21 Fascinating Chinese New Year Traditions

More than 20% of the world’s population celebrates the Chinese New Year. It is the most important holiday in Chinese culture, and people all over the world commemorate the occasion. To help you get more acquainted with the big event, here are 21 Chinese New Year Traditions you should know about.

chinese figurines

It is also known as The Spring Festival

If you’ve been to China during their celebration of the Chinese New Year, you might have heard of locals refer to it as chunjie (春节) or the Spring Festival.

Although the holiday falls in the winter season, the Chinese New Year is celebrated to mark the beginning of spring and what it brings along. It complements the beginning of the season for planting and harvests while symbolizing new beginnings and fresh starts.

It is more also commonly referred to it as the Lunar New Year in some countries like the two Koreas and Vietnam. The festivities are also celebrated based on the Lunar calendar which is why…

There is no set date for Chinese New Year

There is no exact date for the Chinese New Year, but it generally falls between January 21st and February 22nd. If we are to base it on the Lunar Calendar, the Chinese New Year falls on January 21st and lasts until the full moon on February 15th. However, the dates of the celebrations vary when we look at it on the Solar (Gregorian) Calendar, but it usually falls between February 11th to February 26th. In 2021, the Chinese New Year will fall on February 12th. Check out our Chinese New Year Calendar for a full list of the events.

China officially uses the Solar Calendar, but the significance of the Lunar Calendar is still apparent. Some people even calculate their age based on the Lunar Calendar.

a close up image of a chinese new year calendar
The Chinese New Year calendar of events begins on January 17th and ends on February 8th.

It is a day reserved for praying to gods

The Chinese New Year was traditionally intended as a solemn day to pray to the gods for a good planting season and a bountiful harvest. These wishes were significant because ancient China relied heavily on their crops to sustain life as an agrarian nation.

It is also a day for fighting off monsters

Chinese folktales are some of the fascinating aspects of the Chinese New Year. One of the most famous legends is about a monster called Nian (年). It would terrorize villages on New Year’s Eve as inhabitants would run to the mountains to seek refuge.

a statue of nian, the chinese new year monster
Nian (年) would terrorize villages on New Year’s Eve as inhabitants would run to the mountains to seek refuge.

One boy found a way to scare the creature by setting off firecrackers. The following day, the people celebrated their survival by cranking up even more firecrackers. Since then, firecrackers have become a significant part of the Chinese New Year celebrations. You may also read Chinese New Year Myths.

The most fireworks are set off in the world that night

To commemorate the legend of Nian, people stay up on New Year’s Eve to set off firecrackers at midnight and do it again in the morning to welcome the blessings that come with the New Year.

Some families also burn fake paper money and gold bars printed on paper to honor their ancestors. They believe these offerings will bring fortune to their loved ones in the afterlife.

Firecrackers are sometimes illegal

Many Chinese cities have prohibited the use of firecrackers because of its contribution to air pollution and concerns to safety. Other towns have also set restrictions, but they haven’t stopped people from setting off firecrackers to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Beijing had banned fireworks for over 13 years. They lifted the ban in 2006 as a response to the public outrage that ensued.

It is the most extended Chinese holiday

The Chinese New Year technically lasts for 15 days. However, the celebrations begin on New Year’s Eve, adding another day. One could also argue that the festivities begin earlier in December of the Lunar New Year during the Laba Festival (腊八节—là bā jié). That makes it about 40 days of merry-making in total!

Traditionally, people must spend time with their families and can only go out after the fifth day. The first few days are national holidays, and most of the stores close. For this reason, people buy nian huo (年货) or New Year products a month before the celebrations. These include cooking supplies, snacks, gifts, and clothing among others.

The Chinese New Year causes the most massive human migration in the world

The family reunion that happens on New Year’s Eve is very significant in Chinese culture. Everyone must do everything they can to come home for this dinner.

In modern China, elderly parents often prefer to live in rural areas while their children work in the cities. The migration back home is referred to as chunyun (春运) or the Spring Migration.

In 2015, the Spring Migration caused train tickets sales to skyrocket at 1,000 tickets sold per second. The earliest you can buy tickets is two months before the festival.

