Chūnjié kuài lái le! 春节快来了!
The Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is almost here and we are about to enter the Year of the Dog. For Chinese, the Spring Festival is the most important festival of the year. Understand Chinese New Year celebrations and Chinese traditions and learn some last-minute Mandarin Chinese vocabulary to impress your non-laowai friends!
Chinese New Year takes place on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar (农历) and the celebrations go on for fifteen days.
But do you know anything about the old and new traditions of the Spring Festival? Or how your Chinese friends are celebrating the Chinese New Year (guònián过年)? And have you ever heard of hóngbāo 红包, fake boyfriends or the world's largest human migration?
The Year of the Dog
The Chinese zodiac (shēngxiào 生肖) is a 12-year cycle with each year represented by an animal: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog or pig. Each of these animals has a symbolic meaning according to ancient Chinese traditions and these attributes characterize the upcoming year. Next year will be the year of the Dog (gǒu nián 狗年), which is associated with loyalty, honesty and kindness.
The Monster Nián 年
According to a folktale, in ancient times, there was a fierce monster called Nián 年 or Xì 夕, which lived underwater and in the mountains. But once a year, during the Spring Festival, it came out of its hiding and showed itself in the villages to eat the people’s food. The day on which the monster came was named guònián 过年, literally meaning that the monster was passing through (guò 过 = to pass through, Nián 年 = the name of the monster)
Nowadays in Chinese, it thus means to celebrate the New YearThe night before the monster’s arrival was called chúxì 除夕. In Chinese, it meant to get rid of the monster (chú 除 = to get rid of, Xī 夕 = the name of the monster). Because the monster was afraid of the red color, fire and loud sounds, people had fireworks and bonfires and they put up red couplets on their doors. Family members also gathered together to fight with the monster. These later became the traditions of how people still celebrate the New Year today.
The most important aspect of the Chinese Spring Festival is celebrating it together with one’s family. This starts with a family reunion dinner for which members of the family travel all across the country (or sometimes all around the world) to their hometown. Dinner usually includes dumplings (jiǎozi 饺子), sweet rice cakes (niángāo 年糕) and fish.
As the Chinese word for fish (yú鱼) has a very similar pronunciation to the word meaning surplus (yú余), it is believed that fish brings good luck and a surplus of money and wealth for the coming year. Two popular New Year’s greetings are also connected to the food typically eaten on New Year’s Eve based on the similar pronunciations. One is nián nián gāoshēng 年年高升 (May you do better and better year after year!) and nián nián yǒuyú 年年有余 (May you have a surplus year after year!).
At midnight, the families set off firecrackers (fàng biānpào 放鞭炮) and count down to welcome the New Year (dàoshǔ yíngjiē xīnnián 倒数迎接新年).
It is also common to watch the CCTV New Year’s Gala (chūnjié liánhuān wǎnhuì 春节联欢晚会, in short chūnwǎn 春晚) on TV, a program including songs and dances, sketches, acrobatics, magic shows and other creative performances. CCTV is China’s national (and largest) television channel which has been broadcasting the New Year’s Gala since 1983. If you are interested, just tune in and watch it live this year or look it up on YouTube.
Spring Festival Decoration
One of the oldest traditions when celebrating the Chinese New Year is decorating your house with red lanterns and couplets (chūnlián 春联). Couplets are a pair of poetry lines usually written with black ink on vertical red paper banners that are hung on both sides of the door outside a building. The first line of the couplet is pasted on the right side of the doorway, the second line on the left side. They contain messages of best wishes for the upcoming year and are meant to keep evil spirits away.
Other traditional decorations are red paper-cuts (chuānghuā 窗花) glued on windows, Chinese knots (Zhōngguó jié 中国结) and squares of paper with characters such as fú福 (good fortune) or shuāngxǐ 囍 (double joy, made up of the doubled character xǐ 喜, joy).
The “red envelope” is a custom of giving money wrapped in red paper. The hóngbāo 红包 are usually received by children or unmarried young people from their parents, grandparents and other relatives, but they can also be given to one’s employees or to elders.
And guess what? As the Chinese have become avid Internet users during the past years, a tradition of cyber red envelopes has developed. These are sent as online money transfers with colorful greetings through messaging apps such as WeChat or other online platforms like Baidu, Alibaba or Sina Weibo.
