Updated: Apr 29, 2020
Friends, in the few short weeks since I wrote this post, the Wuhan coronavirus has become a serious threat to our employees, friends, and partners in China. Please know that we hold you all in our hearts and send our sincere wishes for your health and safety. – Mike
As most of you know, Idea Planet has a wonderful team in our Shenzhen, China office. In fact, we have 15 very talented experts in engineering, manufacturing, quality assurance, compliance, product management, and logistics. So, our company is naturally immersed in Chinese culture and tradition. One of their most celebrated holidays is Chinese New Year which, not coincidently, is happening right now, as this blog is posted.
Rooted in thousands of years of history, Chinese New Year is a wonderful time of year that is deeply rooted in history, folklore and tradition with the primary focus on family (isn’t that great?). Businesses and factories close so people can return home to celebrate amongst generations of relatives. The festivities and food are amazing. I find the rich, cultural traditions fascinating, so I thought I’d share them with you in this month’s blog.
Year of the What?
Let’s begin by backing up a little. Legend has it that in ancient times, Buddha asked all of the animals to meet him on the Chinese New Year. Since only 12 animals came, Buddha named a year after each one. Thus, the Chinese zodiac is a repeating cycle of 12 years, with each year represented by an animal and its reputed characteristics. These 12 horoscope animals are, in order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.
The Chinese believe that each of these zodiac animals have lucky connotations, therefore people will exhibit personality traits of the animal representing the year in which they were born. For instance, I was born in the Year of the Ox which means that I have strong tendencies to be Diligent, Dependable, Strong, and Determined. Ha! I’d say that pretty much describes me!
Check out this chart to see what Chinese zodiac animal you are:
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on the Chinese zodiac, but if you’re interested, you can read more on this site, where I got the above info: www.chinahighlights.com
The key takeaway, here, is that 2020 is the Year of the Rat!
Now, let’s Celebrate Chinese New Year like a local!
Celebrations & Traditions
The timing of CNY is based on the lunar calendar (the second new moon after the winter solstice), so it is slightly different each year. In 2020, it actually falls on January 25th. Not only is it the most important Chinese holiday, but it’s also the longest, with festivities running from January 17th through February 8th. Let’s take a quick look at what goes on each day:
Jan. 17 - Little Year
Jan. 24 - New Year's Eve
Jan. 25 - CNY / Spring Festival
Jan. 26 - To the In-Law's
Jan. 27 - Day of the Rat
Jan. 28 - Day of the Sheep
Jan. 29 - Break Five
Jan. 30 - Day of the Horse
Jan. 31 - Day of the Human
Feb. 1- Day of the Millet
Feb. 2- Providence Health
Feb. 3 - Stone Festival
Feb. 4 - Son-in-Law Day
Feb. 5-7 - Lantern Festival Preparations
Feb. 8 - Lantern Festival
January 17 – Little Year
Also known as XiaoNian, this day is special because it marks the beginning of Chinese New Year preparation. Most people start cleaning their homes (to sweep away bad luck), shopping for gifts, new clothes (to represent a new beginning) and decorations, and stockpiling food since shops will be closed. Sugar melons, also known as Stove Candy, are a staple on this day. They’re made of malt and according to legend, were “sacrificed” to the Kitchen God in an effort to flatter him, so he would not say bad things about your family to the Jade Emperor (sounds like a bad dude with a sweet tooth!). After this sacrifice, ancestors are worshipped by the whole family.
Red (the luckiest color in China) decorations are put up at this time, like the traditional Spring Couplet, which is hung outside the front door and in important rooms of the home. These Couplets depict of a pair of poetry lines which represent peoples’ excitement and wishes for a better life in the coming new year. Lighted red lanterns also create a festive atmosphere. If you happen to be in China right now, you’ll likely also see decorations adorned with rats!
