Taming the Dragon: Chinese New Year on the Mainland

Culture | by James Weir
Posted: January 20th, 2012 | Updated: September 2nd, 2014 | Comments
Fireworks in Shanghai

Chunyun (Chūnyùn, 春运) has begun. The full force of its plaid-polyurethane-suitcase gale has yet to swoop down on the train, bus and plane infrastructures around the country, but you can feel it; it's almost as though the earth were rumbling in anticipation. Chunyun, the annual migration of the general Chinese populous in anticipation of and during the weeks after Spring Festival (Chūnjié, 春节)the official name of the Chinese New Year in Mainland China since the adoption of the Gregorian calendarbegins two weeks prior to the first day of the Lunar New Year and lasts over a month.

This logistical inconvenience is a nightmare for agoraphobes and everyone else alike; there are few things less enjoyable than spending eighteen hours on a packed, standing-room only train as it whisks you and a few thousand others across the countryside. So for many foreigners, Chinese New Year is an excuse to skip off work a few days early, Hong Kong and Taiwan, for that matter), and without a local's knowledge of what's to come, the holiday can be anticipated with a vague sense of unease, as though the entire city were about to combust with nationalist fervor and reckless pyrotechnic practices. But if you're an expat that plans on remaining in China through the week, it's not a bad idea to acquaint yourself with whatever it is that's coming—to familiarize yourself with the guiding principles behind this chaotic, bedazzled holiday. 

Spring Festival Begins: Chinese New Year's Eve

Chinese Spring Festival

The Chinese New Year celebration begins on the first day (surprise!) of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, which in 2012 is Monday, the 23rd of January. The Chinese calendar (like practically everything in China, as many a local will tell you) dates back thousands of years—perhaps as far back as the Shang Dynasty.

Today, the Gregorian calendar reigns supreme over the day-to-day functioning of China, but that doesn't stop the government from basing its national holidays on the ancient calendar (And why the hell should it? Everyone loves tradition). So, what that means for us displaced foreign nationals is that we're plunging towards the Year of the Dragon and the raucous celebration that comes along with it.

The celebration leaks in both directions on the calendar, so you've most likely already heard some pretty serious explosions if you're living in China. But the celebration really gets rolling on New Year's Eve, with my kind of party: a feast.

With the house freshly cleaned to represent new beginnings, the New Year's Eve dinner consists of fish, dumplings and the seasonal favorite, niángāo (among many other dishes; exactly what depends on region, family tradition and personal preferences). Niángāo is a dish of sweetened sticky rice, and is particularly notable during this holiday for a reason: the characters for sticky and year (黏 and 年, respectively) are pronounced similarly, and cake and high (糕 and 高) are as well. So, niángāo can mean, literally, sticky cake or year high; therefore, to eat niángāo is a sign that the coming year will be successful. Hurrah!

After dinner, 700 million (or so) tune in to the CCTV New Year's Gala (Zhōngguó Zhōngyāng Diànshìtái Chūnjié Liánhuān Wǎnhuì, 中国中央电视台春节联欢晚会), a mega media event that involves performances of all kinds, including comedy sketches, magic tricks and musical performances.

Days 1 & 2 of the Lunar New Year: A Time of Giving

Many awake with full bellies on the first day of Spring Festival. The first day of the New Year is marked with a celebration of the elders; social gatherings are generally limited to immediate family, and are a time to reflect on the mark our elders make upon us. Meat is often avoided at meals, to preserve health and encourage longevity.

CNY in Shanghai

Explosive demonstrations of jubilation and good cheer abound, and many major cities alight the smoggy sky with massive, coordinated fireworks shows. Be on the lookout for the many rogue, unprofessional holiday participants that will accidentally blast you off the face of the earth if you're not careful. They are omnipresent.

Hóngbāo (红包), or red envelopes, generally make their appearance at family gatherings on the first day. Hóngbāo are gifts of money given to the younger members of the family by the older. Similar gifts are often presented by bosses to employees across the country in the week leading up to, during or the week after the holiday. This, I will add, is a lovely practice.  Don't forget to give one to your āyí (阿姨) and, if you know him well enough, your bǎo'ān (保安)the security guard outside your complex. 

The second day is a celebration of new beginnings and continued (or looked for) prosperity. Additionally, it is the day when the social circle begins to expand, and friends, in-laws and others are visited or welcomed into homes. In modern China, the practices of how to spend each day are less uniform than they once were. In times past, the second day was the day married women went home to spend time with their birth family; today, with the increased presence of urbanization and job-seeking young-adult migration, husbands, wives and their families are often scattered across far greater regions than they once were, making the holidays difficult to schedule and prioritize.

Days 3-5: Turn the Volume Up to 11

By the third day things begin to settle into a holiday routine. Less socializing is done, and in areas that only celebrate the New Year for half the week (outside of Mainland China, mostly), preparations are made for the return to business-as-usual on the fourth day.

The fifth day is often the biggest day for fireworks, as citizens call the attention of the ancient general and deified God of War, Guān Yǔ (关羽). But to my untrained ears, each and every day is chock-full of explosions—so many so that Shanghai feels more like a battle-scarred, empty shell than the mostly peaceful, enormous city it otherwise is. Brace yourself.


Year of the Dragon

How CNY Ends, and So It Goes....

The next morning, street sweepers gather massive piles of spent red firecracker casings. For those that continue to enjoy time off, the week proceeds at a leisurely pace. Food is consumed voraciously, the company of others enjoyed thoroughly and on the seventh day, rénrì (人日), the people's birthday, is celebrated.

On this day, in the collective conscious of the country, everyone becomes a year older. Traditionally in China, one's age is measured not by birthdays, but by how many rénrì one has seen.

By the end of the first week, everything begins to pick up steam. Business' open back up, day by day, and the transportation infrastructure creaks under the weight of migrants and big-city office workers alike as they head back to the cities where they earn their bread.

The Chinese New Year celebration is officially two weeks long, though work and real life obligations resume at the end of the first week. The second week is akin to a regular week with a slightly busier social schedule. Gods are worshiped, emperor's heralded, dinners attended, temples visited and respects are paid on a case by case basis, determined by individual's beliefs and customs.

The culmination of the holiday comes on the fifteenth night, with the Lantern Festival (Yuánxiāo Jié, 元宵节). In contrast to the Lantern Festivals of old under the dynasties that could last for weeks, the modern celebration lasts (primarily) one evening, and is marked by the display of hand-crafted and mechanized lanterns alike around cities, all of various sizes and complexity. Not unexpectedly, there are often fireworks to accompany the less-noisy, colorful ornaments the lanterns offer. The holiday may leave us full-bellied, somewhat rejuvenated and mildly shell shocked. In fact, I anticipate yearning for a vacation to top off my vacation, which is often the case.

The dragon zodiac is associated with a free-wheeling sense of self and the confidence to match—I mean, can you imagine a dragon not strutting its stuff? So this coming Year of the Dragon promises to be a good one, and let us hope that we seize the year as a dragon would: with unscrupulous tenacity, passion, and, above all, a proclamation to get what is ours. Huzzah! Huzzah! Happy Year of the Dragon!

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