Want to discover more about your zodiac? Read our articles on Year of the Pig, Year of the Rabbit, and Year of the Monkey.

Singles hire fake boyfriends or girlfriends to take home

Having children and carrying on the family name is an integral part of Chinese culture and relatives can get a little nosy during family reunions. Some even resort to hiring fake boyfriends or girlfriends to avoid these awkward situations.

However, other sensitive questions such as those with regards to your salary, career, and when you plan on having kids are almost impossible to avoid.  

Showering, sweeping, and throwing out the garbage is not allowed

You are not allowed to take a shower on New Year’s Day. You are also prohibited from cleaning the floor or taking out trash until the 5th. In Chinese culture, these actions are equivalent to sweeping away good luck.

a rice straw broom
In Chinese culture, sweeping the floor on Chinese new year is equivalent to sweeping away good luck.

There is a day before the Chinese New Year that meant for cleaning. This day symbolizes the sweeping away of bad luck to make room for fortune. If you want to know more, you would like to read Chinese New Year superstitions.

Children receive lucky money in red envelopes

Similar to other cultures, children receive during Chinese holidays. They often get red pouches or red pockets that contain luck money. This tradition represents the transfer of fortune from the elders to their kids. However, people can also give them to friends, colleagues, and superiors.

a chinese new year red pocket containing a hundred dollar bill
This tradition represents the transfer of fortune from the elders to their kids.

Technology has also paved the way for the development of digital red envelopes. People enjoy sending them in group chats to see members compete for the money. This activity is referred to as qiang hongbao (抢红包) or snatching red pockets.

You eat dumplings for every meal, every day

Although many people have abandoned this practice, you are supposed to eat dumplings at every meal throughout the celebration of Chinese New Year. Today, dumplings are served during the New Year’s Eve dinner while others consume them as the first breakfast of the year.

a plate of dumplings, the chinese new year food prepared with sauce and various vegetables
Dumplings are usually prepared with sauce and various vegetables.

Contrary to popular belief, dumplings are not renowned throughout China. They are more popular in the northern regions since the southern regions prefer eating spring rolls and rice balls. You can know more about dumping from Chinese New Year Food.

Chinese New Year desserts have special meanings

Many Chinese New Year desserts are associated with special meanings. These meanings are usually puns to their names. Tangyuan, for example, is a favorite Chinese New Year dessert. It translates to soup balls, but it sounds similar to tuanyuan (团圆), which means reunion. Meanwhile, Fa gao (发糕) is a combination of sponge cakes and muffins. The fa bears the same meaning as in fa cai (发财) which means to get rich.

a bunch of white fa gao
The fa in fa gao (发糕) bears the same meaning as in fa cai (发财) which means to get rich.

There’s wine specifically for the Chinese New Year

The Chinese love to drink and wine is almost a necessity at ceremonies or festivals. They even have a saying that implies there’s no manners and etiquette without wine. Thus, it is not surprising that they have wine specifically for the Chinese New Year.

containers of chinese new year wine stacked over each other
When you’re dining with someone older than you, you need to remember and abide by the strict toasting rules and etiquette.

The Chinese have such a rich wine culture that they have even developed their drinking games. When you’re dining with someone older than you, you need to remember and abide by the strict toasting rules and etiquette. These include how you hold your glass, where you should be seated, the order of the toasts, and so on. If you want to know about other beverages, check out Chinese New Year Drinks.

Red is the color of Chinese New Year

The Chinese adorn their homes with red decorations on Chinese New Year. If you are familiar with the legend of Nian, you would know that firecrackers weren’t the only things that stopped it from terrorizing the village. The creature also trembled at the sight of anything red.

a woman wearing traditional chinese garment
People have also become accustomed to wearing red clothing for the festival.

It is common to find red lanterns and strings of red chili hung up on doors and windows during the Chinese New Year. People have also become accustomed to wearing red clothing for the festival. Know more about what to wear for prosperity from Chinese New Year Clothes.

