Traditionally referred as the Spring Festival (Chun Jie 春節), the Chinese New Year dates as far back as the Shang Dynasty (1600BC – 1046BC). It is a celebration brought about by China’s agrarian civilisation to indicate the end of the year.
It was only during the Han Dynasty (206BC -220AD) when the official date of the Chinese New Year celebration was standardised – the first day of the first lunar month. At the time, the Taichu Calendar (Tai Chu Li 漢武帝) was introduced – amongst others, it specifically indicated when the New Year would officially begin. In fact, it was Emperor Wu of Han (Han Wu Di 漢武帝) who introduced this calendar.
Over the centuries, the celebration is ever-changing. It usually reflects the outlook of the state – whether in times of impoverishment or in times of prosperity. The vibrancy of the celebration reflects this premise.
Much of what is seen today comes as a result of the “Recuperate and Multiply” policy (Xiu Yang Sheng Xi 休養生息) during the Western Han dynasty (206BC – 9AD). At the time, the Warring States period had only just concluded which also saw the fall of the Qin Dynasty. Hence, the government saw the need to reinvigorate development, productivity, and order in society.
In essence, this policy reduced taxes and made changes to civil conscription. Harsh laws from the previous dynasty were also abolished. In reflecting these changing times, new customs and traditions were incorporated.
The general theme of this celebration – from the colour red to firecrackers – there is a story to explain its significance. This is a story about the Nian (年) Monster. Now imagine the end of winter and the bloom of spring – plants begin to sprout while animals begin to awake from hibernation. One such creature was the Nian monster.
According to legend, an old man with radiant health entered a village. He asked for food from an old lady living in the village and insisted on staying overnight at her home despite forewarning of the threat posed by the Nian monster. As foretold, the beast broke into the village at midnight, ready to feast, but something was different. The beast was hesitant, reluctant, and afraid. It caught a glimpse at the peculiar state of the old lady’s home.
The home was decorated with red paper pasted on door panels, and whilst the beast decided to rush through with a roar, it flinched as a result of a loud bang coming from the courtyard. The explosive noise of firecrackers flooded its senses. Then, the door opened and the old man in bright red cloak appeared, laughing joyously. The beast was shaken to its core, frightened by the overwhelming assault on its senses, and ran away in fear.
It is this story that gave rise to the decorations that are seen during the Chinese New Year celebration. Setting off firecrackers, staying up late ‘till the night – all in the astute belief of warding off unwanted visitors and evil. In practice, the people also visited their beloved family and friends to check on them – whether they too have survived the onslaught of the Nian beast, and to celebrate their joint success in surviving such horror. This practice continues today, celebrating one another and for transitioning into the New Year alive and well.
Significant Days of Chinese New Year
The 30th day of the last lunar month is considered the last day of each year, or in other words, the eve of Chinese New Year. It is commonly regarded as a time to “get rid of the old and welcome the new” (Chu Jiu Ying Xin 除舊迎新).
Back in the day, this day signified a custom called “Guarding of the Age” (Shou Sui 守歲) where members of the household come together and keep each other company, while they stay up late into the night. It is this custom that brought about the tradition of having a reunion dinner (Nian Ye Fan 年夜飯).
It is also a tradition that homes are cleaned and decorated to welcome the New Year, as well as to rid the household of “Hui Qi 晦氣” or in other words, inauspicious energies. Dust is said to be a taboo as it is indicative of belonging to the past. Hence, the annual spring cleaning before the New Year is almost ritualistic in all Chinese households. Afterwards, all brooms and cleaning tools are kept away at least until the fourth day.
There is also a “Report Card Day” where Daoists will “send-off” the household deities, most notably the Kitchen God (Zhao Jun 灶君). This ritual of sending off the gods to make their yearly report on the household to the Jade Emperor is called “Song Shen 送神”.
The First Day
On the first day, prayers are usually offered to the deities of Heaven and Earth. Firecrackers and fireworks are deployed to officiate the New Year, and to ward off evil spirits. Traditionally, household doors are sealed until the next morning, only to be reopened in a ritual called “Opening the Door of Fortune” (Kai Cai Men 開財門).
As usual, new clothes are worn on this day while the younglings visit members of the family, offering their regards and oranges – in exchange of red packets (Hong Bao 紅包). This tradition of visiting each other is known as Bai Nian (拜年).
Some families, especially those of the Buddhist faith, may observe a vegetarian diet on this day, while also celebrating the birthday of the Maitreya Bodhisattava, otherwise known as the future Buddha.
The Second Day
Traditionally, this day was called the “Beginning of the Year” or Kai Nian 開年. It is also referred to as Ying Xu Ri (迎婿日). It is a day to welcome the sons-in-law. Normally, married daughters would visit their parental homes with their husband. It is somewhat of a special day with a special meaning and a special purpose. It is a day to pay respect and show filial piety towards the family.