January 24 – New Year’s Eve
The significance of the family is important in all Chinese New Year celebrations. Because it’s a time for families to be together, people are expected to return home (near or far) to celebrate the festival with their relatives. The “reunion dinner” held on New Year’s Eve is believed to be the most important meal of the year, and families will often leave an empty spot for anyone unable to attend. Meals are homemade and feature many traditional dishes, one of which is the very delightful Chinese dumpling, or Jiaozi.
Families stay up late to welcome the new year at midnight and watch the Spring Festival Gala on CCTV – one of the most viewed shows in China (reminds me of growing up watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV). People also reach out to friends on WeChat to send digital “red envelope” well wishes (more on red envelopes momentarily).
Setting off fireworks at midnight is a major custom based on traditional folklore. As the myth goes, a monster called Nian would come out on New Year’s Eve to eat villagers and destroy their houses. However, he was thwarted with burning dry bamboo that gave off a bright light and explosive popping sounds, scaring him away. That led to the NYE tradition of setting off firecrackers to scare away evil and bring good luck, which still remains today.
January 25 – Chinese New Year
CNY, aka Spring Festival, is a day of visiting the elders (on the husband’s side) in the family and bringing gifts. Grandparents then present the children with red envelopes (hóngbāo) that contain money. To receive their red envelopes, children perform three “kowtows” whereby they kneel and rest their head between their outstretched hands. Red envelopes are always given and received with both hands and are never opened in the presence of the giver.
Interestingly, the significance of these red envelopes is actually the red paper, not the money inside. The red symbolizes good luck and prosperity – so wrapping money in red envelopes is expected to bestow more happiness and blessings on the receivers. Also, the cash should be new, crisp bills, and the amount should never include a four, because that word in Mandarin sounds similar to their word for death (yikes!).
BTW, you’re not allowed to clean your home on this day, or you might “sweep away” all your good luck (I might keep this practice all year!).
January 26 – To The In-Laws
Today is the day that married women bring their husbands home to visit her parents. Typically, she offers a simple bag of crackers and candies as a gift to her mother, which symbolizes the notion that “it’s the thought that counts” as well as her continued longing for her hometown. Lunch is eaten together, and the daughter returns back to her married home before dinner.
January 27 – Day of the Rat
According to folktales, this is the day that rats marry! People will leave grains and crackers in corners of their home to share their “harvest” with the rats. They go to bed early so as not to disturb the rats’ wedding, and in turn, the rats will not disturb them during the year. Since China began as an agrarian country, it makes sense that they need a holiday to keep the rats away – kind of ironic, though, that this is the Year of the Rat!
January 28 – Day of the Sheep
In Chinese mythology, Nuwa, the serpent goddess, founded the world and created sheep on the fourth day. An important animal representative of ancient sustenance, people pray to the God of Wealth on this day. Windows are opened at midnight to welcome in the god and then eat and drink until daybreak. Kumquats and sugarcane are served to ensure a sweet life, and sheep may not be slaughtered on this day.
January 29 – Break Five
After praying to the God of Wealth, markets and stores are able to re-open today. And delicious Chinese dumplings are eaten again to bring in wealth. Taboos and activities forbidden on previous days are now resumed.
January 30 – Day of the Horse
Nuwa waited until the sixth day to create the horse. I’m not sure how they relate, but two significant events happen on this day. People send the spirit of poverty away (supposedly a frail-looking man who liked to drink thin porridge and purposely turned his clothes into rags) by burning scraps and offering banana boat candles. Second, the God of Bathrooms will visit each home to check sanitary conditions, so every household uses this day to clean. Ok then.
January 31 – Day of the Human
On the seventh day, Nuwa created humans, and celebrations for the Day of Humans originate from the Han Dynasty. Ancient Chinese tradition called for wearing a hair accessory called ren sheng. Today, colorful cut-outs and gold engravings of flowers and people are pasted onto screens, and Seven Gem Porridge is the celebratory dish (made with seven different vegetables).