Every year has a zodiac animal

Western astrology has a total of 12 zodiac animals with one for every month of the year. There is also the same number of zodiac animals in Chinese astrology, but they each go for an entire year.

small figures of the 12 chinese aodiac animals
Some of the zodiac animals such as the Rat, Snake, Dog, and Pig are not very well-appreciated in Chinese culture.

For instance, 2021 is the year of the Ox. Some of the zodiac animals such as the Tiger, Dragon, Horse, or Goat are not very well-appreciated in Chinese culture, but their positive traits are bestowed upon people born that year. The zodiac animal can determine your career, health, and relationship so make sure you find out which Chinese zodiac animal you are!   

Your zodiac year is bad luck

Your zodiac animal year is referred to as the benming year (本命年—běn mìng nián). In the 12 year cycle, your benming year is the unluckiest. The Chinese believe that people become more attractive to evil spirits during their benming year.

To protect yourself from these spirits, decorate your homes with red ornaments and wear red clothing. Chinese tradition would even dictate that you should wear red underwear every day throughout your benming year.

You grow one year older on Chinese New Year

The Chinese have a real age (实岁—shí suì) and a fake nominal age (虚岁—xū suì). The basis of your real age is when you were born while the fake age increases with the Chinese New Year. In other words, your actual age gets topped an additional year on your birthday, while your false age increases on the Chinese New Year. The nominal age used to be more prominent in China. However, it is still prevalent and sometimes used interchangeably with your real age.

The New Year greeting in Chinese is “xin nian kuai le”

This phrase means “Happy New Year” in Mandarin. In Hong Kong and other Cantonese-speaking regions, the greeting “gong hei fat choy” is more popular. In Mandarin, this is gong xi fa cai (恭喜发财) which means “congratulations on the fortune.” If you look at our list of Chinese New Year greetings, you will realize that most of them are about:

  • plentiful harvest;
  • wealth and fortune;
  • health and longevity; and
  • having children or a large family.

In Chinese culture, passing down the family name is very important. This tradition contributes to its vast population and is the reason why many people have the same family names.

Chinese New Year ends with the Lantern Festival

The Yuanxiao Festival (元宵节—yuán xiāo jié) or Lantern Festival (灯节—dēng jié) falls on the first full moon of the Lunar New Year. It is dedicated to the family as well as partying and freedom.

hundreds of lanterns released into the sky on January 15th
The Lantern Festival is celebrated on January 15th of the Lunar Calendar.

In ancient China, girls were prohibited from going out of their homes by themselves. But on the Lantern Festival, they were allowed to roam freely to enjoy the sights and interact with others. This story is the reason why the festival serves as the real Valentine’s Day in China for some people.

Chinese New Year is celebrated all around the world

There are millions of Chinese working overseas. One out of every five people in the world is Chinese or has Chinese descent. Cities in various parts of the world including London, San Francisco, and Sydney all claim to have the most prominent Chinese New Year celebration outside of China. These celebrations are usually held in Chinatown (Chinese New Year traditions), and there are tons of them all over the world. If you have one nearby, make sure to check out the lion dances, lanterns, fireworks, and try out the fantastic food!

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4 thoughts on “21 Fascinating Chinese New Year Traditions”

  1. I can’t wait to celebrate the Chinese new year this year. It was the happiest time of the year for me for the reason that we always celebrate it with the whole family.

    Reply
  2. “Chinese people don’t need a set of days. They want to be able to stay in bed and watch TV. They can’t afford a set of days and be able to stay in bed at night, or watch TV.” I’m a Chinese living in Beijing and would love to have a set of days and a set of days, as I don’t think I could ever be a Chinese. The way we are taught to watch TV in China is to be able to sleep in a different part of the country. In the US, if you can’t sleep at a certain time, you can’t sleep in China. You can sleep in a bed and watch TV at a certain time in the US. I am not sure if it’s true or not. I wish I knew it wasn’t true, given that my Chinese time is roughly 10 minutes to a year.

    Reply
  3. Is it the Chinese government that should start a “Gender Bias” movement? If not, what incentive should we be trying to keep from taking away from this sort of behavior?

    Reply

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