Quite ironically however, this day was believed to be the common birthday of dogs, which is the day when goddess Nuwa (女媧) created the creatures and the treats that would be given to canine pets.
Back in ancient China, there was a custom on this day where beggars would make rounds house-to-house, announcing that the God of Wealth has arrived (Cai Shen Dao 財神到). In response to this, the household would reward these messengers with Red Packets. Today, the Chinese would make offerings to the God of Wealth.
In Hong Kong, some residents would offer prayers to Lord Che (Che Gong 車公) at the Che Kung Temple (車公廟). There is significant history behind who Che Kung is but in essence, the people in Hong Kong recognise him as the God of Protection.
The Third Day
On this day, making visits are generally avoided. Traditionally, it is known as the “Day of the Red Dog” (Chi Gou Ri 赤狗日). The Nian monster is also believed to make its appearance on this day.
An interesting story for this particular day comes from an old practice known as the “marriage of mice”. Funnily enough, as mice are seen as pesky pests, it is believed that marrying them off will ensure a peaceful and lucky year.
Children would place candy and peanuts in corners of the home as dowry for the mice. It is said that if the rodents find happiness, no longer will the household be plagued by them. Some very traditional families would even go as far as to not open any cabinets or boxes, and to go to bed early, allowing these mice to “indulge”.
The Fourth Day
This day is referred to as the “Day of the Goat (Yang Ri 羊日). It is also another auspicious day for welcoming the God of Fortune. This is also a special day because the Kitchen God, and other household deities are welcomed back after having been sent off to see the Jade Emperor.
Most importantly, this is typically the last day that all businesses remain closed. However, there are some businesses that consider it lucky to resume work on this day itself while some wait until the fifth day.
The Fifth Day
On this day, it is traditionally referred as “Breaking Five” (Po Wu 破五). It is the most important day out of the fifteen days according to ancient Chinese. This is because it is the birthday of the God of Wealth.
There is an interesting folklore behind the God of Wealth but in essence, there were once five brothers who were said to rob the rich to help the poor. After their deaths, people built temples to commemorate these individuals and their deeds.
In the Northern region of China, many people toss away human-shaped paper cuttings on this day. It symbolises getting rid of poverty. People also eat dumplings as they believe it symbolises eating gold. Dumplings have a cute story behind them but in relation to the New Year, and by making reference to the Record of Festivals in YanJing (YanJing Sui Shi Ji 燕京歲時記) by a Qing poet Fu Cha Dun Chong (富察敦崇), it was stated that some wealthy households would insert small portions of gold, silver, or gemstone into the dumplings to bring blessings to their family.
The Sixth Day
This is traditionally recognised as the “Day of the Horse” (Ma Ri 馬日). Traditionally, people are encouraged to clean their toilets as the God of Toilets (Ce Shen 廁神) is believed to return on this day to inspect the sanitation. Although it sounds rather absurd, one can read more about the deity here. Chinese traditional religion is polytheistic. Many deities are worshipped in a pantheistic view where divinity is inherent in the world. More can be discovered here – though it only provides a general view on the topic.
The Seventh Day
On this day, it is known as the Human Day (人日). It is believed that human beings were created today, following the creation of other early beings and animals from the first day of the first lunar month. References about this can be found in (答問禮俗說) by Dong Xun (董勛), written in the Jin Dynasty (265 – 420AD).
In ancient times, people used to wear traditional head ornaments called Ren Sheng (人勝) which were made of ribbon or gold and represented humans on their heads on Human Day. People would also wear pieces of gold in their hair as it is said to bring good fortune. In fact, poems are also composed on this day.
After the Tang Dynasty, emperors began giving beautiful clothings to their followers on this day. If the weather is kind on this day, it is said to be an indication that the Heavens have granted good luck to all people on Earth.
As the first seven days of the lunar month are considered the birthdays of different animals, Chinese people avoid killing said animals on their respective birthdays or punishing prisoners on Human Day. Chinese people also prepare auspicious food such as “Seven-Vegetable Soup (Qi Cai Geng 七菜羹)”, “Seven-Vegetable Congee (Qi Cai Zhou 七菜粥)” and “Jidi Congee (Ji Di Zhou 及第粥)”.
It is only a very Malaysian and Singaporean thing to do – that which of the prosperity toss (Lao Sheng 撈生).
The Eighth Day
On this day, it is traditionally celebrated as the birthday of the millet, which is considered a staple crop in ancient times. Folk proverbs state that if the day is bright and clear, the harvest will be good throughout the entire year. Conversely, if it is cloudy or rainy, farmers would suffer from poor harvest.
