Lunar New Year, also called Spring Festival, is the most important holiday in China. The festival is also celebrated in Vietnam (where it's known as Tet), North and South Korea (where it's known as Solnal) and Tibet (where it is called Losar). In 2022, Lunar New Year will begin on February 1.
Tied to the Chinese lunar calendar, the holiday began as a time for feasting and to honor household and heavenly deities, as well as ancestors. With the popular adoption of the Western calendar in 1912, the Chinese joined in celebrating January 1 as New Year’s Day. China, however, continues to celebrate Lunar New Year with the traditional greeting, “Kung hei fat choi.”
Chinese New Year
The ancient Chinese lunar calendar, on which Chinese New Year is based, functioned as a religious, dynastic and social guide. Oracle bones inscribed with astronomical records indicate that the calendar existed as early as 14th century B.C., when the Shang Dynasty was in power.
The calendar’s structure wasn’t static: It was reset according to which emperor held power and varied from one region to another.
The Chinese calendar was a complex timepiece. Its parameters were set according to the lunar phases as well as the solar solstices and equinoxes. Yin and yang, the opposing but complementary principles that make up a harmonious world, also ruled the calendar.
Chinese New Year typically begins with the new moon that occurs between the end of January and the end of February, and it lasts about 15 days, until the full moon arrives with the Festival of Lanterns.
Chinese New Year Animals
Each year in the Chinese calendar is represented by one of 12 zodiac animals included in the cycle of twelve stations or “signs” along the apparent path of the sun through the cosmos. The 12 zodiac animals are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
The year 2022 is slated to be the year of the water tiger. The tiger is known as the king of all beasts in China and the zodiac is associated with strength, exorcising evils and bravery.
Chinese New Year Traditions
The traditional Chinese New Year is the most important festival on the calendar. During this time, business life comes nearly to a stop and home and family become the principal focus.
In preparation for the holiday, houses are traditionally thoroughly cleaned to rid them of “huiqi,” or inauspicious breaths, which might have collected during the old year. Cleaning is also meant to appease the gods who would be coming down from heaven to make inspections.
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Ritual sacrifices of food and paper icons are offered to ancestors. People post scrolls printed with lucky messages on household gates and set off firecrackers. Elders give out money to children. Fireworks are set off throughout the holiday, particularly during the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated on the last day of New Year's festivities.
READ MORE: Chinese New Year Traditions
Chinese New Year Food
Traditionally, on New Year’s Eve, the extended family gathers around the table for a meal that includes as the last course a fish that is symbolic of abundance and therefore not meant to be eaten.
In the first five days of the New Year, long noodles are traditionally eaten to symbolize long life. On the 15th and final day of the New Year, round dumplings shaped like the full moon are shared as a sign of the family unit and of perfection.
The Western-style Gregorian calendar arrived in China along with Jesuit missionaries in 1582. It began to be used by the general population by 1912, and New Year’s Day was officially recognized as occurring on January 1.
Beginning in 1949, under the rule of Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, the government forbade celebration of the traditional Chinese New Year and followed the Gregorian calendar in its dealings with the West.
But at the end of the 20th century, Chinese leaders were more willing to accept the Chinese tradition. In 1996, China instituted a weeklong vacation during the holiday—now called Spring Festival—giving people the opportunity to travel home and to celebrate the new year.
In the early 21st century, many Chinese families spent a significant amount of their discretionary income celebrating the Spring Festival with traditional symbols and food. They also spent time watching the televised Spring Festival Gala: an annual variety show featuring traditional and contemporary singers, dancers and magic demonstrations.
Although the rites of the holiday no longer officially carry religious value, people remain sensitive to the symbolism of the zodiac animals. The zodiac animal is considered, for example, when assessing personal fortunes or the prospects of a child born at that time.
READ MORE: China: Timeline