The Ancient Origins of Chinese New Year | History Hit

The Ancient Origins of Chinese New Year

A traditional Chinese lion which is used for the famous lion dance.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival and the Lunar New Year, is an annual 15-day festival celebrated in China, East and Southeast Asia and by Chinese communities around the world. Known for its bright colours, music, gift-giving, socialising and festivities, Chinese New Year is a widely-enjoyed staple event in the Chinese calendar.

The date of the festival changes annually: according to Western calendars, the festival begins with the new moon that takes place sometime between January 21 and February 20. What doesn’t change, however, is the significance and history of the festival, which is steeped in legend and has evolved over some 3,500 years into what it is today.

Here’s the history of Chinese New Year, from its ancient origins to modern celebrations.

It is rooted in farming traditions

The history of Chinese New Year is intertwined with ancient agrarian society. Though the date of its exact beginning is not recorded, it probably began during the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC), when people held special ceremonies at the beginning and end of each year in accordance with the seasonal agricultural planting cycle.

With the emergence of the calendar in the Shang dynasty, the early traditions of the festival became more formalised.

Its origins are steeped in legend

Like all traditional Chinese festivals, the origins of Chinese New Year are steeped in stories and myths. One of the most popular, which emerged during the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC), is about the mythical beast ‘Nian’ (which translates to ‘year’), who terrorised local people by eating livestock, crops and even humans on the eve of every new year. To prevent the monster from attacking them, people left food on their doorsteps for it to eat instead.

Traditional red lanterns are hung to scare away Nian.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

It is said that a wise old man realised that Nian was scared of loud noises, bright colours and the colour red, so people put red lanterns and red scrolls on their windows and doors and crackled bamboo to scare Nian away. The monster was never seen again. As such, celebrations now include fireworks, firecrackers, red clothes and bright decorations.

The date was fixed during the Han dynasty

During the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC), the turn of a year cycle was called Shangri, Yuanri and Gaisui, and the 10th lunar month marked the beginning of a new year. During the Han dynasty, the festival was called Suidan or Zhengri. By this time, celebrations were less focused on beliefs in divinities and ancestors, and instead stressed the festival’s association with life.

It was Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty who fixed the date as the first day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar. By that time, Chinese New Year had become an event that featured a government-sponsored carnival where civil servants gathered in celebration. New traditions also began to emerge, such as staying up at night and hanging peach boards, which later evolved into the Spring Festival couplets.

During the Wei and Jin Dynasties, the festival took hold among common people

Two girls putting fuses into firecrackers, Changde, Hunan, China, ca.1900-1919.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

During the Wei and Jin dynasties (220-420 BC), alongside worshipping gods and ancestors, people began to entertain themselves. In particular, the tradition took hold among common people. It became custom for a family to get together to clean their house, set off bamboo firecrackers, eat together and stay up late on New Year’s Eve. Younger people would also dress in traditional smart dress to kneel down to senior family members.

Nonetheless, the celebration was still held on a much grander scale by and for the government. At this time, the words ‘yuandan’ (New Year’s day) and ‘xinnian’ (New Year) were created to mark the turn between the two years.

The Tang, Song and Qing dynasties marked the beginning of ‘modern’ traditions

Qing dynasty new year money purse, with coin, gold and silver ingots, and jade. Now stored in The Palace Museum.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Tang, Song and Qing dynasties accelerated the development of the Spring Festival, which marked the beginning of the modern social traditions of the festival as we know them today. During the Tang and Song Dynasties, the celebration was called ‘Yuanri’, and the festival was fully embraced as an event for all people, irrespective of class.

During the Tang dynasty, it became important to visit relatives and friends – people were granted public holidays to allow them to do so – eat dumplings, and give ‘new year’s money’ in a purse to children. During the Song dynasty, black powder was invented, which led to the emergence of fireworks for the first time.

During the Qing dynasty, events for entertainment such as the dragon and lion dances, Shehuo (folk performance), walking on stilts and lantern shows emerged. In China, the dragon is a symbol of good fortune, so the dragon dance, which consists of a long, colourful dragon being carried through the streets by many dancers, is always a highlight.

Traditionally, the last event held during the Chinese New Year is called the Lantern Festival, during which people hang glowing lanterns in temples or carry them during a nighttime parade.

Chinese New Year traditions are still emerging in modern times

The largest Chinese New Year parade outside Asia, in Chinatown, Manhattan, 2005.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1912, the government decided to abolish Chinese New Year and the lunar calendar, instead opting to adopt the Gregorian calendar and make January 1 the official start of the new year.

This new policy was unpopular, so a compromise was reached: both calendar systems were kept, with the Gregorian calendar being used in government, factory, school and other organisational settings, while the lunar calendar is used for traditional festivals. In 1949, Chinese New Year was renamed the ‘Spring Festival’, and was listed as a nationwide public holiday.

While some traditional activities are disappearing, new trends are emerging. CCTV (China Central Television) holds a Spring Festival Gala, while red envelopes can be sent on WeChat. However it is celebrated, Chinese New Year is the most important traditional festival in China, and today its bright colours, fireworks and social activities are enjoyed by millions across the world.

Michael Wood joined me on the podcast to talk about his new history of China. He takes a fresh look at Chinese history in the light of the current massive changes inside the country, and how its people and leaders see their place in the world, and its place on the world stage.
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