In the city, people would normally make the effort of performing good deeds on this day. In some cases, employers would show their gratitude to their employees by treating them to a meal or by giving a pay raise/bonus.
The Ninth Day
This is a day for the Chinese to offer prayers to the Jade Emperor, who is the Supreme deity in the Daoist pantheon. It is traditionally understood to be the birthday of the Jade Emperor, and this day is called Ti Kong Dan in Hokkien.
“Pai Ti Kong (Bai Tian Gong 拜天公)” or in other words, “Praying to the Sky Deity”, is especially important to the Hokkiens – even more so than the first day of the Chinese New Year. After the stroke of midnight on the eighth day, Hokkiens will give thanks to the Emperor of Heaven, offering sugarcane as a gift.
Legend has it that Hokkiens were spared from a massacre by Japanese pirates by hiding in a sugarcane plantation during the eighth and ninth days of Chinese New Year, coinciding with the Jade Emperor’s birthday.
Interestingly, since sugarcane (kam-chia 甘蔗) is a near homonym to “thank you” (kam-sia 感謝) in the Hokkien dialect, Hokkiens offer sugarcane on the eve of the Emperor’s birthday as a symbol of their gratitude.
On the morning of his birthday (between midnight and seven in the morning), Taiwanese households set up an altar table with 3 layers: the top layer containing offerings of “Six Vegetables” (Liu Zhai 六齋); and two lower levels containing five sacrifices and wines. This is to honour the deities who are in the lower ranks in comparison to the Jade Emperor. The household then kneels three times and kowtows nine times to venerate the Jade Emperor and to wish him blessings.
The Tenth Day
On this day, it is traditionally recognised as the birthday of the God of Stone. Hence, people are forbidden from moving any objects made of stone to avoid any misfortune.
The Eleventh Day
On this day, fathers-in-law would entertain their sons-in-law. It is also recognised as the Dragon Dance Festival (Pao Long Jie 炮龍節) in some parts of China – most notably in Binyang County, Guangxi, where the dragon dance is performed on the streets.
Historical texts such as Rich Dew of the Spring and Autumn Classic (Chun Qiu Fan Lu 春秋繁露) that existed in the Han dynasty spoke extensively about the Dragon Dance. According to its records, the dance was popularised during the Tang and Song dynasties.
Record of the Millet Dream (Meng Liang Lu 夢梁錄) written by a Song poet (Wu Zi Mu 夢梁錄) also has a record on how people would make Dragon Dance costumes on the night of Yuan Xiao by tying grass together to fashion into a makeshift costume. The costumes were then laid out with green cloths and candles were inserted. Its shape would resemble a meander but it would also give the impression of two flying dragons.
The Twelfth Day
Nothing really particular happens on this day but generally, folks would observe a lighter diet this day forward following the feast(s) they had. Be gone “heatiness”! Moreover, preparations are usually also made for the Lantern Festival which will take place three days later.
The Thirteenth Day
This day is normally seen as an inauspicious day (in part for the number 13), and as such, large-scale ceremonies are usually avoided. This day is also dedicated to General Guan Yu (關羽) who is considered the God of War. Most Chinese businesses and organisations pay tribute to the deity as he is likely to give them a winning edge.
The fourteenth Day
On this day, some parts of China will prepare and pre-organise lantern fairs in time for the Lantern Festival held on the fifteenth day. Typically, families will start preparing their lanterns and make Tang Yuan (湯國) for the final day. It is important not to confuse the Lantern Festival with the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Tang Yuan has a long and slightly complicated story. It is two-fold – one of historical significance and another being a legend. Perhaps a tale for another article.
The Fifteenth Day
It is arguably the second most important day for the Chinese New Year celebration. It marks the full moon of a new year. In Chinese culture, the passing of the moon’s phases holds great meaning and it is a symbolic event.
In Malaysia and Singapore, the day is called Chap Goh Meh (Shi Wu Ming 十五瞑) which translates to “Fifteenth Night”. This day is said to be auspicious as it brings the festivities to an end, and those who celebrate this day will grab the opportunity to reunite with family once more before returning to their routine-driven life, if at all.
This day is also sometimes called the “Chinese Valentine’s Day” as it is deemed a good day to search for a romantic partner. Single women would write their contact numbers on mandarin oranges and toss them into lakes or rivers, in hopes of getting match-made by eligible single men picking them up.
Although this year’s Chinese New Year celebration will be different due to COVID restrictions, take this opportunity to look inwards. Reflect on oneself and plan the year ahead if one has not already. Do not let COVID stand as a restriction from doing the things one can do (safely, and in consideration of others). Stay safe!