Chinese New Year explained: the zodiac, animals, traditions, myths, foods and superstitions
Find out everything you ever needed to know about the Lunar New Year in China and Hong Kong as we welcome in the Year of the Dog
The rooster has stopped crowing for another 11 years because today marks the first day of the Year of the Dog. Homes have been spruced up in preparation for Chinese New Year and hung with festive decorations, while reunions and feasting will take place on this most important annual holiday for Chinese families.
The importance of Chinese New Year is reflected in the large number of traditions and auspicious symbols associated with the festival.
For example, everyone sees red during Chinese New Year – from clothing and decorations to firecrackers. Red has been deemed an auspicious colour since ancient times in China because it is believed to ward off evil spirits. Colours to avoid during the festival are white and black, which are associated with funerals and bad luck.
Fireworks are let off to scare away unlucky spirits and, on the fifth day of the new year, firecrackers are thrown to attract the attention of the legendary general Guan Yu, who is worshipped as a Taoist deity for his bravery and loyalty. Lion and dragon dances, often performed during parades, are another colourful sight during the festival.
Here is everything else you need to know about the Chinese New Year holiday.
Chinese New Year food in China is often chosen for its lucky-sounding name or connotations, so as to bring good fortune. Although the choice of dishes varies by region, celebratory meals often consist of eight courses – a lucky Chinese number – ending with a whole fish.
Fish are considered a symbol of luck, wealth and abundance in China, with its pronunciation (yu) being a homonym for the Chinese word for “surplus”. The fish should never be turned over to reach the meat because that symbolises a boat being flipped. Neither should it ever be finished; leaving some of the meal untouched signals hopes that the coming year will be one of abundance.
Long and uncut noodles symbolise a long life. For sweet treats, glutinous rice cakes named nian gao are the traditional go-to staple, as the name sounds like “higher year” in Mandarin and conveys the hope of better grades, more opportunities and prosperity. Tangerines are also eaten, gifted and displayed as a symbol of good luck.
The symbolism with food is a day-long consideration. Some believe it is unwise to eat congee – a porridge-like dish made with rice – on the morning of New Year’s Day because it signifies poverty; some avoid meat during the same time because they believe it is unlucky to serve up dead animals. Fluffy white rice should be eaten instead.
At midnight on Chinese New Year’s Day, savoury dumplings are eaten in northern China. Their shape resembles old Chinese ingots and it is said that eating them increases the chances of getting rich in the year ahead.
In southern China, the traditional midnight dish is glutinous rice balls with a sweet filling. The round, sticky treats symbolise families reuniting and sticking together.
Places to visit
Flower markets are popular over the new year period, where visitors buy plants for their homes and those of family members to bring good luck. Hong Kong’s largest flower market during the holidays is in Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, which opens a couple of weeks before the new year. Whole families typically visit the markets to pick flowers together – similar to how Western families go together to choose a Christmas tree.
Hongkongers also visit temples to honour deities and bring luck to their family. Wong Tai Sin Temple in Kowloon – one of Hong Kong’s largest temples – attracts thousands of worshippers on the first two mornings of the new year.
Another popular attraction are the Lam Tsuen wishing trees in the New Territories. The two banyan trees are frequented by tourists and locals alike, who would traditionally write their wishes on joss paper before tying them to an orange to be hung on a tree. The practise has been stopped to help preserve the trees, but a festival is still held at Lam Tsuen every new year.
New year celebrations are steeped in superstition to ensure good fortune for the coming 12 months.
Sweeping the floors at home is essential and it must be done by New Year’s Eve. Sweeping on the day of celebrations is said to clean out all the luck accumulated over the past year.
While cleaning, avoid sweeping across the threshold. Symbolically this represents sweeping the family away, so dust and dirt must instead be carried out the back door.
Similar rules apply when washing oneself. It is popularly believed in southern China that pomelo leaves can wash away dirt and cast out evil, so the leaves are boiled and then bathed in to bring good health.
In Chinese, the word for hair is pronounced almost exactly the same as the word for fortune (fa), so it is believed that washing it on New Year’s Day will rinse away your good luck for an entire year. Chopping it represents cutting life short.
