The History, Traditions, and Celebration of Chinese New Year

The Year of the Pig starts on Feb. 5, and the annual festivities have a little something for everyone

(Nic Laube)

With a history dating back thousands of years, China is considered to be among the oldest continuous civilizations on earth, and Chinese New Year has been practiced in some form since at least the Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BCE).

As legend has it, the origins of Chinese New Year—known as Spring Festival in China—began with the annual battle against a mythical beast called Nián (the word for “year” in Mandarin). Each New Year’s Eve, villagers were terrorized by the creature, but eventually learned that Nián feared flames, loud noises, and the colour red.

Fast-forward to present day, and red lanterns and decorations adorn streets and homes during the holiday. Red envelopes containing money are traditionally handed out with the belief that they will bring good fortune to the recipient.

“Red is important to Chinese people during the New Year holiday,” says Wenyi Xu, a KPU international student from Shanghai. “The ‘Fu’ character for ‘fortune’ and the couplet ‘Duilian’ are also very important to us. Every family will post a ‘Fu’ word on the door with a red paper.”

As for the loud noise, there’s no shortage of firecrackers set alight during the holiday. China is, after all, the birthplace of gunpowder.

Xu says that, although Spring Festival celebrations only last about two weeks, people will begin preparing for the holiday much earlier.  

“Usually every year my family will go to my mother’s mother’s home on New Year’s Eve. My two cousins and their family all come together, so like 20 people [come] together to have a big dinner, and my grandfather, father, mother, aunts, and uncles will give me red pocket money,” she says.

Activities such as eating traditional food, like congee, while preparing for the New Year is also important to the holiday. The type of food eaten is regionally dependent, with dishes like spring rolls, dumplings, hot pot, and steamed fish all holding a special place at the table. For dessert, variations of rice cake, also called New Year cake (Nián Gāo) are found in abundance throughout the country.

“My family eats some Shanghai local food, like some soup. We make our local food, like fish, chicken, seafood. All the types of materials must be included,” says Xu.

Each Spring Festival is represented by one of 12 zodiac signs, depicted by 12 different animals based on the lunar calendar.  The pig—this year’s zodiac symbol—comes last in the 12-animal cycle, said to have been determined by the order in which the animals showed up to a party hosted by the Jade Emperor (not a historical figure, but a Taoist deity).

In order, the animals rank as follows: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.

Each animal has its own story regarding its position. One tale suggests that the pig became peckish during his journey and stopped for a snack, after which he took a nap before continuing the Great Race.

There will be a multitude of events happening throughout the Lower Mainland, including the annual Chinese New Year parade in Chinatown on Feb. 10, as well as an event on KPU’s Richmond campus on Feb. 11