Think that gifting money is not the type of thing you would do? Why don’t you get your beloved a Zizzle subscription?
During the Chinese Spring Festival it is customary for younger generations to go visit older generations, like relatives or friends, and wish them a happy New Year. This is called bàinián 拜年, to pay someone a New Year’s call, and is meant to strengthen the bonds of family and friendship.
Fake Boyfriends and Girlfriend
But spending so much time with family during the holidays can also cause embarrassing situations. Especially for Chinese singles above the usual marrying age. The noisy relatives think you should be starting to settle down and they begin asking you questions like: Do you have a boyfriend? If the answer is no, the inquiries continue with: Why not? You should find someone soon and get married. You are not that young anymore.
However, the innovative Chinese found a solution to this. You don’t have a boyfriend to show your relatives? No problem. You can just rent one on Taobao, the Chinese eBay. At least this is what single women have started doing in China for this Spring Festival.
But the bad news is that even if you have a boyfriend, the questions won’t stop and you will keep hearing: What is your boyfriend’s job? How much does he earn per year? Does he own an apartment? When do you plan to get married?
And actually, even if you are married you might be followed around by: When are you planning to have children? How many children do you want to have? You get the idea.
The Chinese Travel Frenzy
During the period before and after the Chinese New Year, China becomes a land of logistical marvels as the people travel to their hometowns to celebrate with their families. Between January 13th and February 21st of this year, the Chinese authorities estimate that a total of almost 3 billion trips will be undertaken by the Chinese population. That means more than two trips for each and every Chinese citizen! The increased passenger transportation around Chinese New Year by land, plane or sea is called chūnyùn 春运. And it’s the largest annual human migration in the world!
So now, after the Spring Festival, when you meet with your Chinese friends you can go and ask them how they liked the program of the chūnwǎn 春晚, how the niángāo 年糕 tasted or whether they received a lot of hóngbāo 红包 from their relatives. And maybe they will even be willing to tell you a funny story about their fake boyfriend or girlfriend.
Xīnnián kuàilè 新年快乐 and gōngxǐ fācái 恭喜发财!
Zizzle wishes you a Happy New Year of the Dog! May you have a prosperous one!
And here comes the list of handy words you might use in those days.
春节快来了(chūnjié kuài láile) = the Spring Festival is almost here
新年前夜 (xīnnián qiányè) = Chinese New Year’s Eve
除夕 (chúxī) = Chinese New Year’s Eve
元旦 (yuándàn) = New Year’s Day
大年初一 (dà nián chū yī) = New Year’s Day
过年 (guònián) = to celebrate the Chinese New Year
生肖 (shēngxiào) = the Chinese animal zodiac
狗年 (gǒu nián) = the Year of the Dog
饺子 (jiǎozi) = dumplings
鱼 (yú) = fish
余 (yú)= surplus, extra
年年有余 (nián nián yǒuyú) = May you do better and better year after year!
年糕 (niángāo) = steamed sweet rice cakes
年年高升 (nián nián gāoshēng) = May you have a surplus year after year!
放鞭炮 (fàng biānpào) = to set off firecrackers
倒数迎接新年 (dàoshǔ yíngjiē xīnnián) = to count down to welcome the New Year
春节联欢晚会 (chūnjié liánhuān wǎnhuì) = CCTV New Year’s Gala
春晚 (chūnwǎn) = CCTV New Year’s Gala (abbreviation)
春联 (chūnlián) = Spring Festival couplets
窗花 (chuānghuā) = paper-cuts
中国结 (Zhōngguó jié) = Chinese knots
福 (fú) = good fortune
喜 (xǐ) = joy, happiness
囍 (shuāngxǐ) = double joy
红包 (hóngbāo) = money wrapped in a red enveloped given as a gift
拜年 (bàinián) = to pay someone a New Year’s call, to wish somebody a Happy New Year
春运 (chūnyùn) = increased transportation of passengers during the Chinese New Year
新年快乐 (xīnnián kuàilè) = Happy New Year!
恭喜发财 (gōngxǐ fācái) = May you have a prosperous New Year!
Alexandra from Zizzle
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