Spring Festival 101: Basics to Understanding China’s Biggest Holiday
Happy New Year! Welcome to the Year of the Dog! Woof Woof!
First things first: Chunjie 春节, or Spring Festival, is just another way of saying Chinese New Year. I know that this can be confusing to some, since the name “Spring Festival” is not used to describe the holiday in some places. In any case, the two names describe the same holiday, and I will be using these terms interchangeably throughout this post.
Spring Festival is arguably the most important holiday in China, and is celebrated across the country regardless of ethnicity or religion. Furthermore, many of the traditions of the holiday revolve around spending time with family, so Spring Festival is the busiest time of year for traveling as people working far from family will often return home to celebrate. Because of this, it is important to book arrangements for traveling during this period as far ahead of time as possible.
Preparing for Spring Festival
Before the holiday begins, Chinese people will do an intensive cleaning of the home, a “spring cleaning” per say, so that they can start off the New Year with a clean slate. Decoration is also important- incense is placed on either side of the entrance to the home, and red banners dui lian 对联 are pasted along the sides of the entrance. Additionally, some people will hang posters of the character fu 福 upside down. The reason for this is that the word for upside down in Chinese is dao 倒, which is similar to the word dao 到, which means to arrive. So hanging the word fu 福 upside down is a way of hoping for prosperity to arrive at your doorstep. Get it?
Note- this article will discuss several different instances of Chinese words and the words they sound like having auspicious significance. Essentially, Chinese culture is full of puns that people actually take seriously.
My personal favorite Spring Festival tradition entails that if the New Year is your zodiac year, you are supposed to wear red underwear for good luck. The color red represents fortune in China so this makes sense, but I still giggle when I think about it. In any case, if you were born in the year of the dog you had better go out and get some red underwear!
New Year’s Eve
New Years Eve is celebrated across China in a similar manner. Families will normally share a large feast, and the table will generally be full of traditional dishes that symbolize wishes for prosperity and good fortune in the new year (more on this in a bit).
The feast may last for several hours, and depending on the group, involve heavy drinking of Chinese grain liquor, Bai Jiu 白酒.
After the meal it is time for fireworks. As the civilization responsible for the invention of gunpowder and fireworks, the Chinese people have a deep and abiding love for these explosives. Stand on any roof in China and you’ll be treated to a spectacular 360-degree fireworks show.
It is common for fireworks and firecrackers to continue on late into the night—last night I woke up at five am as someone set off firecrackers near my home.
The other main event of the night involves watching the New Year Gala production on TV. The New Year’s Gala, aired on New Years Eve every year, is thought to be the most-watched live TV program in the world. The last few years has seen a decrease in views, yet the number of people watching still tops 400 million. The show is usually pretty all over the place, with comedy sketches, musical and dance performances, and speeches.
As with many Chinese festivals, Chinese New Year traditions have a lot to do with food. Some of the traditional dishes eaten during this time are dumplings, fish, sweet rice balls, and glutinous rice cakes, to name a few.
People eat fish and say the phrase “nian nian you yu” “年年有余” This is a pun, because the yu 余 in this sentence means surplus, but another yu 鱼 means fish. The phrase thus translates to “Year after year, there is a surplus (fish).” Often people will not finish eating the fish, but will leave the head, thus emphasizing the idea of having a surplus going into the New Year.
Dumplings, or jiaozi 饺子, are also a traditional Spring Festival food. Supposedly, the shape of the dumpling is similar to the pieces of silver used as currency in dynastic times, and thus, dumplings signify wealth. Often people will put a coin into one of the dumplings, and often the lucky diner will receive a red packet (stuffed with cash).
Niangao 年糕, or glutinous rice cakes are eaten because of, you guessed it, a pun! Nian 年means year, but the word gao 糕 which means cake sounds like gao 高 which means tall or high. Because of a play on words, niangao 年糕 becomes niangao 年高 and can be interpreted to mean that in the new year, people’s fortunes and status will rise.
Sweet rice balls, or tangyuan 汤圆, signify family reunion and togetherness. Tangyuan kind of sounds like tuanyuan 团圆 or reunion. Tangyuan are often filled with crushed peanuts, red bean paste, or black sesame.
Longevity noodles, long noodles that are served uncut, symbolize wishes for a long life.
Common Festival Practices
There are several specific traditions practiced across China, regardless of ethnicity.
Spending time with family is not a tradition per say, but it is a central theme of the holiday and most Chinese families spend a significant amount of time hanging out during the festival.
A favorite tradition for kids is the practice of adults giving children red packets, hongbao 红包, full of money. Alipay and Wechat pay have also created a means of giving out red packets virtually, and people will send hongbao with random amounts to groups, where members can rush to see who can claim them first. Businesses will also sometimes post QR codes for hongbao and people can scan them in the hopes of getting a red packet with some money.
Practiced in many places across China, dragon dances are believed to scare away evil spirits and usher in good fortune. As such, the New Year is a popular time to hold such performances.
Bai Minority Practices
Here, in Xizhou, a center of Bai culture, there are a few additional Spring Festival traditions.
Before Spring festival begins, Bai people will take pine tree clippings from Cangshan Mountain, and put them in the courtyard of their homes. The tree represents longevity and wishes for a long life for all who live there.
Another particular Bai practice has to do with local Bai religion. Bai people observe religious traditions taken from Buddhism, Taoism, and a type of local religion celebrating gods based on Bai myths. During Spring Festival, Bai people will bring offerings to the village temples honoring the local gods and pray for a successful harvest, fortune for their families, and protection for their livestock.
Additionally, on the first day of the new year, Bai people will go to the local market to buy a bundle of firewood, which symbolizes wealth and prosperity. They do this because the word for kindling, chai 柴 sounds similar to cai 财 which means fortune.
I hope this article helped explain some of the complexities of traditions for this special holiday! Parts of the traditions can be difficult to explain, but I did my best. At the end of the day, it is impossible to capture the depth to the culture and tradition that surrounds this holiday, and this article barely skims the surface of the subject. Because Spring Festival truly is such an important time of year in China, I would highly recommend spending the holiday here in Dali if you ever get the chance. Reading about these traditions is one thing, experiencing them firsthand is something very different. In conclusion, we at the Linden Centre want to wish all of you a happy Spring Festival! May this year bring you joy and prosperity in all parts of your life! 🙂