February 1 – Day of the Millet
Happy Birthday to the Millet Grain! Another nod to the importance of grain in ancient Chinese society. To celebrate, pets such as fish and birds are released back into the wild to show respect to nature. Families also visit rural areas to learn about agriculture and teach their children to appreciate farmers’ hard work and to become more environmentally aware.
February 2 – Providence Health
Ironically, today is the birthday of the highest god, the Jade Emperor. In Daoism, the Jade Emperor is the sovereign of the universe and the ultimate representation of “sky” so celebrating his birthday entails bringing fragrant flowers to a natural well, harbor or other open space. Rituals also involve fasting and bathing before praying to the gods.
February 3 – Stone Festival
One more birthday – the Rock (no, not Dwayne Johnson)! Literally, stone. Some regions celebrate by freezing a clay jar onto a smooth stone the night before. In the morning, 10 youths will carry the jar around. If the stone doesn’t fall, it’s a sign of a good forthcoming harvest. After eating a lunch meal of baked bread, the road to wealth will open and be smooth for a year. Just in case you’re thinking about it, you can’t use stone tools such as rollers and millstones on this day.
February 4 – Son-in-Law Day
Again, more family time! Today is the day that fathers will invite their daughters and sons-in-law to dinner.
February 5-7 – Lantern Festival Preparations
During this time, decorations for Chinese New Year come down, and new deco for Lantern Festival go up. The celebration is huge, so it takes a few days to get everything ready!
February 8 – Lantern Festival
The Lantern Festival takes place on the first full moon of the year and marks the end of Chinese New Year festivities.It also signifies the return of spring and symbolizes reunion of family. The festival is also the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day, because in ancient China single women were allowed to venture outside their homes unchaperoned, a rare opportunity that helped kindle love.
While there are several stories about how the tradition of lanterns began, one notes that back during the Eastern Han Dynasty, Emperor Hanmingdi discovered certain monks lit lanterns in their temples to show respect to Buddha on the 15th day of the first lunar month. As an advocate of Buddhism, he proclaimed that all temples, households and royal palaces should light lanterns on that evening. And so, the tradition continues.
Today, lanterns are symbols of joy and good fortune. They can be small or several stories in height. They can take on themes or shapes, such as flowers or animals, and may vary by region. While lanterns are traditionally red, displays often take on a beautiful array of color and are absolutely extraordinary – truly a sight to behold. But there’s meaning beyond the beauty. Lighting lanterns is a way for people to pray for a smooth future and express best wishes for their families. Women who want to be pregnant may walk under a hanging lantern and pray for a child. Lanterns represent people letting go of their past selves and getting new ones.
A fun custom is the Riddle Game, whereby people will paste riddles on their lanterns and others try to guess the answer – if someone believes they figured it out, he or she can take the riddle off the lantern and check with the owner to see if they are right. A small prize is often the reward!
In addition to amazing lantern displays, streets throughout the country are jammed with colorful processions featuring stilt walkers, acrobats, kung fu demonstrations and dance performances, including the Lion Dance, one of the most outstanding traditional folk dances in China, Because the lion was seen as a symbol of bravery and strength, it was thought to drive away evil and protect people and their livestock. So, Lion Dances are performed to ward off evil and pray for good fortune and safety.
Children carry lanterns around the village and families come together to eat sweet rice balls. These glutinous rice balls, filled with sweet centers, are the traditional dessert of Lantern Festival. Because they are ball-shaped and customarily served in bowls, the Chinese believe the round shapes symbolize wholeness and togetherness. They are eaten in the spirit of family unity and to express best wishes for each other in the coming year.
Idea Planet China
While those of us based in Dallas, TX cannot fully participate in Chinese New Year, we do have a special tradition of sharing red envelopes with our China staff to celebrate the year end and wish them the best for 2020. In fact, I’m in China as I write this, meeting with each person individually to thank them for their personal contributions.
As we move into 2020, on behalf of our entire Idea Planet Family, I hope each of you has a happy, prosperous year blessed with good fortune.
Guò nián hǎo (过年好)