called “SuiShou”. 

Marking of Chinese New Year during the Han Dynasty

By 104 BC, a Han Dynasty emperor presided over the formulation of the solar lunar calendar  composed of  the sixty year circle of ten Heavenly Stems and twelve  Earthly Branches. The emperor then had the responsibility to keep track of important dates, perform traditional rituals, and select the music so that heaven and earth were in harmony.

The marking of the period between the Winter Solstice and New Year was important. If an emperor miscalculated the Winter Solstice date, the kingdom wouldn't know which day marked the coming of the New Year. By insuring the accuracy of these important dates, the state and the people knew when to work and when to do what. Thus these two historical dates of the Lunar Calendar are traditionally set in stone.  

The color red, fire and noise

The arrival of Chinese New Year is marked by firecrackers and dances in the streets. This social custom is based on the legend of Nian. Nian was a monster in ancient times with a body of a bull and the head of lion. It was a ferocious animal that lived in the mountains and hunted to find food. Towards the end of winter when there was nothing to eat Nian would visit the villages causing the villagers to live in terror. Over time the villagers realized that the ferocious Nian was afraid of three things: the color red, fire and noise.

Chasing away Nian

Eventually, the villagers decided to defend themselves from Nian’s annual terrifying visit. One night when Nian was spotted coming down the mountain, the villagers started fires, put up boards painted with scarlet, and stayed up all night long making noises. When the monster came down and saw this, he ran into the mountains and never returned. The next morning everyone got up and congratulated each other and had a big celebration. The next year they repeated the ritual and it has been passed down  from generation to generation until today. The custom of passing the year” was established.  


Red envelopes

Today, Chinese set firecrackers and hang red Spring Festival couplets to welcome the New Year.  Families gather for the New Year eve meal and stay up for the whole night.  They put on new clothes the next day and  give children,  juniors and workers red envelopes and greet each other with “happy new year” or “wish you a prosperous year” in celebration of the New Year.

hongbao  red envelope for children, juniors and workers
 xinnian Happy New Year
 gongxi  wish you a prosperous year

Traditional dishes for Chinese New Year

Food is an important element in the New Year celebration. Fish, dumpling, rice cake, special long noodles and tangerines are all eaten. Just like our first article about gifts in China where the gift choice is often associated with their Chinese pronunciation, some New Year food is eaten because their names are associated with lucky meanings. Some typical new year food is taken because of their appearance being similar to lucky objects.

Chinese  English   Chinese  English
 pinyin vis fish same pronunciation as  pinyin overschot surplus
 pinyin rijstcake glutinous rice cake, made of sticky rice, sugar, nuts, and lotus leaves same pronunciation as  pinyin hogerop climbing up higher and higher each year for career and economic improvement. 
 pinyin mandarijnen mandarines same charater as  pinyin geluk luck
 pinyin sinaasappel orange same pronunciation as  pinyin succes success or accomplishment
 pinyin dumpling Chinese dumpling  shaped like a silver ingot - a type of  ancient Chinese money, eating dumplings during the New Year festival symbolizes more money and wealth in the coming year.  
 pinyin noodles Longevity noodles   Serving your parents these noodles during New Year’s dinner, symbolizes your wish for their longevity.   


New Year Challenges for business in Modern China

1.3 Billion people on the move is simply not an easy task in any country. New Year causes traffic chaos in Chinese cities. As a large number of migrant workers rush home for the annual celebration, Chinese New Year traffic chaos can start one month before New Year’s day. For the business world this means “planning in advance to keep your business operations”. Together with transport planning, employers also need to think about an appropriate bonus (the red envelope) to their workers in China. Common expectations can be higher than employer want to hand out.  However, a half month to a month’s worth salary is the common norm to take.

Another unexpected “New Year heap” is the SMS messages. This is good news for mobile operators, but not so easy for businesses. With the overwhelming flow of wifi and GPRS usage in Chinese speaking areas, Chinese New Year can mean slower internet for businesses, too. Thus, sending out important mails well ahead of Chinese New Year Eve is also recommended.

pinyin nieuwjaarswens


Share this page

Are you interested in language and career?

Just leave your email address with us and we will be happy to keep you informed.