Buying new reading materials during the holiday will also bring back luck, because in Mandarin the word for book (shu) is a homonym for lose (shi qu). Similarly, buying new shoes – a homonym for “rough” in Cantonese and “evil” in Mandarin – is also not advised.
Although generosity is encouraged during the holidays, certain other gifts are also a no-no. Clocks symbolise a shortened life; umbrellas represent separation; the word for pears sounds like splitting up; and mirrors are believed to attract bad spirits.
Maintaining high spirits is also important because crying during the holidays will bring sadness throughout the year.
Chinese New Year sees the biggest mass migration of people in the world, as hundreds of millions of people return to their hometowns for family reunions.
The customary reunion dinner on the eve of the festival is traditionally the most important meal of the year. Several generations of the same family will gather around a large table for a sumptuous feast.
Families usually stay up past midnight to welcome in the new year – much like how January 1 is celebrated around the world.
During the wait, those in mainland China will most likely tune into the kitschy, ultra-nationalistic Spring Festival Gala produced annually by state broadcaster CCTV.
Another important family custom is giving red envelopes containing lucky money, called lai see in Cantonese and hong bao in Mandarin. Traditionally, the notes must be crisp, packets should be received with both hands, and a customary blessing such as gung hei fat choi, which means “wishing you great happiness and fortune”, should be spoken when giving or receiving.
Red envelopes are usually exchanged between family members and colleagues, with larger amounts given by elders and parents. It is also common for married people to give lai see to single friends and acquaintances, and to the children of close friends and colleagues.
Chinese New Year is a time to brighten up the home with auspicious decorations to boost blessings for the new year. Red banner couplets (dui lian) bearing Chinese calligraphy are pasted on either side of the front door, often bearing a poem that celebrates the arrival of spring, or marked with traditional new year greetings. Other decorations include the ubiquitous red lanterns, intricate red paper cuttings and the Chinese character for fortune, fu, pasted upside down to represent wealth being poured down on residents and visitors.
Kumquat trees are an especially popular festive decoration in Hong Kong and neighbouring Guangdong province, since the Cantonese for kumquat – gam gwat – is made up of the word for “gold” and one that sounds like “luck”.
Florists pop up all over Hong Kong during the run-up to the festive period, as exotic blooms such as orchids, peonies and peach blossoms are believed to bring prosperity and good luck to the home. Miniature orange trees are also popular.
Origins of the Chinese zodiac
The origins of the Chinese astrological system date back at least to the Warring States period (475-221 BC) as artefacts from the era show. Some scholars believe that the animal characters could have been brought to China via the Silk Road around the same time as Buddhism.
The animal characters – and the mythical dragon – are the subject of several versions of the Chinese zodiac legend. According to one story, the Jade Emperor invited the whole animal kingdom to take part in a race across a river to celebrate his birthday, promising that the first 12 to cross the finish line would win a place in the Chinese calendar.
The order in which the animals finished reflects their position in the zodiacal cycle. The quirky ways they crossed the river mirrors the character of each animal, and is also said to influence the personality traits of whoever is born under their sign.
For example, the wily, cunning rat came first in the race after having ridden on the back of the industrious ox for the whole journey. The devious snake finished the race before the skittish horse because it had been curled around the horse’s hoof for the duration, and frightened the horse into hesitating before it reached the finish line.
The noble dragon, who could have easily won the race with the power of flight, finished in the middle of the group because it helped others cross the river safely. The lazy pig arrived in last place.
Some stories also feature the cat, who failed to make it across the river in time so was left out of the zodiac. One legend has it that the cat planned with its best friend, the rat, to cross the river on top of the ox. However, as the rat jumped off the ox to land on the finish line first, the cat fell into the river.
In another version of the tale, the rat lies to the cat about the date of the race, so the cat arrives one day later than the other animals. These tales supposedly explain the cat’s hatred for water and why it hunts the rat to this day.
As for the dog? Well, with its excellent swimming ability, the dog had no problem crossing the river. But because it was too busy playing in the water, it finished the race in penultimate place.